Thursday, October 21, 2010

Big Man on Campus

Here in China, I split my time between two college campuses: the Old Campus and the New Campus. And I suppose that I'm the Big Man on both of them. Not because I am the most popular man, or the biggest man, or even the most manly man - but because, by virtue of being the only white male employed at the one campus, and the only white male in residence at the other, I attract the most attention.

And as any eighth-year frat boy senior will tell you, the job of Big Man on Campus is a demanding one. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, et cetera. Big Man on Campus isn't an empty title like Queen of England or Governor of Alaska. No. The Big Man on Campus has his work cut out for him.

The Big Man on Campus has to plot and execute high-risk afterhours assaults on heavily fortified ladies' dormitories, and he must foot the bill for any and all water balloons, rotten fruit, whipped cream, and feral pigs deployed in the attack.

Once a year, the Big Man has to track down the gawkiest freshman girl on campus and painstakingly transform her into the sultriest maiden in all of Sichuan Province. Then he must set her up with the hunky-ass dreamboat Captain of the Ping-Pong Team, and make the relationship work via opportunely timed roofies coupled with underground surveillance. And the Big Man must get all of that shit squared away in time for the Mid-Autumn Dance.

Then, before the end of the spring semester, the Big Man must find the geekiest, most linguistically inept Southeast Asian foreign exchange student, take him under his wing and (more roofies, more surveillance) turn him into a kind of all-purpose gigolo.

This is a hefty workload for even the biggest of all Big Men. So there are very few applicants for the position. But Big Man on Campus isn't really the kind of position you can apply for. Not just anyone can be a Big Man. No, the Big Man on Campus is, in his way, a kind of Chosen One.

The Big Man on Campus must possess certain assets, most of them born of nature rather than nurture. He must own a bulletproof liver. So he should probably be Irish, or Polish, or preferably both. Beerpong skills are a prerequisite - or Caps skills, should he happen to be a Big Man somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard.

The Big Man must be functionally illiterate, or must be capable of appearing so during social outings. He must not use polysyllabic words like "polysyllabic." He must not succumb to moods, or what might be construed as moods by other undergraduates. Ideally, the span of the Big Man's consciousness should range between two emotions and two emotions only: first and foremost, a kind of chanting, fist-pumping "party mode," in which the Big Man incites his underlings to a riotous state of chanting, fist-pumping, binge-drinking fury; and then a "burned mode" that comes out only when the Big Man has been let down by his underlings, who, fearing suspension or expulsion from school, didn't have the balls to purchase eight kegs of Keystone Light with an absurdly counterfeit out-of-state license, or didn't have the cojones to clog the heating ducts of the girls' dormitory with 69 gallons of Vaseline. Or lacked the testicular fortitude to shove a banana in the tailpipe of the Crusty Dean's Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, or were too pussy to puke and rally after five too many Natty Ices. And so on.

The Big Man should be something of a misogynist, and must own at least five misogynistic t-shirts. But at the same time, the Big Man has to be just chivalrous enough to get some.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Et cetera.

I certainly didn't fit the Big Man mold during my time as an undergrad. I was more like the linguistically inept Southeast Asian foreign exchange student. Or worse, the aspiring writer who moonlighted as a trombonist in a ska band. But I was prepared to step into the Big Man's shoes in China, if my services were needed to that end. Given the sheer number of young people on your average Chinese campus - 20,000, 30,000 kids? - and the complete absence of meaningful liquor laws, I imagined long before I arrived in China that the role I'd be playing would be more Will Ferrell than Jeremy Piven, more "Bluto" Blutarsky than Vernon Wormer, more Big Man than Crusty Dean.

But needless to say, Chinese college campuses have proven to be a bit different from their counterparts in the US of Fuckin' A. Which is to say: they ain't the same ballpark, ain't the same league, ain't even the same fuckin' sport. Chinese colleges are colleges insofar as there are dormitories, students, professors, public safety officers, classrooms, cafeterias, and libraries. As far as the faculty and facilities go, there are parallels. But the parallels stop there, and I have long since given up drawing them.

