Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Nanning is the most American city I've ever been to. It has a sky line and some sky skrapers, it follows the "cars first!" approach, it has KFC, McDonald's, Starbucks and Pizza Hut - and a WAL-MART SUPERSTORE. (I had been to a KFC in Prague before and I also had been to a WAL-MART in Moscow, but that wasn't a SUPERSTORE.)
When I had agreed to the contract, I had not been aware of what it really means to teach in China. (That's natural. You simply can't imagine what it means to teach in China until you enter the classroom and find yourself in front of more than 100 eyes filled with a mixture of fear and fascination.) But apart from that, I also had no idea that I would be considered a representative of what the Chinese refer to as the "western world". And in Nanning, "western world" equals - the USA. So there I was with my zero first-hand USA experience, but sophisticated knowledge about the dissolution of the monasteries in mediaeval England and Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar".
But hey, no problem. I enabled my Richard-Ford mode and off it went. The first thing was to get rid of my German name, since "Marian" is as inconvenient for China as it is for the U.S. (even my classmates nicknamed me "Lady Marian"), and I wasn't too unhappy to be called "Mark".
My junior grades did everything they could to help me. There was a TV set in the class room, and when I entered, they were going like: "Watch NBA! Watch NBA!" (On our last day, I gave in and let them watch the Houston Rockets with former "rookie of the year" Yao Ming). When I asked them about their favorite food, they replied in no time with a broad, longing smile: "HAMBURGERS!"
And then there were the books I was provided with. As far as I can tell, they were 100% original US style, as for content and teaching methods. So I taught them "How to make a banana smoothie", "How do you get to school", "Never give up" (a lengthy piece about Thomas Alva Edison), "What friends are for" etc. All the lessons were designed to compare China to the U.S., but the China part usually was a cliché which had hardly anything to do with the living conditions in Nanning (maybe with Shanghai, if anything). One day, we took on mind mapping, which seemed weird to me, because as far as I know, in order to map your mind, you have to make up your own mind in the first place. And Chinese education isn't iconic for teaching junior grades to make up their own minds. Anyway, the mind map in question was about a Chinese student's daily life, like "favorite subjects", "problems", "free time activities" (Wait a minute...free time? What free time?) - and "dreams". And one of the dreams read: LIVING IN AMERICA.
Now, if a German teaching Chinese students to dream of living in the U.S. isn't odd, what is?
And then there were the speech contests, both at school and at university. As a German, I wasn't familiar with speech contests. I'm not sure about the contemporary educational system in Germany, but in the 80's, speech contests were unheard of at German schools. Because "contest" means "competition". And "competetion" is dangerous, for it may frustrate the loser. Or so they said, back in the good old 80's.
But the Chinese didn't care about my personal bio and I suddenly found myself being transformed into an honorable judge.
And on campus, there was the marketing battle "Coca Cola vs. Pepsi". And when Christmas time was ahead, I felt like being in Las Vegas (cum grano salis) - all those blinking-twinkling Christmas trees and the windows decorated with Christmas stuff and university students dressed as Santa Claus'. A few days short to Christmas Eve, I was invited to an expat Christmas thing. Initially, I had hope to get away without Karaoke - but no way, boy. The host, an retired teacher from Kansas (?), handed the mike to me and I performed "Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer" (and "Jingle Bells", of course!) Yonkers!
I was taken aback. What was that all about? Dared I label the whole situation as "cultural imperialism"? (as one Chinese university teacher did) Hm. Then again, what the U.S. actually did was, they promoted themselves - and what is wrong with promoting the own country - and, on a related note, values like freedom and the pursuit of happiness? Did the Americans harm the feelings of the Chinese? Did they damage the Chinese culture? Hardly, I'd say.
Now, when I headed back to Germany, I was on the brink of Pro-americanism. I didn't see it coming, though. Otherwise, I would have cared for counter measures. What made me cross the Rubicon, was my exploration of the U.S. blogosphere. But I'll leave that to the next post.
part I, part III
Sunday, December 11, 2005
One morning, I woke as a pro-American. Now, considering my nationality, you can probably imagine, that I was in serious trouble. I suddenly got an idea of the situation Gregor Samsa from Kafka's novel The Metamorphosis found himself in:
One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. (full text)Pro-american! How low can you get? How could that happen?
In order to answer this questions, I had to investigate my own personal history. This investigation resulted in the following:
I grew up with american TV series like Dynasty, Denver Clan, Hart to Hart and The Fall Guy (my favorite; I didn't hardly miss an episode) etc. Those series didn't coin my views about the U.S., though. I knew that it was only fiction.
I can't hardly blame my teachers at primary and junior high school for becoming a pro-American, either. It was not that they were overly critical on the U.S., but the stuff they taught us was simply too boring to engender any feelings at all: GDP growth, GDP per capita, social structure, class and race, geography. There were only two conclusions, if anything, bothering me about the U.S.: Apparantly, you can't survive without owning a car. And all Americans seem to love fire arms.
As for the political situation in the 80's, there was the Cold War (grumpy old men in Moscow vs. not so grumpy men not so old men in Washington) and the Reagan Administration. Since I didn't like Reagan's approach of fighting communism by supporting the Contras in Nicaragua, this period was probably my most anti-american period of all times. Then again, I tried to distinguish between Reagan's Middle America strategy and the U.S. as a whole. And the Reagonomics appeared to be a successful concept, after all. But I was young, and frankly, I didn't care much about the U.S. at that time.
