I’ve previously quoted the maxim from the New School’s “Cross-Cultural Communication” class that in living abroad, “seven or eight small hassles add up to one big hassle.”  Today’s are the very loud, piercing doorbell that wouldn’t stop ringing – after an hour I pulled out two wires to solve the problem, permanently – and the fact that the antiquated computer in my apartment seems to be slowly dying. It can still call up The New York Times’  home page, but any attempt to read an actual story stops dead – which at least gives me an excuse for not keeping up with The Times. As hassles here go, these are barely worth mentioning.

                Similarly, it’s the small cultural differences that add up to the bigger picture, like pixels on a computer screen or the pointillist dots in a Seurat painting. At least twice now, these mini-revelations have come over lunch.

                A few weeks ago, I went out to the back street behind the Foreign Studies Building with Jane, one of the juniors in my Thursday lab class, for fried rice made fresh while you wait. As we sat on a bench under a tree, eating our rice and having what I thought was a normal lunchtime conversation, she abruptly asked, “Do you always talk when you eat?”  For  a moment I stopped talking or chewing; had been talking with my mouth full? No, she meant, do I always keep the conversation flowing during a meal? Well, doesn’t everybody? Not the Chinese, apparently. Jane’s idea of having lunch together meant sitting side by side and eating our lunches, enjoying the sunshine, the food and the company in silence. I had never really thought about it, but I told her that Americans – especially motormouth New Yorkers – tend to feel we’re somehow letting the other person down if a moment of silence, even so much as a pause, drops into any conversation. Which may explain why we talk so much small talk (the topic of a future class with my postgraduates), and may answer one student’s question: “Why do the foreign teachers talk so much about the weather?” We want to predict the weather, analyze it, plan for it. The Chinese just carry umbrellas at all times. (Jane and I have had lunch again, and this time she was the one keeping up the conversation, while I was enthralled by a Chinese cat cartoon on the canteen’s TV.)

                Today my Monday lunch with the other teachers fell through.  There was a light drizzle, so after a run to the back street for fried rice and a quarter-pineapple on a stick, stepping ever so gingerly over the mud, I took my lunch back to my classroom, blissfully unoccupied for the next two hours. “Alone at last!” I thought. (Never mind that I had spent most of the weekend alone in my apartment, and a most productive weekend it was.) Before I could read one column of The New Yorker – my equivalent of a lunchtime nap – one of my afternoon students came in, carrying her own lunch.  “Diane! Why are you here so early?” Ellen asked. I explained, and she said, “So! We can have our lunch together.” And then, in a classroom with 40 empty seats, she sat down in the one right next to me. Americans like to spread out, and an American student probably would have kept a certain distance from a professor. But the Chinese need to be as close to one another as possible at all times. In the beginning I thought it was the large classes or the lack of heat in the classrooms that made them huddle together, six or seven to a row.  Today, even in a class of 19 rather than 32, they all huddled in the center section, leaving the sides empty. Our culture is individualistic, theirs relentlessly communal. They can’t believe I’m going off to Shanghai and Expo 2010 for five days, all alone, and far less that I’m happy about it.

                What Ellen cost me in reading time she more than made up in insight. I asked her what she wanted to do with her English, and she said that – unlike many of her classmates majoring in Teaching Chinese to Foreigners, she really does want to teach Chinese language and culture. She admitted, though, that she was a little confused, specifically the value of her education here. “Before I came here, I heard that this university is like a high school,” she said. “And it is.” I agreed. It was the first time I had heard anyone, let alone an undergraduate, put my own misgivings – about the students’ naivete and sometimes immaturity, about the level of instruction they seem to expect – into words. They remind me of my own days at a university as oversized as this one, where nothing was so important as football.

                Then I told her how mystified I was by my Friday night class, “Cultural Backgrounds of English-Speaking Countries.” What little direction I had from the university – namely, a textbook handed to me – gave me the impression that I was to cover history, politics and culture. The lecture notes I later found on my apartment computer suggested that the previous teacher had closely followed the book. My students are having none of that. They constantly talk and text in class; they have no interest in history; they want activities and entertainment. The most successful class to date was last week’s, when I showed a DVD of site-specific dances commissioned for national parks, thereby killing two requested birds  – scenery and entertainment – with one stone.  “I can’t understand it,” I told Ellen. “This is an elective, and I know they’ve paid extra to take it, but they don’t seem to want to learn anything or do any work.” Ellen nodded. She could tell me exactly how much they had paid, but they weren’t paying to learn; they were paying for a line that would look good on their transcripts. “They want an extra certification,” she explained. But earn it? As we say in New York, fuhgeddaboudit.

                I was an undergraduate once, and I know the importance of that extra line on your transcript or resume; maybe our cultures aren’t so different after all. But the “Cultural Backgrounds” class may be in for a shock come Friday night.  One of the tasks I accomplished during that productive weekend alone in my apartment was writing their first take-home exam. There’s only one question they can answer from that DVD. The rest is going to take some work, and, like Mrs. Hartz in fourth grade, I mark hard.

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