To begin with, on all Chinese campuses, there is a strictly enforced curfew. The gates to the campus are bolted shut at eleven PM. Should you happen to break curfew, unless the drunk-ass nightwatchmen are feeling especially cognizant on the night in question, you will be stranded outside for the remainder of the evening, left to commune with the stray dogs and stray drunks and stray drunk dogs until the sun comes up. Then, the next morning, Lucy, you got some splainin' to do.

The power to the dormitories gets cut off at eleven sharp, so you had better well be back in your dorm room with all your faculties intact and your PJ's on by 10:30 at the latest. And did I mention that you have five roommates? And that you all live together in a single dorm room the size of a Burger King bathroom? That there is no running water? And that your room is not heated in the winter, or air conditioned in the summer? If you're lucky, maybe one of your roommates brings a space heater from home, or splurges for a heavy-duty fan. And maybe someone owns a laptop that all six of you can fight over during the daytime hours, when you're not in class, when you're not studying your asses off, when the power is on.

All and all, having lived with a handful of dudes in college confines that weren't anywhere near as close, the life of a Chinese undergraduate strikes me as a profoundly sweaty, smelly, and claustrophobic existence.

Nor do you shed the shackles of mass cohabitation as you grow older and more qualified. My Mandarin tutor, a 26 year-old graduate student, still lives with five other girls she doesn't know very well, in a room the size of a Burger King bathroom, with no heat and no air conditioning, no running water, and so on.

In the mornings, when you walk past the dormitories, you see all these jumbo-sized plastic thermoses lined up on the sidewalk.

"What're those for?" I once asked a fellow professor of English.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, what do the kids use those thermoses for?"
"They use them to get water from the well. So they can wash their faces before class," he said in a matter-of-fact way that made me feel like the biggest boob on Earth, just for asking.

So the baldfaced facts of college life in China are enough to throw a pretty damned wet fucking rag on the party. Still, you'd think a handful of troublemakers would manage to find a way to slip through the cracks, to get around the system. They're college kids, after all. To quote Dr. Ian Malcolm: Greek life finds a way. Greek life always finds a way.

But the rules here are about as flexible as a chin-up bar.

I get my exercise done after dark. Because that way, no one stares at me. No one laughs. Except for the young couples giggling in the bushes. But I don't mind them, because eventually, I get to laugh back at them.

Every night, around ten PM, I walk to the chin-up bar behind the basketball courts. And along the way, I will often pass a young couple giggling in the bushes. They will sit and watch me grunt and wheeze there at the bar, and they will giggle. And I look at them like, what? Can't a white man do chin-ups at ten PM in this country? But the couples are never there for very long. Because inevitably, one of the omnipresent public safety officers will sweep through with his flashlight, twirling his bamboo truncheon, hawking his loogeys, and the star-crossed lovers will scatter through the brush like a couple of fugitives.

If I happen to be out a little earlier, if I happen to be buying beer in lieu of working out, I can hear the couples talking about me as I pass, as though I'm an accessory to their romantic evening, like a shooting star, or a mutually adored booty song that suddenly comes on the radio.

"There goes a laowai," the girl will say.
"Yeah. Check out his beard."
"And his clothes."
"And his nose. It's so big."
"And his hair. It's so curly."
"He looks like a monkey."
"So you love me, right?"
"Of course I love you."
"We're gonna be alright, right?"
"Of course we're gonna be alright, girl."
"Hey. Check it out. HAH-LOO! FOREIGNER, HAH-LOO!"
"You're so funny."
"I know."

But at 10:30 sharp, their evening will end. Like a wet dream shattered by an alarm clock. A hypercharged flashlight in the face. A truncheon stick, twirling. A grunt, a command. Young love broken up by the lustbusters.

