Monday, August 01, 2005

The Forbidden City and The Great Wall

Last Saturday I caught a bus and took it a few stops south to go see The Forbidden City and Tienamen Square and everything else tourists go to Beijing to see. I got off the bus a little early having seen a McDonalds and not eaten yet, and afterwards just wandered along the road I knew led to Tienamen Square. Just ambling along, I noticed a fair sized gathering of people taking photographs of a large Chinese gate with some guards nearby. The gate looked pretty nice, pretty big too, but I honestly didn't know why people were photographing it. Nice, big gates abound in China, security guards too, so I couldn't figure out what was so special about this particular gate that had compelled so many people to capture it on film. I momentarily considered just walking on by the crowd, but then thought better and stopped to watch everyone. Just past the gate and between two guards was a large red wall, not unlike the one that runs along the entire road. This wall made it impossible to see what was beyond the gate and, while it seemed to be acceptable to venture inside, I noticed that nobody did. I decided to pull out my tourist map and figure out exactly what the underwhelming thing I was looking at really was. To my surprise, my map seemed to suggest that this gate was the entrance to Tienamen Square. As I looked very carefully again at my map, a young Taiwanese man approached me and asked if he could look over my shoulder. He was looking for somewhere to get lunch.
"This is Tienamen Square?"
"Yes, Tienamen Square."
"Can you go in there?" I asked, motioning through the gate. The young man laughed.
Apparently Tienamen Square is the Chinese equivalent of the White House, except under far greater cover. I still found it such an uneventful site, I didn't even bother to take a digital photograph of it. What I did do was begin to wonder exactly what it was I had seen so many years ago on television during the famous student protests. If it wasn't here at Tienamen Square, it must have been nearby. I crossed under the boulevard to the other side of the street, pulled out my map again, and then decided to cross back. I walked further down the street, looking for a way into what my map showed as The Palace Museum, which appeared to be just over the wall broken by the gate at Tienamen Square. I came across a small side street and walked a ways down it, hoping to find a side way into the Palace Museum.
"Shouldn't there be throngs of tourists around here?" I thought to myself and, noting the lack of any, turned around again to continue along my original course. I was getting quite frustrated at the sight of the continuous red wall that ran alongside me without every allowing access to that which it protected (not to mention the lack of public toilets), when I suddenly came to a corner of the wall that opened up into a vast expanse with an absolute throng of tourists. A prominent 20 foot tall painting of Chairman Mao above an arch in the wall signalled that I had at last found what I was looking for. The walls of The Forbidden City are astonishingly large. Straight out of Lord of the Rings, there are numerous inner and outer layers which, on the South side of the city, encase astonishingly large stone courtyards. Atop each subsequent wall's gate is an elaborate building that I wasn't able to investigate, but the elaborate and impressive characteristics of the gates themselves give some clue as to what the guard buildings might be like.
For me, the highlight of The Forbidden City was the North end. Characterized by smaller buildings built closer together, the Northern city was originally inhabited exclusively by the Emporer and a select few others (mostly workers who were forbidden to leave and concubines). High red walls exist in the Northern city as well, but they aren't as imposing, and serve more to divide the area into different courtyards. Each courtyard, in turn, is divided by different buildings, with a temple in the center. There are maybe a dozen such courtyards, and they are exceedingly interesting to explore. The Chinese government has decorated each courtyard with different exhibits, but the real charm just comes from wandering around the labryinth-like grounds, imagining what it might have been like five hundred years earlier. Wondering what it might be like to play laser tag in the North city occupied a fair amount of my time as well.
The Great Wall at Ba Da Ling, is a tourist destination at least as popular as The Forbidden City. I was encouraged by a front desk worker at my hotel to take a taxi there, but she appeared a little too excited at the idea, and I decided her hope of a kickback from the taxi company was affecting her faith in my independence. So I took a bus instead. This turned out to be an astonishingly simple affair, as roughly six hundred million buses leave Beijing for The Great Wall every hour, and that number evidently doubles on Sundays, the day in which I was going. We arrived at Ba Da Ling after about half an hour, and once I learned to preemptively strike the overly aggressively souvenier purveyors that line the road to the wall, I was able to buy a ticket and wander around the immense structure. The wall at Ba Da Ling is apparently renovated to extreme measures, but it's impressiveness is not derived from the immaculate condition of it's construction, but rather its imposing location and sheer scale. I wandered around the wall for the better part of an hour, hiking up stairs reminiscent of the Inca Trail in Peru and taking pictures that failed to capture even a hint of the majesty of the view; but after a short while the whole scene was fairly uninteresting and I walked back down towards the buses, head-butting the tourist shop sellers as I went. I had noticed upon arriving that there was a Circle Vision theatre on the site, something I recalled with fondness from the early days of Disneyland. I took a chance that the price would be cheap (a good bet in China) and it turned out to be free with a paid ticket to see the wall. With exuberance I waited the twenty five minutes until the next showtime (this despite the film being only eight minutes long) and prepared myself for a trip back to the past. For those of you who have never experienced the bliss that is Circle Vision, it is essentially a film in which several cameras have been aimed outwards, and the resulting footage is then projected on screens in a circular room. The effect is that you get to see entire scenes in 360 degrees, which would be really amazing to see if humans had eyes in the back of their heads, but is pretty cool regardless. This particular film would have been even cooler if it hadn't been in Chinese and revolved around a lengthy reenactment of the first commissioning of the wall, but the impressive aerial shots were enough to make me look past all that. A thoroughly enjoyable weekend when all was said and done actually, I'm sure I'll look back on it with disbelief when I'm washing my clothes and cleaning my room back in San Diego next weekend. -joe

Thursday, July 28, 2005


Hello, hello all. Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to this blog. Governmental influence in China increases as you get closer to Beijing, meaning that even here at Beijing Normal University I can't get access to the general Internet without leaving campus and asking a friend of Dr. Yu's to use his computer. I have managed to remain busy in my world-wide-web-free existence though. My days here so far has been used to contribute to a database for teachers to use in searching for appropriate flash based educational media to supplement their English lessons. I only just wrapped up the assignment a few minutes ago in fact. In the remaining five or so days I've got here, I'm planning on touring a bit - Tienamen Square and the Forbidden City (not to mention the six party nuclear arms talks) are just a few blocks from my hotel - and then writing another paper on flash based educational media attributes both positive and negative. Speaking of papers, I've included the first one I wrote in Shenzhen just below. Some of you might find it interesting, for the rest of you, I'm sorry. I'll try to post some nice pictures of Beijing in a couple of days. -joe

A Comparison of Modern Teaching Methods in China and the United States
Joseph L. Hartman

With respect to English language acquisition, Chinese and American schools have many similarities in their organizational structure and curriculum development. Yet there are marked contrasts in the curriculum delivery methods and student achievement philosophies each country exhibits. America’s English classrooms are noticeably less technologically integrated and less rigid than those in China, whose goal is to educate with efficiency through focus and familiarity. The differences seen in the two classrooms are indicative of a deeper philosophical divide between the two countries, pitting the Chinese belief in maximizing student potential against the American belief in leaving no child behind. Both could benefit from an adoption of the strengths of the other. For America this means an embrace of personal computers for every student, increases in technological integration across the curriculum, training for teacher involvement in the utilization of technology, and focused measures for pushing those at the head of the learning curve. For China it means embracing a balance of less defined individual lessons, increases in student-selected content, further integration of contextualization, and defined measures for ensuring the opportunity of success for all students.

Both Chinese and American schools depend upon their governments to dictate the content students study in every grade. Beyond this guidance however, the institutions in both countries are afforded the freedom to decide how best to deliver that content to their respective students. This paper will seek to analyze the differences in recent methods adopted by the two countries with respect to their English language curriculum, hypothesize about the possible underlying causes for those differences, and explore how each country may be able to benefit from the experiences of the other.

