A New Year In China

By Dan Willmore

In certain ancient lands there is a proverb which says "The fish has no word for water." It means that we can see the little things well enough, but we cannot understand our fundamental beliefs and biases until we get a chance to see them from outside. Going through college I was immersed in the Socratic method like a fish, so that it never occurred to me that there was anything odd about seeing a teacher sit on a desk, or ask a roomful of students "So, what do we think about that?" Then, in the nineties, I went to teach English in the People's Republic of China.

I learned everything the hard way. In my very first class I walked into the classroom, read the textbook out loud to the students, and then asked them if they had any questions. Sixty eyes looked at me in frozen consternation. Finally one of the students asked me "What should we say?"

Later I found that most of the students considered me a complete amateur at best, and more like a fool. Fortunately, my dean was a hearty fellow in his sixties who had dealt with young Americans before, and he understood the situation at once. As soon as the class was gone he took me aside and said "Chinese teaching is not like Western teaching! Here, students do not ask questions. Instead, the teacher should Stuff Duck!" According to him, the job of the instructor was to force knowledge into his student, piece by piece, like a Frenchman jamming kernels of corn down the gullet of a goose who wanted to stay thin. My dean nodded firmly and said "Chinese students can no learn any other way!"

The students considered me a complete amateur at best, and more like a fool.

As you would expect, that was a lot for me to swallow, and I never bought it completely. Oh, I learned how to organize my classes better, of course; I also realized that my students had learned English from books, so they could easily read words that they could not understand in spoken English. Therefore, I started talking loud and slow, as if each word were a fish that I was tossing to a roomful of seals; and I learned to write the longer nouns on the board as I said them. Nonetheless, I was not just there to teach grammar or even history, I was there to teach speaking, and speaking involves a lot more than listening. As another professor told me "We need them to speak! How can we get them to open their mouths?"

The problem was "face", but "face" is a difficult concept for Westerners to grasp. In English we sometimes translate it as "image", like the glamour of an actor or a performer, and sometimes we read it as "credibility", like the reputation of a leader or scientist, who needs to be right consistently; but neither of those terms really captures the power that "face"' has over the Chinese spirit. The Chinese find it hard to speak in public because they are afraid that they will make some kind of mistake, or offend someone, and that their words will be used to destroy their position in society. Then, when the Chinese are asked to speak in a language that they barely know in front of a stranger who might imagine a thousand strange things, the Chinese just freeze up. Many people summarize this by saying, simply, that the Chinese are shy, and the world seemed to fit, but calling someone shy is easier than getting him to speak.

There were only about a dozen foreign teachers in town, and I knew most of them. At odd occasions we would get together and share our frustrations. Most of the others were missionaries, and they had been trained by their churches to avoid trouble, so they stuck to topics which were uplifting and harmless, such as dogs who pull children out of floods. These teachers always got the respect of their students, who were used to cardboard speeches in Communist 'political study' sessions anyway, but the students did not learn much, and they usually said that going to the teacher's lectures was like 'listening to a Hindu prayer.' Other teachers extended themselves further, and tried to charm or dazzle the students, putting more and more energy into their teaching, like game show hosts, until they were throwing out so many jokes, speeches, and intimate confessions that the students were baffled, and sat there staring like thirty little sphinxes. The students would say "He teaches with all his force!" but they did not learn much.

I had little experience and I had no training, and maybe that saved me. I went to China expecting to talk about freedom and science and maybe a little Tibet; and I found two things that none of the other teachers seemed to expect. First, the students stopped being shy as soon as they got angry, or even just excited; second, the students tended to forgive our disagreements simply because they could tell that I meant what I said. Instead of avoiding trouble, I looked for it, and I especially preferred topics which would get the students arguing with each other.

I preferred topics which would get the students arguing with each other.

Of course, some classes were easier than others. In the afternoon I would teach Class Five. The students of Class Five were adults who had been sent over from the Provincial Chemistry Department, which meant that they were already too old to learn language easily, and their talents were more spatial than linguistic anyway. As the weeks passed I could sense their frustration, like the smell of frying wires. Nonetheless, I tried every topic that I knew, from 'What Country Would You Like To Visit?' to 'Could A Woman Be The President Of China?' Sometimes they responded, and sometimes they did not, and that first semester felt like chopping wood.

Paper cut of the Lion Dance

At last the Western Christmas came and passed, and the Chinese Lunar New Year approached. The Chinese were decorating the entire town with pictures of a huge, shaggy animal, red and white and smiling, and a child in ancient dress, who appeared to be training him. I knew the image was important in Chinese society, because I had seen it in California and in books, but I did not understand the symbolism at all. Fortunately, I knew where to ask. I bought a postcard with that design and carried it into Class Five. "What are these posters?" I said.

Class Five immediately became excited. They said "Is New Year! Year is a new baby!" The child was the new year itself, a direct symbol of the year to come. We use a symbol like that in the Western new year, though it may not be as important.

Next I asked about the fireworks. The shops were stacked with firecrackers and Roman candles, and retired people were selling them in stalls by the street. I figured that there was enough ordnance in the town to level it. Why did they have so many fireworks?

Like everything else in China's spiritual world, it involved luck. The students said "The year is a new baby, so it can't protect itself. The spirit of the year is helpless! So the Animal Gods attack. They want to own the year -- but they see the fire, and that frighten them!"

The students told me that "The spirit of the year is a baby -- so the Animal Gods attack!"

Alright -- I understood that now. And the animal?

They said the animal was a lion. That connected with a lot of things for me, because I had seen films of people dressed up in lion costumes, dancing in front of arches and businesses. What was the deal with the Lion Dance?

