Thursday, December 19, 2013

Episode Nine: Pollution, Haircuts, and Tea

Pollution and Haircuts

The air quality has been really bad in Xian the past two days. The worst I have seen it. Standing on the pedestrian overpass outside the North Gate, I could see maybe three blocks. After that: nothing. A creepy haze hangs in the air. The skies have been grey and cloudy, so it is difficult to tell just how bad the pollution is, but it must be bad because Zephaniah reports that the children are kept inside for recess: the air is too dangerous to breathe.  I see lots of people with masks on and yesterday when I went to the Quickie Mart outside the back gate to buy some milk, there were masks laid out on the check-out counter, not unlike ice scrapers after it snows in the Midwest.

Not to miss an opportunity to accessorize, there are several kinds of masks one can purchase.

Some feature designer logos/fabric. Some are straight forward blue corduroy or sensible black and grey plaid. The functional paper surgical masks are used, but only rarely as they lack pastiche. Some masks have creative, cute appliques of little bunnies and rabbits on the front (these simply look odd to me: grown women walking around with a smirking teddy bear where her mouth and jaw should be).

Outside the front gate, there is a woman who is selling a variety of novelty masks. There are panda faces, ghastly clown smiles, fuzzy ducks, patch-eyed pirates, and jaunty polka dots. My favorite is a pair of big Angelina Jolie-like lips with a cigar protruding from them. C’est ironique, n’est pas? Covering one’s mouth to avoid inhaling pollution, but the image on the mask alludes to the idea that the mask-wearing woman is smoking a lung-cancer inducing stogie.

What makes this particular mask even more interesting is that Chinese women don’t smoke. Or at least “respectable” Chinese women don’t smoke. I have seen one young woman smoking in public, but it was in a Western-style coffee house. The idea that a woman could put on a pollution mask that portrays her as a Mae West rebel with a cigar loitering rakishly on her lips is rather amusing to me. Going rogue on bad air days.

Z couldn’t resist not buying a pollution mask (although we haven’t worn it; I tend to be of the mind that a mask is not really going to help much as the air you are breathing is seeping in the sides of the mask anyway). He chose a chick-yellow one with bunny ears and a black melodrama villain moustache. Again: odd. There are bunny ears on the mask, but no bunny face, just the wild moustache. And why would a bunny have a black moustache anyway? I mean, they don’t have any fingers with which to twirl it. if a bunny is going to try to disguise itself (Dodge the law for what? Stealing carrots? Deadbeat dad? His name on a “Wanted: Hasenpfeffer” poster?), it would choose something other than a moustache, right? I mean, a bunny in a moustache just sticks out, right? Like a target on his twitchy little nose. That’s one dumb bunny.

This week we also got haircuts. Deborah was getting her “last Chinese haircut” (she leaves on Jan. 23 after 10 years of teaching in Xian) and so we decided to make it an outing.

The young man who cut Zephaniah’s hair was OK with the “trim” (“yi xia”) that Zephaniah wanted, until I told him that Zephaniah was a boy, not a girl (the hairdresser had asked if my daughter ever pulled her hair back and if so, in what styles). After that, the “trim” turned into a major cut of about six inches.

Z was unperturbed by the change in hairstyle since he now has a haircut identical to Deborah’s (except he has bangs) and he loves all things Deborah. He was less happy when Susan and Olivia (his Chinese tutors) took one look, started laughing, and called him “mushroom head.”

As Deborah pointed out:  “The difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut is about a week.” In Z’s case, I think it is going to take a bit longer to grow back what he lost, so he is stuck with the mushroom look for a while. I think he looks like Buster Brown or Christopher Robin, but I am not sure he finds that complimentary either.

The President of China, Hu Jintao, announced this week that he is “canceling” the day before Spring Festival and instead giving people a holiday at the end of the festival. Spring Festival is the biggest holiday of the Chinese calendar. Westerners know it as “Chinese New Year.” Traditionally, New Year’s Eve is a day where people make preparations for the New Year. It is a day off of work. Not this year. The president has decided people need to work on New Year’s Eve Day.
Because the Chinese follow the lunar calendar for this particular holiday, this year Spring Festival/New Year’s Day falls on January 31 (a Friday).

I asked my students why the President would “cancel” New Year’s Eve. They were stumped. I said, “Didn’t he offer a reason as to why?” Nope. Many students ventured that he canceled New Year’s Eve Day because it is called “Dead Day” (the old year is dying) and the President’s name sounds similar to that and he is superstitious and didn’t want people singing songs and merrily greeting each other by announcing his death.

That seems a bit wonky to me, but without any other reason given, people are left to superstition and gossip . . . and if there is one thing people are bad at, it is critically thinking through several possible answers to one question. They have been taught to obey and recite, not think about various solutions to one problem. There is only one way to do something and the person in charge will tell you how to do it that way.

