In March, I made a spontaneous and skeptical decision to apply to grad school in Beijing. When I told my friends in America and my Chinese students my plan, both groups asked, “Why on earth would you go to grad school in China??!” Here’s what I told them after convincing myself these were legitimate and good reasons:
1) 10 months in China wasn’t long enough; there was more to accomplish! And if I’m going to stay longer, then I’d like to make friends, and if I’m lucky, also find that twinkle in my eye. It has been long enough.
2) A Master’s degree in International Development is relevant to my career goals.
3) Tsinghua University is the Harvard of China.
4) I can live in the dorms and have some privacy from my nosy parents.
So…in August, without great expectations, I moved into my dorm room single, filled it with plants and ikea goods, and stayed up ’til 3 in the morn’ because the bed is so hard. Aside from an uncomfortable bed, controlled hot-water hours (very inconvenient, especially on weekends!), and mediocre dining hall food, living on campus is actually quite nice. The paths are lined with trees and there are plenty of sports fields (being built). There are also sculptures dotted around campus and even a famous water-lily pond, a hotspot for tourists.
Three weeks in and I’ve met dozens of people from all over the world, and for the first time in my life, the number of my Asian friends to non-Asian is greater. I’m surrounded by them! In my program of 17 people, we represent 10 different countries: America, Canada, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Peru, Ethiopia, Italy, England, and South Korea. The school of Public Policy, which I’m in, also has a Master’s program geared towards government officials from various African countries, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Grenada, Cambodia, Laos, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan, among many others. They’re a generally older crowd, and the fact that I am sharing a dormitory with these accomplished, government officials and leaders is somewhat laughable.
Judging from the first week of classes my professors are not stimulating enough. I want to be challenged, pushed, treated like a knowledgeable adult with lots of potential (I can pretend). But like I said, I didn’t enroll with high expectations. The International Development program is a relatively new one (to all of China, actually), so administrators and professors are still building it up. Unfortunately this means I’m one of the guinea pigs, but with a title of “Tsinghua University Graduate” it still puts me ahead of the game, at least in this country.
Tsinghua and Peking University are China’s Harvard and Yale, respectively (I think…does Harvard have a better reputation than Yale?), and getting into one of these top schools is the dream of every Chinese family. If you are admitted into one of these universities, you and your family will be forever celebrated in your hometown because it is such a great and near impossible feat that you’ll make your entire hometown, or even province, proud. When my family found out, I got text messages left and right and a personal phone call from my grandma in Chongqing congratulating me. Of course I didn’t tell her how unjustly easy it was for me, an international student, to apply (30 minutes to fill out the application including the personal statement, 2 emails to professors for recommendation letters, and an online request for my transcripts and graduation certificates to be mailed to Tsinghua). Chinese students, on the other hand, go through a grueling application and testing process. Might I add, they don’t have air conditioning or hot water in their dormitories (they have special shower areas); we do (international students live separately from Chinese students).
The choice to attend Tsinghua binds the next 2 years of my life–I’ll be 26 when I graduate, ah!–but I’m happy to be here. It’s a new experience and it feels great to be sharing it with a group of new friends (who are all brilliant by the way).
Okay. Now that I’m a student again, I must set a curfew that requires me to get into bed by a reasonable hour (it’s already 1 am). Then, it’ll take another 2 hours to fall asleep after tossing and turning on a slab of concrete. By the end of my 2 years, if I don’t learn anything valuable from school, at least I know I’ll have an iron back.
I have long been confused by what doing “good” means. Is it giving food to someone who doesn’t have any? Is it donating your clothes to Goodwill? How about donating thousands of dollars to charity? Or flying to Africa to build wells? Aren’t all of these things good???????? From what I learned in college, the answer is Yes and No. That got me nowhere except to a greater state of confusion.
I was on the subway today, a smelly one. The stench was oozing from a teenage boy who was sleeping soundly in his seat. He had dirt on his clothes and it covered his face, neck and unwashed hair. He wore his raggedy old shoes on the wrong feet, and his sweatpants were covered with short white animal hairs. His face was red and eyes puffy as if he had cried, or was just exhausted. He had no belongings with him. At first I too was bothered by the smell like those around me with their fingers rammed up their nostrils. But then I noticed his boyish features and began to feel intense sadness for him.
Homeless people are everywhere, I know. But this boy sat right in front of me, sleeping, not noticing my rude, but heartfelt staring. I was carrying a bag of pastries and asked my dad if I should leave one for the boy. My dad said there was no need. But right before we got off the train, I left a pastry on the seat anyway. When I told my dad who hadn’t noticed, he said it wasn’t the right way to “do good.”
