Sunday, June 15, 2008

Week 17 -- The latest from Lake Wobegon

Friday, June 6

Work around the house in the morning trying to manage some freelance work. In the afternoon my student Rosa takes me to a school for migrant children, in the western fringe of the city. You can see the Beijing skyscrapers, but nothing in this neighborhood is very glitzy. We need to walk about a mile over dirt roads and cross a dry irrigation canal to get the school. It is a series of small one room red brick buildings around an open court yard. We meet the headmaster, the English language teacher and then hang out on the playground before entering a third grade classroom. 40+ kids crammed into the 10x15 room, three to a bench, squishing against each other. All of the kids are here because they are not permitted into the public schools. I wrote a newspaper article that will hopefully be published in the Christian Science Monitor, but I’ll include it in the blog here.

After the school trip I was walking through the Renmin campus and a kid was selling tickets to the new Indiana Jones movie, playing tonight on campus for 5 yuan (about 65 cents) so I bought two not knowing what to expect. Katie and I went, sat in the hard seats of a classroom to watch it, but it was in English with Chinese and German (!) subtitles, but we enjoyed it and the price was right, even if the legal permission to show it probably wasn’t.

Before the film I returned to the English corner and recorded some audio of folks visiting there, to hopefully use for a radio story later. I also got some audio of the old women dancing, this time using a fist full of chopsticks to create this great rhythm.

Saturday, June 7

Finally, I can be in limbo no longer and make the final decision to stay through the Olympics. I really, really want to go home, but I’ve convinced myself that if I go home and all hell breaks loose here, I’ll regret that I didn’t stay. So, of course, if I stay, this will be the calmest Olympics on record.

In the afternoon, I interview my student Hannah’s parents, for the maybe book. We meet at a Starbucks in the Xidan shopping area. Her mom is a sharp dresser and much younger looking than her 48 years, her dad is quiet and seems disinterested in the discussion. Neither are at all what I expected. Her mom is a Party member, very supportive of all that is going on in China. Both parents seem a bit cautious and do not say anything critical. They both “absolutely” want Hannah to join the Party. Hannah is disinclined.

After, Katie and I go clothes shopping and she gets 3 soccer uniforms, shirt and shorts, for about $5 each. One from China and two from other countries, and then we go and buy “fancy” clothes for “graduation”. She picks out an adorable white ruffly skirt. She looks so grown up! Then I attempt to buy shoes, big footed American, but manage to find some open toed sandals that aren’t too much shorter than my size 9 peds. For dinner, we head to the Sizzler salad bar. I am really on a diet now. All veggies and no snacks.

Sunday, June 8

Take Katie to her friend Louisa’s birthday party way out by the airport. Get lost getting there, cabbie is on a dirt road paralleling the highway and I keep saying mei you, not this way, but he keeps barreling along for several miles. Finally I get the host of the party on the phone, who finds a Chinese speaker, who then guides our taxi back down the dirt road to the correct location. Another adventure in uncharted territory. After I drop Katie (I have told the cabbie to wait), I get back in the taxi and head to the 798 Art district to meet a former Fletcher student who we hosted a few years ago, Yuxin. It was great to see her. She is so bright and funny and interesting. She has a pretty senior job in the foreign ministry, and is full of revolutionary fervor – but wants it directed at all the guys who spit, and are rude! She is pragmatic, logical, authoritarian go-getter. Can’t be complacent, can’t ignore, always questioning, challenging. How refreshing after all the complacency I’ve seen here!! Unfortunately our day is cut short because my stomach is telling me that the salad bar from the previous night was not such a good idea! Katie gets home around 5:30; we are both tired and she is not being cooperative. I am tired of doing it all, alone.

Monday, June 9

Spend the day at home, drumming up freelance work, organizing what I am going to give away to my students. Eve stops by so that I can look at her 9(!!!) minute final project (supposed to be more like 2 or 3 minutes!). I am pretty ruthless but she is so smart and capable of doing much better. I meet Katie at 4:30 at school (she stayed late for rehearsal for her dancing role in “BISS Idol”. We head into the city, make a quick return at Silk Market and then join Janice Cotton and Katherine for dinner at Lan. Great to see them. We’ve got to get to Birmingham one of these days to visit.

