I was talking with a student the other day, and we found ourselves discussing and comparing the writing styles of America (and, thus, the West) versus the writing styles of China (and, perhaps less thusly, the East). This is a matter that's oh-so-dear to my pedantic littler heart, what with part of my job being to teach students how to research and organize a thesis (not to mention write, quote, and cite a paper). I always try to give the ego ten bucks for a quick trip to the corner store when these talks begin, because you'd be surprised how innocent little conversations like this can turn on you, when you suddenly find yourself rabidly defending something you don't really care about simply because it's How Things are Done at Home. One of the things I didn't like about Hessler's "River Town" (although I would still recommend his book to any teacher or traveler) was how often he couldn't just smile and nod, how often her took things, well, personally. But today even my eunuch-like sense of pride started to get inflamed, and what annoys me is I still don't understand why.
The Chinese style, my quasi-compatriot opined, is all about "the big picture." A Chinese essay about the necessity for a new stop sign might begin on the cosmic level, detailing how important the cessation of inertia is galactically. Somewhere around page three, I guess, they'd get down to the here-and-now and actually mention the stop sign. But only in passing.
And so I found myself butting heads against this idea with arguments for the elegant simplicity of an essay with a focused topic, one that cuts the grand macroscopic litany and just gets to the goddamn point. I tried to explain how an audience (or, for you fine folks at home, a reader) in the West would think such protracted blustering reveals that the writer simply doesn't know anything; my student was shocked how anyone could so artlessly present their ideas without grand, sweeping metaphors that all come together in the end. "And so you see, the planets have aligned, and Behold! A new stopsign is vital to the success of the nation and the spirit of the people!"
For some reason, this aggravated me. Then we began to discuss American education, and the idea in China that American's can't do math. And again, this made me defensive, and I can't explain why, because a) I know it's true and b) me no do math good. And I found myself spouting off some nonsense, "Oh, well, you see, in America, we focus on, well, um, computers," my mind a few steps behind me, baffled at why I was allowing this crap to get at me, reeling as to why I would vigorously defend this point that I didn't care about.
What bothers me the most is that there's no neat, simple, bloggical (read: trite) answer. I still don't know why it got to me.
On the bright side, I just finished sharing with some students a few Christmas songs (it sure is nice to hear Lennon's Happy X-Mas (War is Over) followed by Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer), an excerpt from Dickens's A Christmas Carol (it's odd how few people have actually read this), and showed them Disney's Mickey's Christmas Carol, a true classic. I'm going to feel old saying (writing) this for the first time and actually meaning it, but man, they really just don't make them like this anymore. It was great to share some real Christmas stuff with my students (the commercialization of the whole thing has turned it into a Valentine's Day Part II kind of holiday here), and on my way home, I bought a plastic twelve-inch mini Christmas tree.