Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thanksgiving in Shenzhen, China

Here is a link to a video created by my colleague, Chris Tuazon, which offers some snippets of the Thanksgiving day we spent with our fifty Chinese students and friends on the Chinese staff:

This video can also be found easily with a a search on YouTube for "Happy Thanksgiving 2012 from Shenzhen!"

If you are wondering how Chris got this video on YouTube it is with the use of a VPN. YouTube, GoogleDocs, Facebook, Twitter, and most blogs and message boards are all beyond "The Great Firewall". At selected times Google search, the New York Times and other non-Chinese publications are blocked, or specific articles are blocked. Searching for one of the "three T's" - Tibet, Taiwan, or Tiananmen will also turn up a whole lot of nothing. Of course, the use of VPNs or hacking is also widespread. An easy trip into Hong Kong where none of these sites are blocked, where you can read books by the Dalai Lama, and where moped drivers actually stop at red lights, also brings access to download VPN software that goes unchecked for at customs.

The class featured on the video is the sophomore class, but there is also a junior class. There are only grades 10-12 at the high school level in China. "Mr. T" will mention he teaches these students. I teach the students featured as well in a weekly course called "College to Careers" that is about understanding their own selves - personality, passions, values, future job or career interests, and life dreams, and then guiding them in setting goals and making a plan from those starting ponts to be admitted into a university in the US that should be a good fit for them.

The video captures a good sense of the family feel and fun we were able to achieve for the day at school. Students were enthusiastically receptive to the idea of being thankful, and even more so - the food! We were able to procure most traditional Thanksgiving dishes, including turkeys cooked by Sam's Club (yes there are also multiple Walmart's and an IKEA in Shenzhen), and side dishes from some local restaurants, but couldn't find plastic forks. We ate the meal with chopsticks, pumpkin pie with spoons. The feast was followed by some open sharing of thank yous in the dining hall (the small auditorium we converted into a dining hall), an attempted game of football on the school soccer field, and a start to the showing of the American film "Stepmom". Classic.

Wherever you are reading this I hope you enjoyed Thanksgiving or can be thankful for friends or family in your life. I appreciate having at least some version of both wherever I have been in the world through holidays. It is evidence to me that people want to connect, share and love each other no matter their cultural differences. Cross-culturally, holidays are an opportunity to share or learn about one's core values or important aspects of one's cultural identity. The sharing process can remind us that all humans value the same essentials such as family, good food, or gratitude.

Universal values are the starting point for social harmony or conflict resolution. If we can remember how much we have to empathize with another person or group of people just because they are also human, and if we can do this more than our bad habit of focusing on differences, we are more likely to share, cooperate, or compromise instead of hoarding, competing, and being stubborn. When the other stops being "the other" and instead can be felt as part of "us" social problem-solving can go from a zero-sum to the better question of "How can we both win?" There is almost always a way. Republican and Democrats could use this lesson, for the sake of the American people, and the world's people for that matter!

Happy Holidays, Chris

Monday, November 12, 2012

Excerpts from My China Notebook

Every day living in Shenzhen it is inevitable I gain a new insight, reflection, or question into Chinese culture or myself. Enjoy these excerpts from my notebook:

o Friday, November 9, 8:52pm – For the first time, I chose to use chopsticks tonight over a fork when eating some leftovers at home. I’m becoming more Chinese by the day.


o Thursday, November 7, 2:30pm – I have learned that what us Americans imagine as large cities are considered mere “towns” here. I asked a colleague today for suggestions about weekend trips to experience a quainter atmosphere. She suggested Suzhou, a “town full of beautiful ancient canals.” Suzhou’s urban population is four million; its metropolitan population ten million.

o Wednesday, November 6, 12:11pm – It’s looking like Obama has won. Nearly every Chinese person I spoke with hoped Barack Obama would be re-elected. Meanwhile, the Chinese “Party Congress” is meeting to choose new national leaders, as they do every ten years. Choices are made behind closed doors, with no reporters allowed, certain books selectively removed from bookstores, balloons banned lest they be released with protest messages, and Google services blocked. Hmm . . . I wonder how the Congress makes its choices.

