Making the Grade in China, Part 3, Conclusion

I decided to compile the China posts into a book and then decided to be as inclusive as possible, adding other things I’ve written and published about my life in China in the 1980s. 

When I came back from the Peoples Republic of China in 1984, I had a lot to say. A magazine — the EastWest Journal, long defunct, published my article about teaching in China.

SO — I found the magazine in the garage in a bin and started typing the article into my lap top. Yeah. It was typed on my Smith-Corona back in the day. ❤

Part One is here and Part Two is here.


I thought the Haiku and Tanka assignment was a wonderful success, but the students had reservations. These were related to the word “examination,” which terrified them. Chinese students have, in the past, ended their lives over the prospect of a difficult exam. One of my classes, the most conventional and political of the junior year, was certain I was springing a trap for them by having them write poetry instead of searching for “the right answers.” While they were willing to suspend this search in class sessions and everyday homework, when they examination came, they were very worried. I didn’t take the situation seriously, or even fully understand its gravity, until one night before a paper was due.

I had asked the composition classes to choose one of four poems we had not discussed in class and to write an analytical essay. All the classes spent the last evening scribbling madly in their classrooms. Doing homework in the classroom was normal. Their dormitories offered them no place to study. About 7 o’clock two girls came to our apartment, and they were very worried about their essays. They had chosen the same poem, but had approached it from different angles. Neither was wrong; in fact, each girl had done a careful and subtle reading. I was pleased with both papers and told them so. “But hers is different from mine!” cried one anguished girl. I later learned that none of their classmates had agreed with either of them, and that’s why they had come to see me.

It’s difficult to be an individual in China. In fact, one of the most interesting parts of American literature was teaching the American Transcendentalism unit where I introduced the seniors to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

There is nothing more antithetical to modern or historical China than Emerson’s theory of individualism. My students had been taught in political philosophy classes that Emerson was a selfish, ruthless individual whose philosophy was responsible for the exploitation of women and children during the early years of the Industrial Revolution. After my lecture, which I delivered somewhat nervously — by then familiar with the Communist perspective — a girl came up to talk to me. What she had to say she didn’t feel like she could say in front of her classmates. She said she thought Emerson and Marx were really about the same. Both men were worried about man losing his identity to the industrial machine. 

Thoreau was an enigma to my students, and by the time I taught Walden Pond, Thoreau was an enigma to me, too. When the “simple life” is a fact of necessity and not a matter of choice, the romance of Walden Pond begins to look like a self-indulgent, one man Boy Scout trip. “Why would anyone do that?” asked a student who, a few weeks earlier, had done a sensitive and creative interpretation of Freneau’s “The Wild Honeysuckle.” I looked at the student and didn’t know what to say. 

“I don’t know, Bao,” I admitted, suddenly finding Thoreau’s choices absurd. As for Civil Disobedience, such actions have taken place in Chinese history — often — but civil disobedience is not a very Chinese thing to do. My students saw Thoreau’s stint in jail as the story of a man standing against bourgeois oppression, something unnecessary in a socialist state. 

We finished the Transcendentalism unit with the work of Walt Whitman which, at first, my students didn’t like at all. Whitman’s proletarian patriotism generally gets good reviews from Party critics, but my students preferred Longfellow’s rhymed lines and sonorous language. After I’d read quite a bit of Whitman out loud, my students began to see what he was trying to do. 

My students were very sensitive to the differences between the sounds of American and British English and, with Whitman’s help, they began to hear the softer rhythms and gentler inflection of American speech. They liked Whitman’s love of the people and his use of ordinary subjects as images. For an examination question I asked them to pretend that Longfellow was Whitman’s writing teacher. 

When the exams came in, the vote was split. Half said Longfellow would suggest to Whitman that he give up the writing of poetry and take on some other kind of work. The other half had Longfellow praising Whitman’s experiments with the American language and his realistic pictures of daily life. “But,” said even the enthusiastic Longfellow, “you ought to rhyme your lines, Whitman, so your poems would be more beautiful.”


My last teaching tasks at South China Teacher’s University were two of the happiest. At the end of the year I was invited by an all-city student group, “The Literary Society,” to speak on a subject of my choice. I decided to speak on Hemingway and the Lost Generation, an appellation used by post-Cultural Revolution young people to describe themselves. I began informally with anecdotes about Hemingway’s life in Paris, his ideas about writing, his friendship with Gertrude Stein and other expatriates. As always, I had forgotten to speak slowly and was trying to compensate by writing madly on the board and drawing lots of pictures. Worried that I had lost my audience, I turned around and looked at them. They looked excited, not lost. For the first time they were seeing that the authors they read in a foreign language class had been real people who fell in love, lost their jobs, doubted their abilities, had fights, ate dinner.

When I next met with the group, it had grown to a standing room crowd of 300 in the large lecture hall. There I had access to a stereo system and a slide projector. I talked to them about the ‘30s, the Harlem Renaissance, and the new Southern Writers. I played music by George Gershwin and Woody Guthrie (whose music they knew well) and showed them how the same spirit that wrote the poetry had composed the music. It was a wonderful evening, and I had the satisfaction that night eery teacher hopes for. My students were learning from me; they were enjoying it; they were there, not for marks or to get a good assignment — the were there because they wanted to be.


“The Wild Honeysuckle” by Philip Freneau

4 thoughts on “Making the Grade in China, Part 3, Conclusion

  1. I would have loved being your student, though probably not in EASL. Maybe poetry. I’ve never liked most poetry as much as I should. I like individual poems by a variety of poets, but I don’t love it. I feel like I should.

    • Poetry is one of the most irrelevant things in the world. A poem that speaks to you is all you need, IMO, and I love poetry and (subjectively) think it’s very important (to me). But the way it is usually taught in schools makes it as incomprehensible as a foreign language and those aren’t taught well, either. Poetry is treated like some elite, incomprehensible riddle with right and wrong answers or it’s taught from the subjectivist angle “Whatever it means to you” bullshit. Nope. I think poetry might open the world, it might put a frame around a deep inchoate emotion, it might do a lot of things only because people wrote them and the soul of the writer goes into the soul of the words. But just as we don’t like everyone we meet, we’re not going to like a lot of poetry. ❤

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