Can I Throw Stones from a Glass House?

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December 8th 2012
Published: December 8th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

My most recent class, and by far my best, dealt with an advertisement the Chinese Propaganda Ministry is running in Times Square. 300 times a day. $400,000 a month. For six years. (Look it up on Youtube.) The textbook topic was TV and advertising. I showed two videos (in Chinese with English subtitles): the first simply talking about the ad (which shows only Chinese people)--scientists, athletes, scholars, supermodels, astronauts, designers, artists, the wealthy, and the ordinary; the second showing dissident (a word harboring no heat literally) opinion that it is a whitewash so dissonant with actuality that it will raise only further negative thoughts, and that not only does it not portray true Chinese spirit, but such an ad should not be used in an attempt to cover up the human rights abuses and government obfuscations which take place in China. I froze the video on numerous occasions to ask the students if they recognized these people who the Chinese government wanted America to know. They didn't recognize about as many as they did. To the best of my ability, I talked about and acrobatically encouraged discussion about the videos, while declining to assertively opine, asking for their feedback (minimal; don't forget the LOW level of their English) and a written response to prompts to be delivered in the next class.

This was the first time (I'm working my way up a learning curve, here) I had assigned a task that did not afford them the possibility of getting online and copying and pasting a response ("What country have you dreamed of going to and why" did, for example. For that assignment students merely downloaded text and photos about top sights and butchered it out loud, having NO idea what they were saying. OR, used their phones to word-for-word translate found Chinese, rendering them totally unintelligible). I insisted I wanted their own thoughts this time; their own words. Dong bu dong (do you understand?). Dong (yes), they assured me. I stressed that there was no right or wrong answer, and that it was their opinions I was interested in.

I must say, they mostly rose to the occasion, even if it was only with 3-4 sentences; often more. Some of them missed the mark entirely, thinking the ad must be devised to get foreigners to visit China or to buy more Chinese products (why ever else?), even though I had stressed that the product China was selling was itself (unlike the impersonal shoes, cameras or services--Nike, Kodak, and the Bank of America--keeping it company in the heart of the Big Apple). A shocking number (at least half) used the exact same phrases (embedded in their otherwise very broken English) to explain what China needs to show the world: China is getting stronger and stronger, China is a developing country, China is getting rich, China has some problems which it is making an effort to solve, China is a country with a long history, China is a family think more about the family than about themselves, I love my Motherland. Fair enough, but I found the chorus--not the statements--alarming. Not a word out of lock-step.

Some thought it was a waste of money, saying that it might have been used better (a notion I admit to delicately planting) in China on rural schooling, roads and hungry and poor people in the western part of the country. Some thought it wasn't completely truthful or representative (yes, yes, vocabulary in my prompts. Am I guilty of asking leading questions? Maybe a little...but I really do try to neutralize them.)

Coincidentally, two Chinese English teachers visited my classes this week. One said it was "fantastic". The other said it was "fascinating to watch how I tried to make them think for themselves," and wants to attend more to learn how I do it. I think I feel gratified...

To follow up, I asked them to tell me what they think are general conceptions Chinese have about America and Americans, and vice versa. To the former: strong, rich, open, responsible government, bellicose (my interpretation) free, clean, advanced technology, beautiful girls, fashionable, outgoing, rude and polite. To the latter: polluted, poor, rich, strong, developing, irresponsible government, friendly, honest, thin, hardworking, warmhearted, rude and polite. One student asked me what I thought personally. I erased friendly and honest from the list, explaining that the government was not generally perceived as friendly, nor business people as my opinion.

Some got carried away with their own perceptions of themselves, I think, not quite understanding what I wanted. After the third mention of Mo Yan, this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, I reminded them that China had another laureate. I wrote on the board: Liu Xiaobo. Nobel Peace Prize 2010. In jail for promoting democracy and the rule of law. No one had heard of him. I erased the board. I don't know who has the classroom after I do.


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