The American Model:
Integration, as witnessed in recent English classrooms in America, refers less to computers and software than to literature and books. Moving away from such historical staples of English development as weekly spelling and vocabulary tests, modern methods of English teaching emphasize context over content. Spelling and vocabulary words are no longer photocopied from long lists in standalone workbooks, but are instead taken from the pages of passages or novels the students are reading in class. Often, these words are previewed by the instructor to prepare the students for what they will be reading. In this way, expansion of the language is accompanied by a contextualization that enables the students to apply their prior learning towards a more effective synthesis of new information.

Current Language Arts education trends in elementary schools continue to expand upon this integration, utilizing several different types of reading strategies to encourage students as they acquire greater mastery of the language. In the very young grades teachers may utilize a picture-walk, a read-aloud, popcorn reading, or the lean-in lean-out strategy among others. The forefront of current English language curriculum in elementary schools is, however, dominated by class reading groups.

The Reading Groups Model allows students to independently advance through a self selected series of books read both individually and during designated class times. Reading during class time takes place in small groups of students with like books and may implement a number of comprehension strategies ranging from vocabulary study to character analysis. This is also the time when the instructor is free to circulate the class and provide assistance or evaluation to individual students. The Reading Groups Model may be implemented as a complement to more traditional spelling and vocabulary tests, or used as the source for such strategies. It relies upon student self-motivation for success and is highly structured out of necessity. Several students reading different books simultaneously denote an organized system for tracking student progress, and this can result in a high learning curve for beginning teachers. The balances within the Reading Group Model can also be difficult to maintain, but are immensely beneficial as they aim to simultaneously allow the maximum amount of individual student advancement, high levels of class independence, and ample teacher oversight.

Technological integration in American English classes often applies only to the instructor. A CD-ROM with pre-made lesson plans and answer keys may be included with the Teacher’s Edition of class text books, and occasionally includes audio for the stories in the text and limited visuals. Unlike the Chinese curriculum however, the software is rarely intended for interactive use by the students themselves. The primary reason for the lack of technological integration in English lessons is due to a low ratio of students to computers in the classroom. Most American classrooms are equipped with only one computer for every four or five students, thus often relegating the equipment to a secondary status within the curriculum. More often used for word processing and evaluations of learned material than anything else, computer use is also hindered by a lack of training on the part of the instructors. Because of this, even the availability most schools provide of a computer lab with ample hardware for each student fails to motivate the average English teacher to integrate to the greatest degree these resources into their class curriculum.

The Chinese Model:
For the modern Chinese student, integration in the English classroom refers to the rapidly growing inclusion of technology into the lessons. This refers to Flash programs, the Internet, personal computers for every student, a large projector, and corresponding workbooks and teaching materials for both the students and instructor with which to support it all. Each lesson is highly structured and follows a predictable pattern with teachers utilizing an array of proven and successful strategies to engage their learners. Songs are used to review with the students at the beginning of the lesson, new material is previewed on the blackboard and projection screen before the class is permitted to explore it using individual notebook computers. A class review of the lesson is conducted using interactive games afterwards, and the students end each lesson by role playing with partners the scenarios they’ve seen.

The Internet lesson content is compiled by various community teachers and overseen by The Modern Education Technology Research Institute, a government body that oversees the distribution of the lessons to area schools. Lessons are generally organized into units, such as “family”, “jobs”, or “food and drink”, with the units then organized into a website template with different pages such as “games”, “stories”, and “songs”. The content of each page is generally delivered through Flash programs that are found on the Internet and then copied. Any required modifications to the content are made by the teachers themselves using Flash or another appropriate editing program. Because these multimedia lessons are available on each school’s intranet server, every teacher and student is able to easily access it.

The Chinese model, while efficient and designed to take advantage of the most effective and proven teaching strategies, does not afford its students the same individualized choices for learning as the American model. While there are multiple routes available to each student within the lesson, such as different games or stories (some of which are more difficult than others), in essence every student in the classroom learns the same lesson at the same pace as the rest of the class. Additionally, the context that American teachers provide for their students through the Reading Groups Model is a challenge for the Internet lessons to match. For example: a lesson may be about different kinds of food and include a flash-based game of Concentration with a song about a pickle at the circus, but this leaves something to be desired in the area of contextual relevance. In theory, the units could be integrated to a greater degree and eventually match or even better the level of contextualization offered in reading groups, but this is not currently the case.

Modern models for English instruction in America and China clearly vary on several different levels. Less clear is how and why those models came to differ so greatly despite similarities in their goals and origins within the educational system of each country. The differences in how Chinese and American classrooms have come to embrace technology are responsible for some of the variations, but many of them would be present even if computers had never been invented.

The Philosophical Models:
Summer school does not exist in Shenzhen. Student advancement from grade to grade depends entirely on age, regardless of whether or not the student is able to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the curriculum. This runs directly contrary to the model for student advancement in America where a student who fails to learn the subject matter may not only be required to attend intersession classes to compensate for the lost time, but may perhaps be held back to repeat the school year a second time. No other circumstance more clearly demonstrates the underlying difference in the educational philosophies of the two countries as this.

In its most simplistic form, the Chinese educational philosophy views school as a forum within which students compete for success. The simplistic American philosophy views school as an institution of entitlement, within which equality must be assured and success all but guaranteed. The former could be seen as unfair to the slower learners, the latter as being unfair to the high achievers. The debate could most aptly be summarized as Chinese efficiency versus American equality.

The roots of this philosophical divide help define not only the different approaches to student support, but also partly explain the differences in elementary class sizes (40 – 50 students in China, 20 – 30 in the United States) and school sizes (hundreds of students in the U.S. versus thousands in China). The costs of public schooling in each country (free for 13 years in the U.S., heavily subsidized for 9 years in China) and books (provided by schools in America, purchased by parents in China) differ along these lines as well. Employing specialists who focus on single subjects of teaching is more efficient, if less nurturing, than employing teachers who instruct in all areas of learning; so this is what Chinese schools do from the earliest grades, while American schools typically wait until the middle school level.

Neither country dares to assume that its educational philosophy is without shortcomings. Similarly neither pretends not to be aware of the merits in contrary views. What often goes unanswered on both sides though is the question of how gains made in one respect can be made without resulting losses in another. Alas, education is not a zero-sum game.

Lessons to Learn:
American English classes would benefit from a move towards increased integration of technology into the curriculum like that seen in China. To effectively accomplish this denotes greater numbers of technological hardware - personal computers for every student at a minimum - hours of teacher training to instill confidence, competence, and to assure use of the technology, as well as centralized oversight of the ongoing curriculum changes to occur.

American students would also benefit from an increased emphasis on the part of schools to maximize student potential across all ability levels, especially those at the high end. Increased utilization of technology may hold some solutions for the most apt students to continually be challenged without diverting resources from the least apt, but other options are surely available. If intersession instruction is provided for those students who fail to meet expectations during the school term, why not make it available to those students who surpass expectations?

English classes in China would benefit from an increase in structural balance and organization like that seen in the Reading Groups Model. This requires an embrace of more flexible and student-selected lesson objectives to equalize the straightforward ones already being taught, as well as new focus on increasingly infusing lessons with relevant contextualization. Greater directional oversight of the model and further collaboration between lesson creators will eventually result in a learning system as competently structured and free as the Reading Groups Model, but with immensely greater learning efficiency and engagement potential.

Finally, China's schools would be well served to consider employing a system of support for failing students such as summer school or remedial courses. The inherent scholastic competition among students will only benefit from increases in the competency of all participants. A reduction in class sizes too would benefit students, as future increases in student learning independence will quickly warrant increases in individualized instructor guidance.

Both China and America stand on the brink of a great educational revolution. The promise modern technology holds for students and teachers is astonishing and inspiring, but will not inherently solve every complication associated with education. Ensuring effective employment of these technological tools equally across student populations will require both countries to continually analyze lessons learned in the past and implement adjustments in the future. It will be only beneficial if these lessons can be learned second-hand and the adjustments made jointly, with international collaboration providing the knowledge and experiences to do so.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Hong Kong and such

It's been a while since my last post so I though I'd try to bring everyone up to speed with the happenings in China.

