Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Entry Twelve: A Friendly Exchange

Make no mistake about it; the 2008 Olympic Games are extremely symbolic for the Chinese people and government. I have already written at length about the Olympic themed English-speaking theater competition. Well, just last weekend I did some hiking and at the summit guess what I found…a red banner welcoming the Olympics! Even the landscaping at the school celebrates the approaching games, with hedges planted and cut to resemble the Olympic Rings and other official logos. Yet as you know, internationally it seems that these Olympics have come to symbolize different things for different people.

The last few weeks have seen their fair share of controversy in China. Many of my Chinese friends have told me that they are receiving all sorts of political text messages on their cell phones. Most of these text messages echo what is readily available on blogs throughout China. People here are calling for a boycott of western products in reaction to the torch relay protests in England, France and America. The Chinese Government has made public statements urging against such protests, and instead asking people to “to express our patriotic enthusiasm calmly and rationally.” That being said, the protests are being allowed to happen, which requires the approval of someone in the government.

Teaching English in China has been a challenge for a History teacher, but I must admit that lately I have felt a little more useful. The international protests and the Chinese domestic response have raised awareness among the people here. Students, colleagues and friends alike have approached me to have conversations on this issue. I am grateful that our relationship is such where they feel they can approach me.

Most people want to know why the western media is (in their words) “so biased,” and why western leaders are supporting what they see as separatism. After all, as one Chinese student said to me, “America crushed separatism during the American Civil War.” Indeed the student is correct, and there are other examples as well. That does not, of course, make what is happening in China any more correct or incorrect – but it is a meaningful observation.

Everyone here wants to know my opinion on this issue, but I must admit that I am cautious to carry an opinion. I have access to CNN and the BBC, as well as Chinese news sources. But, I still feel there is a serious lack of verifiable information at this time. I am trying to avoid applying my western expectations of media and becoming cynical; it’s just a fact that media is a different animal in China.

The media here is not privately owned, and therefore operates under the auspices of the government. People openly admit that much of it is propaganda, but I have also seen some interesting policy debates on CCTV9 (the English language station). The media in the US is privately owned and has special rights reserved in the Bill of Rights. Debate, sometimes very harsh, is the norm. Yet, it is only fair to mention that even though the western media has complete control over its own coverage, it does not always report accurately.

In 2000, the major media networks declared Al Gore as President of the United States. I remember the night vividly. I was 17, and politically active in Southern Maine. That evening I was working in a “political war room” making phone calls to encourage last minute voters on the west coast. When the result was announced we all went home. Who I worked for in 2000 is immaterial, both campaign staffs reacted the same way – the election was over, people went home. But, of course, the election was not over – and the media, in a gross miscalculation, errantly and prematurely declared a victor. It is difficult to determine the motivation behind and impact of the media’s misinformation, but regardless, it happened.

I am not saying that the Chinese media and the American media are the same or guilty of the same misinformation. That is not the case. Rather, just keep in mind that no media source has a perfect track record. Citizens should always think critically about information received from a secondary source – especially today’s media, whether it is motivated by government officials or Nielsen Ratings.

As I mentioned before, I have access to the BBC and CNN. These web pages load in (and only in) English. Some of the editorials have been harsh, and I know a few people who are authentically angry about what has been written. Many here feel that Americans are misinformed by a biased media, and are unnecessarily politicizing what should be a celebration of the Olympic Spirit. I am quick to point out that protests are fairly common in the history of the Olympics, and not an uncommon form of expression in western countries. While this answer is accepted by most, it does not seem to satisfy anyone. Still others insist that the “West” is threatened by China’s growth and will do anything to hurt China’s image. Though I feel this opinion is not well supported with evidence, it is quite common. One thing is for sure, if protesters felt their actions would dissuade the Chinese government, it appears (at least in Jinhua) that the most tangible result has been to intensify Chinese nationalism.

The good news (especially for a foreigner hoping to travel in the next few months) is that it seems both sides are taking steps to reconcile. Today I read that the new French President made a number of formal apologies and other moves to improve relations. And, in what I interpret as a partial acknowledgement of the recent criticism, the Chinese government has publicly made a number of statements on the issue of human rights. This includes the Minister of the Information saying, "We are clearly aware of the need to keep advancing human rights." The article, published in the English language version of China Daily, also stated that “the country still faces many problems and difficulties in its human rights development, with the democracy and legal system yet to be improved.” Actions speak louder than words, but nevertheless, such official statements should be taken seriously by observers. [As a side comment, I recommend spending a few moments performing the same site search on the BBC as you do on China Daily. Contrast and compare the content.]

Yet, of course, I have friends in America who feel that China’s response is not enough. I also have friends in China that feel Western attempts are not enough. So, where does that leave me? For a variety of reasons, I have been concentrating my energy on forming relationships instead of arguments. In this spirit, I have been immersing myself into cultural exchanges as often as possible.

As usual, I eat the traditional food and play ping pong with everyone and anyone who is up for a game. In exchange I have tried to expose my students to American musical genres, but the language barrier has prevented us from analyzing the lyrics deeply enough. After a fit of brainstorming, I finally came up with a worthwhile unit that everyone could participate in: baseball!

The average Chinese person considers baseball a “wealthy sport” that requires expensive equipment. Baseball is not only unpopular, it basically does not exist. But, given that the population loves hand-eye coordination sports (ping pong, badminton, etc.) I just refuse to accept the status quo. Full baseball equipment is expensive, but not so with wiffle ball! My mother airmailed me 2 bats and 4 wiffle balls, and I built my lesson plans.

