Right before the thunderstorm broke there was a moment when the last bit of sunshine penetrated the otherwise dark and foreboding horizon. A yellow light saturated the rainforest canopy giving the scene an unearthly golden hue. As I stood alone on the ridge of a dirt path, the calls of birds and the crashes of monkeys were suddenly overpowered by a deep soulful call to pray creeping up the hill, and then a second. It was my welcome to Malaysia moment. Covered in bug bites, knowing the storm was about to break, but loving every moment of colors, sounds, and life around me.
Malaysia always struck me as where the world came to meet. It is a crash of things Chinese, Indian, Arab and Colonial under the veil of a persistently reinvented sense of what it means to be Malaysian. It is a country on the brink of joining the ranks of the developed, while still trying to decide if that is really what it wants. Skyscrapers dominate the KL skyline, while one still only need venture no further than a couple of metro stops to see a completely different image of the country.
I decided to visit the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM). I wanted to indulge an interest in exploring how people relate to ecology and why. FRIM is one of the only places within day-trip distance where Malays can visit “a natural forest”. According to the main office, the trails were only accessible with a nature guide, otherwise I was limited to the roads and a small picnic area with a waterfall. Despite the impending storm, the picnic area was full of young Malays. The women wore full headscarfs even while splashing around in the waterfall. The young men rolled up their pants and sat in the river.Everyone was on their phones and carrying paper picnic plates. A walk around the whole area took 15 minutes total and never left the view of the road below. It was the shallowest window into the forest and river system that I could imagine. Yet, this was probably the closest to “nature” they had ever been or would think about going.
It was on my way out the park that I stumbled on the trails. I smiled at an old Malaysian man and he called me over to point them out. With the exception of a couple of groups of Chinese Malays, the path was completely deserted. It was beautiful. Climbing steeply up the ridge, the forest was crawling with lizards, alive with raucous monkeys and birds, and teaming with plant life. There were suddenly no young Malays to be found, no mobiles to be seen, no other footsteps. I’m pretty sure I broke all the rules to get there, but I’m so glad I did.
My takeaway? Even outside the largest cities there are natural systems capable of inspiring awe if you know where to look. The challenge is getting people to look beyond the obvious and the material and to make those discoveries for themselves. The hope is that we can cultivate a will to protect these systems before they truly disappear.
The day before I left Wulong I gave my final teacher training classes. I presented twice in Chinese, first to 200 elementary math and science teachers and then to 200 elementary Chinese language teachers. Attendance was mandatory. The topic was the American Education System. The actual presentation was on creativity, critical thinking and teaching innovation. This was the fifth time my school had asked me to give this presentation and each time I had changed to get closer to what the teachers were actually curious about. Out of the 5, these were by far my best sessions.
But, wait, why was I, some more or less random American with no formal educator training and less than 3 years of teaching experience, asked to give these presentations? The answer was all over the New York Times: as Chinese student’s test scores go up their reputation for being memorizing robots does as well. My school wanted to give these teachers some sort of alternative and I was their only option. As a foreign teacher trainer it is fun to challenge your trainees, make them actual participate in your lectures, get them to ask questions, find ways of helping them find their own creativity all in the setting of the lecture itself.
In general the Chinese education system makes it difficult to integrate critical thinking or alternative teaching approaches into the syllabus. Where I was teachers could have up to 70 students in each class and the only grades that mattered where the end of the year tests, in particular the high school entrance exam (Zhong Kao) and the college entrance exam (Gao Kao). These two exams determine students futures in a way that is incomprehensible to most Americans. You get one shot each year, cheating is rampant, and bad results lead to multiple suicides annually.
Teachers do whatever they can to help students increase their scores and that is the best service they can provide. Even the most motivated of teachers struggle to approach the material in any other way than what is handed down from Beijing. And as much as the training might seem to indicate otherwise, diversion from the norm is still very much frowned upon.
But, there have been small successes, like teacher training programs sending rural Chinese teachers to England, and for me pretty big successes, like when my last lecture burst into applause at the end! (Though I’m pretty sure they were just excited their week of training was over….)
I remember very clearly one night last year I was eating barbecue and drinking a beer with some friends downtown in the center of Wulong. My bbq (shao kao!) place is just outside the main exit of the middle school, so often my lounging overlaps with the students fleeing the grounds at the end of their day, 9pm. That night we were watching the middle school students stream by on their way home when suddenly one girl just started screaming. We thought she had seen a movie star or something, but she was staring straight at me. She quite actually stood there screaming, pointing and covering her mouth in excitement looking like she was going to faint. When I said “hello” she grabbed her friend for support. It was wild. It was at that moment that it occurred to me just how much of an impact I could have at the local schools.
It wasn’t until this year that I have been able to put my plan into action and start visiting local schools. All in all I have made it to 7 rural schools in Wulong. The project had two goals, the first being to talk to students like that one and I also wanted to branch out from my own school and work with some of the really amazing, dedicated, and inspirational teachers a little further afield.