Night owl that I am, I every so often find myself the unwitting target of a late night tonsil hockey raid. I'll come swaggering up the road whistling to myself with some Chinese take-out on my hands, and an old man in uniform will blast his 400-kilowatt flashlight in my face. I'd like to think that what he sees frightens him - not a virginal young couple sucking face, but a bearded and depraved white beast, slobbering and frothing with a bagged-up chicken carcass in his greasy hands. But terrified or not, the old man will say nothing. He will grunt dismissively and shoot his flashlight down towards the pavement. Then he will suddenly dash off into a nearby clump of reeds, from whence he has heard the brittle snap of a Chinese Wonderbra unclasping.

It's an overpopulated country, so a good makeout spot is hard to find. And the rules here are not of the breakable, or even bendable variety. Add to this the fact that most Chinese college students - and here, I have to try very hard not to say "all Chinese college students" - are totally uninterested in breaking the rules. No, the rules are unbreakable, like one of those black plastic combs. So the kids sneak their makeouts in when they can. But otherwise, they follow the rules. Everyone is in bed by 11 PM.

The American college experience is all about pushing boundaries, breaking the black plastic comb.

For one thing, your worldview is immensely and irrevocably changed by college. College forces you to push your own boundaries, usually in a positive direction, and for that I'm willing to say that those four years were well worth several decades of debt to my parents, god bless 'em, and to Nelnet, the bastards.

For another thing, the moral codes you used to follow unconditionally as a young lad are suddenly and profoundly elastic once you show up on campus. You make out with girls you have no business making out with. You drink when you're not allowed to drink. You find yourself tapped to smuggle alcohol into the dormitory after hours, and the social perks are too much to pass up. You successfully sneak past the front desk the first few times. And the social perks remain too much to pass up. So you keep at it for a while. And when the RA's start to catch on to you after a couple weeks, you're forced to hide the hooch in ever more elaborate containers: a trombone case, a burlap sack with a dollar sign on it, a prized family heirloom vase, a hobo satchel - part of your Halloween costume. "I'm a hobo this year," you explain. The RA looks you over, frowning. "Dude, you're a hobo every year."

One fateful, heart-palpitating day, you swing by the ladies' dormitory during open visitation hours, lay around shooting the shit with your best girl all evening, then hide out in her closet for a tense thirty minutes while the she-RA makes her nightly sweep. And only after the she-RA has passed through and bid everyone goodnight, only then do you finally let your gut hang out, push open the closet, and drop into the expectant arms of your freshman year fuckbuddy. Or maybe, if you're lucky, just maybe you know the girl working the night shift at the front desk. So you show up in the lobby late one night wearing a wig. With a knowing smile, your accomplice pushes a magic button and the door clicks open. You make your way upstairs. Minutes later, while you're tangled in an impassioned but sloppy makeout, your friend at the front desk executes a small clerical miracle, checks you into the aforementioned fuckbuddy's room under a female alias, a name she makes up on the spot. Suzanne McMaltroy. Or some shit. And your friend at the front desk, god bless 'er, keeps a straight face around the she-RA the next morning.

All of this as much a part of the American college experience as the degree itself. And I would be much poorer today if I hadn't dabbled in some version of the above shenanigans during my tenure as an undergraduate at a Midwestern Jesuit University to remain nameless.

But such intrigue doesn't happen at Chinese universities. Of course, I'd be the last one to know if it did. I am a professor of sorts, so I wouldn't want to know anyway. But I understand my students fairly well by now, and my intuition tells me that, no, nothing of the sort happens. My students know enough by now to follow the rules, and they know that by following the rules, they will get a degree. So they follow the rules.

And therein lies the biggest difference. Chinese college students are told what to think. They are given the rules in advance. American college students are taught how to think. They must find their own rules. Whereas American universities are a training ground for adulthood - a brief, four-year sampling of all the intellectual maturity that adulthood has to offer, and likewise a coarse introduction to the bottomless moral depravity of the adult world - Chinese universities are a boot camp for successful integration into the Chinese economy. Chinese universities are obedience schools. They are little else.