o Tuesday, October 30, 6:00pm – Halloween is well-marketed here. I’m assuming the manufacturers of most Halloween costumes are in China, and it didn’t take long for them to realize it’s worth creating a market here. If any trick-or-treating goes on, the gift is usually money. Sweets are generally frowned upon in China, considered unhealthily sugary. I've found myself appreciating low sugar ice cream or other desserts here. And hey, money for Halloween? Makes me wish I wasn't too old for trick-or-treating.


o Wednesday, October 24, 9:05pm – Best values I have found so far:

• $.75 – 16-ounce water at a movie theater: Excuse me? Shouldn’t this be at least four dollars? It’s doubly refreshing when you can enjoy a drink at a theater that isn’t exorbitantly marked up.

• $12 - 1.5 hours massage: I go once a week with my boss where she and I have a casual meeting about work and life. Tips are not accepted.

• $5 – A full bouquet of flowers: Discovering that they are relatively cheap, I now buy flowers once every two weeks or so for my apartment. There are five flower shops in a row on my walk to and from work every day. As I pass I breathe in deeply. The air is cool, fragrant, and the birds are lively.


o Monday, October 22, 11:43am – Every K-12 Chinese student in public schools in the entire city wears the same uniform, by regulation: Navy blue sweatpants with a thick white stripe and matching jacket. Polo shirts for girls are white with a light blue collar. Polo shirts for boys are blue with a white collar. Having the entire student body uniformed is winning me over. It is equalizing and unifying in many ways. Personal style is more subtly expressed through accessories, shoes, or hairstyles.


o Friday, October 19, 6:10pm –I have experienced more flag displaying and waving, and more singing of patriotic hymns and marches in just two months here than I do in two years in the US. And I thought Americans were so overtly nationalistic . . .

Well, maybe we are, in different ways. For now, I’m fine using chopsticks in place of a fork. Sometimes, it just makes more sense.


Friday, September 21, 2012

Precisely Where I Am

Dear Friends,

When people from home think of where I am the thought is “China”. China is a big thought. Most people I know have never been here. They know it as the most populous country in the world. They think of it as a communist country where the people are controlled by a powerful central authority. From watching the Olympics, they know the gold-star studded red flag. The Chinese language is either an impenetrable set of thousands of written characters or something to mock verbally. They know the Great Wall, Chinese food, and maybe they have heard of Mao or Tiananmen Square.

Really, they don’t have much of an idea of where I am, or of China all together for that matter.

I am in a city named Shenzhen, in southern China, in the province of Guangdong. The climate is subtropical. Heat, humidity, and frequent rain showers or thunderstorms keep plant life lush and one’s skin moist and sticky. But this place is mostly concrete, glass and steel up into the sky or in the form of broad and bustling boulevards. Finance, factories, commercialism and education are the name of the game here. Impressively, this place was nearly all mangrove forest thirty years ago. Now it is considered one the fastest growing megalopolises in the world. Nothing is old here, including hardly any people. 88% of the population is between 15 and 59. In the province most people speak Cantonese, but because Shenzhen is a city of immigrants, the lingua franca is Mandarin, the dominant dialect of mainland China.

I am in a neighborhood called Shekou, in the Nanshan District of Shenzhen, on the western end of town. This district is known for its good schools, including Shenzhen University and where I work, YuCai High School. It’s a bit more suburban feeling that other parts of the metropolis. Streets are tree-lined, the air is good, and it’s near the waterfront, Shenzhen Bay and the port. An hour-long ferry ride once through customs gets you to central Hong Kong.

I am in an apartment on the eighth floor of a 22-story building that occupies one corner of an intersection. I have two balconies that hang above the intersection and Sihai park across the street, which is a welcome respite from the forest of towers that surround most views in this city. In the park I play pick-up soccer with young to middle-aged men on some evenings. There I recently met one of Shenzhen’s immigrant residents, an engineer who came here from the north for a new job. He taught me that San Francisco in Mandarin is called the “Old Golden Hill” (旧金山). It’s the old golden hill because the famous gold rush of the “forty-niners” only lasted so long. We’ll see how long the gold rush lasts here.

