Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Surprise After Surprise

Well, that was an interesting sequence of events! Last night, I gave my first public lecture here in China, at Central University for Nationalities. Here are some of the highlights...

The students arrived late to pick me up. I guess I can't really label this a surprise. I mean, driving up Zhongguancun Lu at 6 pm is never a bargain.

My audience would not be students who study politics. Again, I shouldn't call this a surprise. The university told me, in their invitation, that I would be speaking in the School of Foreign Languages. These are students, it turns out, who do things like read Gone With the Wind and then compare it to Chinese literature. Not an audience I would normally expect at an American presidency lecture.

The students knew an awful lot about the election. Here's where I think language is the key. Since these students are highly proficient in English (remember, Gone With the Wind), they have the interest and tools to stay on top of what's happening in the United States. This point really hit me when one student asked, during Q&A, a question that went something like this..."Barack Obama has proposed allowing Americans to withdraw money from their IRAs with no penalty. Is this a new proposal? Or has it been proposed before?" My answer to that..."I have no idea."

I received some friendly advice from the Dean. When I arrived at the School of Foreign Languages, I was ushered into the Dean's office. There I sat down on this pleather sofa. (I think it's the identical sofa as the one in my office.) The Dean then welcomed me and quickly got down to business. "How long do you plan on speaking?" Now, since I had never received any instruction on this, I decided to plan about 40 minutes worth of material, like I normally would for an academic lecture back in the States. The rest of the time, I explained, we could leave for question and answer. The Dean's response? "There is so much to say about the American presidential election. You should speak for at least an hour, maybe an hour and a half." I think at one point he may have even suggested that I could take as much as two hours for my remarks. My response? No problem. I can speak for longer than 40 minutes. (It's hard sometimes to shut me up!) But I don't expect that I will speak for a full hour and a half. This compromise seemed to work, and the Dean quickly escorted me to the room where my audience was apparently waiting.

Remember the sea of black heads? Well, that was the sight I was greeted with. My talk was in this big room where every single seat was filled. Plus, there were lots of people standing in the back. Now, remember, we are behind schedule because of traffic problems. So who knows how long all of these students and others have been waiting. How many were there in all? I'm bad at estimating things like that. Maybe 100-200 people. It was quite a crowd.

One of my students from Beida attended the talk. When I mentioned to my class that I was going down to CUN to give a talk, one of my students told me that he did his undergraduate work there. Well, wouldn't you know it, when I looked out at the assembled masses, who did I spot but that student. I later saw him, after the talk, jumping on his bicycle, presumably to pedal the several miles back to PKU.

There was a ringer in the crowd. One of the other people I noticed right away was the only foreigner in the audience. Uh oh, I thought, who's this guy? Luckily, the two of us had a chance to chat for a few minutes before my talk began. (Inevitably, there were technical difficulties with the computer I was going to use for my PowerPoint slides.) Turns out, he's an American who is teaching at CUN. He apparently came to China to teach for one year. One week before he was supposed to return to the US, he asked himself why he would go back and leave all of this. So he threw out his plane ticket and decided to stick around. Now he's in his third year.

Another name for "tough questions." Here's what the very first student I called upon after my remarks were finished had to say. "I would like to ask three questions. I am afraid that my questions are very direct and pungent." (The emphasis was definitely on those last three words.) I scrambled for my legal pad, ready to scribble down notes and having no idea what I was about to get hit with. Just how direct and pungent did the questions turn out to be? Here's an be the judge. "Did Hillary Clinton lose the election because she is a woman?"

"Would you be my friend?" After the talk was over, I was instructed to move quickly, as the university had hired a car to drive me back. The longer the car had to wait, I presumed was the implication, the more it would cost the school. Moving quickly, though, was not as easy as it sounds. There were people who wanted to take pictures. There were students who wanted to ask about studying in the United States. And then there was this one student who persisted in walking alongside me as I was led to the university gate. At one point she told me that I had "profound insight" into American politics. And then she asked me if we could be friends. How do you respond to that? I reminded her that I had given everyone my e-mail address and they should all feel free to get in touch with me if they have any questions or comments about what I talked about or anything broadly related to the study of politics and public policy. That response seemed to satisfy her and off into the night she went.

Did all of that really just happen?



At 6:51 AM, Blogger Donna said...

Yes, it happened. I had a very similar experience at CUN, even with them being late to pick me up (but without a private meeting with the Dean). Their English ability was far better than my students at Renda. It was the only guest lecture I did, so I don't know which is more typical, but I think it's Renda. Looking forward to hearing more. d.

At 10:05 AM, Blogger The Balla Family said...

Hi Donna. I have several more lectures scheduled, so hopefully it will all start to make more sense! The problem is, I thought I had figured it out already, in terms of how to pitch the substance and English of my talks. Then I encounter a group like CUN, which was really off the charts. My current working hypothesis is that it has to do with a School of Government vs. a School of Foreign Languages. We'll see...


At 10:31 PM, Blogger Donna said...

How many students have you ended up with at Beida? Last I heard, there were only a few. It sounds like their English ability is like mine at Renda, which means it's hard to tell how much they are understanding. Do you use your Chinese to find out?? Enjoy the adventure! d.

At 10:49 PM, Blogger The Balla Family said...

I have what I _think_ is a grand total of six (yes, six!) students. I say "think" because there has been no official class list or anything like that. And their English abilities really do make it hard to figure what acquisition is actually taking place in the classroom. Am I insulting them? Going totally over their heads?

The Chinese helps in a limited way. If I am sensing there is a word or concept that is puzzling them, I try to not only drop English synonyms, but also Chinese words.

Then there are the times when I really want to see changes in the expressions on their faces (it's a long class). So I just mix in some Chinese, which invariably cracks them up.



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