First we learned the vocabulary of the equipment and positions. We learned the lyrics and sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” We read an article about the Chinese Olympic Baseball Team, and wrote a short opinion essay on the future of baseball in China. From there we talked about American expressions connected to baseball. There are a surprising number of them: “That came of out of left field.” “Take another swing at it.” “Right off the bat.” “Ballpark figure.” And then, finally, we went outside to play ball.

Using the stone pattern on the campus’s Central Square as our baseball diamond, we played for a full period. One of my students, who uses “King Kong” as his English name, absolutely crushed the ball for a double. It was fun, and many students are begging to play again during the weekend.

There is something special about sports that can transcend everything else. Certainly sports are not unique in this way; I have seen music, art, and food perform the same feat of bringing people together. Indeed, I have had many such moments here in China. I do not concede my opinions or dismiss my identity, but I use these moments to find the common ground necessary to build relationships. These strong relationships have proven crucial when trying to negotiate my way through misunderstandings and disagreements.

As world leaders address the many pressing issues worthy of political cooperation, I am beginning to see the primacy of personal relationships ahead of politics. After all, being “right” alone does not mean you can be effective in creating change; not to mention “right” can be a matter of perspective. So, it seems reasonable to suggest that things might progress more smoothly if our political solutions were born from strong and positive personal relationships. From this perspective, I am especially proud to be part of our exchange program.

I apologize if I seem a little dramatic, or if I am inflating the significance of exchange programs and teaching a few kids to play baseball… but the mood is that dramatic right now in China, at least during my private conversations. People here have overcome a lot in the last half-century, and are ambitious to achieve greater prosperity. Bottom line; they want to know if America is an ally or something else.

When pressed with this question I immediately avoid discussing geopolitics, and try to bring this huge question down to a personal level. I will do the same now, with my American audience in mind.

When I look at my Chinese friends I see hard-working common folks who shop at Wal-Mart and just want to give their kid a better life. Their government isn’t perfect, and they know it, but change does not happen over night. They value their traditions, but are curious about other people too. Sometimes they feel stressed out about money, or tired at the end of the week, but that does not stop them from having a good time when friends are around.

I am proud to call a number of people here my friend, and believe that with a little patience and honesty between us, we can accomplish more as friends than we will otherwise. Our government, media, etc. is different - but fundamentally people are people, and for the time being, that is what I am going to focus on.


Here are a few excerpts I pulled from my students' essays on the future of baseball in China. My impression is that there is a debate within China between those who favor international experiences and those are more cultural traditionalists. It may be a stretch to say these excerpts can serve as a primary source of this cultural debate, but it is worth noting the context. The class was almost evenly divided as to whether or not baseball would ever be popular in China.

“Everyone knows China is good at ball games such as table tennis, volleyball. Baseball is also a ball sport.”


“I think the most important two characters are the batter and the pitcher. So everyone wants to be one of the two and doesn’t want to be the other characters.”


“It is very expensive for Chinese right now. But Chinese is richer and richer.”


“We know baseball is very popular in America. Now China will develop in world. So I think the baseball will be popular in China.”


“Baseball will be at the Olympics and the Olympics this year will be held in China. More and more Chinese will pay more attention in baseball.”


“Because everything about the baseball was very expensive, so I think the Chinese may not like it.”


“It’s difficult to get a team together.”


“If there is a very handsome baseball player, he is good at it and he is famous. Then a lot of people will try to play baseball because of him.”


“As communication between America and China become more and more frequent, baseball, the very important sport, will also go into China quickly.”


“No coach, no experience, no players and even no fans. So I think that baseball won’t be popular.”


“As the world touch in with each other more and more, baseball games will attract more and more people’s eyes.”


“Equipment is impossible to find.”


“Baseball isn’t very popular here just because we don’t know it well. So in my opinion, baseball will be known by Chinese maybe 10 or 20 years later, at that time, you will see Chinese playing baseball everywhere.”


“Baseball is not a very safe sport. If a person first plays baseball, maybe he can’t control the ball, so the naughty ball may hurt people.”


“Baseball has been dropped from the Olympics in 2012… it will make people less interested in baseball.”


“There are TV and computers in every family. They can watch it at home.”


“No. Chinese people don’t like violent sports. Baseball is too violent.”


“No. Baseball is harder to learn than such as basketball and football. And as we all know, people play baseball need a large place. But China has so many people that there are not enough places for them to play baseball.”


“Teamwork is very important in playing baseball, and teamwork is also important nowadays.”


“Firstly, I think baseball developed very slowly in the past years. It shows that many Chinese people are not interested in playing baseball…. Baseball is too heavy, as Chinese are very thin and small, it’s not easy for them to do well in baseball.”


“Chinese like sports of all kinds.”


“In my opinion baseball will be popular in China. Because the world becomes smaller and smaller. Then people will communicate close. As we Chinese, we’ll come into the “world family.” Since Americans and some other foreign countries like baseball, we’ll also develop our baseball.”


“Baseball may be popular in USA, it may not be popular everywhere.”


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is Dewey, a friend of your Father. He made me aware of your trip and I've been following it with interest. Thanks. I was trying to determine if you were aware of this new virus spreading thru China and if you knew of any victims? Scary stuff. I believe the problem is close to your location? You take care and have fun.