This article originally appeared in Caixin.
In channeling cultural heritage, a progressive school in Hebei Province offers a multitude of lessons – on being a foreign teacher in China.
The strangest things about Duancun School always seem to revolve around food.
The first time I sat down to eat in the school’s cafeteria, I was surprised to hear a loud chorus of somber voices from the students’ section. All the children, even the youngest of six or seven, sat in front of their full bowls with eyes closed, their hands clasped as if in prayer.
“The students are giving thanks,” my host whispered to me. Their manner – earnest and solemn, but as though they had spoken the same words a thousand times before – reminded me of Christians saying grace in the United States. It confused me. I thought of Christianity as about as far away from my new home in rural Hebei Province as you could get. I didn’t think the school’s Confucian philosophy included a God, but if not, who were they thanking? I listened closely to understand the Chinese: “Thank you classmates for your caring help, thank you, parents, thank you, country…thank you, teachers!”
When done eating, I went to shove my last few grains of rice into the trash before putting my bowl in the sink. I noticed as I did this that all the other bowls were not only completely empty, they were shiny. Later, a teacher politely explained that at the end of the meal, everyone pours warm water into their bowls and drinks up the last bits of rice and sauce. That way, not a single scrap of food is wasted.
Practices like these give me the impression that the school’s philosophy is extreme. Duancun School’s Fuxi Program is one of several across the country developed under the guidance of Professor Wu Hongqing, a former professor of Chinese classics and calligraphy at Beijing CCTV and Radio University. Wu pledged to work toward Chinese educational reform as a reaction to what he saw as an over-emphasis on homework and a lack of moral teaching in his son’s education.
“To me, it’s most important to allow students to study in a relaxed atmosphere, and to grow up happily,” he says. Wu believes that through studying the Chinese classics, students will grow up more well-rounded and better able to contribute to society. “Chinese society is currently facing many problems, but I think the basic problem is still a problem of people. If you have a lot of people with the ability to serve society – who won’t just try to get rich for themselves – then we can solve all kinds of social problems.” Students in Wu’s program study basic math, writing, and English, as well as calligraphy, art, music and martial arts. Their literature classes are composed of ancient Chinese classics. I was hired to work with the Fuxi Program as a foreign English teacher.
On my first trip out to Duancun I happened to arrive in a car with Professor Wu. As soon as we pulled up at the gate, about 30 students who were playing outside dropped what they were doing and ran up to greet him, screaming with glee. They hung on his arms and legs so that he could barely move. He smiled at them and patted them on the head.
Kids don’t behave like this in the U.S., I thought. They seemed like fictional children from a 1960s musical – almost too adorable to be real.
When I began teaching, I was surprised at their behavior in the classroom too. They were attentive and respectful. They bowed to me at the beginning of each class, and at the end. They almost never complained, and were incredibly eager to please. When I ran out of space writing on the board, about six or seven students would race to the front, fighting to be the first to help me erase. They asked many questions, and seemed genuinely interested in the material. They appeared to be perfect children.
As time went on, however, I began to see that they were real kids. There were periods when class got boring, and they let me know it by groaning loudly or whispering to their friends. One day, one of my bolder students approached me on the stairs and demanded to know why I never called on her group during class. The class is divided into groups and groups can win prizes for right answers, so getting called on is important. Before I could answer, another teacher appeared behind us. “That is the teacher’s business!” she scolded. “You pay attention to your own business and don’t worry about why the teacher makes her decisions!” The girl didn’t say anything. The teacher seemed shocked. I felt bad for the girl. I worried that the students’ obedience came at too high a price.
I wasn’t sure exactly how I felt about the Fuxi Program. There were some things that really appealed to me. I sensed the teachers cared deeply about their role and about the students. They often acted like loving parents, doting on the kids, gently teasing them, and listening patiently to their stories. They were also warm towards me. From the time I arrived, I felt welcome. They didn’t treat me like an odd foreigner as many people often do. But I also had the uneasy feeling that the Fuxi Program might be based on values I did not agree with.
One evening, after finishing their nightly prayer of thanks, some of the teachers whispered to one another not to eat yet. Two teachers came out in front to face a painting of Confucius leaning against the serving window. They kowtowed to it several times, bowed to each other, and then turned to face us.