Chinese college students are not adults when they arrive on campus, and they are not adults when they leave. Or I should say, very few of them are. And of course, certain American college students are not quite grown-up either, even after graduation. But however badly American undergrads misbehave, at the end of four or six or eight years, they are generally well on their way towards maturity. At the very least, they graduate with some understanding of the real world, however much they choose to avoid it. I cannot say the same for my Chinese college students. The maturity gap is stunning. Both socially and intellectually, my students have been very deliberately preserved in a kind of larval stage.

The vast majority of my students have never had a girlfriend or a boyfriend. They are 21 years old and have never, not once been on a date. The idea of romance is something they take a great deal of interest in, judging by the movies they watch and the music they listen to. But when applied to their own hopes and aspirations, love is a vaguely disgusting prospect that makes them blush and turn away from the person who was so uncouth as to bring it up.

What few gentlemen I have in my Oral English classes sit in the very back row, not because they are the most indifferent students (though they often are), but because they want to get as far away from the girls as possible. Rare are the boys who will break rank to mingle with the girls. And even more rare are the girls who will dare to infiltrate the Chinese brotherhood, even when I specifically pair them up with boys. Chinese college classes have the feel of a middle school sockhop.

Outside of class, you will often encounter a gang of fired-up college guys, five or six of them, and if you happen to be a foreigner, they will likely heckle you. Or you may encounter a flock of giggling college girls, five or six of them, and if you happen to be a foreigner, they will likely heckle you. Every now and again, usually late at night, you may see the odd young couple holding hands, might hear them giggling in the bushes. But otherwise, the genders never collide at Chinese universities. Not quite coeds, these kids.

I'll admit that it's a bit charming, in a way. As something of a late bloomer myself, I don't think it's entirely unhealthy that the Chinese hold off on the dating game. And there's something admirable about the austerity with which most of my students tackle their studies. The way they show up for my class on time and prepared each and every day, even if Mr. Panda doesn't. The way they scurry off the moment the bell rings to lock themselves away in an empty classroom with a stack of English grammar books for the remainder of the afternoon and evening, and for much of the night. Their very best qualities shine through in their studies. Determination, patience, thrift. But at the same time, their studies are where their naïvité comes most to the fore.

I am not much older than my students - a grizzled 27 to their almost cartoonishly chipper 21 - but still I must structure my classes so that they are not too adult for my audience. I do this out of respect for my students, and out of necessity.

I get the impression that if I were to show my students a film rated PG-13 or above, they would be extremely offended and would not forgive me for the offense. And for as much as I am here to teach, I am also here not to offend, and the latter certainly pulls more weight than the former when it comes to keeping myself employed.

My students are utterly underwhelmed by what we in the West think of as adult conversation. They do not want to exchange ideas. They do not want to learn about the outside world. They would rather repeat after me. They would rather listen to me lecture. They would rather I sing them a song. They would rather watch a brainless romantic comedy. My job is to turn the floor over to them. But they don't want the floor. They don't know what to do with the floor. They are terrified of the floor.

Often, one of my students will disrupt a classroom debate on global warming, on pollution, on overpopulation, on religious freedom in America to demand that I sing them all a song, right there on the spot. And what follows is a tremendous round of applause from the students, just about all of them. My students don't want to debate. They don't want to test their ideas. They don't want to practice speaking English. They want me to sing them a song. For most of them, I am their first non-Chinese teacher. For many of them, I am the first foreigner they've ever spoken with. But they don't want to know anything about me or where I come from. They want me to sing a song. They want to watch a movie. They want to be entertained.

