Thursday, April 1, 2010

Scraggly film

Originally uploaded by kevsunblush
By Kevin

Today's lesson: be sure to shave your stubble before teaching, so you don't look scraggly on camera.

About ten minutes into my "Society and Culture of Major English-Speaking Countries" lesson, during a discussion about the pros and cons of British Imperialism, there was a knock at the door. Several school officials were standing outside.

For a moment, I figured I must have crossed a line with my lesson and said something bad, so they were stopping me. After all, I was encouraging students to see both the good and the bad sides of imperialism from both the British perspective and of the peoples they colonized.

I was wrong. "We need to shoot some VCR of you teaching," explained Mr. Wang. "Is that OK?"

Slightly confused, I looked around at the group of men. One was carrying a large video camera. I put the puzzle pieces together: they wanted to film the class. I nodded and said OK. Naturally, this being China, there is no warning for this sort of thing, so none of us were prepared for this. The classroom was messy and I had about three days worth of stubble on my face. What can I say, I've had a cold for the last few days.

Hurriedly, the cameraman and a pair of assistants came in, opened the blinds on the windows, flooding the room with light, shuffled nervous students into new seats, had them (and me) remove unsightly items from our desks and told me to continue my lesson.

I continued the discussion. Students noted that the British likely saw imperialism as positive because it was a source of pride, expanding their territory and making them rich. Others suggested that some British may have been opposed to imperialism because it was expensive.

At one point, the cameraman stood behind me as I asked questions. Since he was a good six inches shorter than me, I wondered if he was able to get a good shot over my shoulder. Then he tapped me on the shoulder. "Can you speak Chinese?" he asked in Chinese. Usually, I'd say "yi dian dian," which means something like "a little tiny bit," but usually gets interpreted as humility and leads to a torrent of unanswerable questions once we get beyond the few I can successfully answer.

I thought to the recent Chinese words and phrases I'd been studying: furniture, colors, articles of clothing. They weren't going to help explain imperialism or make the school look good on camera. I shook my head. Sorry.

We continued. Students suggested that the countries colonized by the British may have seen technological advancement and new economic opportunities as positives.

Ironically, by the time we reached the negatives, the camera crew was gone. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The students who'd been shuffled into new seats scurried back. A couple students drew the blinds back in. I quieted their nervous laughter.

I quickly decided that maybe today wasn't the day to discuss a controversial quote by scholar Parag Khanna ( and on the next Power Point slide labeling the US, China and the European Union as the three great imperial powers of the modern world. It had riled up my classes a bit earlier in the week, most jumping to their nation's defense. We were behind schedule and I figured today wasn't the day to cross that line.

After class, one of the students suggested that the school may be preparing for an evaluation. I hope not. Generally those sorts of things aren't fun experiences. Lots of smoke and mirrors to impress government officials and make colleges look better than they are. But another thought that crossed my mind was that the school is in the midst of celebrating its 50th anniversary. Could be it. Who knows.

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