I started with a middle school in town which was fun because I got to make some new local teacher friends but also because I had class with some of my colleagues kids, always a good move for guanxi! This school was great because it led to all sorts of new opportunities, more schools heard about what I was doing, and all of a sudden I was getting invitations to be more and more involved.
From there I went to visit a primary school 2 hours out in the countryside with the fantastic Zhou Yang, who is on her way to England for very competitive teacher training. I also called up some other friends in Yangjiao and was able to meet the teachers and students there.
I loved being able to meet the kids and watch as they turned from super shy into inquisitive outgoing young people being excited young people. It was always the same in that way. When I first walked in they would be silent, panicked, mostly unable to say anything. Slowly, the best students would start answering my questions. I would show them pictures, maps, they would usually ask me to sing and then suddenly it would be a conversation and they would asking me questions, telling me what they thought about English, singing me songs.
However, my favorite part was always being able to work with the teachers. The brave ones would let me watch their classes and we would be able to talk about it a bit, it was these exchanges that made me feel the project was really worthwhile!
In early June my 3rd year students faced their fears and took the much talked about Gao Kao or college entrance exam. For them, the test is their last chance to get into a good university. My vocational students aren’t shooting for 1st or 2nd tier, but something accredited would be good.
For a year now they have waking up at 5 and studying until 11. In their third year of high school they will do nothing but review what they learned in the first two years and memorize their textbooks in preparation for this one test. Their preparation is considered relatively relaxed by Chinese standards, I can only imagine what the pressure must be like elsewhere.
This year, the Gao Kao drew international attention for the riots in Zhongxiang after a crackdown on cheating with the particularly absurd quote of “We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat.” (The Atlantic, June 2013) Click the quote to see the article.
Beyond the stress, cheating, and pressure generally associated with the test, the deeper implication is an education system anchored on rote learning and memorization. I remember the first time I asked my students to write dialogues in our English class, a relatively mild request in a western classroom, but most of my students memorized bits from their textbook with no thought that this might be considered cheating. In the beginning, my attempts to get them to tell me about themselves in English were almost comical as they all recited facts about the fictional character Kangkang from their textbook instead of talking about themselves. The English section of the Gao Kao tests vocabulary retention and grammar over language production. The result is that many high school students could pick up grammatical mistakes even I would overlook, but are completely unable to understand or respond in even relatively simple conversations.
In classrooms of often around 70 students memorization and multiple choice are the norms. Students are rarely if ever asked to write original essays or to actually apply what they are learning to a larger scenario, it would be impossible for their teachers to grade and wouldn’t be as beneficial to their test preparation as good ol’ rote memorization. The problem with this is that it leads to students who are incredibly skilled at remembering facts but almost completely unable to use those facts to solve abstract problems.
This is one of the many reasons more and more parents are looking for ways to send their children abroad for their education.
Click here to read The New York Times piece on the pros and cons of a nationwide merit based test system as well as the cheating scandals and discrimination that have ensued.
Now that my students have finished their Gao Kao, the long hours of study are behind them. For many in China, University is a little like a long four year vacation, but that is a whole different story. For now, I am happy to see that my girls have time to rest, get part time jobs, and see something other than the inside of a textbook!
Where I live in Chongqing should only be a 4 hour train ride from Guizhou, but as far as I can tell everything south of the Chongqing border is just a little bit slower. Ever since breaking off from Sichuan, the Chongqing municipality has exploded into an international metropolis improving the lives of all those lucky enough to live in the surrounding countryside as well. However, Guizhou is a little different, generally speaking there is a much stronger sense of minority culture, but also an overall lack of infrastructure. Where the town of Wulong is sprouting skyscrapers left and right, the city of Tongren has none to speak of.
What this also means, is that going to Tongren can prove to be a real adventure. They are making a sincere effort to preserve their wild places and their unique culture and last weekend I got to experience a little of both!
Another volunteer friend of mine lives in Tongren. She teamed up with 45 of her closest Chinese hiking group friends and her outrageous Chinese grandmother to invite myself and some other Peace Corps friends on a pretty unique trip. By day we climbed the 8,000 stairs of Fengji Shan. Her friends had tried to talk us out of the stairs by bribing us with free cable car tickets, but honestly we were all kind of excited about it. The stairs are unbelievably steep, each varying in height slightly from the last. As you spiral up, up, up through the Jungle the only sign you are making progress is the signs showing the number of steps you’ve climbed at each small shop. But, even though your thighs are burning, your lungs gasping for air, and the horizon endlessly taunting you behind that next ridge, the whole thing was really fun, light people traffic, great bird noises. I enjoyed it! And climbing the steps makes you feel like you deserve to see all the cool things at the top!
The top of Fengji Shan has a reasonably sized monastery, as well as two incredibly large sandstone cap stones (excuse my inappropriate dabbling in geology, but I did at one point ask a real expert!) You could climb up the capstones for really beautiful views down the valley, we even spotted the last few blooming azaleas.