When I lived in NYC, I worked for a bakery that wasted a lot of food, like any food business. Sometimes I took whole cakes with me and left them on benches at Union Square or Washington Square Park where I knew a lot of homeless hung around. Sometimes I left things on the subway, hoping a hungry person would snag up the free goods. Then one day my friend made an excellent point that homeless people shouldn’t eat things like cake and cookies because it could cause long-term health problems that they can’t afford to cure. Instead, I should leave them apples and bread.
Well that got me in a bind. There I was with bags of free food and the worry that people are hungry, plus the awareness that cash isn’t always spent in the “right” places. So what was I to do with the food and my dilemma? Did I want to be the cause of someone’s diabetes, obesity and cavities? On the other hand, did I want to waste perfectly good dessert when there were starving children in Africa?
On my way to the train, my dad and I passed a man selling a boxful of chicks. My initial reaction was ANIMAL CRUELTY! Then I thought, This farmer is just trying to make a living. And then, How cute would it be to have little yellow chickens running around my room? I could be their saviour. My dad, being the more rational adult, pulled me away before I could whip out a few bucks that would ruin the lives of the little fur-balls forever. They might be suffering in the tiny living quarters, but they would also suffer from my neglect. These chickens are living beings, I can’t mess with that. Meanwhile, there’s the potentially hungry farmer I could’ve made a purchase from so he had some daily earnings (but he has all those chickens…) What is a gal to do in this situation? I did nothing except take this picture.
Compassion and generosity are qualities I’m proud to claim, but naive and impulsive tag along. I admit I tend to romanticize things. I’m happy I have a “good” heart and optimism, but my friends and family are right when they say I am naive. The world seem a lot simpler to me than it really is. This obstructs my ability to think holistically and do effectively, and instead leads me to act impulsively. It would be awesome if I could solve all the world’s problems. But I can’t. Nobody can. I’ve given up on that dream already, but I still believe one person can make a difference, and that making a difference to one person is still “good”.
But how? Was leaving a pastry for someone who might not even eat it or is too afraid to take it what I should’ve done to “help out” this kid? Is handing out dollar bills to homeless children who might work for abusive bosses going to benefit them or hurt them in the long-run? Here’s the question of the century: is it better to do something than nothing at all? These are the daily conundrums I have to deal with in my head. You should see what big ideas I’ve got stored upstairs. Anyway, that’s why I’ve decided to go to grad school. Maybe Professor Wong or Doctor Chan can tell me if I should’ve left a cupcake or an apple, or nothing at all.
Last week, I received a text from my student that said this (in Chinese):
“Emily, this is Wendy. Do you have time the day after tomorrow? It’s my birthday, I want to celebrate it with you. You are my favorite teacher and friend now. Is that okay?”
My heart crumbled into a million little pieces. She not only said I was her favorite teacher, but that I was her friend. How could I say no to that?
We spent the following Thursday watching a terrible Chinese movie while gorging on Chinese-movie-theater-snacks, eating hot pot, and doing a little shopping. Despite the few awkward silences, it was actually a pleasant time, and I think Wendy genuinely enjoyed her 15th birthday. I gathered this from her jumping up and down screeching “I’m having so much fun!”
Going to the movies was a rare treat for Wendy. Like my other students, Cindy and Tanya (who are also my mom’s music students), every minute of her life revolves around studying for the entrance exam to a renown music school. All three of them moved to Beijing from their hometowns in Northeast China to devote time to studying music. They left school, their friends, their extended families, to begin intensive preparation for the exam, basically the biggest deal of their entire lives because it will determine everything thereafter. Personally, I think having a proper childhood is more important, but who am I to define “proper” here?
When I look at Wendy, Cindy and Tanya, I thank the-big-man-upstairs for my teenage years surrounded with friends, fun and plenty of time for leisure. I admire their drive to succeed, but where is the harm in enjoying life? I guess from their parents’ point of view, fun comes after a lifetime of hard work. This has some truth to it; it’s just not the lifestyle I would choose.
I’ve been complaining about not having friends in China, but I am happy to say, alas, I’ve found some company in Cindy, Wendy and Tanya. I don’t know how long our friendship will last, but I’m glad to have them call me their friend for however long they need me. After all, I need them too.
I just read an editorial piece in the New York Times about classical music and it’s place among the Occupy Wall Street movement that got me thinking about my own family. “From the Medici family and Ludwig of Bavaria to Andrew Carnegie and David H. Koch, classical music, like other performing arts, has long depended on the 1 percent,” writes Anthony Tommasini. This is not so far off in China either, at least not nowadays.