My students know by now what I expect of them, and they value my expectations. So they will at least parrot a debate, for my sake. To humor me. But I remain mindful of what they'd rather be doing with their time: they'd rather I were singing them songs in Chinese, talking to them in Chinese, and being jokey and absurd, as I often am. Debates and discussions are merely the things they do to keep me happy. I know that, and they know that.

When I showed my students Into The Wild last semester, they told me point blank that it was "sad and boring." Which stunned me. I don't even like the film that much, myself. But they weren't talking aesthetics. They found the subject matter sad and boring. A young college graduate burns all of his cash in the middle of the desert and hitchhikes his way to Alaska, where he dies a gruesome and lonely death. Sad, yes. But boring?

Then, a few months later, my students returned with the same verdict for Lost in Translation. Sad and boring. This stunned me all the more. Lost in fucking Translation. A romantic comedy. And my students love romantic comedies. But the themes, perhaps, were too adult for them. Broken marriages, failed careers, cultural dissonance, falling in love, Bill Murray. It wasn't fluffy enough, I guess. It was too real, I suppose.

Of all the songs and films I showed them, only The Joy Luck Club held their attention, perhaps because it involved Chinese people, perhaps because a smattering of Chinese is spoken in the film. Either way, nobody dared to call The Joy Luck Club sad or boring, though admittedly, I found it a great deal of both.

My students don't want to watch challenging films, or talk about difficult things. They would rather that I, Mr. Panda - their white, blue-eyed, somewhat blonde professor - sang them "Hotel California," or "Take Me Home, Country Road," or something by Lady Gaga, or something by The Carpenters.

But I don't know those songs. And I didn't come here to entertain. I want to prepare these kids for the world that awaits them, the world they are about to inherit, a world that very much wants to include them. I am here to prepare these kids for adulthood, to prepare them for a very adult world that will crush them if they are not ready for it. But they have been brought up as children, and the system wants them to remain so.

If I were to cater to their interests, I would be doing them a tremendous disservice. I would be giving them a spoonful of sugar to help the Pepsi go down. On the other hand, there is the risk that by shooting over their heads, my students wouldn't get anything out of my class at all. They would remain sad and bored. And there is the even greater risk of getting into trouble by teaching subject matter that is too adult, i.e., too real.

So I try to find a middle ground. Far short of showing them Schindler's List. Far short of breaking into song and dance. And that is the tedious ground I stand upon these days.

Meanwhile, outside of class, college students taunt me, mock me, laugh in my face. Because I am a foreigner, you know. These are twentysomethings who are smart enough, rich enough, or lucky enough to be studying at an institute for higher education, and they will remorselessly heckle a faculty member who belongs to their own school. I try to delude myself: these kids are merely bidding me a friendly HAH-LOO. But deep down, I know there is nothing friendly about it. They know what they are doing. I know what they are doing. They are harassing me, plain and simple, and for all the history between us, I still do not understand the foreigner treatment in the least.

Walking around campus is when I feel most estranged from my college days. I am the Big Man on Campus, after all. I attract the most attention, after all. But here in Nanchong, here on my own college campus, the attention is overwhelmingly negative. If we could sit down and talk, I'd tell these kids, listen: I work for you. I bust my ass for you. I am here, teaching for nothing, because I believe that I can help you. If we could only just sit down and talk -


Yes. Fuck me. You are a college student. You are 21 years old. I have come here to help you. And I feel like a colossal fool.

When I try to turn the tables and imagine some Ethiopian professor on a whitebread American campus catching flack for leaving his apartment, I can't picture it at all. In fact, I can't imagine anywhere else in the world - not even Korea - where an English teacher would have to absorb such nonsense day in day out, just for going to work.

