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A proper education in the people’s republic

March 10, 2015 Marty Rempel

Teaching and living as a Canadian in China

Retired teacher Marty Rempel taught in Alberta for 21 years and now lives in Woodstock, Ont. Until last June, he was the principal of a high school in Jinhua, an area of about 5.4 million people in eastern China. The following stories relate his experience of teaching and living in China.

Beyond the stereotypes

Chinese students desperate to avoid failure but ill equipped to succeed

Marty Rempel

While in China, my wife and I attended a New Year’s Eve celebration put on by Jinhua high school students and staff in their massive gym. I think the venue is large enough to seat about 3,000 students. (The Chinese have a propensity to build in monolithic proportions.) It was a cold night and the thing about public buildings south of Shanghai is that they have no central heating — think of a rural hockey arena in Canada.

We took our seats as two third-year students ­appeared beside us to serve as our translators for the evening and to guide us through the performance. The gym was darkened, except for the neon-like plastic lights that all students were waving and throwing high into the air. We didn’t really need a translator for many of the numbers because they were English songs. 

My school, where I served as principal, had a population of about 250, but was really a school within a school. Trillium College was like an English department housed within the Jinhua walled complex. Students were the elite of the province and graduated with both a Chinese diploma and an Ontario Secondary School Diploma. Most of the graduating class members proceed to universities in southern Ontario and register mainly in math, science and business programs — a liberal arts education has not as yet found traction.

This is a wet climate with a monsoon season and everyone owns several umbrellas, so to have the song Singing in the Rain performed in English was no big surprise. There was a song originally done by Britney Spears. Other classes did themes relating to traditional Chinese opera meeting modern dance. There was a range of talent and, although we were sitting in a cold, dark gym, we were enjoying ourselves.

What we enjoyed most was the presentation by the Chinese teachers. Teamed as couples, each formally dressed, they took turns singing romantic songs to each other while — in a scandalous show of affection — they held hands. The students went wild. Our student translators told us this would be great cause for gossip.

What I appreciated about this was the fact that the students’ response was overwhelming and innocent. They were thrilled at the sight of their teachers showing affection. Our translators were quick to add that the Chinese love romance. I thought how this same act in Canada would not resonate with a student population in the same way, as it would likely be seen as corny and outdated and, as a result, would be open to ridicule. I’m thankful that these Chinese students are still socially and culturally back in the ’50s.

One theme that the school likes to drill into the students is patriotism. I can remember a day in my own youth in Canada when I sang, with hand over heart, God Save the Queen, and in later years, O Canada. We did a rendition of the Lord’s Prayer. Political correctness had not yet been coined.

Today, in China, there is no public religious observance, but love of country remains a priority, almost a religion. At my school and others, slogans are written on bright red banners around the school and in all of the classrooms proclaiming themes of love of country. For example: “Love is in the heart and that is where you find country.”

Many of the songs presented that night spoke to patriotism and so I asked our youthful translators how they felt about that. With some thought and hesitation they said that they get too much of it. They hear it every day and, while they believe it to be true, they don’t have to hear it all the time. 

Marty Rempel visits a kindergarten class at a school where several of his high school students volunteered.

“I think you will enjoy Canada after graduation,” I said.

Inside the box

I taught in Alberta for 21 years and am also very familiar with the B.C. and Ontario curricula, as I am also certificated in those provinces. I am very proud to say that I think Canadian provincial curricula more than hold their own when compared to the Chinese. The Chinese depend on rote learning, have large classrooms and are glued to standardized testing and curriculum solidarity.

In fact, contrary to stereotypes on the topic, I place Canadian curricula in math and science over the Chinese. I think we may have the edge not only for content but primarily because of our teaching style and methodologies.

Chinese students begin some mathematical and scientific concepts at a much earlier age, and by so doing, may give westerners a sense of precociousness. But, in Canada, we tend to see Chinese students who are their country’s elite, so we lose sight of the fact that academic achievement of the Chinese student population also follows a bell curve. Their numbers are just larger.

Students write final exams.

I have found that my Chinese students lack the spontaneity and the mental freedom to be curious about the world around them. If it is not in the curriculum, it is of no consequence to them. They are driven and highly motivated in many ways, but there is much pressure on them to succeed. Due to China’s one-child policy, a single child in the family must carry the academic torch, make parents and grandparents proud and, in some cases, support them financially as well.

On a few occasions I’ve given my students some unscheduled “free time” and, to my initial surprise, they’ve actually become anxious and didn’t know what to do as there was no structure or direction to guide them. They seem to need to be told what to do in every situation. They are accustomed to regimentation and hard work with long hours. Freedom is somewhat of an alien concept.