Last Friday I finally met my official contact here in China, Dr. Yu. A professor with Beijing Normal University, Dr. Yu was in Shenzhen to make a short presentation during the teacher training Mr. Xu and I have been preparing for. Although I was only able to spend a few hours with Dr. Yu in the morning, it was a very reassuring visit and we talked about education and technology in America and China as well as the paper I've been working on. It's Dr. Yu who I will be working under next week when I fly up to Beijing, and he apparently has a different type of project in mind for me to work on when I get there, so I'm very much looking forward to seeing what that trip will have in store for me.

On Saturday I decided to take the weekend to visit Hong Kong. Although it may seem silly to say this, (given that I'm writing it from a desk in China) I'd really forgotten what it was like to travel. Since I've arrived here, I've had quite an easy time getting from place to place and making my way. In both Shanghai and Shenzhen I've always had a companion or two to take me around and translate and give me written directions to anywhere I had to go alone. It has been quite different from my trip across Europe a few years ago, when I was completely alone and inexperienced. Quite frankly, I'd forgotten what a stressful experience it can be to travel. Fortunately, just a weekend trip to Hong Kong brought it all rushing back.
I've always been under the impression that Hong Kong was just one island off the coast of southern China. I knew that it had been taken over by the British after the Opium Wars and was only recently returned to China for governance, but what I didn't realize was that Hong Kong actually consists of several islands. The most famous of these is Hong Kong Island, but the more recent development has been in Kowloon and the New Territories, just North of and across the water. I also completely failed to realize that Hong Kong is still essentially treated as if it were a foreign country by mainland China, a fact that made the ordeal of getting there and back infinitely more difficult.

The first step in my journey was to take a taxi from Shenzhen to the Hong Kong border, a bustling hub of human traffic that would have been nearly innagivable without the assistance of several English speaking ambassadors in yellow sashes. I was directed to a crossing exactly like that at an international airport, had my passport stamped, and continued on into Hong Kong. Curiously, the large rolling luggage bag I had stuffed with dirty clothes to wash at the hostel went unchecked, even by x-ray.

Mr. Xu had told me that I would be able to get another taxi to my hostel once I was in Hong Kong, but through the border I saw only large travel buses lined up. Along the sidewalk I looked for a taxi stand, but found only ticket vendors for the buses. Figuring a bus ride would save me some money anyway, I approached the vendor windows. Each window seemed to correspond to a certain destination within Hong Kong, and out of luck, I happened to see that one bus went to Mong Kok, a market district I had read about when reserving my hostel room. I remembered that the hostel’s close proximity to Mong Kok had been used as a selling point, and asked the vendor at the window about purchasing a ticket.

"Do you take Yuan?" I asked. He shook his head "no".

"Where can I get Hong Kong Dollars?"

The man pointed off to the side, where I had been looking for taxis. I wandered back to that end of the line of buses but saw no bank or ATM. I approached a woman in charge of tearing bus tickets and, with a ten Yuan note in my hand, asked where I could get Hong Kong dollars. She called over a nearby man and explained to him my situation. He gave me a strange look, and then began fishing around in his pocket to pull out some coins.

"No, no" I said and motioned for the man to put his change back. "I need to buy a ticket."

"They can take yuan," the woman replied and she pointed to the vendor windows.

So back to the vendor I went, except his time I just pulled out 100 Yuan and handed it to him. No problem this time.

I settled down in the back of the bus, excited at the thought of a long bus ride through the New Territories and the upper, rural parts of Hong Kong. We had only been driving for about three minutes when the bus suddenly stopped under an overhang. I thought we were maybe at a different station to drop off some passengers, but everyone on the bus stood up and got ready to disembark. I followed suit, retrieving my bag from under the bus and following the crowd into another line at another border crossing. Apparently there is one to leave China, and another one to enter Hong Kong. After a long wait I walked outside the building and found my bus, at last able to enjoy the ride I had anticipated long before.

The bus station in Mong Kok is along Nathan Road, the central thoroughfare for the city that one can follow to the coastline and views of Hong Kong Island. I stumbled around the people-packed sidewalks, luggage in tow, before finally asking a newspaper vendor where I could find the road my hostel was on. Fortunately it was only a couple of blocks away, but the address numbers were inconsistently marked and differed depending on the side of the street. I ended up pulling out a map on the sidewalk (a plea for help in any country) and sure enough, a man asked me a few moments later if I needed assistance. With his guidance I was able to find my hostel, get my room, and drop off four pairs of pants for washing before heading out for dinner.

Walking around Hong Kong for the first time without having to worry about finding my hostel or tripping someone with my bag, I was able to actually notice a few things about the city. The first thing I noticed was that there are fat people in Hong Kong. This was quite surprising, because I had begun to think that people just didn’t get fat in China. In fact, I remembered pondering the lack of obese citizens about a week earlier as I returned from KFC in Shenzhen, and had simply chalked up the phenomenon to the effects of a strict and healthy diet of rice and vegetables. Hong Kong, however, was an awakening.

Just how much of an awakening this was for me can be expressed by the fact that I noticed this difference between Hong Kong and mainland China before I noticed that the traffic in each area travels on opposite sides of the road. Like England, right down to the large double-decker buses everywhere, Hong Kong citizens drive on the left side of the road.

The third thing I noticed about the city was the prevalence of western businesses. While KFC has become quite a staple of my diet since arriving in Shenzhen (being the only alternative to Chinese food I know of), I have not seen here a single McDonalds or Starbucks (to my continual dismay, if to the benefit of my health). Naturally, my first excursion in Hong Kong was in the form of a beeline to the Mickey Dee’s I passed on the way to the hostel. After leaving the restaurant, and still feeling quite fortunate to have noticed it, I began my walk down Nathan Road and spotted another McDonald’s. Then another appeared down an alley, and I started to realize that luck had little to do with my hostel’s close proximity to the restaurant I had patronized. I also began to see several Starbucks and 7-11’s; even a Circle K or two could be found. As I continued south down Nathan Road I noticed one final difference between Hong Kong and the mainland: diversity.

It’s not so much that I’d never noticed that mainland China isn’t particularly diverse (it’s a bit of a hard reality to miss when you don’t see anyone who isn’t Chinese for weeks at a time). It’s more like I had forgotten what it was to live among a diverse community. Before Hong Kong the last black person I saw was at LAX (and this is over a period of nearly a month including four days in a city of 17 million people). There were also plenty of Indian people and middle-easterners of all kinds. This attribute, along with the businesses and fat people, made Hong Kong feel like more of a blend between China and America (with a little Britain because of the traffic, buses, and accents) than just another Chinese city. While I suppose this makes plenty of sense given its long history of British occupation, it was still bewildering at first and there was something about it that I just didn’t like.

It took me a long time to figure out exactly what it was about Hong Kong that made me uneasy, but I finally decided it was the lack of identity in the city. It’s difficult to explain, but there doesn’t seem to be a real feeling of culture in Hong Kong, or at least, not as much culture as there is in Shanghai or Shenzhen. If I had to say there was a culture at all to the city, I’d say it was the culture of business. It seems that everyone and everything in Hong Kong is geared towards business and money. Even the Frommer’s China Guide my grandmother gave me mentioned the lack of culturally interesting sites in Hong Kong. For sightseeing it recommended admiring the tall banks downtown.

There could certainly be other explanations as to why I felt this way about the city: I didn’t have a guide, I was staying at a hostel, the city was in the middle of a shopping festival right. Yet, even as I traveled alone and stayed in the hostels of other cities of the world where shopping was popular, I never felt the void of identity that I felt in Hong Kong.

