‘In China, learning is suffering’

“Walter! Walter! Hello! Hello!”

My teaching partner and I scan the crowd waiting to meet passengers at the Changsha Airport. Two women and a man are waving enthusiastically in our direction from behind the barrier. To say that we’re glad to see our colleagues from the National University of Defense Technology is an understatement: Including flights, layovers, and a 75 minute delay leaving Beijing, we’ve been underway for more than 24 hours.

Our colleagues quickly relieve us of our suitcases and take us out to a waiting van. “We’re sorry that we can’t find you a room to stay in the Foreign Experts’ Building at our university,” says Yue, a female professor in the Department of Computing Science. “We hope it is acceptable that we booked you into a hotel nearby instead. It is very close, only 5 or 10 minutes by car.”

DSCN0921Right now, any room with a bed sounds good to me. When we arrive, our hosts take care of checking us in and accompany us upstairs. “We think you will need a good rest tomorrow,” says Yue. “We would like to bring you to the university at 4 o’clock. Then we will go out for dinner together.”

The next afternoon, refreshed by sleep and oriented by a bit of exploring around the local neighborhood, we meet Yue and our driver, who fights his way through a thick tangle of horn-honking cars, buses, and motor scooters. He turns off under the massive stone university gate. Soldiers stand guard at the entrance, and around the campus, and many students are in military uniforms. Yue explains that there is an army training centre here in addition to the various “civilian” faculties.

We tour two prospective classrooms, one larger with fixed desks and seats curved around a central computer console, one smaller with movable tables and chairs. We’ll figure out which we want to use once we know more about our professor students. We’re introduced to half a dozen smiling computer science graduate students, who will be taking care of our teaching needs and our weekend tours around Changsha. At the arrival of the university vice-president, who issued our official letters of invitation, the graduate students disappear and we sit down with him and several instructors from the department of computing science to talk more about our teaching context.

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Traditional elementary classroom in China

“In China,” the vice-president says, “learning is very different than in Canada. It is hard, hard work. It is not fun or enjoyable. Learning is suffering. When our children begin kindergarten, they cry. We know that this must change, but it is part of our culture. The change will not be easy.”

We talk a little more about university students in China. Yue tells us that the students attend class regularly – “they have to, because they live here and they have nothing else to do” – but often fall asleep during lectures. They are expected to give “the right answer,” not engage in problem solving. “We don’t know how to teach here. Nobody ever showed us how. That’s why we need your help.”

We are also curious to learn more about the professors who will attend our classes. They are coming from five universities, including our host institution. “They will be quiet at first. They like to write, not talk. And some of them may not have used the English they learned in school for ten years.” Walter and I exchange glances. It’s a good thing both of us have experience in teaching English as a second language.

Just as the meeting is about to end, the vice president says, “There is one more thing we want to tell you. Our toilets are the kind they have in India. There are no flush toilets anywhere on the campus. You only find those in the hotels. We are sorry.”

As we head towards the van that will take us to dinner, a troop of crisply marching soldiers in green camouflage parallels our walk, heading towards a large open square. Instinctively, I reach for my camera, but something stops me. “Am I allowed to take pictures here?” I asked the vice-president.

“No, you should not take photographs on the campus. The soldiers don’t want to have their pictures taken. And you are a foreigner, so the guards will not know why you are taking the pictures, or what you plan to do with them. Another day, one of us can walk with you and show you what you can photograph.”

As we head off campus, one of the guards near the gate salutes us. We’ve had our introduction to the National University of Defense Technology, but I have the feeling the next four weeks will hold as much learning for us as they do teaching.

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Western gate at the National University of Defense Technology

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