Tuesday, June 10

It is the last day for the grad class and three have their final presentations. They all were prepared, but the intellectual rigor was pretty thin. I’ll attach the power points here, but my favorite was the analysis that the reason westerners like “bad news” (his perception of critical, honest, balanced reporting is “bad news”) is that we believe in Original Sin and evil in all people, and Chinese believe in Confucianism and that people are basically good. So I asked how Taiwan, Japan, and Korea all influenced by Confucianism all have a free/critical/“bad news” press. He said they developed earlier. So is it Original Sin or development that is at the root of Chinese censorship??!! One student is convinced that when the NY Times uses anonymous sources from Tibet, that they are making it up and have not talked to real people. One other presentation was quite illuminating on how the censorship works on a day to day level. At the end I asked the10 students, in a dream world in the future, would you like the government to get out of the news business and every single one of them said NO. I have failed in my mission to convince them of the virtues of an independent press. Defeated and depressed, I agree to go to lunch with them all next week.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, Katie wants a pedicure for her graduation, so Eve takes us to the local nail joint and Katie gets strawberries painted on her fingers and pink polish on her toes. At least an hour’s work, and the bill is $3.50. I gave the girl a huge tip and she was completely taken aback. We then discover a Subway near the nail parlor and decide to have an all American sub sandwich for dinner. On the way home Katie and I start talking about all the kids she has met, from all over the world and I realize she has pretty limited geography facts. So we spend the night on line looking at world maps and mapping out where her classmates are from: India, Finland, Canada, Korea, Australia, and teachers from New Zealand, Portugal and Singapore. She now knows her seven continents and roughly what countries are where.

Wednesday, June 11

This place is officially nuts. I just left a scene out of 1984 or Alice in Wonderland.
Mercy tells me she wants to have a meeting at 9 with department colleagues to talk about courses. They will meet me in my office. I am there before 9 and no one shows. About 9:15 some air conditioning guys show up and I call Mercy to see what is up with our meeting. She says she'll come get me. The other faculty (four others and two students) are waiting in a conference room. They hand me a four page document about all the course listings, in Chinese. I cannot read it but they keep pointing to it and I keep saying I can't read it. I tell them how BU runs its program. THEN, they tell me TODAY, that each of my students has been taking TEN courses all semester....I REALLY should have known all of this BEFORE the last day of classes. I would have altered the amount of work I dumped on these poor kids. I should have known what else they were taught last FALL so that I could prepare a course that they actually NEEDED. But even though I am steaming inside, I keep my mouth shut. The faculty members are all gabbing amongst themselves in Chinese and I say, well, is that it? No, they want to talk about NOTHING for another hour. So at 10:30, with NOTHING on the agenda, I try to escape. I tell them I am giving three lectures in Guangzhou next week, one of which is on western media bias. Do they think western media is biased? “YES” Can you give me examples? “Why don't you report good news about Chinese government, why don't you report that the Dalai Lama has slaves, why do you criticize our earthquake coverage when it is not the right time?” I say that American media is critical of everyone and our role is to be an adversary of the government not a supporter. They say, “our role is not to support the government” ... and then in the next breath, they say “the government tells us we can investigate the earthquake in the next phase, after the first three phases [of propaganda and hero worship]”. I say the families of the dead children in the badly built schools can't wait, they are asking for justice now, right? Their stories need to be covered now, no? I say the government should look like they are listening to these distraught parents, not have police dispersing them and carrying them away, right? And the government should not tell journalists they can't cover it anymore, no? “NO the government must keep order. We cannot report it if the government says that it is not the right time”. This, said by the same people who not TEN minutes ago denied vehemently that their job is to support the government. One guy is wagging his finger at me, and apparently saying that the Dalai Lama is a slave owner, CIA spy, and violently wants to dismember China. They are all yammering away in Chinese and I keep begging them to translate and no one does. Then, Mercy jumps up and says, “Well, its time to show you the studio and all the editing facilities where your students work” (should this not have happened in FEBRUARY?????). I go with her, still trying to hide my utter frustration, but then decide to tell her some of what I am really thinking: that this meeting would have been much more useful to me, to the students and to her department had it happened in February or even in an email conversation before I arrived. She smiles like she hasn’t a clue what I am saying. She says her colleagues want to go to lunch. I can't take it anymore without screaming, and I have to be at Katie's school at 2 for graduation so I say I can't. “No?”, asks Mercy. No. I explain to Mercy, that she informed me of a 9am meeting, nothing about lunch. The most basic communication cannot happen here. It is stunning. I am soooo glad I did not stay here for the year. I am living in a very different world.