I think this feeling can be linked to the role that Hong Kong played for China in the communist years and, to a lesser degree, continues to play. Being the isolated outpost for capitalism and business that it was, these attributes naturally became its culture. People visited Hong Kong to do business not to appreciate Chinese history, and so that is how the city has grown to define itself. Plus, with a British government and Chinese population, it only seems logical that an identity crises would eventually emerge. The advantage of such an attitude is that it caters perfectly to travelers, and I found Hong Kong much easier to manage alone than either Shanghai or Shenzhen.

I spent Saturday night wandering around the markets of Kowloon and Tsim Sha Tsui,
and I got up early on Sunday to see Victoria Peak on the island. The Star Ferry is a popular way to cross the water and only costs about 25 cents so I decided that would be the way to go. I found a Starbucks, got a Green Tea frappucino and was pointed to the Peak Tram, a famous and historic mode of transport to what is probably Hong Kong’s most famous tourist destination. Victoria Peak provides stunning views of both sides of Hong Kong Island, and the differences between the two couldn’t be more blatant. There is also a small shopping mall at the top, a few restaurants, and even a Madame Toussad’s Wax Museum. I avoided all of these (except the Mickey Dee’s in the mall before I left) and headed for the Peak Circle Walk, which traverses some of the most unexpected terrain I’ve ever encountered. Beautiful foliage and views, a waterfall, and innumerable butterflies can be seen on the circle walk, and there is no shortage of anxious visitors keen to do so. I ended up taking a bus instead of the tram back down the mountain, enjoying a memorable (if frightening) winding ride through thick tropical forest that inexplicably ends in the center of a metropolis without warning.

Around six I decided to head back to Shenzhen and so returned to my hostel. I hauled my luggage back along the crowded sidewalks to the bus station, purchased a ticket and took a seat in the back. I waited in line to exit Hong Kong and found my bus to take me to the entry border to China before standing in line once again to enter the mainland. When I got to the counter and presented my passport, the clerk seemed to check over my papers a little more intently than anyone else before. After a few seconds, another man appeared to take my passport and direct me to a different booth. Given a chair to sit on, I waited for a few minutes in confusion before the man reappeared.

“Your visa is expired,” he informed me.


“You have only one entry on this visa. You must return to Hong Kong. Follow me.”

I had only received a single-entry visa to enter China, with my one entry being used at the airport in Shanghai when I arrived. Since I left the mainland for Hong Kong, I needed another entry to return to Shenzhen.

One of the first things Mr. Xu did for me when I arrived in Shenzhen was to print out for me an information sheet in Chinese explaining my situation as an intern, the address of the office, and his phone numbers. If I got lost somewhere or needed help, I could then show the paper to a taxi driver or someone on the street to get assistance. Now I pleaded with the border worker to call Mr. Xu, not so much in the hopes of being able to return, but so he would know why I wasn’t going to be at the teacher training on Monday morning. The man took my paper and directed me to a different office and officer on the exiting side of the border. There I waited for another few minutes before the new officer returned my passport and paper and sent me on my way.

“You go back to Hong Kong now,” was all she said, her finger pointing the way.

Back on the Mong Kok bus, back in line to enter Hong Kong, back to the bus station, and back to my hostel I went. Luckily, the only space available for the night was the very room I had reserved for the previous night. I called Mr. Xu myself, talked with the hostel manager about where to go for a new visa and went to bed a little scared, but mostly just befuddled.

My last day in Hong Kong was pretty uneventful. I woke up early to get to the visa office before the lines got too long, but still ended up waiting for nearly an hour. The regular terms for a visa were fifty U.S. dollars and three days, but for an extra thirty dollars I was able to get a new visa in a few hours. I split the time waiting at the hostel and reading in a Starbucks where I indulged in another Green Tea frappucino. I made it back to my room in Shenzhen around 7, and although I had missed Dr. Yu’s speech to the teachers that morning, at least I was going to be able to go with Mr. Xu to the training on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Hope you’re all enjoying your July. I’ll try to write more tomorrow. -joe

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

I had to say this

So my time here has (not unexpectedly) led me towards greater utilization of technology. Some of the programs I've been using recently have been introduced to me previously such as flickr, an online website that was recently bought by yahoo. Like the also popular shutterfly, flickr allows sharing, uploading, searching, and management of photographs. I've recently uploaded quite a few pictures taken during my internship in China that can be seen alongside some other photos at
My real reason for writing this entry though is another program: Google Earth. I would be lying if I said this wasn't the single most impressive program I've ever seen. If you thought Google Satellite Maps or Keyhole was cool, wait until you see Google Earth. I haven't even had the time to explore it completely yet (I had to write this first) but I would highly recommend simply downloading the program, running it, clicking on every possible button, and then just thoroughly enjoying yourself. (Make sure to get directions somewhere, and then hit the play button. Trust me on this).
Have a blast -joe

Teachers of the World Unite!

Teachers of the World Unite!
Originally uploaded by jlhartman.
Yesterday I got to go with Mr. Xu to a local elementary school and meet with these six English teachers. We talked for a couple of hours about differences and similarities between schools in America and China, and what strategies our respective schools might employ to make teaching more effective. While my hopes of observing a class in action have been delayed due to student testing at the end of the term, my time with these wonderful women opened my eyes as to the incredible changes that the Chinese schooling system is undergoing. They too seemed to appreciate my time and words, and I think the meeting was beneficial for all of us involved. I'm currently helping Mr. Xu prepare for a meeting we will hold here at the Institute next week to help teachers broaden the scope of their multimedia curriculum, and I think this preliminary meeting will help me to better understand the specific needs these teachers will have next week when the training begins. -joe

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Long Answer

There are only two English language television stations here in Shenzhen, and neither broadcasts in English for the entire programming time. In fact neither broadcasts continuously throughout the day at all, reminding me of the few times I’ve either heard about or seen in movies the famous American Indian Head and national anthem that used to signal the end of the broadcast day for American stations so many years ago. Fortunately for me, both channels here feature shows that largely suit my interests.

Since my arrival I’ve seen fascinating travel and nature shows on Marco Polo, the Nile River, and the South African Coast. Political, world, and financial news programs abound, as well as various documentary-style shows produced by the BBC. A particularly interesting one features a British celebrity chef’s efforts to overhaul the United Kingdom’s public school lunch program. (Being a teacher, I find few things more entertaining than watching the reactions of under-prepared adults’ attempts at coercing a large group of children into unfamiliar actions. “Children DON’T like vegetables! I can’t BELIEVE this! They actually PREFER unhealthy rubbish food!”) When all of this programming is combined with the American shows they air (ER, CSI: Miami, David Letterman, Lost) and the surprisingly similar commercials - albeit in Chinese - the result is a television viewing experience very close to that one might enjoy stateside. In fact, the only glaring difference between the two is the vastly different amount of public service announcements aired here.

During the presidential campaigns a few months ago I remember a prominent party representative being questioned about the incredible amount of money being spent on television ads to advance the cause of his candidate. He gave, what I thought, was a surprisingly relevant answer:

“Companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to convince people to buy the right toothpaste. So no, I don’t think we’re spending too much money on the ad campaign.”

His response made me think about all the commercials I regularly watched, and how little they actually mattered in terms of social education and improvement. I watch a lot of sports, so I noticed how several times in the course of one evening I was exposed to commercials comparing calorie counts between different types of beer, but I didn’t know where to take my empty bottles to recycle them since the privately owned apartment building I live in doesn’t enjoy the benefit of county waste management services.

If you imagine the amount of beer ads you might see during a basketball playoff game or the amount of political ads you might see in October of an election year, you can imagine the amount of public service ads that air here in China. There are commercials here on nearly every topic of social responsibility: water conservation, mosquito control, television viewing responsibilities with respect to children, restaurant quality standards, staying safe in large crowds, dealing with sexual assault, appreciating cultural diversity, how to avoid spreading the flu, why stealing cable is bad, how to properly treat and maintain apartment windows (this one closely following on the heels of a recent rash of cases involving windows falling from tall residential buildings). The list goes on and on, but my favorite PSA has to be the one that educates the viewer on proper methods of customer service. (You mean I shouldn’t just totally blow off a customer if they ask me something? I should be polite to them? and honest too? That’s just crazy talk.)

