A Travellerspoint blog

We wish you a merry...what?

In which China decks the imported plastic halls with boughs of botanically unrealistic fake holly.

2 °C

The Santa Head Holiday is in full swing here. The halls (literally) are decked (literally) with all manner of "Christmas" decorations. "My" room (the room that belongs to class 6 in which I teach three periods per day) has been papered in green and red stripes, has sparkley snowflakes hanging from the ceiling (in front of the projector!), a big fake Christmas tree, tinsel, ornaments, ribbons and bows. One class has plastered their door in fuzzy cottony stuff. Snow perhaps? It looks as if a gale force wind blew lots of white bunnies against the door! One class has a winter scene on their bulletin board which reads, "Eat more, drink more, be merry." I asked the artists, "Drink more what?" "Water and milk!" one girl replied. Ah, good answer, especially in light of the recent slew of kids in trouble for drinking beer! The school has erected a giant tree shape made of white and red lights in the center of campus, and lots and lots of fake Christmas trees in the IB building. Every door from here to my apartment has a poster of Santa's head, proclaiming "X-Mas Merry!" In fact, every shop window from here to Beijing has some such Santa Head. Students are passing out Christmas cards to their foreign teachers (Aaron got one with the MOST evil looking reindeer on it...), giving Christmas gifts and thinking of new and bizarre ways to clutter up the classrooms. One class installed a rotating projector thing that shines a rainbow-y rotating light pattern on the floor, just outside their door. Disco. How...joyous. The supermarket in town sells not just a few Christmas decorations, but LOTS of them: many makes and models of fake trees, decorations, Santas that sing, and a wide variety of Santa head posters. You are encouraged to buy these as you listen to "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer" in English and Chinese.

I thought I was used to commercialism. I've lived through enough American Christmases to understand what a money-making, commercialized holiday it has become. However, the Chinese Santa Head Holiday elevates this to an entirely new level. My frustration may be rooted in the theft of a Christian holiday by a traditionally atheistic country. And not just the theft...hijacking Christmas would be fine with me if they also took in the Christ-was-born-and-then-went-on-to-save-us-from-our-sins part. But unfortunately, the aspect of American culture that actually makes it across the Pacific to this country is the commercialized, packaged, for-sale, will-make-you-cool-with-your-friends pop culture. To most Chinese, Christmas is the Western "Winter Festival." A celebration of some season or arbitrary day. "Why are you all celebrating Christmas?" "It's a fun festival-Santa brings presents!" It's just what you do when you're a Chinese citizen of the world (with motherland heart, of course).

I suppose I could raise this argument against any non-Christian Westerner who celebrate Christmas for it's cultural significance, for its representation of peace, love and family, out of tradition. But in China, it seems much more blatant: it stems neither from religion nor tradition. It comes from Hollywood, from commercialism, from ridiculous interest, nay, craze for all things Western.

I'd love to see a light-up plastic nativity scene on someone's lawn, hear a high school choir singing real Christmas hymns, even see a Salvation Army worker ringing their arm off. What I'd really love is to be with my family, spending time together cooking and eating and talking, smelling a real Christmas tree, and going to a late Christmas Eve service where I'd melt my candle to my hand and watch children narrowly avoid lighting their grandmother's volatile hair on fire while Silent Night was sung by candle light...

Merry Santa Head, everyone!

Posted by ucpegasus 00:22 Archived in China Comments (1)


In which success comes at the cost of integrity.

4 °C

Our first lab report final draft (typed and properly formatted) was finally due last week in Chemistry class. This was quite a process: we learned about, then wrote, the paper section by section (at least five days’ worth of class), then peer edited (disastrous, but was worth a try), rewrote, turned in for my edits, and then rewrote a second time. It went on forever (I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks so!) Much to my dismay, there were four pairs of final lab reports that were identical in some way. Not totally, beginning to end copies, but enough so that I recognized many parts as not being unique. In one case, it was the strange use of a dash that made me think, “Gee, I’ve seen this before!”