We did however cheat a little bit! And we let ourselves be convinced into taking thee tram down. Can’t say enough how unbelievably kind it was of the hikers of Tongren to spoil us like they did! And that night it was only more unbelievable! Our campsite was very Chinese. The PCVs were all ready for the dirty and outdoorsy camping experience we’ve come to know and love. Camping in Tongren was done on cement plots under pavilions in a big park. Not ideal maybe, but the Miao ethnic minority dance party and bonfire MORE than made up for that. After all those stairs, followed by all that dancing, by the time I was ready for bed I could have slept anywhere! All in all a great trip to a really beautiful spot in China!
The New York Times recently published an article about the Nu River. It is one of the last large free flowing rivers in China. The River originates in Tibet and runs through Yunnan province into Myanmar. Besides being part of a World Natural Heritage Site, a hub for ethnic minorities, and the heart of an ecosystem supporting more than half the animal diversity of China, the river is also a potential hot spot for rafting and kayaking. More than enough reasons to put it on the top of my to visit list, and now I’ve been twice! Lucky for me as according to all available sources, now that a new generation of Chinese leaders is in charge they are revamping old plans to build cascading dams down the river. The dams will create a system capable of producing more hydro-power than the gargantuan Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze. But at what cost?
My first trip to the Nujiang or Salween River was over the summer on a backpacking trip. I looked down on the Nujiang Valley from the high and snowy mountains of the Tibetan border. The most recent trip was a kayaking expedition in February, a water level view of this fragile and unique world.
I was invited on the expedition last minute. It was a team of about 15 Chinese guys from provinces all over the country, the Chinese- Canadian promoter of Jackson and myself. Kayaking in China is still an extremely new sport which means there is a very tight knit kayaking community and that everybody is still looking to learn and bring as many new people in as possible. Walking onto the expedition, even though I was a girl and no one had seen me paddle, they asked me to lead a team. The guys were super fun, eager, and just as in awe of the beauty of the gorge as I was. There is something about kayaking that brings people together, I feel like I can count some of these guys among my favorite friends in China. Despite this, I should mention that they were never entirely convinced I could carry my own boat.
Our expedition was centered around a little town about an hour north of Liuku. Getting there was no easy task. After flying to Kunming we had about 12 hours of driving west almost to the border with Myanmar and then north. To reach prime Nujiang kayaking is even another 12 hours after that. The area was stunning: deep valleys and big water.
I got to spend four days on the river. I ran a lot of safety, pulled some people and boats out of the river, but had a truly wonderful time with these guys. It was inspiring to have them share their experience paddling what can be called the Grand Canyon of the East. The area is a testament to nature’s beauty and steeped in the history of cultures surviving in harsh places. I hope there is a way to protect the fragile balance of this river for future generations.
Their article for reference (though their pictures don’t even begin to do it justice… ): http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/05/world/asia/plans-to-harness-chinas-nu-river-threaten-a-region.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
And my buddy Ian Vogel on his trip to the Salween last year (great video!) http://vimeo.com/34191092 – Film maker, senior editor, and #1 Producer – Charly Feldman
Recently I went to Chengdu for some meetings at Sichuan University. Walking back from a late dinner with American friends we were astonished to see the campus littered with tents. The students en masse were leaving their dorms with arms piled high with blankets and the like. As we walked by the Ping Pong tables (every Chinese school has them) we saw 4,5, and sometimes even 6 students cuddled up together on the tables wrapped in blankets. On our short 20 minute walk we saw hundreds of students. Finally our curiosity got the best of us and we had to ask. What are you guys doing?
The answer, “we don’t want to die.” Almost a week after the most recent earthquake in Lushan county of Sichuan, the students of Chengdu were still afraid that an aftershock might hit the city. They didn’t trust the construction of the dorms, they were afraid they might collapse. More realistically they were afraid of falling down the stairs or being trampled if there was an evacuation. So, they decided it was better just to sleep outside.
It is rumored that the 6.6 Richter scale quake has caused over 2,000 aftershocks, some as big as 5.0 on the Richter scale. And with the memory of the 2008 quake in Wenchuan that killed 10’s of thousands it is little wonder that people have reacted with such hysteria.
However, overall the death toll of this quake has yet to reach 200, including 3 in Chengdu and one in Chongqing who jumped out of skyscrapers out of fear and perhaps misguided advice. Luckily for Lushan and Ya’an the weather also held up for a couple days making it easier to get supplies in. It is easy to understand why people are still panicked over earthquakes. But what is less easy to understand is how the Chinese Media can stay so positive.
Nationalism aside, if you compare the headlines of an international media source with those of say China Daily, the difference is shocking. The headlines tell a completely different story. The China Daily talks about new hope, organized military responses, leaders graciously accepting aid, and the failure of international organizations. CNN talks about need, destitution, families being scared and separated. I guess it is all a matter of perspective.