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Friday, October 27, 2006

I am amazed.

Zhanjiang Normal University is preparing to send a small group of students (five from the English school, five from other schools) abroad, to study for one month at the College of St. Ben’s/St. John’s University, in Minnesota. That’s Nicki’s alma mater, as well as Kevin “Maryknoll” Clancy’s, and pretty much all the other Maryknoll teachers here in China except me. The Lone Villanovan.

So when I was asked to take part in the judging of these students, I replied with an enthusiastic “what the hell.” It would be a nice change to feel like I’m actually part of a cohesive faculty, to interact with my supposed “colleagues.” But I didn’t know the whole thing was going to be a thinly-veiled talent show.

As I entered the building where the judging was to take place, I discovered that at least three of my students were there, vying for one of the few chances to go to the states. I did not appreciate being put in such a position, and I felt that the school should have known about this before they asked for my help. I told them I simply would not sit and judge my own students, and so to accommodate me and my outrageous sense of ?, they placed me as judge for the students from the other colleges: humanities, business, sciences, etc. I felt all right about that, so I threw down my weapons and prepared to be a judge.

What, no one appreciates Judge Dredd references anymore?

I was instructed, in a hastily-muttered translation, to judge the students on three criterion: on their oral English (possible total: sixty points), their “talents” (another twenty points), and their manners, poise, etc. (again, another possible twenty points). I wasn’t sure what they meant by “talents” – I had an unspoken foreboding, but I dismissed it as just too ludicrous, even for China – and proceeded to endure three of the most surreal hours of my life.

Every student entered the room and bowed meekly before launching into a heavily-rehearsed speech. Some were nervous, some were quite calm, but it was all well-prepared patter peppered with meaningless clich├ęs: “I’ve always lived my life by the motto, no pains no gains.” They were a real joy to watch, actually, because these students (most about my age) could speak fantastic English. I have never met anyone in America with such a mastery of a foreign language, especially at such a young age. I knew other people studying languages at Villanova – some Arabic, some Spanish, me and some others with Chinese – and our command of the language outside of school was and is a joke compared to these kids. It seems every student in every field had a more-than-adequate grasp of basic English, and many of them have gained this proficiency in their spare time. In short, their English is far better than my Chinese.

But then any sense of reality went out the window when each student was forced to perform their “talents.” “So what talents have you prepared for us tonight?” the other teachers would ask, and the student in question was forced to parade some arbitrary skill that had no bearing on their competency to study in America. This reduced the whole interview into an absurd spectacle of knot-tying, magic tricks, origami, singing – oh, how the other judges loved the singing – dancing, kung fu, and tai chi. Laudable talents? Certainly. Relevance to their ability to study in America? None.

It was awkward and simply stupid to see these otherwise serious students reduced to singing songs from Pocahontas, or performing some ballet/club music fusion dance. (Stone-faced pirouettes giving way to exaggerated booty-shakin’ cha-cha-chas, the teachers looking on with equally sober faces, nodding in silent approval as I bite my tongue to avoid the mounting gut laugh.) And more than once, the other teachers encouraged students to bring me into the act: perform the magic trick for the foreigner, dance with the foreigner. If it was politeness, I didn’t feel it: it felt like they just wanted to ramp up the insanity to eleven.

Surreal. Really the only word to describe it. A pointless waste of time that would have been inappropriate in the third grade. And what really killed me was how often those twenty “talent” points were the deciding factor. There were some students that spoke with fantastic, fluent, and above all natural and unscripted English, and on more than one occasion I heard the excuse, “yes, their oral English was very good, but … their talent was not that impressive.” We’re not sending students over to sing “Colors of the Wind,” god dammit.

But in the end, the talents didn’t seem to matter. The students with the best English abilities were selected, and there was debate on only one or two. None of the students that I argued would thrive in America (despite their “poor talents”) were chosen. So it goes.

And now I think I can’t access Blogger’s main site. So I can upload this, but I can’t read it. Thank you, Great Fire-Wall of China.

Despite the strange oddities that sometimes make life here hell, despite the cultural quirks that I have to simply learn to accept, it really is a great honor to teach. I cannot express how happy I am, to be able to do this, to have these eye-opening and profound (for good and ill) experiences; how lucky I am that I was crazy enough to take this risk, and how enjoyably it is paying off. I’ve entertained delusions of touring the globe, teaching English for a year in China here, maybe a few years in Japan or India or Russia there. Maybe. It’s indescribable, really, but all I know is that I love it. To talk and learn and understand a wholly different culture, another person’s way of life … it’s truly amazing, and I mean that in the full spirit of that word.

I am amazed.

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