The arts are an important component to China’s cultural inheritance. Mao himself was a poet and a lover of music — granted, the only music allowed during his regime were “Red Songs” with lyrics from his own poetry, but it was music nonetheless. Classical music was not introduced to China until the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership. A professor from the Central Conservatory of Music had written Deng a letter requesting permission to enroll students after a 10-year dry spell during the Cultural Revolution–a timely request as Deng was set on modernizing China, opening doors to western influence, and consequently classical music. Permission granted, 17,285 people lined up for the college entrance examination. Narrowed down to 105 total enrollments, my mom was one of 20 singers from all of China to join the ranks. This was the first wave of a new revolution — what I call the “Classical Music Revolution of China.”
My dad followed my mom’s footsteps shortly after, and post graduation, followed her to the United States where she pursued her career in opera, and had me. Growing up, classical music and the arts in general, surrounded me. (I am writing this post while my mom’s student is roaring Italian lyrics downstairs.) Our family friends were literally all involved in the arts, and while I dabbled in it, I did not end up a musician–a great mystery and shame to many.
In the west, my mom could study music with American and European teachers, while in the east, the field was still developing. I remember as a child touring around the States watching her perform in Madame Butterfly, La Boheme and Carmen, among others. She also traveled all over the world, singing operas in various European languages. Her career flourished in the west, where opera was an occasion for dressing up and showing off wealth and culture. In the wake of rising tuitions and increasing economic disparity, this is one of Occupy Wall Street’s arguments; performing arts are elitist.
There is no doubt that classical music has historically been limited to the upper class, but as Tommasini points out in his article, there is today an abundance of free and affordable performing arts events throughout New York City. Similarly in China, attending a performance at the National Center for the Performing Arts is not a cheap ordeal. But there are events scattered throughout Beijing that are accessible to those who are curious or interested. The school my mom works for (the high school attached to the Central Conservatory of Music), for example, often puts on free performances for the public. Too bad the turnouts remain to be low.
Many of my mom’s students come from the wealthiest of families — sons and daughters of leaders in the coal industry, an army surgeon, TV/movie stars, political figures, and various successful businesspeople. This is a major difference between music students today and music students from my parents’ generation. My parents were extremely poor when they began schooling, as were all families during that time, but again, classical music was just a budding interest then. Now that the west has full-blown influence over Chinese society and culture (much to Hu Jingtao’s dismay), classical music has become a popular career path. However, only those who can afford the education can find a place in that field, unless you are blessed with a voice that penetrates the heart and soul of the judges at your audition.
I completely agree with Occupy Wall Street protestors that “the main issue regarding performing arts institutions is not inaccessibility but insularity,” because as I said, you have to have the funds to pursue this career. I have questioned my parents’ morality for working for government-run and arguably profit-oriented schools, but after having witnessed their frustrations, the dead ends, and watching my mom teach tirelessly, my mind changed. My parents’ passion for music and grounded dedication to their students are reason enough for my admiration (besides being their only child of course). And from personal encounters with these students, they’re not so bad. Sure, some are snobby teenagers with brand name clothing and a private apartment, but where in the world are there not such people? They are like any other child striving to achieve their dreams as musicians–just like hip hop artists, baseball players, doctors and lawyers–who happen to come from the 1% (most who work their butts off to support their child’s dreams).
There are many things I find wrong with Chinese society (as you may have determined from my previous posts), but one thing I have come to appreciate during my time here is the cultural fervor. Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that many Chinese artists are suppressed, exiled, jailed, because I am lucky to have an outlet to both eastern and western news, but just knowing that they exist excites me because I sense the kindling of a counterrevolution. And knowing that my parents are part of this movement — whether they see it as that or not — makes me very proud to be their daughter.
Life is definitely different now that my parents are classical-music-big-shots as opposed to lower- to middle- class immigrants, but I will never consider our family elitist. We are just a loving bunch of teachers committed to passing on what we know to whoever will listen.
I have been teaching Luke, a Chinese high school student, spoken English. He comes from Zhejiang, an eastern coastal province, and traveled by train to Beijing, the only other Chinese city besides Shanghai he has ever visited, to study English. He’s an awesome kid who yawns a lot, but he is very enthusiastic and diligent about his studies. Luke’s regular school schedule in Zhejiang would be unimaginable to anyone outside China; 6 days a week, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. with two breaks in between for meals. Personally, knowing what I know and seeing what I’ve seen, life would be utterly unbearable forced to stay within school walls for more than half the day, everyday. For Luke, though, it is a nice thing to be around his friends all day.
