Column: Lessons are exchanged as East meets WestQUZHOU, China — Quzhou is a city in Southeastern China with a population of about 250,000 people. The surrounding community includes about 2.5 million people.
By: Larry Sonnek, The Republican Eagle
QUZHOU, China — Quzhou is a city in Southeastern China with a population of about 250,000 people. The surrounding community includes about 2.5 million people.
This sized city in China is considered relatively small. People here like living in the area because it is by their standards small and clean. It has a chemical plant which is one of China’s 10 largest. employing around 20,000 people.
It has a number of schools. I’ve been fortunate to be allowed to teach at Quzhou Number Two Middle School.
In actuality, there are three schools in this complex. There is what we would consider a “middle school” educating students in grades 7-9, a high school and a foreign language school which also educates students in grades 10-12.
The distinction between the two high schools is complicated enough I’m not going to try to sort it out here. The regular high school accepts only the brightest students from the region. That is where I am teaching English.
I’ve had the good fortune to be chosen to represent Red Wing as an exchange teacher in the sister-city, teacher-exchange program. I’m sure some of my former English teachers might be spinning in their graves when there is mention of my teaching English. To be accurate, “teaching English” may be a misnomer. Although I am helping students to improve their language proficiency, the average senior’s English grammar would challenge most Americans. Although their English speaking skills are wanting, their effort is not.
This is a residential campus. Most of the students go home about once every two weeks. The students at the school study six days a week about 10 months of the year. Most holidays extend the weekend to two days.
They begin their studies before eight o’clock in the morning and they usually suspend their studies at 9:30 p.m. During the day they have time for physical activities and self-study.
They approach their studies in a way that I have seldom, if ever, seen matched in the United States. Most students accept the fact that this regimentation is necessary if they are going to do well on their final exams at the end of their senior year. These are the exams that will determine whether the student will be able to attend one of the prestigious universities in China.
Unlike the United States where there are many outstanding universities outside the circle of Ivy League schools, choices here become less desirable rapidly. This fact places incredible pressure on the students. Because of the emphasis on the need for studies, romantic relationships are discouraged to the point of being forbidden.
Although students long for what they understand to be the freedoms enjoyed in the United States, they generally understand the reason for the regimentation and accept it.
Many Americans might be perplexed when looking on this situation and they may be critical of this learning style. It is different for sure, but it would be a mistake to criticize it to any greater degree than we should criticize our own educational system.
I’ve been here for a month asking as many probing questions as possible, and I’m only beginning to grasp the complexities of the society. These differences are not confined to the classroom but rather extend past the classroom to every aspect of the culture.
One side could easily criticize the other, but I think understanding is necessary before any meaningful discussion ensues.
Consider the contrast in family size. In China, only one child is allowed per family.
We’d probably consider that overreach by the government and be critical of the intervention. Most people in China would rather have larger families, but the law is accepted as a necessary sacrifice and as a responsible thing to do given the rapid growth of the world population in general and China’s population specifically.
There are considerable differences between food, table manners and traffic as well. The entire dining experience is truly a world apart.
The Chinese use chop sticks, spit out bones and slurp their soup. I I were to be critical in this instance, I’d side with the Chinese. The minor differences in eating styles are easily overlooked when one considers the freshness of the food. Most dining places allow you to point to the food you want prepared; and the assortment of meats and vegetables is incredible.
In one unforgettable eating experience, (which was nearly duplicated two weeks later) the fish was pulled from the lake while we watched and the duck pulled from the pen. Both were cleaned and prepared as we relaxed.
The various vegetables for the meal were pulled from the forest only a few hours before being prepared. Earlier in the morning I hiked up the side of a mountain to dig bamboo shoots. I mean fresh.
The only time I can remember having had a similar experience in the U.S. was over 50 years ago on my grandparents’ farm.
The variety of food is absolutely mind boggling. Gatherings of five of more people will usually sit at a table having a serving center made of glass that will rotate the food so people will choose what they want as it passes. Food is constantly added to the table and plates taken away as they are consumed.
Because I was the center of attention for many meals, the number of people at the meals seemed to always exceed five. The number of plates increases as do the number of people eating.
Without exaggeration, I believe during the first 10 days I partook of at least 150 dishes. Of those, I believe at least 100 were unique.
Even now, it is very likely I will have at least one new dish at a meal.
One night the new food was a beautiful and delightful fruit I’ve never seen before. At lunch the day before, we had the delicacy of the area – rabbits heads. The day before that, I had live abalone crawling around on the plate in front of me. Today it was fried miniature fish.
Turtles, donkey, every kind of water creature and innumerable vegetables have passed in front of me. In general, I’ve loved it all. It certainly beats, “Do you want fries with that order.”
Speaking of the health of the food, the meat is lean. The chicken doesn’t have tons of fat under the skin. The ham is a little drier but much less fatty and so much healthier.
I’m constantly told that the vegetables are grown without pesticides (but everything I read and hear tends to indicate China has a problem with pesticides).
Unfortunately, as the country gets more prosperous, you can see the citizens begin to change their eating habits. That’s unfortunate. I haven’t seen any obese people in Quzhou and I hope they do what they can to keep it that way.
Is it different here? Yes, very much so.
Is it better or worse? Trying to determine that may be a fool’s errand.
There are certainly things about the U.S. the Chinese would like to emulate but I don’t think they want everything we have. There are certainly many things here that we’d do well to adopt.
From the view I’ve gotten during my limited time here, I believe it is unfortunate that the pendulum swings more toward the West and away from the East.