In my last three years before graduation from high school, I had history and English as majors. If you think, that this must have provided a closer engagement in U.S. affairs, you are wrong. In history, we focused on the social question and the hardships of the working class in the 19th century - and the rise of Nacional Socialism in Germany in the aftermath of WW I. And the English lessons were mainly about the United Kingdom and Shakespeare. I recall one topic we dealt with: "The dissolution of the monasteries in mediaeval England".
After being graduated from high school, I started to study law, and my command of English deteriorated rapidly. Those were the years of the Clinton Administration, the war in former Yugoslavia, Somalia etc. I got annoyed by the soft character of international law and was startled by the fact, that a lot of Germans simultanously accused the U.S. of either engaging too much or not caring enough about world affairs.
And about that period of time, I made my first huge mistake: I took on American literature. Paul Auster's "Music by chance", T.C. Boyle, John Cheever, Philip Roth, John Irving, to name only a few. But the biggest mistake, the mother of all mistakes, was to read "Independence Day" by Richard Ford. [Note to all anti-Americans: Stay away from this book! Don't read it. If you do, provide books by Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky as antidotes. Otherwise it may change your views.] The story of a man, who changes his entire life, moves to another place, chooses a new new profession and starts a new life. This plot is so odd for ordinary Germans! Even fancier for Germans than the plot is the description of Indepence Day as a symbol for american values, as a cornerstone of American identity.
Well, time went by, I gratuated from university and moved from Munich to Berlin to work as a law clerk. New challenges lead to the USA not being part of my personal agenda. And then, there was the bright morning of 9/11. I still can recall the wheather conditions at the very moment the breaking news came in...
I was surfing the internet at that moment. And I kept on surfing the internet for the rest of the day. I simply couldn't move. Since I didn't own a TV set (I hate TV, to put it mildly), I turned on the radio. I sensed the growing tide of fear, anger and disbelief without myself being influenced by any pictures. It soon became pretty obvious to me, that the USA was under attack and that this day would have a deep impact on the identy of the USA and would deeply affect the transatlantic relationship.
A few days later, I attented the demonstration in Berlin to commemorate 9/11. I remember a lot of people, holding "solidarity with the USA"-signs. I remember then-ambassador Dan Coats thanking us for showing our sympathy and expressing our solidarity. I remember fighting back tears during the performance of "Amazing Grace". But one thing I found disturbing: apart from the signs calling for solidarity, there were also posters reading "No war!", and I thought by myself: "Hm. This meeting is supposed to be about mourning and commemorating. It's not an anti-war rally. It's not the right moment to tell the USA once more what to do (or not)."
We all know what happened in the aftermath of 9/11. Since the topic of this post is neither 9/11 nor the war on terror or the war in Iraq, I only want to take on one point concerning this aftermath. Paying attention to the news coverage by German MSM, I got the impression that U.S. citizens all thought alike and that their only news source seemed to be Fox News Channel. I wasn't too happy about that and I couldn't understand why the Americans deliberately dumped freedom of speech and variety of thought in favor of watching Fox News. Then again, I came across plenty of articles, colums, op-ed pieces etc. dealing with the war on terror and the war in Iraq and expressing a vast variety of viewpoints and opinions. "Who the heck is going to read all this stuff, if anyone down there is watching Fox News all the time?", I wondered.
This latter thought came on my mind again, when I got intrigued with China. German MSM don't provide much in-depth information about China. Hence, I had to use sources from the U.S. And again: loads of articles, columns, op-ed pieces on "The rise of China", "A new super power in the making", "The power of the dragon" etc. And again the question: If all Americans are such war-mongering lunatics, their heads filled with air - why all those journalists, pundits and experts care to launch all this stuff?
In fall 2004, I was given the opportunity to work as an English teacher at a middle school in Nanning, Southern China. I boarded a Britsh Airways plane in order to discover China. Well, I did discover China. But, and this may sound strange to you here, I also discovered the USA. I'll leave the explanation for that to the next entry.
part II, part III
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
I also like the full version of the original (c.1942) by theologist Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
after months and months of useless rants and musings about "blog policy", "blog title", "comment policy" etc., I finally decided to choose an approach which appears to be rather american and to make this blog a just-do-it project. (That isn't to say that I accuse Americans of ususally acting thoughtless, though :-)).
Since it is a blog in the making, there will be numerous shortcomings for the next few weeks or so. Stay tuned to see it getting better from day to day. Or, to quote a well-known broadcaster: Don't go away!
Thursday, December 08, 2005
As you probably know, today is the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's death. You can hardly call me a fan of the Beatles in general or of John Lennon in particular, but the fact that he was shot on my 10th birthday makes this date kinda special for me.
Admittingly, John Lennon is more famous than me. That's why I put my own birthday aside for a moment in order to share the following piece with you. It's taken from an interview in 2003 with May Pang, who, according to Wikipedia, lived with John from late 1973 until the first weeks of 1975:
[Well, my plan was to post a small part of the interview, but as I tried to copy this part, the pop-up told me the following:
Sorry, that function is disabled. This Page Copyrighted and Images and Text
protected! ALL RIGHTS RESERVED]
Hmpf. Thank you for nothing...Anyway, here is the link: http://www.maypang.com/asiance_story.html.
It's a little off the usual road of "remembering John". Enjoy!