Thursday, November 01, 2007

That Worldview

When you have been in China as long as I have, you sometimes get lulled into a sense of normalcy; you forget that you are living in a place that is really, really different. Then there's that back-of-the-hand-across-the-face moment that cause the chopsticks to go flying out of your hands, or the spittle out of your so pridefully-non-spitting mouth.
I had a couple of these wake-up-and-smell-the-lead-paint moments recently in class. (Luckily I was able to mitigate my reaction to a: "Well, other people might see it differently...")

I asked the students in a Toefl preparation class to brainstorm what makes a good speaker of a foreign language. What, for example, would a good foreign speaker of Chinese sound like? What qualities would you look for?

They are a bright group, and we're spot on with their answers, mentioning everything from fluency to intonation and predicting the speaker's intentions. The only thing I could think to add was appropriateness, of knowing when to say the right thing and what the right thing to say was.
"Or," as I put it, "Knowing when not to say something."

I gave the example of telling people they were fat. This was a common thing a few years ago, though it seems to be on the decline now. Students would come up to foreign teachers and simply tell them that they were too fat.
"You just can't call someone fat in America," I told the class. "Especially if it's a woman, and especially if it's true."

I went on to explain that personal appearance in general was fairly off limits, unless it was positive or you were extremely close to the person. The kids in the class nodded -- they seemed to have already figured it out. They were sophisticated enough to have gotten it without my needing to tell them -- or so I thought.

After I gave my little admonishing lecture, one of the better students raised her hands and asked in all seriousness: "But can we call someone chubby?"

* * * *

With the freshmen, these things are a little more expected; they haven't had much contact with foreigners, most of them. They are sort of blank slates. Their general knowledge is limited. They are just starting out on their studies of journalism. I've found that what gets taught at the end of many journalism courses -- ethics, responsibility, core values -- has to get taught right up front here with the youngest students, and has to be repeated over and over.

The students had an assignment to research a case in which the journalistic value system broke down, or to find a story that was missing a core value. They then had to present it to the class. I walked around to different groups, and caught a story that seemed interesting: one of the few boys in class was telling his classmates about a story he'd read about Tibet.

"So what's the problem with this story?" I asked.

"I think it is an example of bias," he said. The student went on to explain how all the sources in the story were right in line with the government's view on the Dalai Lama and Tibet. We had talked about bias, balance, propaganda, accuracy and fairness in a story we'd read the previous week. The story had been about the U.N. rejection of a Taiwan move to discuss independence -- it had been filled with difficult words like "inalienable" and "secession," but the students had done well and I was proud of them.

"Great," I said. "When we come back from the break, you can present this story to us."

Lone, the student, began the presentation, and I helped him by writing "Dalai Lama" on the board.

"Do you know who the Dalai Lama is?" he asked the class, most of whom shook their heads. "He is a secessionist who wants to break Tibet from China."

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