June 29, 2007

Landesberg Provides Latest Blog Entry from China

School of Communications faculty members Rich Landesberg and Ocek Eke are spending five weeks this summer teaching at Southeast University in Nanjing, China, as part of an Elon exchange program.

Landesberg and Eke arrived in China about a month ago. Since his arrival, Landesberg has maintained a blog that chronicles his experiences in a foreign nation. He has provided Connections with some of his blog entries to share with the wider community. When Landesberg writes a new blog, Connections will post it on the site. So check back often.

Homeward Bound

After almost six weeks in China, it is time. Time to pack the bags, wrap up all my new treasures and savor all my new treasured memories.

I realize that I have not updated in a while. So before getting on the plane, here goes. Last week on June 18, Ocek, I and our Chinese colleague “Michael” left Nanjing on the overnight nine-hour train ride to Beijing. We had a sleeper compartment for four—two up, two down (sounds like a Mets game). We managed to sleep well on this non-stop, modern, fast train. We arrived in Beijing around 8 a.m. and our tour guide and driver met us. They had a different agenda from us: They wanted to steer us toward every overpriced tourist shop and sell us things while feeding us westernized Chinese food that resembles what you get at the Panda Express at the mall, only not as good. We wanted to see the sites and eat authentic Beijing style food. A lot of serious negotiation followed.

(Landesberg at the Great Wall of China) No, I told the guide, I don’t want to see how they make silk, cloisonn√©, pearls, woodworking and more. I want to see the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and more. We can’t do both in three days. No, I don’t want to go to a restaurant with knives and forks that has people in costumes that evoke a stereotypical response as to what someone in China looks like—more than one-month in-country and we have used only chopsticks and we have seen no one looking like they just walked out of a Merchant-Ivory movie that was set in the Ming Dynasty.

Of the six-to-eight places our guide wanted to take us to shop (he gets a commission for each person walking in the door and a cut on every overpriced sale) we managed to avoid all but two or three. We flat out refused to eat in the tourist traps (which, not coincidentally, also had overpriced merchandise for sale). Our Chinese friend, Michael, has a former student who lives and works in Beijing. This friend took us all to dinner one night in an out-of-the-way restaurant with wonderful food. Our Chinese friends ordered and everything was spicy, flavorful and terrific. The company was great, too.

That freed some money up with our guide so that he could take us out for the only one thing that I wanted in Beijing that was absolutely non-negotiable: Beijing Duck. If he didn’t want to take us out for it I would have paid for it myself. How can you go all the way to Beijing and not get their special roasted duck? The place he took us was a few blocks from the hotel (the hotel, very nice, was not in a very touristy area—one block away there were some great local markets). The place he took us was filled with locals. We were the only non-Chinese. How unusual was it for them to see Europeans? Consider this: The non-English speaking waitress, 20 years old, starts making faces at me, sticking out her tongue, squishing up her face. Of course, that only encourages me to do the same. Then I find out her real agenda. She wants more from me then just making faces. She wants to get closer to me—much closer. She comes over, smile on her face, presses her body close to mine so she can discover exactly what she wants to know as she gently strokes my arm, looks up at me and says in Chinese something that needs absolutely no translation: “You have hair on your arm! What the hell is that all about?” When I showed her my chest hair (I didn’t take off my shirt…just a little peak) she recoiled in disgust.

Our trip in Beijing ended with a wonderful meal at a dumpling restaurant, the lightest and best I’ve ever tasted. Turns out the place is famous in Beijing—they have pictures of Colin Powell and Laura Bush eating there. I had to work very hard, and had to be very firm, to get our tour guide to give us what we wanted as opposed to what he wanted but it was worth it. Our last lunch in Beijing was a wonderful affair at some up-market, out-of-the-way place hosted, again, by Michael’s friend. I sure hope he gets to the USA sometime so I can return his graciousness.