“Students, I have committed an error…” one of the teachers said. Her tone was somber. “I want you to know that teachers also make mistakes. I have…” She told us what she’d done, but I couldn’t understand the Chinese. I guessed that the two teachers had gotten into some kind of argument. Finally, she asked, “Students, can you forgive me?”
“Yes!” They answered in unison. The other teacher then apologized and asked for forgiveness.
“Is there anything you want to add?” a third teacher asked the principal, who was standing nearby.
“No,” he said. “Let the children eat.”
I was slightly stunned. I knew the school took personal responsibility very seriously, and I didn’t know what they had done, but this public shaming seemed excessive. I have always felt that guilt and shame can be especially harmful to a person. Maybe it was my mother, who describes herself as a “recovering Catholic,” who convinced me that a strong emphasis on guilt is unproductive. Requiring someone to confess their sins in front of a group of people seemed like an especially hurtful, sinister punishment.
“You think Chinese people are weird,” a parent of one of the students told me. He had come to campus for a school event, and upon hearing that I was an American who spoke Chinese, became very eager to talk to me. “You think we are weird, but we also think you are very weird. We have different values. Every culture has its values. There are lots of little customs that make us different. For example, when you give someone a gift, you expect them to open it right away. That is polite. But in China it is considered impolite to open a gift immediately. You are supposed to say thank you and put it away.”
I often have these types of conversations with people who are excited to talk with a foreigner about their philosophy of life. It always feels a little bit forced, as if we are trying to fit all the differences between America and China into a nice, convenient package. But what he was saying interested me. And he was exactly right. There had been several instances in China where people had not opened gifts and it had bothered me.
“There are all these little things that make us different, but bigger things too. We believe in not judging others before you judge yourself. Humility is very important to us. But now we are more like you. Our values are Western values. We are where you were, 80 years ago. And we are making the same mistakes – destroying the environment in the name of progress, for example. But hopefully because you have done it before we can learn from your mistakes. We have become materialistic, like you.”
He laughed nervously. “That’s not to say Western societies are not based on values too. Your society emphasizes freedom and democracy. Those are your values. But we are not so concerned with freedom and democracy. That’s not our priority. We are more concerned with peace and harmony.”
This parent was very polite, but he was obviously frustrated with the influx of Western values into Chinese society. When I think of my own values and how I fit into American culture, I’d say I belong to a cultural subset of very “liberal” people. I am even referred to as a “hippie” sometimes by people who know me. Before moving to China, I lived for six years in the U.S. state of California’s Bay Area, which is considered one of the most liberal places in the U.S. The people I knew there were very socially responsible and environmentally conscious. Almost everyone recycled and composted their trash, most shopped at grocery stores that specialized in local, organic or fair trade products, and many were vegetarians because of animal welfare or environmental concerns. In many ways, the culture was a reaction to the lack of social responsibility believed to be prevalent elsewhere.
I was surprised when I got to Duancun and many of the teachers asked me if I ate meat. I had always believed that it would be near impossible to survive as a vegetarian in China. I had been a vegetarian years before but had given it up for various reasons, including lack of willpower.
“We rarely eat meat,” one of the teachers told me one day. “We believe that it’s a waste of resources. It requires an enormous amount of land to produce a very small amount of food. And it uses up a great deal of water. We don’t think it’s right.”
That’s very true, I thought. It made me feel a bit guilty for abandoning my vegetarianism. I was impressed with their sense of social responsibility. Like my friends back home, they were willing to make sacrifices in their own lives for a greater social purpose.
The parent I met that one day wasn’t completely wrong when he insisted that I thought Chinese people were weird. Specifically, the traditional Confucian values that govern Duancun’s Fuxi Program stand out as very different to my own. I’d like to live in a society where people don’t get shamed, and are allowed to question authority. And yet, I sense that these people are looking for the same thing many Americans are – something more to believe in rather than the materialism handed to us. When I sit down to eat my bowl of veggies, rice and porridge at Duancun, I think I appreciate that meal more than I would a fancy dinner someplace else.