When it comes to problem solving, Chinese students are fearful of failure and are therefore not risk takers. Their Chinese classes are guided by rote learning and are definitely inside the proverbial box, while classes on the English side encourage individual thought and creativity, concepts with which many students are not yet comfortable, or even familiar, at this point in their academic evolution.

One time I sat in while one of my staff members delivered a Grade 12, university-level prep course in physics. The topic was acceleration. The students were quite taken with the presentation and were full of questions. But there were other topics, such as quantum mechanics, in which the students had no background from their Chinese curriculum. When this situation arises they get into a swarming panic, hiring tutors and “going to the mattresses” until they have mastered the topic. If nothing else, they take studies seriously, something sometimes lacking in their Canadian counterparts.

Chinese students in the upper-level schools are hard-working, but as I watched them I saw that they are very narrow in their focus. They do not do extracurricular activities. The curriculum is all there is. The curriculum is life.

Now, we may wish for students like that in a “perfect world” and, admittedly, it is wonderful, but outside the curriculum the Chinese students are largely ignorant. Their general knowledge is lacking. They don’t play games. Our school of 2,700 has no teams or clubs. Students are not allowed to date. “Love is not allowed” is actually a school rule, although I suspect something got lost in translation.

Treading carefully

While I admire my students’ many accomplishments in the academic arena, I also feel sorry for them. They know little of current events and the larger world. In an issue recently in the news concerning territoriality concerns with Japan, students are literally taught to hate. Anti-Japanese banners were in abundance on campus and around the city.

Our school celebrated its 110th anniversary while I was there. I had the honour of editing the English edition of its anniversary publication. It contained a proud history outlining the genesis of the first anti-Japanese league, which was established at the school following the expulsion of the Japanese imperialists after the Second World War.

This type of content and way of perceiving the world is current, accepted and engrained in our Chinese students, who tend to be xenophobic and lack a sense of tolerance for other ethnic groups and nationalities. Sadly, the Chinese do not always know the facts because that is how their world is ­orchestrated and filtered.

In a way it’s ironic that my Chinese students hope to come to Canada, specifically southern Ontario and the University of Toronto, as Toronto is likely the most multicultural city in the world. These students are in for a real culture shock because they don’t understand multiculturalism nor the tolerance and understanding of minorities that goes with it.

And don’t be fooled, there is an abundance of special education students in China too. In fact, by numbers, I would wager they have more special needs students than we have students in total. The thing is, not one of these special needs students is recognized and none of them are assessed, as there is no special education in Jinhua, as it brings shame to the family. China has a long way to go in terms of educational excellence.

I once tried to remove one of my Chinese students from the English program because of her mental health issues. Her parents were furious with me and found a doctor who gave her a clean bill of health. The Chinese ministry forced my hand, and I could not get the girl out of her stressful educational situation. Parents in an elite school have significant influence and high expectations of their children.

My primary job as principal was to direct my staff in creating analytical thinkers and problem solvers who could view the world in terms of solvable issues in both a group and an individual context. At times this got me into trouble with the Chinese side of the school, as some Chinese teachers wanted desperately to learn our ways, discuss “issues” and be introduced to new teaching methods.

I also had to be prudent about what I said or discussed with Chinese staff members, as an official of the communist party also had an office on campus. My contract did not allow me to talk about many topics, such as Tiananmen Square, democracy, Falun Gong, Tibet and the Dalai Lama, to name a few. I had my limits despite my curriculum and inclinations.

Overall, from my experience in Canada and China, I’m proud to say that, in so many ways, Canada has done “it” right. Our curricula and cultural sensitivities are incredibly reasonable. Our system has, for the most part, created a generation of more tolerant and more holistic students. ❚

There are no stars in China
or blue skies.
I feel sorry for the children
heavy haze constantly
shrouds the mountains
hillsides, the urban-scapes
China the abused country
every river,
stream and creek, every inch of sky
each piece of land, corrupted.
There are no stars in China
or blue skies…
just progress.
– Marty Rempel

Beyond the classroom

Shopping and getting around among the many challenges of life as a westerner in China

Marty Rempel

One of several dorm buildings on campus.

After a busy day at school or after a tenuous drive by e-bike (electric bicycle) through the noisy congested streets, my wife and I enjoy walking by the river, where we watch the group dancers, some doing western style ballroom dance, some doing exercises and others doing Tai Chi. We enjoy a calming walk along the riverbank, exposed after weeks of no rain.

A long, continuous row of willow trees lines the length of the park, their roots seeking moisture from deep below. Scooters, bikes, walkers, families both young and old, all walk the inlaid stones and view the sluggish brown river below. The constant fishermen, some on flat rafts, others along the receding shore (in the dry season), spend the day in futile pursuit of a meagre catch.

