Wednesday, September 24, 2008


There I was last night, standing in front of a few (more on how few below) of China's finest graduate students. At last, the culmination of years of hard work and preparation. And, as usual, what transpired defied all planning, both for good and for bad.

The Room. At Beida, the classrooms are kept locked until a few minutes before class begins. There are these young women who walk around with huge rings of keys. These women are dressed in black pants, white button-down shirts, and ties. (Kinda reminds me of what banquet servers wear in the US.) Not only do these women open classrooms, they also open up the metal cabinets where the classroom computers are kept.

Unluckily for me, my laptop has a foreign operating system. (Like me, it apparently doesn't know enough Mandarin to communicate effectively with its Chinese counterpart.) This led to the women with the key rings walkie-talkie'ing a supervisor, an older sounding lady who said (through lots of static) that I would have to change my laptop to a Chinese operating system. When I indicated my unwillingness to make this move, they called in the person who deals with the really hard technology problems...a young guy wearing a t-shirt and jeans...perhaps older than Z. Just in time, he had everything working properly and I was ready for show time.

The Students. At the designated start time, there was a grand total of two (2) students in the room. Desi and I had been joking about how no one would show up, given my low profile at the School of Government. (I literally have not met a single other professor. I've seen a few working in their offices. I even borrowed scissors from one, but that's as far as it went.)

I decided to wait a few extra minutes, and eventually a few more students wandered in, bringing the grand total to six. Off we went...

The Mug Shots. One of the first things I did was show students mug shots of various American political figures. Everyone recognized George W. Bush. Barack Obama was familiar to some students. (Someone else I showed the photos to asked the following question when John McCain appeared on the screen. "Is that a Russian guy?") Nancy Pelosi? Forget it.

The Pacing. As I was lecturing, I was constantly plagued by doubt. Am I insulting my students, by speaking too slowly, using words that are too simple, and making gestures that are too big? Or am I talking completely over their heads? Here is what one student wrote on an index card..."I can't speak English well. Fortunately, I can understand what you said."

The Questions. At the end of class, students had only one question about the course. It concerned the short essays they will be writing during the semester. "Will the essays be in English?"

Lots of questions about me. Some were predictable. "Where are you from?" "Do you like China?"

Others questions were less obvious. "How tall are you?" Of course, I could only answer in feet and inches.

Getting the Word Out. One of the last things I told students was to let their friends know about the class. On the way out, one student came up to me and said, "I will tell my friends. I think you are a good teacher."

Well, I have been told that I am the second best teacher in my family...



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