"The Lion is the best!" my students told me. In the East as in the West, the Lion is the King of Beasts, and can command the other animals, the way a good Buddhist is supposed to be able to control his personal greed, fear, and lust -- his animal impulses. That is why the Lion is the symbol of Buddhist nations such as Tibet, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka, which have not seen a lion since the ice age; and that is why the Lion Dance can frighten the Animal Gods away from the fledgling year "So the year can be lucky!"

The semester ended and the students went home for the break. If they were married, they would visit their relatives. First, each couple would spend an evening with the parents of the husband, and then the next evening they would visit the family of the wife, according to a schedule that was the same across the country. Everybody would send postcards, often several dozen. Some cards had lions and children, like the ones I had seen, and others showed more modern designs, such as flowers and trees, or even a woman's foot stepping through a brightly lit pool of water. If they were sending the cards to youngsters in their family, the envelopes were supposed to include 'lucky money,' sums which were often equal to a week's income. Many students considered this the best time of the year.

For me, however, it was less cheerful, because most of the people who could speak English had left the campus. On the big night I got on my bike and went out the gate. Cars were still rare in China, so most people rode bicycles, rugged one-speeds from brands like 'Wonderful' and 'Golden Deer.' Back then I had a 'Flying Pigeon' which I called 'The Green Goat.' I cycled up the main street, past donkey carts and the occasional pedestrian. The windows of the houses were lit up like something from 'A Christmas Carol,' while the white limbs of the sycamores hung outside them like a rack of bones.

I bought a bundle of little rockets from a vendor in the street, and sat down on a bench to try one out. I have never smoked, so I was bad with matches, and I went through a dozen before I got one of the rockets lit. Then the rocket stepped about twenty feet in the sky and went 'poof', before it fell down like a broken bulb, or a burned out starting coil. Despite the new environment, the rocket had worked exactly like bottle rockets do in America -- going up, falling down, and fizzling. I tried to figure out why I did not feel excited, and why the rockets cost so much. Whatever I was supposed to be doing, I was not doing it, and I felt a little bit foolish.

Now I figured I should visit one of the other teachers. I parked my bike at a rack and carried my rockets in a sack, but I left a roman candle in the basket, simply because carrying it to his door would look odd. I went up the stair well and knocked a few times, but no one was home, so I went back to my bike; but when I got there, I noticed that the basket was empty, and my candle was gone.

Three doors down, however, I saw a child walking. He looked to be about two years old, and the night was cold, so his parents had dressed him pretty thick, and he seemed to be ambling like a bear. The child also had a Roman candle in his hand. I suddenly realized that his fire-stick was the same color that mine had been.

I stared at the kid a while, looking for further identifying marks, until his parents woke up. They were walking behind him and seemed embarrassed, so they took the munitions out of his hand and gave it to me. What could I say? The child was almost too young to move his face, so I looked at him for a moment, and then I gave the candle back.

He received it with the same blank expression that he had worn before. His parents, however, were doubly embarrassed. They handed the stick back to me and waved me away. Then the mother kneeled by the child, and the father hung over him, shaking their fingers. The scene could have been a picture, and indeed, they were making a picture for me. The problem had occurred because the parents had let the child make a theft he was too young to understand, but now they had decided to save face by rebuking him soundly.

The combination of isolation and spectacle were having odd effects on me. I felt, somehow, like I was thirteen again, and not in a good way. I continued cycling up the street. Every tree or shop front in the center of the city was wrapped in strings of fairy lights, and I could almost imagine that a galaxy had started leaking like a blimp, and settled over the street.

Above me stood the 'International' Hotel. Officially, the purpose of the International Hotel was to obtain foreign exchange. In reality, very few tourists or foreign executives actually stayed there. Instead, most of the people who checked in were local businessmen, who preferred its luxurious interior to the Spartan quarters they were supposed to be occupying. Now the black suits and their ladies were crowding the balconies, and firing enough Roman candles to cook all the steel in Harbin. I rode through a sheet of sparks.

I rode through a sheet of sparks.

Unfortunately, none of these people spoke English. I turned back and rode past the cafes. I heard the crash of glass, and saw a worker stomping a bottle in the street. I had been watching for this, because I understood the symbolism. 'Xiao' is a common Chinese word, and it means 'Little', so it is often put in front of names, while the word 'Ping' is also common, and it means 'Bottle.' At the time China was ruled by an old man named Deng Xiao Ping, "Little Bottle Deng," and the people often called him 'Little Bottle.' Naturally the students at Tiananmen had carried bottles tied to broomsticks, and they had walked along, holding up the sticks so that each footfall made the bottle beat against the stick, 'beating the little bottle', as a way of showing their resistance. The students at Tiananmen had been massacred, of course, and most of the Chinese were silent with fear, while expecting that somebody, somewhere, would do something about the massacre. On New Year's night I saw several people crushing bottles in the street, and we were all looking at each other, to see who would start it; but the bright and deadly chunks never reached critical mass.

I turned back through town and reached the gate of the school where I was working. Most of the students had left the city, and I did not expect to see any of them, but I did meet someone going through the turnstile they had there. "I had your class about Rome," she said " but I am always too shy to talk to foreigners!"

Well, she was talking to one now, and I looked at her carefully. Her cheeks were high and her eyes were flat, even more so than most Chinese. Her nose was small, almost like a button, and she was petite, even by Chinese standards. She seemed quick and energetic, and at times she would cover her face as if she were losing her breath, or she would laugh bashfully.

Her name was Mai Lin. Mai Lin told me that she worked as a nurse, and her hospital had sent her to this school to learn English. She also said that she was good at ballroom dancing and singing karaoke, and she liked to make her own clothes. Over the next couple of months Mai Lin taught me a lot about Chinese customs.

Copyright 2003 Dan Willmore

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