American Culture Fall, 2003



Section: MAIN,  Page: A11
Date: Tuesday, February 3, 2004

SHANGHAI, China — I’m watching a DVD of “Blazing Saddles” that cost the equivalent of a dollar. The entire movie is subtitled in Mandarin, including the Yiddish spoken by one of Mel Brooks’ characters, an Indian chief.At the Pudong International Airport, travelers purchase phone cards from an “Intelligent Card Dispenser.” A sign, also in English, reads “International & Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan.” In Shanghai, where I’ve been studying and working since September, buildings sprout like dandelions. A native English speaker can’t help but find employment as China is getting ready to compete, and the language of money is English. A new openness has accompanied a locomotive of a economic reform fueled by an endless supply of low-wage labor. Through it all, a river of foreign investment flows into the fastest-growing consumer market in the world.
I am a “foreign expert” at Fudan University, where I teach five sections of spoken English and two sections of a course I created called “American Culture.” Fudan is one of the top three institutions of higher education in China. Its students have been plucked from the four highest-scoring percentiles of those who take the national college entry exam. With a little push, they just might learn to critically evaluate the world that awaits them.I try to get them to go beyond the black and white and to question. Many students have difficulty completing an assignment in which the teacher did not show them (1) precisely how to do it; and (2) what the teacher expected the final product to look like.But they are expert test-takers. They could memorize the phone book if need be. For me they must maintain a reflective journal, hand in homework and risk earning a “zero for the day” if they come to class unprepared. This is new stuff. In every other course, students need only show up for the final exam, which becomes their grade for the whole course.I have no tolerance for shyness. I praise all opinions, and I construct lessons that force them to research on their own. “You help us find our lost curiosity and encourage us to think in a different way,” a student wrote me in a card. Another said, “I think we are free in this class.”

Despite Confucian deference to elders and teachers, the modern Chinese student will, on occasion, be oppositional. My supervisor, a woman in her 40s who heads a department of more than 50 Chinese teachers of English, says “we” sometimes worry too much about loss of face; firmness is good for the future of her nation. “You have to turn them into men and women, too,” she said.

To some, I am just another foreign face challenging them. I hope that after students complete my class, they will be able to take on the other challenging faces of their new world despite what one young woman who courageously spent the semester in the front row called a “fear of foreigners.”

I, too, have experienced fear. In preparation for my first American Culture class, I had the office make 160 copies of the introduction to the 1995 best-seller “Don’t Know Much About History.” I planned to use it along with other books to teach the concept of historiography, how we look back at history. But the day before I was to hand out the passage, I realized that it made a passing reference to the “Tiananmen Massacre” and I destroyed every copy of the handout.

If my students saw this, I feared, they could not help but be defensive. The author’s point would be eclipsed by a tendency to distrust foreign criticism. Trust in me would be eroded. After trimming out the sentence with a pair of scissors, I had the office re-copy the excerpt.

But I’ve seen no men in trench coats. The closest thing to a party presence is the lao-tai-tai, little old ladies and men with red arm bands who keep an eye on who comes in and out of my compound.

Because I am foreign, I command wages that dwarf the prices, some a 10th of what we Americans are used to. A can of Coca-Cola costs 2 yuan (25 cents). My haircut (wash and head massage included) costs 10 yuan ($1.25, and they do a great job). A full eight-course meal shared among four friends will set each of us back about 20 kwai (less than $3). All this plus a $122 housing allowance that pays half my rent, and I never have to put gas in my bicycle.

In addition to 20 million Chinese, this city by the sea is now home to 600,000 adventure-seeking ex-pats, including 30,000 Americans. On the same campus where I teach, Africans, Europeans and Asians learn Chinese together. The harmony is real. At the Christmas party, Mongolian students followed a Swede who followed three Nepalese. We all stood for the North Koreans, their leader’s picture pinned to their lapels, as they sang out to their southern brothers and sisters in a warmly welcomed folk melody.

My goal is to be fluent by the time the Western broadcasting organizations show up for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. While I still can’t speak, read or write the language as well as I’d like, I can be understood by waiters and taxi drivers.

But I’m not worried. My grandfather couldn’t read or write English even after he had made his first million excavating New York when it was booming at the turn of the last century.

Like Mel Brooks’ Indian chief, his first language was Yiddish.

Bill Marcus, who received a master’s in education and studied Chinese at the University at Albany, teaches at Fudan University in Shanghai. His e-mail address is [email protected]

Above: American Culture, Fall, 2003, Fudan University.