Finally, I made it to the hotel. There I would discover two beautiful creatures, two American girls; Maggie and Molly! I entered the elevator and somehow loudly pronounced the word FIVE before pushing the button. It was followed by a loud voice “SIX”. The moment I saw them I struck a conversation and expressed my excitement of seeing other Americans in that town. They were from North Carolina. Maggie was working as a salesperson for an American company that was selling home automation or smart home devices. Molly was a university student and had come for her summer trip and was hoping to make a few bucks by tutoring English to those who could afford it. We met each other in the lobby several more times.
Another day, while walking on a busy side walk I noticed a tall guy with blond hair. I yelled from behind: “Go home Yankee!” He turned back, and upon seeing my face he smiled. Perhaps his facial expression would be different if I looked like a Chinese. He was an American, studying Chinese at Hunan University, while melting in the sweltering heat of Changsha. When I told him that we were there with 18 exchange students who had already studied Mandarin from a Chinese teacher for one year in USA, his eyes opened with happiness. I could not help but remind him the reality: hey these kids are your competition! He woke up and cracked a joke: “let me go to my dorm and study more!” I tried to console him: “do not worry; there are more than a billion Chinese!”
I have never been flag-waving, gun-totting type of a citizen, and I will never be. Nationalism or jingoism has been responsible for the biggest atrocities and wars in the last century. Replacing the religious zeal of medieval era, nationalism has surpassed religious bigotry in terms of producing hate, enemies, evil empires, axis of evil, wars, genocide and appalling atrocities. Nevertheless, my excitement for meeting two Americans among millions of Chinese was the expression of my peaceful, cultural patriotism. You may never know how much you love America and Americans until you move to another country where English is like French and Americans are a rarity. You may never know how lucky you are for being an American citizen until you are stopped by police for your political/religious views or affiliation, as it happened to me in my hometown numerous times.
Chinese Children: the Most Precious Commodity
Back to the “more than a billion Chinese!” Egypt? Pyramids and Nile. France? Eiffel Tower and Wine. Turkey? Blue Mosque and St. Sophia. China? China Wall and Population! China has adopted a one-child policy for decades. This controversial policy has reduced the increase in population. The law does not have much power over the rich who can afford to pay the fine for the second child and those living in countryside. Some rich people avoid the restriction by taking their wives abroad, usually to the US or Europe, to give birth to their second or third children. Still, the impact of one-child policy on the society is huge. The only child gets the whole attention of the family and is luckier than older generations in terms of enjoying prosperity and freedom. Children with no siblings feel lonely, which is bad; but this brings families together with other families, which is good. Many weekend activities are shared by families!
At Lushan International and Experimental School, during the first week of our arrival, I gave three lectures to senior students who were interested in studying abroad. An average class had 60-70 students, about three times the average class we have in Tucson. Another visually outstanding fact was the piles of books towering over each desk. Chinese students appeared to be literally drowning among books which covered the faces of some shorter students. They had little space left on their little desks to use for taking notes. This was just the opposite of what we were experiencing in America. In the beginning of every class, I would ask my secondary and even college students to take out their books, or papers and pens. Almost every teacher in American schools is used to see some students coming to the classroom with neither paper nor pen! So, those Chinese classes had a shocking first impression on me.
My first lecture was an impromptu one: on the importance of critical and creative thinking. I grabbed a plastic drinking water bottle in the classroom and compared it to a clay jar. I called the plastic bottle a technological marvel. I pulled their attention to the structural and design improvements over the clay jar, from the verticals on the lid to the transparency of the container, from the concave ring in the middle to the weight ratio of the container to the water, from its durability to its mass production… And I pulled their attention to a big negative aspect of the plastic bottle: not biodegradable. I told them that anyone who would improve this bottle’s design or make it environmentally friendly would be snapped by a bottle manufacturer. In the second lecture, I compared and contrasted the cultures of both countries. I shared with them the cultural shock I experienced 19 years ago when I immigrated to the US. I could not believe my eyes when I first saw Americans shaving in their cars while driving, or reading magazines in their bathrooms. I talked about the pros and cons of American individualism and the same for Chinese socialism. My third lecture was more pragmatic and practical. It was about how to increase their chances to be accepted by top US universities. I advised them to explore and discover themselves. I told them to choose a scientific field and educate themselves deeper. I gave them hope by informing them that the 70% of graduate students who study engineering or sciences are foreign born. Almost all were very attentive and interested in studying at a US University.
In the end of a lecture, noticing a book cover containing both vertically and horizontally organized Chinese characters, I asked them about the direction of the Chinese writing. (I confess that I did not do my homework before the China trip). My question led me to learn an interesting fact. In ancient times, Chinese used bamboo strips to write. Since they would attach bamboo strips to each other with silk strings, the most reasonable way of writing would be vertical. Writing horizontally would create practical problems in both reading and writing. The direction of adding extra strips and the vertical flexibility of the bamboo surface dictated the direction of old Chinese: vertical!