For our English classes, I have been selecting newspaper articles from the New York Times and BBC for him to summarize, but more importantly, for him to learn about the world outside his home. To my surprise, I, a foreigner, was also teaching him about his own country. I have had him read articles about India’s missing children, Arizona’s immigration law, orangutang habitats, former NBA player Stephen Marbury now playing for the Beijing Ducks, and most recently about the Chinese government’s attempt to censor the nation’s microblogs against “rumors,” aka any utterances against the government.
Somehow Tiananmen Square came up in one of our heated debates (I like to play devil’s advocate with Luke–he hates it). I mentioned the Tiananmen Square Massacre, after defining what “massacre” was, but Luke had no idea what I was talking about; he vaguely knew about the protests, but he didn’t know people were killed, tanked. My jaw literally dropped below my knees, and so I began my rant about dictatorship, censorship, Communism, and the Chinese education system that intensely suppresses the smallest ounce of information that suggests anything negative about the government. This he knew; many Chinese students I have met know that information is missing from their lessons but they also know that any questioning of or disagreement with a teacher is pretty much forbidden, unless you’re a masochist.
I forgot to mention that my 22 year old cousin also had no idea about the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Can you picture my jaw literally scraping along concrete as we were walking in the street talking openly in Chinese about this national incident hidden from Chinese youth?
After sharing with Luke what I knew about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the only crime I’ve probably ever committed, I then asked Luke if he had heard of Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner (crime #2). This time unsurprisingly, he said “no.” So, I went on spilling the rotten beans about his home country. Thankfully Luke was very eager to learn more–he likes anything “tragic”–and pressed me on to continue my disenchantments of China. Don’t worry, after our lesson I wiped all the new vocabulary–dictator, censorship, freedom of speech, Communism, massacre–off the board.
A few days later, I had dinner with a Chinese friend I met in my first year at Ithaca College, in the States. I brought up my shock and horror of China’s ability to manipulate and suppress news, simultaneously wondering how that is even possible in the digital age where information is accessible to everyone–except China obviously, although sites like Wikipedia, BBC and NYTimes are still available. So then how can people still be so oblivious to horrific crimes that occur in their own country?
Well, my friend said plainly, if there is no interest, no suggestion that would lead one to search for such events, why would anybody go out of their way to find the information?
That made complete sense to me. If nobody ever told, or hinted, to Luke that violent crimes occurred in 1989, what are the chances of him googling “Tiananmen Square Massacre” or Liu Xiaobo on his own? None! You can’t find what you’re not looking for.
I have been in China exactly 4 months and my mind has already been blown to pieces by numerous and various forces. As I am still unaccustomed to many Chinese ways and have much more to learn about how this country works, I will take advantage of this “ignorance” as defense in case any scary Red Guards chase after me and continue my rants about what I think my students deserve to know. Information is meant to be known; it can’t be hidden forever. I have much to uncover, much to learn, as do my students, and the Chinese government. It’s just a matter of (jail)time, exiles, and many disappearances.
I’m writing all of this in the wake of Kim Jong-il’s death. Oy.
Well-known Chinese Human Rights Activists/Dissidents (that I, and you probably already, know of):
Chen Guangcheng – blind civil rights activist who defended women’s rights against forced sterilization and abortion
Ai Weiwei – an influential artist highly critical of the Chinese government
Liu Xiaobo – a writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner who helped draft Charter 08, calling for political and legal reforms
My list is a short one, but it’s a hopeful one.
Hello Friends From All Over the World!
My friend Hannah, who I mentioned in a previous post, is in Guatemala with the Peace Corps making a real difference that most people, including myself, merely think about doing but don’t for whatever convenient reason. If you are one of these people, well here is your chance to do something–help 16 year old Any continue her education by visiting Hannah’s blog and making a monetary contribution!
It is a common question–how can I, an individual, make a difference? Well, besides what Hannah is doing–devoting 2 years of her life to helping develop a remote village in Guatemala (they just built a “bottle school!!”)–I also offer the example of “Africa’s Beautiful Bag Lady” which I found equally inspiring: http://animprobablelife.com/2011/11/26/lori-robinson-bag-project-africa/
Whether you make a contribution or not, I hope you do at least take a peek at Hannah’s blog because not only is she excellent writer, she is truly passionate about her work. Oh Hannah, you are my role model!
Maybe after reading all of these blogs that I come across everyday of individuals who are doing amazing things around the world, I will finally get off my bum and do what I’ve always dreamed of doing–building schools.