(Landesberg at Tiananmen Square) One has to go to Beijing to see the incredible history there in Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and, of course, the Great Wall. We climbed, climbed and climbed some more on the wall. Apparently we were taken to the steepest and most difficult part of the wall. The number of stairs and the amount of energy it takes to climb is something one doesn’t realize when reading about the wall. But every bit of it was worth it. You have to do it. Pictures don’t do it justice. But Beijing itself is dirty, crowded, filled with traffic jams at all hours. I don’t know that I would bother coming back unless I had a very good reason. As for the Olympics … good luck. The city is preparing for it and, like all cities one year away, it is one big construction zone. Old neighborhoods are being torn down to put in new roads and widen existing roads. Things are being updated and modernized. History is being replaced by high-rises and what history remains is being turned into tourist attractions with the old Hutongs—historic alleyway neighborhoods—being turned into a Disneyfied version of the real thing (I snuck away from the tour guide so I could see the real thing).

From Beijing we took the overnight train to Xi’an…another nine-hour non-stop with the same kind of sleeper. I told the tour guide we didn’t want to be sold anything and that we didn’t want tourist food. She said fine, then promptly ignored me and did what she wanted to do, not what we wanted to do. The hotel was dirty and my request for a non-smoking room was gladly agreed to—they took the ashtrays out of the room and opened the windows (a recurring theme when asking for a non-smoking room). Every lunch was in a hotel and she had us booked to have our dinners in our hotel—in the western restaurant. Badly interpreted western food served buffet style. Think the Des Moines Motel 6 but with less elegance. We passed on the included dinner and paid for dinner ourselves at two really good local restaurants. In Xi’an we saw the Terra Cotta warriors—a must see—and a few other sites. Then it was time for the overnight train ride back to Nanjing.

The trains to Nanjing took more than 14 hours and made 10 stops. It wasn’t one of the newest fast trains but it was still comfortable and provided a good night’s sleep. Unlike the new trains, this one had no television sets in the sleeping compartment. That meant it was time to indulge in the Chinese passion for playing cards. Michael tried to teach me the classic Chinese card game but it was too complex for me. I taught him my favorite game—something I haven’t played since fiercely battling my college roommate—gin rummy. Michael is a natural. He consistently beat me.

The evening after we arrived back in Nanjing we had our farewell banquet with Dean Li, Mr. Schu and others from Southeast University. The food and company were great and it was a perfect way to end our time there. The next day was a final lunch with one of our new friends, a shop-op and finally dinner with some other new friends. Wednesday morning we were driven to Shanghai.

Shanghai is different than other places in China. It doesn’t have the emerging city feel of Nanjing. It isn’t the big city about to strut itself on the world stage like Beijing. It isn’t the tourist town of Xi’an. This is a city that has always had one foot in China and another foot in the west. It is the city of knock-offs and rip-offs where everyone can walk away happy. Walking down Nanjing road—the main, pedestrian shopping area—you are approached every three feet by someone saying, “Want to buy a watch? Rolex. Roller Skate? T-shirt? Food? Massage?” If I didn’t want to buy that from the guy who stopped me 10 seconds ago, why would I want to buy that from you? It got to the point where I would start talking to them in a foreign language—one that I made up—or offer to sell them my cheap plastic watch. They were undeterred. But, they are harmless and they don’t have the aggressiveness of hustlers in Morocco or other places in the world. Interestingly, all the watch peddlers have the same printed card to show people what they are selling leading me to wonder if this is some sort of franchise deal or if people go to school for this. Can you major in annoying people on the street? Can you take a college course called “Watch Hustling 101?” Shanghai is a wide-open city with lots of commerce, big western hotels, bars, a vibrant night scene and enough neon lights to embarrass Las Vegas.