I am at 22.496540069580078° N and 113.91957092285156° E if you want to zero in on me with Google Earth. You will see that yes, I am in China, the “Far East”. But there is a lot more for you and I to learn about precisely where I am, and while we are at it, maybe a little bit about where both of us are from.


P.S. Compare this "Precisely Where I Am" entry to my "Precisely Where I Am" entry of 2009, when I was living in Eastern Uganda working on a joint poverty alleviation and rain forest conservation project with Village Enterprise Fund and Jane Goodall Institute. You can find the entry on the lefthand sidebar under Enjoy These Oldies but Goodies > 2009 > April > Precisely Where I Am.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Work and Play in China

Click on this picture to be linked to a Picasa web album of my first few weeks here in Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou, China. The best way to view is as a slideshow. Give yourself at least five seconds per slide to be able to read the captions.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

My Speech at the YCID Opening Ceremony

What follows is the speech I gave at the opening ceremony of the Yucai International Department (YCID) at Yucai High School in Shekou, the neighborhood in the Nanshan District of Shenzhen where I live and work. I am the head of this program on the American side as we collaborate with Chinese administrators and educators to prepare students for applying and then being able to perform well at American universities.

YCID is an experimental program for the public schools here in China. Students who want to study abroad for college ordinarily will attend a private school or be sent to the US for high school at a very high cost ($15,000-$30,000). This program tries to improve on the model by offering it at half the cost, thus making it accessible to not only very wealthy families, by keeping it in the public school system so students' social and family lives are not disrupted, and by giving not only intensive TOEFL and SAT test preparation but discussion-oriented classes that are akin to what students will experience in Western universities.

While the typical Chinese classroom is tracked by ability level and is desks in rows towards a lecturing teacher, YCID includes students of varying English language ability between early intermediate and intermediate and uses discussion circles, group work, projects, expository or creative writing, and other methods that encourage self-expression, creativity, argumentation and innovative thinking as we analyze texts and other media. These ways of thinking are something that many Chinese people appreciate about the West. Many parents hope their children (yes many families have more than one child - more on that in a future post) will be able to attain a degree from a school in the US, UK, Australia or Europe and return to the benefit of their family and Chinese society with the competitive advantage that a more open and clever mind can bring.

Of course, teenagers are teenagers and not all students are highly motivated every day. The program, which ran an initial test semester last school year, saw a 60% on-time homework turn-in rate. At the same time students and YCID are under pressure to be successful. Thus my speech exhorts students to "completely commit" to the learning process and their work in and outside the program to develop their English. In the final analysis, it is their TOEFL and SAT scores that will open doors to American universities or not, and the scores are the main preoccupation of paying parents. In attendance at the ceremony were the forty-five students of the program and some of their parents, YCID staff and school officials.

I read the speech in English and after every sentence or two, Gloria, a YCID assistant, would translate into Mandarin. The format worked well in that it allowed me time to focus on my delivery, though it was saying "Good morning" in Mandarin with the correct intonations that was my main concern going into it. Well, I received quite an ovation for my pronunciation! With that out of the way I was on a more familiar road, aiming to make expectations clear for parents and students and light a bit of a fire underneath them.

Zhou shang hao (Good morning). Welcome honored guests, parents, students, and colleagues. Today we celebrate a second beginning to the international education department at YuCai High School. This second semester is full of promise based on what we have learned from our pioneering leaders, teachers and students in the first semester of this special program.

We thank Superintendent Liu Gen Ping and Interlangua President Elisabeth Montgomery for their visionary leadership. We thank the YCID and Interlangua staff members for their hard work to establish a strong academic foundation and sense of community. And finally we thank the parents and students for their courage to challenge themselves by participating in a new way of learning.

Let me emphasize the necessity of complete commitment to this new way of learning if we are to see students make their dreams reality. The research clearly demonstrates two main factors that lead to high student achievement. The first I will discuss is the quality of the teaching. The second is the commitment of the student to the learning process.