I go home, have a quick snack and then head out to get a taxi to Katie’s school. I hand the taxi driver the piece of paper with the address of the school in Chinese characters and he looks at it and says mei you, can’t take you there, and motions for me to get out. I get out and hand the same piece of paper to the next cabbie … this is the same piece of paper that I have been using for 16 weeks….and this cabbie says no, parroting his buddy in front of him. Five cabs and five minutes later I finally find a guy who can read it and get me where I want to go.

The graduation is lovely in 105 degree heat. Katie looks adorable in her fancy duds, as do all her friends. I am sitting under an umbrella but the kids are baking on the asphalt of the playground. Exilia is in a black velvet jacket and looking rather overheated. Yuanyuan lists a few memories for the handful of kids who have actually been here since kindergarten, and Aditi has a few words as well. The teachers read from Dr. Suess, oh the places you’ll go, and the kids sing a few songs “we need a leader” and it is over. Katie is beaming. This has been a great experience for her. At 3, Shen Shifu arrives and takes us home.

Thursday, June 12

I work at home, start organizing what goes home, what stays. At noon I head into Katie’s school for BISS Idol. It is a wonderful collection of kids singing and dancing some to pop songs, karoke style, and others playing piano or violin recital style. One girl did this fabulous Indian dance. Another Caucasian girl from New Zealand sang in the indigenous Maori language and wore traditional Maori skirt. Katie and five buddies danced around the stage to “Low, low, low” and had a blast, but the winners were three third grade boys (few boys participated in any of this) and a Brittany Spears overly sexualized third grade girl break dancing to the Black Eyed Peas tune “Let’s Get Started” but the lyrics were changed to “Let’s Get Retarded”. The audience loved it, but I very much doubt this would have been the winner in politically correct Belmont. The highlight for me was seeing Katie’s very large teacher dressed in a skimpy dress and blonde wig playing one of the judges, “Bunny” Abdul, and dancing wildly to all the music.

Friday, June 13

I work all day, three Guangzhou lectures: done. Newspaper article on migrant school: done. It is amazing what you can get done with no interruptions! It is Katie’s last day and she is going right from school to her friend Aditi’s (who lives in the same diplomatic compound that I will live and work in this summer). Celine and I were planning on meeting for dinner, but around five this intense thunder and lightening storm kicks in, and I know there will be no taxis and I will be absolutely drenched the minute I walk out the door. So I cancel, stay home and watch the DVDGarden State” and liked it more the second time around. Lots of great one liners. I finally finish “The Bookseller of Kabul”, and for all my gripes about China, it certainly ain’t Afghanistan. It is unfathomable to me, that in the year 2008, women are still treated like dirt, or worse.


Bilingual Express said...

Dear Ms.Donohue,

My favorite topic! Thank you very much for the report on Xingzhi School in Beijing.

Can we work together to encourage IOC to include all of the world’s 6,912 known living languages into Olympic Games. This idea would bring about 6912 new schools under construction planned by the sponsor of Olympic Games every four years for the poor. Each new school should be a competition site for a language during Olympic Games. Simultaneously, worldwide literacy problems will be greatly improved.

Why? I think that mental activities should be defined as mental sports. And IOC has the power to help the poor around the world.

Peter Kwong

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