I’m unsure exactly how the television media in China is regulated, and why it is that so many PSAs air. It seems to me that a disproportionate amount of them are shown on the English channels, but since I rarely watch anything else I can’t say for sure. I do know that a large part of television content is aired on various CCTV stations. CCTV stands for China Central Television, and all of those stations are apparently directly operated by the government. There seem to be several private stations as well – especially here in Shenzhen, with its close proximity to Hong Kong - but how each station’s advertising system is organized, I don’t know. Ultimately, how much any of the business behind airing the PSAs really matters is, I think, less important than the fact that they are aired at all.

In addressing The Short Answer in my previous post I made the point that China was obviously learning from America and other successful capitalist nations to gain insight as to how to most effectively modernize and join the ranks of the most powerful nations in the world. That China was doing so with more models to copy, more technology to utilize, and more human understanding to exploit than any nation that preceded it was resulting in an unparalleled pace of development. This, in turn, was enabling the country to enjoy the unprecedented luxury of avoiding, postponing, and in some cases completely leapfrogging many of the common pitfalls associated with modernization; and after spending less than two weeks in the country it was obvious to me that China was well on its way to becoming a worthy challenger to the United States for the title of World Superpower. I concluded that the U.S. should fear China essentially for its potential to “outamerica” America itself. The caveat to my conclusion was that the U.S. essentially controls its own destiny with respect to China’s rise. I’m not referring to preemptive military action or protectionist subsidies, although I doubt either would hurt China any more than America at this point. I’m referring to America’s ability to reciprocate China’s successful strategies and learn some lessons from its challenger. Public Service Announcements may be one place to start.

Any sports fan can tell you that commercial spots during the Super Bowl are as expensive as advertising on television gets. For the 2005 game, the price was apparently $2.4 million per commercial. Any sports fan can also tell you that there are precious few Public Service Announcements during the Super Bowl. After all, what politician could justify spending 2.4 million taxpayer dollars to remind people to cover their mouths when they sneeze? I don’t know whether the Chinese government pays for the ad time to air their PSAs or whether they simply legislate themselves the ability to do so, but I would suspect the latter. As uncool, and possibly ineffective (I’d really like to do a study on this while I’m here seeing as how they’re essentially attempts at educating an entire society) as these PSA’s are, there is no way the Chinese government would let a big event like the Super Bowl be broadcast without reminding the viewing public many times over about the dangers of driving while intoxicated. (Americans? We just hope that beer companies will take some time after the bikini clad super-models/NASCAR/beach volleyball/burping frog montage to mention it…or at least put it up on the screen somewhere…or at least direct the viewer to the company website so they can learn more...please?).

Like an overzealous basketball referee (sticking with the sports theme here), China is notorious for keeping a close eye on all its companies. Foreign corporations are outlawed from holding more than a 50% stake in any Chinese business, most large companies are at least partly owned by the government, and the country is carefully and strategically divided into different economic zones. Hong Kong and Macau in the south are both Special Administrative Regions, with different regulations than the mainland with Hong Kong even requiring a separate Visa to enter by air. Even Shenzhen is divided into different zones complete with government checkpoints. (At the airport I had to make sure I got an orange taxi and not a green one because the green ones can’t go into the Special Economic Areas). While all of this may sound like a hassle (which I suppose it is), the flip side of such a diligent government is that it doesn’t let business concerns inhibit its attempts to better society. (China wants you to know that there are ways to get rid of disease carrying mosquitoes, and here’s how. Now here’s how again…and again…and again…). Certainly China’s communists are beginning to learn that economic prosperity is contingent upon free and independent markets. So, will the U.S. learn that social prosperity is contingent upon strong government oversight of those markets and their participants?

Without getting too political, I think a case can be made for America becoming excessively involved in business and corporate affairs; or perhaps better stated, for business and corporate affairs getting excessively involved with America. That elected politicians work closely with union and corporate heads should be a shock to nobody, but whether that relationship is beneficial to the nation can be debated. In some cases, such as Vice President Cheney’s “secret” meetings with oil company executives concerning energy legislation, a case could be made for seeking the counsel of those men most intimate with the industry (although I can think of no legitimate reason why their identities should be kept from the public). Other times, the close working relationships seems to work more to the advantage of the businesses. One recent example could be the current energy bill passed by the House of Representatives that contains protection from lawsuits for MTBE producers whose product leaked into and polluted the groundwater of communities in as many as 29 states. Instead of an overzealous referee, in this case the government comes across as one who has obviously been bribed by one of the teams.

None of this is to say that China understands the role of government better than the United States (personally, I feel like there are too many restrictions here, I can’t even read my own blog!). Rather, the country’s concerns and cautious approach towards private enterprise appear at least somewhat justified, and they show that China is not only learning from America’s successes, but its failures as well. This may explain why despite the country’s embracing of capitalism over the past 20 years, its communist past is still evident through its concerns for the working class (even if the most visible form of this concern is the veritable barrage of PSAs) and the more heavy handed approach to business regulation it takes. America also regulates corporations, as evidenced by seatbelts, the SEC, and child labor laws, but the Chinese government does not seem content with just these basic principles. Instead, China seems interested in a different type of government involvement, a type that results in making business work for it, rather than it working for business (the latter situation being what happens if the U.S. wants to air a PSA during the Super Bowl).

If we imagine our basketball referee was also the owner of one of the teams he was calling in a game, we would have a situation close to that of the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation. CNOOC is largely controlled by the Chinese government and recently made headlines for its offer to acquire Unocal, the west-coast based American oil company. This offer, while not directly made with citizen money, is made possible through special loan guarantees by the government. So the offer is ultimately supported by the Chinese public. To draw a comparison, imagine if Ford Motor Company wanted to purchase Volkswagen, except didn’t have the money to do so. Imagine then that Congress voted to give Ford as much money as it needed to make the deal possible until Ford could pay it back. (I doubt whether the American public would support such a move, but if Ford was already half owned by the government and overseen by the State Department, it might be seen as a victory for the nation). While the idea of something like this occurring is almost laughable to Americans, it is exactly what the Chinese are accustomed to. The government foresees a national increase in oil demand and wants to shore up its assets and reserves. Why wouldn't it use businesses to help it do so?

The fact is that, because energy is so important to every nation, the Chinese model is increasingly the manner in which countries have addressed petroleum dependence. The top nine oil companies in terms of reserves are all 100% government owned (in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Venezuela, United Arab Emirates, Libya, Nigeria, and Mexico by descending order of available supply). PetroChina is number fourteen on the list and 90% government owned, while ExxonMobil checks in two higher at number twelve. Of course, ExxonMobil is not owned - even in part - by any government, the only company in the top 16 that can say so. (It is interesting to note that the U.S. government is reportedly considering blocking the sale of Unocal to CNOOC on national security grounds, a move that would evidently move it more in line with the approach of the above listed nations).

It would appear the international model for corporate regulation approves of great government involvement in those areas of business that are of great national importance. That America disagrees can be illustrated by the fact that it is the only industrialized nation without a national health care system. While there is obviously a place for government oversight within private enterprise - Arthur Anderson painfully taught us the danger of letting it oversee itself – a consensus about how much and when has yet to be reached. (Personally, I feel the answer lies somewhere about equidistant from where China and the U.S. currently reside).

There are obviously other factors separating China from the United States that could be pointed at to either support or discount its recent rapid growth– democracy and currency market methods not the least of them – and yet the country has clearly acknowledged it has something to gain by moving away from its old economic policies and towards more American ones. The question now becomes whether the U.S. will make a similar realization and adopt any winning Chinese policies (at which point I’ll hopefully figure out where to take my empty beer bottles).