I wrestled with myself long and hard over what to do. Steve made his lab report copiers come in one evening and rewrite the stolen sections from memory. With eight students to place in isolation, I was less than enthused about the prospect of spending at least two nights staring at students as they stared at blank sheets of paper before them. I pondered the merits of assigning zeros. I wished I could hand them a failing grade for the class. I thought of doing absolutely nothing. I was encouraged by one colleague to yell at the students individually, and to make them cry. I considered assigning an essay entitled “Why cheating will most certainly ruin my life” or some such, but then I realized it most likely would not. I briefly imagined an assignment that required a student to write the line “I will never plagiarize ever again.” at least 1000 times. And then I wondered why the dunce cap is no longer in use.

Cheating in China. Google that, and you’ll find a range of articles, studies and opinions. It is prevalent at my school and, from what I’ve read, all over the country in high schools and universities. In a country of 1.3 billion people (that’s 1,300,000,000 people, by the way; over 2 billion elbows, as the Lonely Planet says), competition is fierce. If you have a skill, you can bet that there’s someone else out there who can perform that same skill better than you. There are a limited number of opportunities: for jobs, college enrollment, enrollment at private high schools and at the better public schools. And there’s an unlimited supply of pressure from parents, grandparents, the community, society, teachers, and the world. Entry into high school is determined by one grade from one end-of-course exam in middle school (during 9th grade). A better score allows a students admission into a better public school. Parents with a good deal of money (let’s say, $12,000 USD per year) have more options (such as my school where a low middle school test score won’t necessarily bar a student from admission).

College admission is based upon a single test taken during the eleventh grade. The list of universities to which a student is allowed to apply is determined by this test score. The higher the score, the larger the pool of options. Once in university, the majors available to a student are also determined by that test. The university at which Aaron works is the third-ranked law university in Beijing. Students must have a pretty good high school test score for admission into the university, but could be required to major in something other than law (English, for example) with a test score on the lower end of the admission range. All this: high pressure!

So, back to the cheating. It’s rampant. Crib notes, stealing tests, hiding books and cell phones under desks, using one’s seatmate as a resource, talking about a test or quiz to students who will be taking it later in the day, copying data, graphs and entire sections of lab reports. And that’s just what I’ve personally seen so far. Getting ahead in any possible way clearly trumps the ideals of ethical academic behavior.

Do they know it’s wrong? I’m not quite sure. It’s quite clear to the students that they MUST SUCCEED. That’s all they hear day in and day out. But I’m fairly positive that they rarely hear about honor, ethics, and personal integrity.

I can’t fail a student, even if they honestly perform miserably in class, or don’t attend at all. All tenth graders here move on to grade 11, whether I like it or not. There’s no honor code, and the general response from head teachers and the administration, regarding absolutely every obnoxious, naughty or wrong thing a student does is, “Oh, give him another chance!” I’ve realized that I can’t change the administration or the culture of this school and definitely not the culture of China. But I do have some modicum of control over my 100 chemistry students.

I printed copies of the honor code from an IB high school in the United States (giving credit where it is due, of course). My little copying students were given copies of this honor code, as well as their lab report scores from which I had subtracted any points they may have gained from the copied sections. The eight students and I will be meeting next Wednesday evening (during “TV/Activity” time) to discuss the idea of an honor code and whether or not this school should implement one.

I’m hoping that giving them an education on the topic, rather than just a meaningless failing grade, may help to shape how they think when doing their homework, writing a paper or taking a test. Stay tuned.

Posted by ucpegasus 00:37 Archived in China Comments (0)

Peaceful Friday Afternoon

In which life is calm and quiet.

8 °C

It's been quiet here lately. I've been reading stacks of lab reports (of enormously varying quality!) and Aaron has been reading stacks of essays and mid-term exams (quality slightly less variable). It's cold. We've eaten some good food, and some mediocre food. Last night, we made pizza and apple crisp for the gentlemen who also inhabit "The Dungeon" (the hall furthest from the door in our labyrinthine apartment building). It was Aaron's first foray into hand-made yeast pizza dough. As I tend to be overbearing and meddling in the kitchen, I was told to go back to work. And when I returned, there was a happy and huge ball of dough merrily rising in the bathroom. We rise dough in the bathroom; it has the warmest floor of any place in our apartment. The pizza (chicken or ham, all with onions, peppers, tomatoes, and cheese) was excellent.

Tomorrow, we are heading into Beijing to meet Lichuan and Xufeng and to see Handel's Messiah performed by a group of musicians with various international backgrounds. I'm very much looking forward to it!

