Another random chain of thoughts. Hopefully more blogs forthcoming. Traveling back to the China on the 26th! Photos are unrelated – credits to Danielle
Early last semester, I received a call from a former student, a young woman who is now studying at China’s Northwest University for Nationalities. The call was unexpected; the student had always been painfully shy with her teachers, if not with her friends. When I asked her about her first year at university, she heaved a sigh.
“It’s not what I had hoped”, she said. “From when we are young, we are always told to dream of university. But this is not the university of my dreams.”
As we continued talking, this student began to open up about her experience. She felt bored, lonely, even lost among crowds of students and impersonal professors. Classes were basic, especially English, in which she was repeating information she had studied three years earlier. I tried to encourage her but I didn’t know how to respond; I had never myself attended Chinese university, and had no idea what she was experiencing. As a kind of compensation for my inability to help, I encouraged her to seek out communities of people to whom she could better relate – and to adjust her long-inflated expectations. In any context, the Chinese university experience is far from paradisaical; students are crammed into tiny eight-bed dorm rooms, classes are huge and professors generally indifferent, even callous, to students’ questions or problems. I told my student to take her university for what it was, to find the people and resources that were best for her and to try to get the most out of the experience.
Talking with this student drove home to me the centrality of our expectations to how we experience any given time, place or event. This is something that I’ve seen again and again among foreigners in China, who often arrive with romantic visions of ancient streets lined with houses topped by upturned eaves; on the rooftops, monks stand practicing kung fu and taichi (really, who knows the difference?) below misty, panda-laden mountains, towering summits crowned by the mighty ramparts of the Great Wall. They expect to be treated like royalty by locals and to be venerated by their students for simply existing (well…in some cases this seems to be true). Or even if these romantic illusions have been blown away by the nearly continuous stream of news covering a changed (and changing) China, they expect things to be more organized and controlled and normal and – in a word – western than they really are.
Each year, I continue to meet people from tourists to long-term residents who are disappointed with or even angry at China, for reasons they can’t really explain. They usually mention how they hate certain Chinese habits, from spitting to the inability to wait in lines, and the pollution and filth of Chinese cities. Often, an appeal is made to the ‘authentic’, the fetishism of which seems to single-handedly sustain the tourism industry on the Tibe$an plateau. If the authentic is invoked, I usually try to disengage; this late in the game, it will be difficult for them to adjust their expectations to what actually exists. For aside from Disneyland, nearly everything is ‘authentic’ in its own way – and Disneyland, corny as it is, is authentically itself as well. I know that I can’t (and probably shouldn’t) make others change what they hope to experience, but at least I can do so for myself – and for my students.
When I first started teaching, I can confidently state that I had no idea what I was doing. I have since learned that this is one of the few things that nearly all new teachers have in common, whether they are natural teachers or not. And given my difficult teaching situation, at a high school where administrators actively discouraged students from paying attention during my class, I had unreasonable expectations for what the students and I could accomplish. It was difficult for me to adjust my expectations to the reality of the situation, to realize there were no incentives for students to care about my class aside from its inherent interest, and that everything I would try would be actively undermined by other teachers and administrators. By nature I am someone who sets my hopes high, and I don’t like having to lower them – for myself or for others. But this was precisely what I had to do to make it through the year.
Since moving to Huangnan, things have improved. I have once again been able to set high expectations, though I’ve learned that helping all students meet those expectations requires hard work and immense patience. And the process of learning to be more patient with my students – for whom I have such high hopes – has also been helpful to me in my personal life and friendships. But I don’t want this to sound like an elegy for hopelessness or nihilism. Adjusting my expectations doesn’t mean that I don’t expect the best from myself and others; instead, I’ve simply learned how to better respond to the realities which surround me.
Just before leaving China to return to the US in January, she called me again. “I feel a lot better now that I know what to expect here”, she said. “I’ve found some good friends and a professor who supports me. I know it won’t be what I dreamed of in middle school…but I’m happy.”
And that’s just about all any of us could hope for.