If so, where does that leave Americans? Our quality of life may collectively improve, and we may avoid the embarrassing sight of a Wal-Mart on the White House Lawn, but will not our two countries remain opponents and adversaries? At what point does Cold War II begin? Next time I’ll try to address The Real Answer, and offer a more appealing alternative choice for our nations to make. -joe

Sunday, June 26, 2005

My Dinner with Mr. Jong

Robotics and I don't go back too far. I only started to involve myself with the pasttime earlier this year when my director at High Tech Middle asked me if I would be the coach for the school Botball team ( Once word had spread among the school community that I would be taking the reins of the team (regional champions the year before), Robots and I began to get much more comfortable with one another.
I started out mentoring a robotics team from school associated with a local competition at Legoland, the First Lego League. In general, the challenges and rules of Lego League are less difficult than those of Botball. For example, you are allowed to grab, position, and modify your robot in Lego League once the competition has begun. The two competitions do have many similarities though (both are timed competitions requiring pre-programmed robots built from Legos to complete various tasks on a ping-pong sized table in an effort to accumulate more points than the opposing team), and by the time the Lego League tournament rolled around, I was feeling ready to take the next step in my Robotics career.
I began teaching a robotics class at High Tech as an elective for the second semester. Borrowing supplies from the high school and several lesson ideas from it's director and robotics teacher, I was able to attract a class of about 20 students. Unfortunately, I was still vastly unfamiliar with the programming language and intracacies of Botball robotic engines and was unable to instruct the class as effectively as I would have liked. Fortunately, about two weeks into the semester the Botball organizers held their annual tournament information meeting. The meeting lasted for sixteen hours over one weekend, and while the highlight for most teams is finally getting to see what the year's tournament challenge will be, for me the highlight was getting some instruction on programming the robots.
Armed with my newly acquired skills I returned to school and my elective course with renewed confidence. I also began serious meetings after school with those students who were interested in participating on the team and in the tournament and discovered coaching to be much more difficult than teaching. The main reason for this is because students participate in after school clubs for pleasure, and striking the balance between productivity and fun without the availability of such threats as phone calls home or failing grades is simply challenging (and frustrating). Ultimately we placed 11th out of about 40 teams. Not bad, but definitely leaving room for improvement. All of this is to say that robotics has become an unexpected part of my life recently, and the opportunities it regularly presents to me are surprising.
Such an opportunity presented itself yesterday afternoon when Mr. Xu told me about a friend of his who wanted to take me out to dinner.
"He's interested in doing robotics at his school." I was told.
I'm always game for a good robot talk, and that this one presented the added benefit of a non-KFC dinner was just icing on the cake.
Around 7 o'clock I was watching the Top Ten Dunks of the basketball season on NBA Action (I think the best was Robert Horry in game 5 of the finals after he faked the three, but the show was taped before that had happened), when Mr. Xu called me on the cell phone I've been given. I met him at the gate of the elementary school and we were both picked up by Mr. Jong and Marcie, an English teacher at the school Mr. Jong oversees.
The car ride was half of the fun, as I was finally able to explore a little more of Shenzhen, but the restaurant we went to was the real highlight. Perched atop a small hill that peers over various buildings the restaurant is a three-story structure with a tea house on the first floor. All wood floors and tables lined the perimeter of the room with bamboo stalks threaded through lattice in the ceiling. Tall windows at the front of the building look out on an immaculate Chinese garden with a gazebo and bridges spanning small waterways before a clear view of the far off dusk horizon. We sat down at a small table with two wood loveseats next to the window and I talked to Marcie about her school schedule while Mr. Jong and Xu ordered.
I haven't been to enough restaurants to know for sure, but I think Chinese people take an inordinate amount of time to order their meals. It must have taken fifteen minutes to decide what we would have, a process made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that the servers wait tableside for the entire process. At one point last night we even had a second waitress visit the table to help the the process. It really didn't hinder my enjoyment too much, as it offered me the opportunity to get some background information on Marcie's teaching, which you will recall from my last post is the potential center of my project work here.
Marcie teaches first grade English to four different classes of students from about 8 am until 11:30 am. Unlike at American schools, Chinese students rotate teachers and subjects from the start of their academic career. (Perhaps this is an area of study I could exploit if the whole ESL thing doesn't go over well with Mr. Wong). From 11:30 until 2:30 the whole school takes a break. Teachers take a nap and maybe grade some papers or plan lessons. Students take a nap at the school or may even return home for lunch and a rest. After 2:30 the students return to school for more classes centered around electives and physical fitness that last until 5:30. During this time Marcie is responsible for aiding the other teachers. It is quite a different job from what I do, and was fascinating to learn about.
After a while the food arrived and we got around to talking about robots. My hosts are all under the impression that the U.S. is much further ahead of China with respect to Science education. This seems to contradict what I read in Newsweek about the number of participants from both countries in a global science competition, but I figured they had a better pulse of what's happening in Chinese schools than I did. Mr. Jong is hopeful that the implementation of a robotics club could help some of his students advance their scientific knowledge. I told him he's probably right. Robotics as a study is highly scientific, especially if one incorporates programming into it. It facilitates logic and lateral thinking, all aspects of the scientific method, creative thinking, problem solving, math, and probably a few areas of development I've forgotten. The only problem is the high initial cost of setting up a team.
We talked about what the school could afford, how they might be able to get started in Botball, and strategies for setting up an effective after school program. I even wrote out a short code to give them an idea of what the students would have to learn to participate effectively. I became really impressed by the dedication all three of my hosts showed towards the idea. After all, here they all were at 9pm on a Sunday night, discussing with someone who didn't even speak their language a subject that probably none of them would tackle directly. And yet their commitment and resolve was clear.
For me, the most exciting part of the evening arose when I began to tell them about my own plans for Botball next year at High Tech Middle. Botball team registration fees are about $2500, a sum that weighed heavily on my mind last year as I watched several team members waste valuable practice time. This year I decided a preliminary tournament could help solve this problem. Teams from the school could organize themselves and participate in a tournament of our own design. Perhaps just recycling one of the previous year's tasks from Botball. In any case, the two top teams from the preliminary tournament would then be invited to participate in the botball tournament. Hopefully, by rewarding the highest achievers at the onset, this strategy would ensure that only dedicated students made it onto the Botball team.
While explaining this to my hosts, it occurred to me that they might be able to save some money on Botball registration by simply taking part in our own High Tech Tournament. It wouldn't have the same level of intensity as Botball, but since the school was just starting its program from scratch, participating in Botball during their first year might not be much more than a waste of money anyway. I mentioned the idea at the table and seemed to get a positive response, so I'm not sure what will happen at this point. I've already e-mailed the powers that be at Botball, and I haven't discussed any of this with anyone at High Tech. Still, I think these are exciting developments for the students here as well as those stateside. I'll be sure to keep you all up to date. Robots Baby! -joe

Job Hunting

Before I take the time to address The Long Answer in reference to my previous post, I decided I had better figure out something useful and education-related to do here. Xu actually does have a project for me to assist him on, an English language evaluation form for elementary students. He won't have it ready for me for a couple of days though, and even then it doesn't appear to be something that I can work on for the whole of the three weeks I'll be here in Shenzhen. In discussing with him what else I might be able to apply myself towards, he indicated that the decision was very much up to me. He suggested perhaps a study on the use of instructional space, and this might be something I may pursue once I have a look at some of the classes. In the meantime though, I've decided to propose a study dealing with second language instruction here. My reasons for this are two-fold. First, because I figure I will have an easier time communicating with teachers whose job it actually is to teach language (and especially those who teach English), than one whose job may be to teach math or science. Second, because I have a background in ESL instruction and second language development is an issue that has grown increasingly important in California, as well as the U.S. in general. I think I would like to begin by producing a paper along the lines of the one written here, but focusing on language rather than mathematics:
I expect to also pursue the issue of how teachers here address those students who move from a different area of the country and speak a different language, thus paralleling the situation of those students I worked with at Hoover and Rosa Parks. My first step will be to run this idea by Xu and Mr. Wong (another teacher I have met here at the Institute). Hopefully they'll be able to give me some guidance within the topic and I'll ultimately be able to provide some insight into how both of our systems may be able to improve their techniques, or at least how they can learn from one another. Look for posts next week about my time spent observing Chinese classrooms and students, my conversations with ESL teachers, and at some point The Long Answer. -joe

Friday, June 24, 2005

Should America fear China?

