Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Straight into the face of time

There are many things I am not allowed to discuss with my students in China. In teacher training, we were warned against saying four particular words in class -- Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen, and Falun Gong. TTTF, the forbidden topics. (Apparently, an Aston teacher once drew a rough map of China on the board but forgot to draw the island of Taiwan. A kid went home and told his mom, and the teacher was deported.) The word Communism, also not so advisable, and basically any real discussions about Chinese government.

I spent several weeks carefully talking about news with my brilliant teenager class. I found some short, simple American news stories and radio broadcasts, which we read or listened to in class, and later discussed. I had been itching to talk to them honestly about the state of news and media censorship in this country, but, well, the risk of deportation made me bite my tongue.

One day, I asked them about the Great Firewall. I focused my questions on YouTube and Facebook, which are both blocked, trying to test the waters and see what they had to say about the matter. I got their standardized, drilled responses that the censor measures were for the people's own good, to keep bad content away from innocent eyes. Then it was time for the class break. When I came back to the room, one of the girls had pulled up a search on her cell phone, and read me the results.

"China blocks sites on the Internet because Tibet and Taiwan want their independence, and the Chinese government doesn't want people to read about it," she said, stumbling over the longer words. The she looked up at me. They all looked up at me with puzzled eyes. "Is that true, Teacher?"

I froze. In my head, alarms were going off. Two of the four forbidden words were just uttered in my class, by my students, outside the context of tourism! I changed the subject. I couldn't do it, couldn't get into that kind of discussion, didn't have sufficient background knowledge to even try. The looks on their faces of what I thought at the time to be innocence and confusion stayed in my mind.

The last day of class was on Sunday, and they gave their final presentations, which were on pre-discussed topics of their choosing. One girl chose to talk about the changes that have affected China over the last 30 years. She brought in pictures to show how people's lives have improved, and an amazing little stack of Cultural Revolution-era food ration coupons she'd borrowed from her grandfather.

I was more prepared for a discussion this time. I'd brought in "Wind of change" by The Scorpions for them to listen to, and told them about some of the Russian history around that song, and asked them if they thought it could apply to China. We brought out the word Communism, and they told me that China was Communist in politics but capitalist in business. They asked me whether I thought this was good or bad, and whether I thought that China should get rid of Communism completely. I looked at my watch. We had 45 minutes left of the last class of the semester. So I told them that I wasn't really supposed to talk to them about it, but hey, they don't any time left to deport me, so what the hell.

We had a fantastic, honest discussion in which they revealed that they know perfectly well why certain websites are blocked, and they know ways around it, and they hope China will change and move closer to the West. They told me that they get their news by message boards where people post things that are really happening, but they have to be quick and lucky in their reading because they know that a lot of information gets quickly deleted by censors. They also told me that people who can read English are sort of like town criers, because they can read news from the West and tell their families and friends what's going on.

Those looks I mistook for innocence and confusion? They were really a challenge. They wanted to see what I would say. These kids are damn smart. They know just what they can and can't talk about, and were waiting for a green light from me to speak their minds. I wish I had been braver sooner.

I walked out of that class with tears in my eyes, because I will not see these kids again. Teaching them and getting to know them has been hands-down the best part of my time in China, and I will miss them terribly. They have confirmed for me that I want to be a teacher, and I will always remember and be grateful to them for it.

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