Campus Life, China, Communication, Cultural Differences, Educational System, Religion, Teaching, University Teaching

The 30-Days Summary

Well, it’s been precisely a month since I last wrote for my blog. A thousand apologies. In retrospect it seems that very few reportable events occurred in that time, in all the other ways it’s been a roller coaster ride.

On the teaching front, I have 4 weeks remaining for the semester. This means that things are winding down. Including me. Both the students and I seem to be feeling the approaching end and responding in the typical manner. Any work I need to do seems to take three times longer than it should.

For the last few weeks I have been trying to wade through a backlog of homework assignments, quizzes, and projects. I needed to mark an essay for every one of my reading students (approximately 70 students per class x 7 classes = hell on earth). The essay was on volunteering, its necessity and what the students would do to volunteer. Volunteering is not a strong tradition China and it’s surprising to talk to students about their lack of volunteer experience compared with their Western contemporaries.

Most essays said something like this: I will help you and then you will help me and the love will grow between all the people of the world and soon the world will be a warm, colorful, harmonious place and we will all love each other. That’s all. (A common ending for essays. Th-th-that’s all, folks!) There was a lot of eye-rolling going on as I read these. Nothing wrong with a little optimism, it just wasn’t a very compelling argument to read several hundred times.

There were the budding utopists and then there were the wily coyotes—those who used their cell phones to copy or slightly alter essays on volunteering from the internet. This was far more common than I would’ve ever expected. Sometimes I was amused at their resourcefulness. Sometimes I was outraged.

Then there were the I-will-help-the-old-man-cross-the-street-ers. Who even says that anymore? I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone help an elderly person cross the street in my life. This beyond the fact that I consider this good manners and not volunteering.

It was a long 490 essays.

Then I had to grade reports and presentations from my English for Tourism class. The presentations had been groan-inducing. The reports left me flushed and angry. Almost 100% plagiarized. Even from students I would never have expected it from.

Internet plagiarism is so common in China that it is hardly worthy of note, expect for the relative newcomers who haven’t yet been worn down into a dull acceptance of this distasteful feature of Chinese academic life.

I’m not there yet. So voice-shaking I returned reports to students with the lowest marks I thought the department would allow me to give, lectured them on Western standards of research, reminded them of my first class presentation on this, and then gave them the option to redo their reports, though that means nothing but more work for me. Then I talked to students who seemed genuinely baffled at how to do research and write a report without wholesale copying. It was an educational week.

After all that marking the number of papers in my apartment seems to have hardly decreased at all.

Aside from teaching and marking and planning, the last month has been a time of emotional highs and lows. At the moment I am planning to return here in the fall for a second year. A surprise for me as well as possibly for you.

I suppose in the end it comes down to not wanting to have to start from square one in September. I don’t want to pack up my apartment and bring all my stuff home. I don’t want to transition to a new country, a new culture in the fall. I feel like I am making good progress here. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve made friends. I’ve found my way. I have a comfortable foundation of knowledge and skills that allow me to get around and live my life. Also there’s just so much in China I’d like to see.

When I considered a second year it was with the rosy glow of my coworkers, friends, and students around me. Or at least those things would balance out the negatives of China for me. The cons mostly feature the teaching situation and the cultural context. One thing I didn’t realize in Georgia was how much looking passably Georgian helped me to blend in and feel accepted. I could write a whole blog about my struggles with body image and self-confidence in China. Not something I’ve generally felt comfortable sharing with the larger world. It’s been very, very hard. And that’s something that will not improve next year. Why on earth would I consider putting myself through it all again? I suppose in the end it just seemed like the pros outweighed the cons. And really, I’m going to struggle with those issues wherever I am in the world. The Chinese are perhaps just more direct about it.

So I made that decision, signed my contract and promptly felt that—to some extent—the bottom fell out of my world as some of closest friends here put me on alert that they might not be returning. I took the news better than I expected at first, but with time it’s affected me more and more. I’m standing by my decision to come back, for all the other reasons mentioned above and more, but I can’t help but think about how that change colors my perception of next year. It’ll be Brave New World – Part II. And I suppose that was precisely what I was hoping to avoid.

The option of returning home, which probably is what all of you are thinking about, just doesn’t seem like a desirable option to me. I can’t explain it really, but I like America much better when I’m not in it. I love seeing American thrown into contrast with other countries and cultures. I not only understand it much better when I’m away, but I also appreciate it more.

Distance from American Evangelicalism is also restful. I talk about Church (big C) constantly here and find that I have a lot to work through. I don’t think any other country struggles with religion quite like America. It is so enmeshed in our culture and politics. I’ve tried to explain that to my students and it’s like I’m realizing it as I say it. It’s a big deal in America. Period. Full stop. And not just on the national level, but on the micro level—individuals. It’s incredibly important to me and to most people even if it’s just their distaste for religion or their denial of it.

I suppose I should stop there. Needless to say, there’s been a lot on my mind.

Have no fear; I am not planning any sort of permanent exile. Not consciously, anyways. In due
time, perhaps in a few years or so, I will return to my native roost for good. At the moment though, I will continue in my migratory pattern. And—be advised—soon this little homing pigeon will be homing in on you for a few months of work and relaxation in the native nest.