I remember fondly stories told by my uncle about how Japanese products in the 50’s and 60’s were renowned for their cheap construction and flimsy design.

“Everything made in Japan was just crap,” he’d chuckle. “It was all finger traps and paddle balls and anything else that broke within hours.”

But it wasn’t Japan’s apparent incapability for producing quality goods that so entertained my uncle, it was seeing the marked change in the attitudes consumers took towards Japanese goods over just his young adult life. By the time I was old enough to hit a paddle ball with some consistency Japanese products were renowned not for their cheap construction, but for their incredible reliability…and durability…and affordability. Indeed, my parents’ old 1980’s Sony receiver still rests in my room, annoying the neighbors as effectively as ever. Japan’s sudden rise to the position of World Economic Powerhouse was as big a surprise to Americans as the comment that they are “lazy” by a Japanese Parliament member. But shouldn’t we now be better prepared for the rise of China?

Even before I left (or even knew I would leave) for China, the question of what Sino-American relations would become in my lifetime was on my mind. This is not because I have a preoccupation with the country or because my girlfriend is Chinese (although Sin-American relations of a different kind may apply here), but because this is a question on the mind of just about every American today. The rise of China is no longer a debate, it is a fact; one that we are constantly reminded of by the media, the market, and our own government, so I won’t bother to remind you of it myself here (at least anymore). All I will say is that the figures are not misleading, and the development I’ve seen since arriving here has been awe-inspiring.

So, should America fear China? The short answer is: yes. The long answer is: it depends as much upon how America handles China’s rise to power as much, if not more, than anything else. I’ll address the short answer first (just don’t expect the explanation to be short).

After writing on my blog yesterday that I would be addressing this question in today’s entry, I went out to a Chinese fast food restaurant for a dinner of what can best be described as spaghetti soup with tomato and egg. Delicious, in case you were wondering. Naturally, I took along my trusty Economist from a couple of weeks ago and, upon opening it, discovered that the first article was a special report on the skyrocketing automobile market in China. Surprise, surprise. But there was a quote in it that summed up The Short Answer pretty well for me. It comes from David Thomas, the head of distribution for Ford over here:

China is developing in very similar ways (to the developed markets), but doing it so much quicker,” Mr. Thomas adds. “So much quicker,” he repeats.

There was another article I read, or it may have been the same one, that compared China today with America in the 20’s. Apparently America was pretty much rockin’ and rollin’ in the world back then, at least before Black Tuesday. From my own experiences here, I’d have to say that China is like what I imagine London or New York to have been during the Industrial Revolution. I don’t mean there are horse-drawn carriages in the streets and little kids working in factories, I mean that there is this overwhelming sense of modernity pervading the atmosphere here. It’s almost a magical feeling of indefensibility and the public seems to be in awe at the possibilities made available to it. Their lives aren’t even that great (by American standards), but they are way better than their parents’ or grandparents’ lives and they know it. (Heck, they probably hear about it from their parents and grandparents all the time. “In my day…”)

Most importantly the workers don’t seem to have a collective feeling of how good it can get. The average citizen hasn’t reached the ceiling yet, but they can see it. This means that there is an overabundance of workers willing to toil away at monotonous and laborious jobs in the city for the opportunity of what will most likely settle out to be just a position in close proximity to wealth and not actual wealth itself. Taking advantage of this willingness on the part of the public, the government and private enterprise are modernizing the country like crazy.

Think about how quickly Manhattan, Paris, and their surrounding areas must have urbanized with the spread of factories 100 years ago. Now imagine that Manhattan and Paris had bulldozers, cranes, and cement mixers, cellular phones and the Internet, personal computers with AutoCAD drafting programs. Then imagine that Manhattan and Paris weren’t even on the cutting edge of all this development. In fact, there were already modern cities, even modern countries, around the world for them to emulate. Shanghai needs a subway? Look at Barcelona and Seoul. Skyscraper? Look at Chicago and Kuala Lumpur. Roadways? Look at Los Angeles (for what NOT to do) and Berlin. I witnessed the resurgence of the Silicon Valley when I lived in San Jose in the late 90’s, but China’s rise is different. It doesn’t require buildings to be torn down to make room for the new stuff. Shanghai’s financial district was farmland fifteen years ago and is the size of Chicago today. It starts becoming a little easier to believe what I heard on ABC World News Tonight this morning:

China is building a city the size of Philadelphia every month.”

Actually, that’s still pretty hard to believe.

So what about when China finally closes in on the U.S.? Any economist will tell you that it is much easier for underdeveloped countries to grow their GDP by 10% than it is for developed countries to do so. In fact, the ease with which this is accomplished decreases exponentially with increases in the level of development. Isn’t it reasonable to expect China to follow the model? Probably, but to provide insight into this I must refer back to my past teaching experiences and my recent introduction to the English class videos I mentioned in yesterday’s entry.

Less than a month after earning my Multiple Subject Teaching Credential in December of 2003, I was hired by the San Diego State University Foundation as a Reading Intervention Tutor. My first assignment was at Hoover High School in City Heights. While Hoover is best known for having schooled the famous New York Yankee Ted Williams, it is second best known for being a lousy school. In my experience this was less the fault of the school itself than of Hoover having abysmal community support, but nevertheless it currently is a “failing school” and resides on the short list of candidates for government takeover. My job while I was there was to tutor, one-on-one, students whose English language abilities were below the acceptable level for their grade. After Hoover shut down for summer break I did the same job at the nearby Rosa Parks Elementary School for about two months. Out of the maybe 40 students I tutored at both locations, I think every single one was learning English as a second language.

When Xu showed me a video of second grade Chinese students speaking English nearly as well as native speakers (and far better than many of my former students), I immediately began to wonder about getting copies of the software I saw being used. “If little Chinese children can learn English this well using these lessons, surely they’ll work for American kids,” I reasoned. I had already begun thinking of how I would break down the content and synthesize it for my former students at Hoover before I realized that high school kids from City Heights don’t want to listen to some dude read them a story in English about two kangaroos on a fishing trip.

After watching more I started to wonder, “Why wouldn’t this work to teach American students Chinese?” While it probably would to some degree, I doubt it would be as successful as it is in China. The reason for this begins with the lesson being largely dependent upon direct instruction. Because the students can’t provide feedback to the computers they are using (which the teacher attempts to correct with interactive games and role plays, to some success), the lesson is ultimately unforgiving towards individual student progress.

It is also because a class in Shenzhen, while it is composed of nearly 50 students, is more homogenous in terms of ethnicity and especially in terms of economics than even the most segregated schools in America. This means the teacher can get away with less individualized instruction than might be possible in the vastly more diverse United States. (China’s population is 92% Han Chinese, America’s 77% White. China’s richest 10% own 45% of all wealth; America’s richest 10% own 70% of all wealth). The high level of diversity at High Tech Middle (where I currently teach sixth grade) is something I take great pride in, but it ultimately does make my job more difficult. Balancing the vastly different home lives, histories, religions, and cultural practices of a classroom of students (and very often their parents as well) is time consuming. I would be remiss not to mention that not all of China’s citizens speak the same language; but, of course, language is only a small part of the issue.