Can you imagine what would happen if Obama, say, were to announce, “I am canceling Christmas Eve. Merry Christmas to one and all”? End of Press Conference. Stately Exit. No backward glances. No explanation. Just the edict. The Right Wing talking heads of the Rush Limbaugh ilk would be the first ones to open their maws and start crowing: Obama is Muslim and anti-Christian. But they would not be the only voices speculating “why.” There would be a cacophony of speculations and theories. There would be as many answers to “why” as there are people who could find a camera to speak in front of it. And we would also be talking about it, you and me. We would be kvetching and kvelling and protesting, if not the idea that someone could cancel a holiday, but that the President would assume the authority to do so without a good reason.  Or without any reason.

I frustrate my students because of my demand for them to think on their own and question and come up with answers. I assign a paper. They want me to give them a “model” paper that they can use. I tell them I want them to use their own ideas and come up with their own voice, not copy a model. This response causes them to squirm in their seats, writhing in frustration. It is very difficult for many of the students to take charge, make choices, and think independently about what they want to say, do, write. I have had more than one student call out in exasperation, “Will you just tell us what to do?” I sagely respond, “The assignment sheet is detailed and it tells you WHAT to do. But I will not tell you HOW to do it. That is your work. I want you to think. I want you to figure it out. What do you want to say and how do you want to say it?”

My students sigh and hang their heads in defeat. They have been taught to obey, so they will obey me. They will write another paper where they have to think. But they don’t understand why I won’t just follow the traditional script and give them something to copy.

They don’t understand why I am so insistent that they ask and answer why.

The upside of this sort of educational system/cultural ideology is that one can manage large groups of people quite efficiently. When no one questions the teacher, things run smoothly. The other upside is that Chinese students can memorize long passages, word-for-word, without much effort. My Oral English students have to give speeches. They write out three pages of what they want to say and then they memorize it: word-for-word. I wobble between utter exasperation (“Don’t spend all that time memorizing a text! Tell me what you know! Talk to me!”) and silent awe. Word-for-word. Three pages. Not a single deviation from the script. Perfect, down to the last syllable. No need for even a note card or scribbled ink on the palm of their hand.

Americans have trouble remembering their own phone numbers. We can’t give a talk without reading from a paper or a teleprompter, no matter how short or simple.  Powerpoint presentations are our crutch. People congratulate themselves if they can remember the lyrics to The National Anthem. We’re a pathetic population popping gingko biloba and relying on spell check because we can’t even remember how to spell “definitely” and “occasionally.” Once we hit 75, we are filling up “Memory Units” in Assisted Living Centers.

It would not be a bad idea to pay more attention to memorization, the skill of “learning by heart” a poem lost to most children of the Digital Age. However, I am not saying that rote memorization is a worthwhile pedagogy if it is the only one used.

I was talking with an American woman who is sending her children to an international school in Xian. She was lamenting that her son, grade 6, had a school project he had to complete. It was a fairly typical assignment: each student was given a budget and told they had to develop some sort of plan on how to spend it. The plan needed to solve a problem of the community.  They had to account for salaries and materials to execute the plan and a way to sustain the project once the initial money was gone.

This is an assignment that no Chinese sixth grader going to public schools would ever get. In Zephaniah’s school experience, there are no (absolutely none, zero, zilch) independent assignments. Students are assigned mounds of homework every night, but they are exercises in the book, memorization and rote learning. The next day in school, the answers are checked and students who have them wrong are called out – by the class chanting “You are wrong; do it again.” No independent thinking or creative “projects.”

Consequently, to ask students (or anyone) why the president would cancel a major holiday is to ask an unanswerable question. They smile, shrug, and say, “I don’t know.” Silly American. Always wanting to know why.

A student said to me, “We don’t ask why. We just obey. That is the Chinese way.”

New Tea House on the Block

A new Tao tea house has opened outside the back gate. It is lovely, with Tibetan music playing, an altar to the Buddha (Z lit some incense and made his three bows to the deity so we would be welcome), lots of tree branches, birds’ nests, and gourds adorning the place. There is a corner with a stone waterfall and private back rooms to sip in solitude. There are also tree stump stools to sit on with millstone tables (just as small). Several stone-topped tables are set up to play Chinese chess and Go (a traditional Chinese game with pebbles).

Z and I spent an evening there this week. It was extremely relaxing, except for the fact that my wide American butt does not perch so comfortably on a tiny tree stump. I felt like a friendly giant hunched over a gnome’s table. Add to that, the tea cups were the size of contact lenses. Honestly. I could barely pick them up they were so small. And they held a mouthful of tea. Compared to American style coffee mugs, we must seem like blundering ogres with dirty nails and bad manners, slurping and spilling our beverages out of over-sized, rustic mead steins.

Z had a great time sipping tea and learning the tea ritual of pouring, straining leaves, pouring again, and finally filling an itsy-bitsy cup with a half-swallow of tea. He also got to play endless games of Chinese chess and Go with a couple of men who were smitten with the American boy, with a mushroom haircut, who could speak Chinese.

Me, I like a comfy big chair and my large mug of coffee. Free wi-fi or not, I likely won’t spend hours at the tea shop perched on a way-too-small tree stump.

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