I can assure you that the YCID teachers are hard-working, experienced professionals who are skilled at using the best Chinese and Western teaching practices. They will provide a challenging curriculum that can result in students scoring highly on the TOEFL and SAT tests, and them being prepared to not simply survive but thrive at excellent American universities.

However, the complete commitment of the students is also necessary. As the proverb goes, “Be the first to the field and the last to the couch.” Focus eye contact on students. You must work hard. You must complete all assignments on time. You must take extra time to get help and develop your English outside of class. You must read and write, speak and listen in English as much as possible. English must become your new best friend if you wish to see satisfactory scores.

I know what it takes as a student and an educator to excel at a top university. I received my bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in education from Stanford University. In my career as an educator I have helped many students to achieve their dreams. So please trust me when I say that the staff of YCID can provide a path to success, but the student must walk with purpose and commitment every step of the way.

At the end of this path is the opportunity for dreams to become reality. So let me leave you with this: “Are you just a dreamer or are you willing to work especially hard to make your dreams reality?” Decide now. The first step on the path is Monday.

Shyeh, shyeh (Thank you).

I welcome any comments or question about this speech. As an American educator with a social justice oriented philosophy, it was an interesting experience, not without some moral considerations, for me to write a speech in a very different cultural and educational context. If I can get a hold of the video and/or pictures I will post that as well.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

China Version

There is a China version of everything.

At least, that is my impression after my first two days (and a week-long visit earlier in the year) here in Shenzhen, the newly fabricated city of some 10-15 million people that was a mere fishing village in 1979 when it became China's first Special Economic Zone. This massive mainland sister city to Hong Kong is where a lot of "Made in China" happens, but it is also the epitome of how modern China is made. Here there is McDonald's, KFC, and Starbucks (just as frequently as they appear in a major American city), but there is also the Chinese version of McDonald's, KFC, and Starbucks. Oversized pictures of chicken sandwiches at bus stops catch the eye and one's curiosity: Does it taste the same? I've yet to try.

Perhaps more interestingly is that one might expect to find a Chinese version of her or himself here. This is not necessarily to say you will meet your Chinese doppelgänger if you make a visit to The Middle Kingdom, though I would not rule it out - it's true that there are a heck of a lot of people here. But it is to say you will undoubtedly reflect on who you are, like travel out of one's home culture typically impels, and China being "the other side of the world" to which my childhood friends and I aspired to dig a hole through the Earth to reach, is a good place for a lot of tests of one's personality, imagination, and ways of living.

Of course, short-term travel to a place is quite a different experience than living and working somewhere else. Over the next nearly six months I will be living and working here. I have spent similar stints of time living and working in the Czech Republic (2002-2003), Middle and South America (2008) and East Africa (2009, see previous blog entries). At the start I know few words of Mandarin. This makes the experience even more internal and primal than in other places where verbal communication opened doors more easily. I rely on universal gestures, lots of smiling, deference, courage (to overcome my natural tendency towards shyness and avoidance of potentially embarrassing situations), and looking for similarities more than differences. I use the internet, maps, a compass or the sun to plan routes to food, toilet paper, or baseball. Yes, I have already found the Chinese version of baseball and ingratiated myself to the team. Come watch us play next weekend in Hong Kong.

To be able to join a sports team for a season of play is just one example of how an extended stay in a foreign country that includes work allows for some grounding. A sense of new life emerges as you develop daily routines, delve deeply into the work, make new friends, learn the language, and become familiar with your local community. You can start to have the thought "This is my existence. I live here. I work here. I have friends here. I find meaning here." I had this experience especially so in East Africa, and it brings a sense of triumph. The world becomes smaller, less intimidating, and etched into your psyche is the confidence that you may be able to not just survive but thrive anywhere you go.

In the end however, it is never fully true that your being completely transmutes as long as you are also from somewhere else. Where you are from, your old friends and family, and your desire for Mexican food still exist as part of you. What to do about these important considerations becomes a dynamic of your new life. I recommend avoiding a full-blown identity crisis, which can occur if you don't accept that your burrito cravings won't so soon be fulfilled, and instead to settle into the European or American or Chinese version of yourself. Who knows, you might taste just as good.