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The New Generation in China

posted: 4.4.13 by Andrea Lunsford

Twelve days in Beijing has taught me a lot, especially in terms of what the students call “the new generation” in China.  I have met every day with undergraduate and graduate students, and often with faculty from Beihang and Peking universities, and have spent every available moment outside of these work-related meetings talking with every young person I could find to talk to me.  First, they all speak English, albeit to varying degrees. Most of them have studied English since they were children (my host’s son, who is 6, has been taking English lessons for three years).  As one student said to me, “Everyone here wants to know English.”  So there is a big English teaching/learning industry here, with all kinds of companies offering courses, tutorials, and materials related to English language learning. One striking thing about “the new generation” is that they know not just the English language but also quite a lot about U.S. and European history and even literature (one student recognized an allusion to Othello that I hadn’t even used consciously–“Oh yes, that’s the Shakespeare play about terrible effects of envy”).

I’ve also re-learned a lesson that all teachers need to heed:  to listen hard and carefully, to practice “rhetorical listening,” as Krista Ratcliffe defines it.  Even though I am here to deliver lectures, I have had to remind myself that these lectures need to be informed by what I am hearing from the members of my audience.  So in the Q and A sessions, I have tried to listen rhetorically, to catch every nuance I possibly could.  Doing so has shown me that the students are frustrated by a pedagogy that focuses primarily on correctness and on grammatical structures: when I listen hard I hear them say “we want to write more about our ideas” or “sometimes I don’t want to get my sentence just right.”  So the students seem ready to spread their wings in terms of writing and reading–and also in terms of making their own way.  Two or three have said to me something like, “We young Chinese don’t want to do just what our parents tell us; we want to be independent.”  That resistance to authority goes only so far, however.  The young people I’ve spoken with are patient with their government, saying that order and structure are needed in such a huge nation to get things moving forward and keep them going that way (“economic development” is a key phrase among them). They feel confident that time will bring more and more relaxation of governmental control; their optimism in this regard is palpable!

Chinese teachers, however, are struggling to fulfill multiple roles:  their job is to prepare their students to pass stringent examinations, and to do so the students must above all be “correct.”  How can the teachers fulfill this mission while allowing the students the freedom they seem to want in terms of writing their “own ideas.”  This is a challenge U.S. teachers face as well, but certainly not to the degree that these Chinese educators do. They are, after all, teaching English as another language, working to help their students gain real fluency in that language, which makes their task that much more challenging.  After one of my lectures, two faculty members got into quite a heated debate, with one arguing that they should not teach their students to write in highly formulaic ways (for the exam) and the other arguing that such formulae are exactly what their students need and that to teach any other way is to deny them access to additional education in English. I can hear echoes of similar debates at home, indicating that to some degree all teachers of writing share some problems in common.

Finally, I’ve seen first-hand how relieved the Chinese are to be in “the new China” and beyond the Cultural Revolution.  Many of the students have parents and/or grandparents who suffered terribly during Mao’s Revolution, and they are exquisitely aware that “we Chinese are much better off today than before.”  Perhaps this sense of relief is part of what gives them patience.  As they told me, “We in China are tolerant,” by which I think they mean that they are patient, willing to tolerate what they must while they work and hope for an even better future.  As one student said, “We want to see China stable and permanently peaceful.  And friends with the U.S.  Really, we have no reasons not to be friends.”  Certainly I have benefited greatly from the friendliness, kindness, and generosity of my hosts and their students.  I hope I have learned from them how to be equally welcoming to visitors at home.

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