(The Terracotta Warriors, sometimes considered the Eighth World Wonder) I’m sure there is a lot more to tell about this China adventure. I know that I never completely told about the wonderful experience of teaching freshmen at Southeast University. And there are so many other great experiences and terrific people to talk about. I hope that those reading this—students, colleagues, family, friends—will allow me at least a few minutes to bore them with more details. (Family note: There will be NO slide show, but I can show more pictures on request.) For those in the Elon area, I hope you will make an effort to meet our Chinese exchange professor, Michael. He is smart, fun and very talented. You need to hear him sing, play and do Tai Chi. Take him to lunch or dinner and expose him to American culture. And when you plan your next semester abroad or your next pleasure trip, consider China. It is an exciting place to visit that is far from most of our comfort zones. You will see things that you’ve only read about and meet people with attitudes and ideas that challenge your own. You will eat strange and wonderful food. You will have the time of your life.

Off to the airport in a couple of hours for a 14-hour non-stop flight to Chicago. We will arrive one hour after we left Shanghai (that time-zone thing is fun), endure a three-plus hour layover, then land at RDU at 11:20 a.m. On the road to Boston next Friday for our good friend’s wedding and meeting up with grad school friends. No blog, no pictures from there. Catch up with all of you in July and August. Happy Trails.  

Teach Your Children Well

When I saw my first classroom full of Chinese students it instantly struck me: I may be 10,000 miles away but I haven’t left the typical-looking American college student behind. There they were in front of me, dressed in T-shirts with band names and Cleveland Cavalier logos, blue jeans, sneakers, iPods, cell phones … all the signs of the modern college student. Only two differences: They were speaking Chinese and their clothes were made in China. OK, make that ONE difference. Check the label on what you are wearing. It was probably made here. I told the students that they look like my students, and I found it interesting that we are exporting our cultural styles to them—and they are manufacturing those styles and selling the shoes and clothing to us. They seemed unaware that we bought so much of our clothing from China—and that China owns so much of our national debt. That’s how I started our first discussion about globalization.

Before I tell you about the lectures, let me tell you about the classes. The first day I offered to be a guest lecturer in the classes taught by our host, “Michael.” He teaches English to non-majors—in this case, to freshmen majoring in medicine. That day, I taught three, 90-minute classes just generally talking about Elon and America. My assigned task was to teach freshmen English majors every Wednesday and Friday, two 90-minute classes per day, from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. There is great irony here, or maybe karma. For all of my years in post-secondary education—both as a student and as a teacher—I never took nor taught an 8 a.m. class. I had to come all the way to China to do that.

The kids in my class were absolutely terrific. Smart, fun and eager to learn. I taught them in the same style I teach in normally—for better or worse. Students reading this know how I teach, but for family and friends, it is like this: I don’t sit or stand at a lectern. I tend to pace the room and walk up and down the rows, interacting with students as I go along. As one of my Chinese students said: “ I could not fall asleep during your lecture because I had to always turn my head to follow you.” I also tell lots of bad jokes (and the occasional good one) and we all had fun seeing which ones they would catch and which they would understand after an explanation. I made it clear, as I do to my students at Elon, that they should question everything I say and make me support what I say. The idea of questioning authority is not something that comes naturally to these students.

The purpose of my being there was to introduce them to American culture and allow them to talk with someone who spoke contemporary American. Their textbooks contain some classic American and English works—Mark Twain, George Orwell, etc.—but nothing newer than about 20-years ago. My first lecture consisted of showing them brochures about Elon and explaining American university life. I showed them a number of magazines including Newsweek, Conde Naste Traveler, Cary Living and the Wine Spectator. I told them to keep the magazines and trade them with friends.