Young couples stroll hand in hand, oblivious to those around them. Men in tense groups thrust cards onto a small table. Two brown poodles play on the grass. An old man, crippled and bent, walks with his wife every night. Small boys play with their bubble makers, eagerly running past and staring at my strange western face and my wife’s blonde hair. Soon distracted, they run along the path.

The evening cools. It’s been such a long hot day. The gardener brings out his record player. He tentatively sets it on an old wooden table; soon opera transcends the willows. The dancers will arrive soon. It is evening in China.

Day-to-day challenges

Living and working in China has many challenges beyond the classroom. Naturally, the cultural, economic, political and linguistic differences are immense.

I lived on a new campus that was beautifully landscaped with a charming meandering creek stocked with fish running through it.

Despite the Chinese love of nature and beauty, one serious problem in China that is not being adequately addressed is the widespread pollution. Rarely could we see stars at night. And despite the fact that we lived only 10 minutes from a mountain range, we could rarely see the mountains, as there were so few pollution-free days. Blue skies were a rare treat. The locals kept insisting that the smog was not pollution, just mist.

I enjoyed my work with my industrious students, but I also enjoyed my time away from campus when my wife and I travelled or just escaped on our e-bike. I have never felt more part of the Chinese cultural fabric, or closer to roadkill, as I have while driving my scooter through the congested streets of Jinhua.

Chinese streets are generally wide and often have special lanes for e-bikes because there are so many of them. In some places, cars, trucks, people, dogs, kids, more trucks, bikes and taxis all have to merge into one chaotic mixture. That’s where the challenge begins.

There are rules of the road. I know this because I was told the Chinese drivers’ licence test has 1,700 questions, of which each new driver has to answer a random selection of 100. However, the rules are more like guidelines.

Traffic in China is a constant, seemingly random flow of motion, but it seems to work if one is bold, decisive and goes with the flow.

I kept my thumb on the horn to resonate with the cacophony of the urban symphony. One must yield to drivers making a turn. Red lights are discretionary, if they work. Cars go in bike lanes, bikes go in car lanes, parked cars have open doors and everyone who has a cellphone will, at some point, use it while driving. Pedestrians don’t look before crossing and neither do most drivers — they are either blind or operate on blind faith. 

Strong stomach required

Shopping was another challenge of everyday life. Since I’m a poor linguist, shopping and ordering food in a restaurant were problematic. I have several apps on my smartphone for translations but they only worked when I had Wi-Fi and that was not very often.

At public markets, one is assaulted by the many smells, the motion and the colours. One stall specializes in organs, another in the meat of dogs bred specially for consumption. There is street food that is to be avoided unless, like my young teaching staff, you have a cast-iron stomach (even they were not always immune).

Canadian teacher Marty Rempel was able to get special permission to hang the Canadian flag next to the Chinese flag in the staff room of the Chinese high school where he served as principal. The snow outside was a rare occurrence in Jinhua, an area in eastern China.

To me, the meat sections of grocery stores looked more like pet departments, displaying eels, frogs, snakes, turtles, fish and numerous other things that I never truly identified. Unwrapped chicken parts were heaped on a table for people to pick through for the ideal piece they sought. In another part of the store, large rice bins that resembled sand boxes were also available for people to reach into with their hands to scoop out what they required.

We cooked in our little kitchen, which measured six-and-a-half feet square. There was no oven, as we used a wok for most everything. We kept the refrigerator in the bedroom. Our building had rats, and each morning I killed the millipedes that crawled across the floor. Ours was one of the better apartments.

In sickness

Hygiene in China is not a priority. One small quest I had in my section of the school was to get soap and paper products, including toilet paper, into each one of our washrooms. I was promised these things but only got them temporarily when there was a school inspection. Once the inspection was done and the supplies were used up, they were never replenished. The cleaning staff continued cleaning with their mops by drawing water from the toilet bowls.

I spent much of my time being sick. At one time over Christmas, my wife and I slowly recovered from illness while sipping our green tea on the floor, having removed the hard mattress from the bedroom and camped out on the living room floor where, with the aid of a virtual private network service, we were able to bypass the Chinese Internet firewall and watch Netflix from San Francisco.

Overseas living has its challenges, but despite everything, I enjoyed working in China. I liked my Chinese colleagues, my support staff and especially my students, some of whom I have made contact with back in Canada. I was able to travel much of eastern China and southeast Asia and gain an appreciation for a culture and a way of life that both loves the West and mistrusts its ways.

The Chinese are tripping over themselves trying to copy us, and that’s all they are capable of at the moment. They are not innovators or inventors, but their image of nation is growing. They are on the rise. There seems to be a greater awareness of the world, and in this realization, China will succeed by using its new knowledge from schools like mine and elsewhere to grow an internal economy for its own people and raise its own standard of living and quality of life. ❚

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