Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Surreal Job of Judgment

Earlier this week I was asked to judge an English competition at the college where I teach. The role was not one of importance, so much as one of entertainment. Three out of about twenty teachers and school administrators, the English-speaking foreigner's opinion of the essays and songs (all in English) did not really count for much.

The first essay was by far the best and most interesting, both in terms of the imagery used and the creativity applied to an otherwise mundane topic, 'My Town, Today'. This boy had obviously memorized his essay, but never asked for a second opinion on his pronunciation. The words he spoke were unintelligible, but spoken with confidence nonetheless. Reading the copy of his essay (which we were given), he spoke of his small town in the Jiangsu countryside. As a boy, he and his brother would fish in a beautiful pond. A paradise. Now, however, chemical factories and other noisome aspects of development had arrived in his small town. "White [fish] maws gaped at the surface of the pond" which had turned putrid black in color. No one fished there anymore, and few boys even chose the area around the pond as a place to play. "Paradise Lost", the author claimed. He then produced a balanced view of the benefits of development (more jobs for the rather poor populace) versus his nostalgia for the green days of his youth, and his hope that China would no longer allow such ecological blight to mar its economic growth. He praised the Central Government for drawing attention to China's pollution problems. Perhaps he even meant that praise, although I'd imagine that having written the only vaguely negative essay of the whole bunch that we heard, some praise thrown--like a bone for a dog--to the government is probably de rigeur. Certainly it seems that the central government here in China is more concerned about these sorts of problems than local government is.

The event proceeded with myriad more essays about people's hometowns: sunny, relentlessly positive accounts detailing (sometimes in too much clinical detail) the triumphs of various local industries, and peppered with various common slogans. A bit boring for us judges, really. To top it off, the only other essay subject allowed was related to '30 years of reform' as instigated by Deng Xiaoping. Now, I respect the man and what he accomplished; I respect that even the crackdown of 1989 was probably sanctioned by Deng Xiaoping out of a love for his country rather than a love of the CCP's monopoly on power. Mao, by comparison, was completely motivated by self-interest. But I'm not confident that these students really even understand what Deng Xiaoping accomplished. Perhaps they're just not allowed to go into more interesting comment on the process by which an aggressively communist county became hyper-actively capitalist. But even if they could, would they be capable of it? Critical thinking is actively discouraged in Chinese schools, one would not be surprised to learn, to the point of total atrophy.

Over the evening, we heard a lot of those same vague slogans such as 'Socialism with Chinese Characteristics' that allowed Deng Xiaoping to steer the country around some of the vehement 'Maoist' communist apparatchiks. Since the judges were allowed to ask one question after each essay was given, I was sorely tempted to ask the students to define 'Chinese Characteristics'. I had pity, however. These young apostles of Mammon, the children of relatively well-to-do Chinese families, have been cloistered from reality since childhood: spoiled by their parents and grandparents like 'little emperors', entranced by the fake virtual worlds presented in computer games and TV, and relegated to spending most of their time studying for ubiquitous tests. Furthermore, students here have never been exposed to uncensored explanations of modern Chinese history, such that they've lost all interest in history because it is all presented in such a false, cardboard fashion. So could we determine what did interest these students, by the content of their essays? Yes.

Money; consumption; pride in the return of their country to a powerful place on the world stage. These are the prime interests of China's youth, at least as far as I could determine that night. Some even supposed that China has become a 'world power' in 2008. I think this may be a bit presumptuous, but the title is probably only waiting another twenty years or so. In any case, few of them were willing to let any cynicism into their appraisal of the world they inhabit (at least at this event). I asked two of the readers: "Having explained the many ways in which your hometown had improved over your lifetime, could you tell us about any problems you see there which still need to be fixed?" Their response, in both cases, was more than cautious. If one listened to these students, the worst problems China faces is that people in crowded buses seldom move aside to let pregnant women and the elderly have a seat. Hmm.

Just off the top of my head, I can think of one very simple problem far greater than the one named above, but less controversial than the ones often named in Western expose stories about China. When I asked my students in an exam what their favorite hobby was, most of them answered, "Sleeping".

Yes, 'sleeping' is one of the most popular hobbies among China's youth. My god, a more boring answer to that question could probably not be devised! Are these the people who will be important cogs in a vast, dynamic, and increasingly important country? When given the freedom of a little time, time with which an infinite array of activities or thoughts could fill, their best response is to lower their eyelids and depart once again from reality!

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