On Academia and China

This summer I whined about how no one measures up to Middlebury Chinese teachers. I’ve been spoiled my a department that manages to teach language in an engaging and exciting way. Summer school was an epic academic marathon that lived up to its reputation. And I lived through the nine weeks to tell the tale.

Here at CET in Beijing, I am again running into the mindlessly rigid style of teaching that made me loathe summer school. In the words of a friend, “You’re in China, you should be amazed!” But I’m not. I sit in class from 8:25AM to 11:30AM and then off-and-on from 12:30PM-4PM. I’m not learning anything about China from the inside of a cramped dorm room on the fourth floor of a building in West Beijing. I could just as well be reading essays about traditional Chinese customs in America. In fact, the supposed study-abroad “payoff” of going to China is resulting in more of the same.

I believe whole-heartedly in very intense language learning. It’s great. It can be very rewarding. But to do that intense study in Beijing is, at least for now, a waste. Beijing teachers are certainly not imparting anything earth-shattering upon us. The city’s tourist sites impart nothing more than what a English-speaker would get out of the same experience. I get more out of the five minutes I spend at breakfast on the street each morning than I do from the hours spent in class. Yes, we do “language practicum” where we venture out onto the streets to interact with real Chinese people but that is alas one afternoon a week. There is a reason why students here often say that it hasn’t hit them that they’re in China yet. It’s because we’re not dealing with real China. We have the training wheels on as we comfortably study the language (and supposedly the culture) from essays in our textbook next to American students who we’ve known already for three years. When you’re at home, textbooks will suffice. When you’re abroad, why pretend when you can experience the real thing?

But maybe in some way, we are experiencing the real thing. Chinese education is all about memorizing and regurgitating and we certainly do that here. I absolutely love how when someone in class gives an answer to a question that uses correct grammar and vocabulary but is not exactly the regurgitation of what the Chinese essay reads, the teachers look stunned to find that alas, there might be more than the one right answer found in the textbook. So, if nothing else, are we experiencing authentic Chinese education? Perhaps.

But I certainly would like to see a revival of some sort of spark of creativity here in China. In short, I need my amazement back.


One thought on “On Academia and China”

  1. ryan, i went to a fantastic vegetarian restaurant last summer in a buddhist temple that i highly recommend. wonderful imitation meat. extremely calm settings. Bodhi-Sake, 10-16 Heiyao Changjie, in Xuanwu District.

    other must-do’s: (out of love for you and the city i have compiled a list of what i know, though it’s difficult to know a city as large as beijing and i was there for 2 mo’s only)
    experience a chinese-style pizza buffet, you must have seen that they’re all over the place, if only for a study of how to market western food to a chinese market, plus i rather liked it

    go to a bathhouse if you have the courage to bathe naked with random strangers. perfect for the weather. try getting yr ears cleaned out (if you can relax it’s extremely soothing) and your dirt scrubbed off to form a large pile of skin

    try a traditional old beijing breakfast. i don’t mean just soymilk and fried dough – we’re talking about soy juice (dou zhier) leftover from fermenting soybeans, very strong and pungent, that you can dip into with some jiao quan (fried dough rings). there’s also fried intestines, lamb intestines in soup, fried starch with garlic (guan changer), lu da gun (donkey rolling in mud – a red bean sticky cake) – the last is actually very addictive. i dare you. my favorite is nai you zha gao (fried cream puffs). if any of this sounds less than appealing, well, i don’t know, this is what people ate back in the old hutonger days. i wouldn’t eat it more than once, but it was an enjoyable experience. wangfujing night market doesn’t really have the best quality and it only has the most common kind of snacks, but it puts them in one place for easy sampling, plus it’s easy to get to. there’s a famous (touristy) restaurant called the da guan yuan that’s an reenactment of beijing. zha jiang mian is a black bean noodle dish that is pretty much as beijing as it gets

    go to houhai, with the lakes and hutongers and lakes, and get drunk on a paddleboat

    xidan book mall – it’s really a supermall of chinese books, some music, movies, very fun to browse. absolutely enormous

    go to 798 art district in chaoyang if yr interested in the beijing alternative scene. there’s real talent. there’s also the namoc (natl art museum of china) which has tons of gorgeous traditional brushpainting scrolls and intl collections (it was goya, el greco when i was there)

    do the ktv thing, cheaper if you rent overnight

    sample regional cuisine – yunnan with its bamboo tube rice, mushrooms, pu’er tea, wonderful chewy rice noodles (mian xian). sichuan (if you can handle it – i can’t – our food arrived boiling in chili oil). shanghai with its sweet and savory dishes, if you can find some good xiao longbao (the dumplings that you have to bite into gingerly to suck up the plentiful sweet meat juice) that is one of those special experiences

    go to latinos, the salsa club, so you can tell me about it

    i got carried away. feel free to disregard this if it doesn’t apply, i know yr on a busy schedule, it was fun for me to reminisce while writing it anyways

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