America has already endured the worst of its racial growing pains. Or I should hope so, anyway. But in China, especially in Sichuan, racism hasn't even begun to enter the picture. Foreigners are still novelties here, not yet a threat. I live on a college campus, but it is still a campus that is 99.9% Han Chinese. So I can't expect my provincial college to be as welcoming of foreigners as the university I attended back in the States. But China is a fairly developed country. China is the world's second largest economy. China is a part of the world, and the Chinese are no longer as isolated as they would like to believe. They have the Internet, and thus, some limited access to the non-Chinese world. They are certainly aware that Westerners exist in their country. And college students, of all people, should be the most aware of that fact. In short, it strikes me more as a question of growing up, rather than a question of ignorance. The awareness is already there, but not the understanding.

So, yes, ye undergrads of Nanchong, I'm sure that I probably do look funny to you. I have yellow hair. I sport a beard. And I'm awfully pale. And sometimes my fly is down when I don't mean it to be. But by now, you've seen bearded white men on the television. By now, you've probably even seen bearded white men on the street. So, why is it that your first impulse is not to wave politely at me, or to simply let me pass by undisturbed, but to harass me? I am a human being. Like you, I go to school. I return home from school. I eat, I drink. I am 27, a fact that scares even me. I teach at your university, and I teach there for free. I am doing a service to your country. So where, exactly, do you get off harassing me, and making my life miserable when it doesn't have to be? Beats you. Beats me.

I have nothing else to say about the matter. But ladies and gentlemen, Big Men and Sichuanese divas, Southeast Asian exchange students and eighth year frat boy seniors, we now live in a world where no man is an island, where no country is an island, where no island is an island - we live in a world where nobody anywhere is likely to remain an island for very much longer. And I suppose we're all just going to have to cozy up to that fact pretty damned fast.


erin said...

Listen, as long as we're talking about islands... let's just establish that although no man is an island, all islands belong to China and somehow I think this means that all men belong to Our China.

Tracey Axnick said...

Wow. Just stumbled upon your blog. Really enjoy your writing. Brilliant and hilarious... looking forward to reading more...

LisaNYC said...

Came across your blog a while ago and became a silent reader since I was interested in applying to the PC as well. Anyway as a Chinese American, I was rather shocked and embarrassed when I read about such heckling. At first I couldn’t believe it and thought maybe it was just you. But then I read about similar experience on other PC China blogs. I had never witness such things in China but then again I’m from Shanghai where there’s a laowai on every street corner.
Here’s my two cents on this whole mess. Basically you’re in the boondocks and you’re surrounded by a bunch of rednecks. They are wootin’ and hollerin’ at you just because you’re an anomaly and they’re bored. If your students’ sexually maturity is at the middle-school level then what level do you think their political correctness is at? I don’t know about you but I went to junior high school with a bunch of jerks that made the teachers (and other students) miserable with their taunts and bullying. And if university educated students are acting this way without shame, I can only imagine how the general population are behaving. Hicks man. What can you do?
Also, please don’t be disheartened if your students appear nonchalant and even rude towards you. There’s a reason why the Peace Corp is in China, which now boast the second largest economy in the world. There’s still of social issues that need to be address and improved there. I’ll be the first to admit it. Even thought it appears that the students are indifferent, your very presence there is a huge impact on their lives. They might only comprehend 10% of what you are trying to get through right now. You might be throwing a lot of things at them that they’ve never thought about it and don’t want to think about right now. Yeah they just want to have fun but the seeds of thought have been planted. 10 years from now a few of them might think back on your lessons and finally understand and be affected by your words. As a teacher, it may be the most important thing you do. Planting that seed of though/change and waiting for spring.
Disclaimer, I’m pretty buzzed as I’m typing this long response so please excuse all the grammar, spelling, and nonsensical parts of this post. Side note, I enjoy reading your posts. You write well and honestly. Keep it up.

Erin said...

i've been at my university on the outskirts of chongqing for two months now and am struggling with the same kind of thing. i keep thinking that they'll get used to me and eventually the stares and shouts will subside...but sounds like that's just wishful thinking...

Katherine said...

Concerning stares. I just match their stares until they blush and give the uncomfortable chortle the Chinese are apt to do when they feel funky.