I am in possession of a staff ID card, a library card, a "gold card" to make on-campus purchases, a key card for access to my building, and, most recently, a bicycle ID card. I suppose I shouldn't complain about this school's card-obsessed bureaucracy: the one card that hasn't seen the light of day since moving to China is my credit card!

Posted by ucpegasus 00:19 Archived in China Comments (0)


In which I learn as much as my students every day. Can I get my IB diploma if I study really hard?!

8 °C

Tonight, Aaron and I made this recipe: http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Pumpkin-Rolls-II/Detail.aspx for pumpkin rolls, which are a yeast bread (featuring the yeast sent by my awesome mommy!!) with pumpkin puree (which we made by microwaving pumpkins until they were good and dead) and half whole wheat flour. I was worried, because the inside of the pumpkins were more green than orange, and yielded a puce puree. However, the rolls came out on the orangy side of brown, rose high, and are rich and delicious. I couldn't even imagine putting anything on them, they are so delicious all alone. I may be deprived of good yeast breads, but these are quite yummy, and I recommend them!

Today, three of my students told me that they chose to study chemistry just because of me, because I am a great teacher, otherwise they'd be taking biology. Awww. And another student asked me a chemistry question that I couldn't answer, which is a daily occurence. Maybe I'm a good teacher, but I'm not so awesome at chemistry!! I suppose that's one dilemma occuring in the US: which is preferential: great teachers without advanced degrees in their subject matter, or so-so teachers who have advanced degrees or professional experience in that area? I'd rather learn from the great teacher any day. In fact, I'm a better teacher of chemistry than biology, because chemistry is not at all intuitive or easy for me. Neither is math. Very often, my students come up with more efficient ways to answer problems, or ask in-depth questions that I had never considered. I feel dumb...but I suppose I'm paid to be a leader, not a know-it-all.

So why can the water of hydration be evaporated by heating a hydrate if the water is chemically bonded to the compound, and evaporation is a physical change, not a chemical change?! Seriously, I do not know.

Posted by ucpegasus 05:10 Archived in China Comments (0)


In which I totally forgot to actually post this entry!!

9 °C

Thanksgiving: a time for family, old favorite recipes, and trafficky roads. Or, for gathering with 31 of one's wierd colleagues for a potluck dinner served on a pingpong table.

I was worried. I organized this potluck and I feared that we'd have bad food, not enough food, only beer, or a poor turnout. Instead, 32 of us cozied up to the sheet-covered pingpong table to enjoy two kinds of mashed potates, chicken, lamb, curry, beef, vegetables, fruit salad in a watermelon bowl, Chinese dishes, cookies, cake and a made from scratch pumpkin pie. It was marvelous and delicious. After dinner, we went around the table and each said something we were thankful for. Actually, we're all teachers, so each person gave a little heartfelt oration. And then we all applauded. It was a lovely night, if a bit non-traditional. For some people, Thursday was their first Thanksgiving. For one British girl, it was her second, neither of which she celebrated in the US!

My family called at six am the next morning. I was not wide awake, but it was so very nice to say hi to everyone, one by one as the phone was passed around. I could almost taste the yummy-scruptious rolls. Mom sent a wonderful box of Thanksgiving, that arrived the day before, containing herbs and spices, yeast, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie filling, stuffing mix, maple syrup, barley and long warm socks. I'm sure such a care package had never before been assembled. Also, the post office will be sorry they ever invented the flat rate box!!

Today, Aaron and I went back into Beijing to do a little more Christmas shopping, and to meet our friend Lichuan. She is applying for a teaching assistant position in Harvard's Chinese department, and wanted some editing help for her resume and cover letter. After a late lunch, we settled in with some expensive coffee at Starbucks and edited away for far longer than I expected. The results were excellent (and we hope she gets the job!!), but we missed the last bus back to Changping. We arranged a taxi with two other people, to get the best price possible. I ended up in the middle of the back seat with Aaron on my left, and a very, very drunk university student on my right. Seconds after we settled in for the 45 minute ride, he laid his head on my shoulder, and rested his hand on my arm, and drifted off to sleep...

Posted by ucpegasus 08:18 Archived in China Comments (0)

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