(Southeast's new campus is pictured to the left.) I did a lot of prep here (the Internet is a beautiful thing and we have a very good connection at the hotel here on the old campus) as I got a better feel for what they might want or need. I did a PowerPoint to illustrate what things cost in America versus what they cost in China. I started by showing the exchange rate between U.S. dollars and Chinese Yuan. Then I showed a Big Mac combo meal and what it costs in the US (had to guess a bit here since I hadn’t eaten at McDonalds in about 10 years—but McD and KFC are ubiquitous in Nanjing). I then talked about a nicer meal at Applebee’s…the 20-bucks we spend there would be about Y150. A shop clerk makes about Y300/week. A very satisfying bowl of noodles for lunch can be Y2. We have had some feast for dinner for less than Y10/each. A Tsing Tao beer in the stores goes for Y3, bottled water is less than Y1. You get the idea. I then explained that, after almost six weeks in China, a meal at Applebee’s would be far less than my wife expected. I then showed pictures of a stereotypical American blow-out meal: salad with blue cheese dressing, steak, potato, cabernet, strawberry shortcake for desert. When I told them that could easily cost $100-200 (Y750-1500) they couldn’t believe it. I assured them that most Americans wouldn’t do that on a regular basis. Most would only do that for a very special occasion.

More on teaching to follow, but now I have to catch the overnight train to Beijing. Then on to Xi-an and back to Nanjing. I’ll try to post again next week.

They paved pads of rice … Put up a Teaching Spot

With apologies to Joni Mitchell, that is very much the story of how the new campus of Southeast University was created. The old campus, the one on which we are staying, just celebrated its 105th anniversary. The new campus, the one on which we have been teaching, opened just this past autumn. And the two campuses are as different as Old Town Alexandria, Virginia and the most non-descript suburb you could imagine.

The old campus has that old college feel to it. Big mature Oak trees shading wide lanes with lots of grassy areas. There are places to sit and streets to stroll as well as a big fountain to hangout by day or night. There is a sense of community and an easily defined center to the campus. All around the school, the city of Nanjing bristles with life at every hour of the day or night. Food and shopping are right outside all of the campus gates. The best shopping and restaurants—Chinese and Western—are within a 15-minute walk or five-minute taxi ride (most taxi rides cost $1.25 to just about anywhere. Our more than 10-kilometer ride cost less than $3.00). History dating to the Ming dynasty or before is a stroll away. But the news campus is new … very new.

The new campus is on the other side of the Yangtze River, 30 minutes or more by bus from where I am staying. A year or two ago the new campus was rice paddies and fields worked mostly by poor farmers. The government came in, plowed the fields under, sent the farmers away and put up this new, huge university campus that one person described as “stupidly big.” And it IS very big.

(Landesberg at right in front of the fountain on Southeast's campus.) As far as the eye can see on this flat piece of land there are school buildings. Undergraduate classrooms, cafeterias, student union, graduate classes, a library, the usual bits of university life but all spread out across a big area. The buildings are all a drab grey and all look alike. Most are five stories tall with no elevator. There is no central air conditioning but the rooms have these big, free-standing air conditioning units that connect to a compressor perched on a ledge below the windows on the outside of the classroom. They don't always turn them on. The classrooms have a main computer but viruses are a serious problem and there is no Internet connection. Some rooms have old-fashioned chalkboards, some have newer white boards. There is never enough chalk or a workable marker when you need one—just like home.

Trees are still being planted, little bamboo sticks that will someday provide shade and character to this new campus that, like all new communities, lacks charm. Twenty years from now, the labor of the dozens of people I see toiling under the hot sun planting every day will change this place. But for now, there is little to do and little to enjoy while doing it. Students often take the bus into Nanjing for something to do.

This new, instant suburb where the school is located is also home to a big Motorola plant, a Ford Focus plant and a lot of other manufacturing plants as well as a number of suburban communities with western style McMansions that would be home in many parts of the USA. There are modern apartment complexes all around and even an indoor beach for swimming and spending the day with family. But unlike Nanjing, there is no place to walk, no place to go, nothing to do. It is a lot of new development, heavy on the concrete, with lots of space but no real life. The students feel isolated on the campus because they are so far from anything.

The theory behind the campus is interesting. According to some folks I spoke with, the government wants to provide more jobs in new areas. It believes building universities in rural areas will attract growth to those areas. Sounds like what a lot of American states did in the 1950s and 60s—locating universities in small farm towns that then became prosperous from the business boom that followed.


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