So won’t China still end up like America? Won’t citizens of Myanmar, Nepal, and Vietnam start immigrating to China when they realize the potential for opportunity and education there? Won’t society continue to settle into classes and the communist government be forced to address the accompanying concerns such as welfare, healthcare, and housing? Aside from the fact that the government here is entirely more likely than The White House to heavily restrict immigration, or at the least to be unaccommodating towards it (there are very few buildings here accessible by the disabled), the question is purely beside the point. Again, Mr. Thomas’ quote can be referenced to reveal that when China does reach that point, it will already have in place the systems of enterprise, government, and yes, education, to rival America’s. The Chinese are using the latest knowledge and technology to propel themselves far faster than any nation in history to a level of state achievement on par with America’s. Yes, they probably will have to deal with some of these issues, just as America dealt (and in many cases, is dealing) with them. The meteoric pace of growth simply means that China will be able to do so with a much more developed state than America had at the same juncture.

Simply put, if China does finally catch up with the United States, they will have all of the assets, but fewer of the liabilities.

So with all these willing workers utilizing the latest technology to do pretty much whatever the government wants of them, it starts to look like keeping Top Dog Status in America is going to require an event along the lines of the banking debacle that brought Japan back down to earth. Except it probably won’t be a banking crisis like Japan’s as most of the banks here are, as with much of the enterprise, state-owned. Which brings me to an appropriate stopping point until tomorrow when I’ll ponder in prose about competition in China, outside China, with the United States, and hopefully provide a satisfactory explanation of The Long Answer as well. -joe

You can check out the China car market story below, but it might require an membership. E-mail me and I can send you the story directly if you like.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

These videos I was given

Since I arrived in Shenzhen a couple of days ago I've been spending my mornings and afternoons in an office on the seventh floor of the Modern Education Technical Research Institute with Mr. Xu, my mentor here. Our first encounter was interesting, as he had agreed to stay in his office until I arrived from the airport sometime around 7pm. Of course the weather around China, and especially the south, has not been very conducive to air travel (it has rained every day since I arrived in Shenzhen with little sign of change in the next three or four days) and my flight was predictably delayed by about an hour. I had only a piece of paper that Minjie had written for me in Shanghai to show my taxi driver at the airport, and I quickly ascertained that he did not know the exact location of my destination. Fortunately Minjie had the foresight to include Mr. Xu's mobile phone number on the paper, and once we got to the general area of the METRI, he was able to call Xu to get exact directions.
When I first approached the building my driver had so enthusiastically pointed out to me as my destination, I was sure they were closed. On two of the three large, clear glass double doors I could clearly see bicycle locks. The third set of doors I noticed were not locked shut, but this appeared to be for the purpose of allowing the night cleaning staff access to the building. I tentatively wheeled my two bags of luggage and laptop shoulder bag through the door and leaned them up against a wall.
Wandering around the lobby of the building I noticed a directory near the elevators. While it did provide me with information by which to make a guess about what floor Mr. Xu's office might be on, it did not tell me explicitly and I was beginning to consider leaving in the hopes of finding another person with a mobile phone to call him again. Then I heard voices from down a hall.
What looked like a member of the cleaning crew appeared in the lobby and to my surprise, did not immediately attempt to address me, instead seeming unusually disinterested in me. As he walked past on his way out of the building, I was able to get his attention with the paper Minjie had written for me. His enthusiastic response encouraged the assertion that I was at least in the right building and, after yelling to an unseen coworker, he even guided me (luggage in tow) to the elevators and told me "seven".
As I waited for the elevator to open and take me to the seventh floor, a young man with short hair appeared from around the corner, nodded his head politely, and continued to the exit. I thought about asking him about Mr. Xu, but he was past me so quickly I wasn't able. "White people wandering around here must not be that rare of an occurrence," I thought to myself. When I arrived on the seventh floor of the building I noticed that all the lights were off in every office. I didn't know whether to go left or right, but chose right and hoped to come across some sort of name tag on an office wall.
My visit here has so far been punctuated by enlightening moments in awkward situations when I am able to finally remove myself from the scenario enough to see it for its true absurdity. Most of these moments have been the result of various communication barriers, but the moment of my wandering down a dark hallway on the seventh floor in an abandoned business building at 8 o'clock in the evening with my rolling suitcase behind me and nobody around was surely one of the most absurd of such moments to realize.
I had no sooner come to get this third-person picture of myself and feel a little smile come to my face when a voice beckoned me from back by the elevator. It was the young man with short hair from before, Mr. Xu. We both laughed at having passed each other downstairs and left for the housing building that holds both of our rooms (conveniently next door to each other). Xu then took me to eat at a Hunan restaurant (the different areas of China have very different cuisines, with Hunan being defined by its spicy flavors) before telling me about his family and wife on the walk back.
The next day, as Xu prepared to leave for Guangdong for an interview about teaching technology, I was given some CDs with some videos of Chinese students in English class. I assume that the footage was taken at the experimental elementary school next to our housing and just a block from the METRI, but I don't actually know. I took time yesterday while Xu was gone to watch the videos and take some notes, the content of which I thought I might share.
First I should say that the lessons are very impressive, employing the use of technology to a level I have yet to witness in any U.S. classroom. Each student is outfitted with a computer, either all laptops or all desktops depending upon the room, and the teacher has a large projection screen with a computer feed.
Every lesson I have watched so far proceeds through a fairly regimented, but highly effective from an educational principles point of view, structure. The entire lesson is conducted exclusively in English beginning with the teacher greeting the second grade students, to which they respond appropriately and collectively. The class then moves into reciting a song they have apparently learned previously, complete with hand motions and accompanying music. Then the teacher introduces the topic to the class, pointing to several laminated words on the blackboard that correspond to the lesson. A couple of verbal examples are given and the teacher may use the large screen for reinforcement using custom created software accessed through the Internet.
Each child is then allowed to individually browse stories on the Internet with headphones, encouraged by the teacher to speak aloud when prompted. The software is perhaps the most impressive component of the entire affair, with kid-friendly animations, text on the screen with accompanying narration in English, and many opportunities for the students themselves to speak. Each student proceeds at their own pace through the lesson until the teacher calls the class back to order. At this point, the lesson is collectively reviewed on the board, complete with laminated words and illustrations that match those seen on the computer. Then a review game of some kind is played in front of the class using volunteers. After a few students, and perhaps even the teacher have participated in the game, the students are instructed to group themselves together in preparation for role playing.
Five minutes are given for each group to select one of the stories they just read and practice. When time is up, the class erupts with students loudly reenacting the characters and situations from their selected tale. They may do so for several minutes, referring back to the computer to remember their lines and get their pronunciation right. After an ample amount of time the teacher invites the groups to perform their story until class time ends. While there are many impressive aspects to this method of teaching, perhaps the most impressive is that all of this is accomplished with 40-50 students in the class.
I told myself that I would try to keep my posts short, and until today it seemed to have been going fairly well. Tomorrow though, I am going to try and post on a topic that has been on my mind since I got here: "Should America fear China?". I would be surprised if I were able to wrap it up in any less space than today's entry. Maybe you'll get lucky though, and I'll just post another picture or something. -joe

Dr. Wang took me to a small university in Shanghai that has one of China's best E-Learning labs. This photo was taken while we were on our way. At the lab I met a couple of graduate students my age and talked about the rise of E-Learning in China and elsewhere. The technology they utilize is like nothing I've seen yet in the U.S. Instructors can broadcast lessons around the country, with software showing users the instructor's computer screen as well as their face via webcam. In addition, users can access past lessons from a database using a computer or, as one of the students proudly showed me, a properly equipped mobile phone. Currently the lab is working on software that will enable users to send feeback and questions to the instructor during live feeds, perhaps also over mobile phone. On the distant horizon are plans to design a machine, also potentially accessible by mobile phone, that will place a tack on your instructor's seat while they are in the restroom, although the exact timetable for that project is still a bit unclear. Posted by Hello