Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Lecture Circuit

These days I find myself a university lecturer in demand. Granted these are usually one-off deals, a sort of special treat or indeed a promotion for educational services. As with most things here in China--as most other places--it all comes down to money.

Two days ago I was picked up from the front of my condo in Nanjing by a van, with driver and "translator" (in reality a high school student who had much trouble following my English, so I tried to trouble him as little as possible... he soon dozed off in the back of the van). We drove four hours north across the broad, flat rice-paddies, wooded levees, and canals that make up much of Jiangsu province. I found that I missed such long, uneventful drives. I used to do a lot of my best rumination while being chauffeured between Ann Arbor and East Lansing (past similarly bland, agrarian scenery).

We arrived in Huai'an, the birthplace of one of China's best known political monoliths: a man who played Robin to Chairman Mao's Batman (The Penguin might be a more fitting comparison for Mao, but nevermind), that suave foreign policy mouthpiece and PR guru. None other than Zhou Enlai. The town actually reminded me a lot of Lianyungang, which is to say that it was a small city (by Chinese standards) with few tall buildings, not particularly photogenic, centered on a round-about with a very similar tacky sculpture (vaguely global, this one, whereas LYG's is more like a winged abstraction if I remember right). A trip to the town's museum had been mentioned to me, so I asked if there was anything commemorating Zhou Enlai. Apparently not. Either that, or they didn't want to take me there to see the associated CCP triumphalist memorabilia, I guess.

We arrived at a high school that looked about to--literally--go to seed. I wouldn't have been surprised to see a tree trunk bursting through the blackboard of one of its classrooms, and I definitely wouldn't want to be teaching there in an earthquake. I was told that that was where I would deliver my lecture, to be entitled: 'Tips for Better English-language Study Habits'. Good enough. My translator scooted off into the advancing, humid gloom and was replaced with a young lady (20-something) with a face most unfortunately blistered with acne. She announced in awkward English that she'd be my translator at the lecture. She and the 'big boss', an indecisive 30-something fellow with a baby face, were duly alarmed to find that I hadn't written down my lecture notes yet--I had been told that it wouldn't really matter too much what I lectured about, so had assumed that a general lecture on my background and country would do... the specific topic 'English study habits' was imparted to me at the last minute, as is custom here in China: Wouldn't do to let foreign spies find out what the exact lecture topic would be ahead of time, after all! I think their alarm was mostly due to the fact that this young woman would have to translate my lecture, and she clearly wasn't up to the job. Even trying to explain to her the very basics of what I would discuss and some possible audience activities to follow was horribly painful on both of us. As far as my biographical information goes, she'd never heard of Turkey, Los Angeles (I used both the English and Chinese name as well as common acronym, but still no go), nor the University of Michigan. She spent about an hour or two quailing and balking at the idea of translating audience questions from Chinese to English as well as my answers in English back into Chinese. I assured her that I had done these sorts of lectures before, and not only would it be necessary to do this sort of translation in order to encourage more than one or two questions from the audience, but that it would be a horrible waste for some of these people to not be able to ask their questions in a manner comfortable and understandable to them, since, for most, their English would be rudimentary and their chances of meeting another foreigner any time soon would be vanishingly small. Eventually--Didacticus, non-existent patron god of teachers, be praised!--it was arranged that an English professor from a local university would be my lecture translator instead.

Dinner was atypically indecisive--I usually let the Chinese order since they know what the local specialities are better than I do--as the boss dithered. The food was good, however. Aromatic, spicy crawfish; salted, sliced duck breast; shrimp on a bed of some sort of aqueous tubular vegetable. Just the sort of food that Jiangsu rightfully boasts of.

After a night bedeviled by mosquitoes, I gave my lecture to a crowded hall--at least 100 children as well as some parents--at around 9 AM. As always before standing in front of a new batch of students, I felt nervous. The great shyness and lack of curiousity with which they avoided filling out the time I had alloted for Q&A didn't help. However, my translator (a friendly fellow with excellent English going by the English name of Joe) and I soldiered on. I started by disappointing their hopes of 'shortcuts', as practice really is the only way to perfect language skills, but continued by giving my best tips for making practice a more fun and self-tailored experience, making best use of books, tv-clips, movies, music, English-Corner, chance encounters with foreigners on the street (key point: be brave, feel free to approach and introduce yourself, but politely make certain that the foreigner really has time and inclination to talk rather than more important things to be about), as well as a few pronunciation exercises that could be practiced at home and modified according to preference for British pronunciation or American pronunciation. The lecture was a success, I think. At least in terms of its raw commercial purpose, eighty students immediately signed up for the program my lecture was in effect a promotional activity for. Both parents and students seemed to appreciate my forthwright appraisal of study methods and how to better them, in any case. One girl asked me what my advise for her was, she said she had absolutely no interest in learning English. I told her that since a certain capability with English was a prerequisite for attending a decent college in China as well as graduating from college, she'd best emulate Bill Gates (drop out and start her own business) or just resign herself to making the best of the unwelcome situation that exists. A lesson that could easily apply to us foreign expats who live in China as well, I suppose.

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