by Patrick Nohrden
Note: Since this article was first published in early 2012, world political and financial situations have changed. Some things never change.
My constitution guarantees me many freedoms, including the freedom to say what I want, to be with whomever I want, to worship any way I want, to write anything I want, and to travel anywhere I want. I am an American. I do not take any of that for granted because I do not live in America. I live in China.
China is filled with many wondrous things, relics of its long and glorious history, an industrious population, a culture of unwavering filial obligation, a growing middle class, and hope in every home. Everywhere you go, you will encounter people who base all their hopes on what will come tomorrow. Nearly everybody believes that they have a chance to get rich, and this hope is encouraged by the government.
The problem with China is not its history or its people. It is its management. China is managed by the Chinese Communist Party. Nearly every aspect of Chinese society is somehow controlled by the Party, including newspapers, television stations, private enterprise, the churches, and its schools. Publicly traded Chinese corporations, in addition to having a board of directors, have political committees headed by s party secretary. The board may make decisions, but these decisions must be approved by the party secretary.
The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (Roman Catholicism is illegal) must worship in accordance with the law. Certain tenets of Christianity may not be taught to the congregants, and the Bureau of Religious Affairs must approve all ordinations of priests and the installation of bishops.
Public schools likewise have dual management. Although a school has a principal and various assistant principals who act as managers of the school, they are beholding to the school’s party secretary. Any decision of the school principal can be countermanded by the party secretary if he deems it to be in the best interest of the Party. In fact, the principal of the school is chosen by the Party and can be easily removed by the Party. For this reason, many schools are administered with considerations to the best interest of the Party first and education second.
I currently teach at Henan Experimental High School in Zhengzhou, the capital of China’s most populous province, Henan. It is a provincial level school with about 10,000 students and currently hosts a Canadian program for some of its students. The students receive their high school education in English and earn both a Nova Scotia and a Chinese high school diploma. Then they leave China to enroll in Canadian, and sometimes American, universities. All of their teachers are foreigners, mostly Canadian, licensed to teach elsewhere. Our job is to teach the Nova Scotia curriculum to our students and to give them an idea of what to expect in North American society. The school puts up with us because we are big money makers for the school, as our students pay a lot of tuition to be in our program.
But we make the administration nervous. Each teacher is assigned a Chinese co-teacher whose duties have never been made particularly clear, other than to assist in the classroom, which occurs rarely. They are also our watchers. One of the requirements to be a co-teacher is that the teacher must speak English. The other requirement is that they have a “strong political stand and national security awareness.” Naturally, this is an eyebrow raiser for me when considering that this person is supposed to be helping me teach literature. Fortunately, some of these co-teachers enjoy their roles as teachers and do not make very good “watchers.” I have been lucky in that regard for the most part. But then, I do not know what has been reported about me either.
I taught in public schools in Nevada. I taught in a private school in the Middle East. But it is quite different teaching at my current school. I actually enjoy teaching my Chinese students, as they are all eager to learn and most of them do their homework on time and do the best they can. But it is not my classroom. I move from classroom to classroom throughout the day, and I am stuck with the seating arrangement created by the students’ “head teacher.” The seating arrangement does not consider learning as an objective but control, because it is all about control here. Students must be in class at 7:30 a.m. where they are given their marching orders for the day by their head teacher. Classes start at 7:50, and the students suffer though five classes before lunch. They have a long lunch break; then they are back in the classroom until 9:00 p.m., with an hour for dinner. Those who live in the dormitories are in the classroom until 10:00 when they are allowed back in the dorms. They can leave campus only with a note from their head teacher. If a parent needs a student during the day, the parent must sign a document acknowledging that the parent, and not the school, is responsible for the safety of the student, and the school signs custody of the student over to the parent. The students need permission from their head teacher just to get a haircut. You will never find that kind of control at schools in America.
And the school likewise tries to restrict the movements of its foreign teachers. We are required to report to the school anytime we travel outside of Zhengzhou. We must let the school know when we return. If we should leave the country, as many of us do during longer holidays, we must register our presence with the police. This is done easily by one of our Chinese staff by providing her a copy of the page in our passport with our most recent entry stamp. We just came off a long break for the Chinese New Year festival. I had to prove that I did not leave the country.
The school claims that it is only concerned for our safety. I don’t know why, because I am an American, and according to the Chinese media, America is the most dangerous country in the world because we are allowed to have guns. The school should not worry about me at all, since I have managed not to have gotten myself killed in America.
This past September, however, right around the ten-year anniversary of the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we were instructed to turn over our passports to the police. The reason given was to again register our presence in Zhengzhou after the summer break. But they wanted our passports and not a copy of the page in the passport with the entry stamp. I needed my passport for some banking activity, so I had to “borrow” it from the police. I did not give it back. The real reason for confiscating our passports was because of the anniversary. China was expecting a terrorist attack by some Muslim separatists in far west China. By keeping our passports, we were stuck in Zhengzhou, because you cannot buy a train ticket without it; you cannot board an airplane without it, and you cannot check into a hotel without it.
It is difficult to keep the foreign teachers from traveling. None of them came to China to see Zhengzhou. We came to see the sights of China that are famous, the terra-cotta warriors in Xi’an, Shaolin Temple, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, Shanghai. But instead, the school tries to keep us right here in what is arguably now the city with the most polluted air in China.
Coming up soon is a three-day holiday known as Tomb Sweeping Day, when Chinese honor their ancestors by performing ritual cleanings at their grave sites. It is a three-day holiday starting on a Monday giving most Chinese a five-day holiday, perfect for a trip to any of the famous sights of China. But the school has decided that our students must make up some of those missed days, so we will be in class on the Saturday and Sunday preceding the holiday. That pretty much takes away the incentive to travel.
This decision was made by the school’s “curriculum” committee and not by the principal. Of course, it was rubber stamped by the party secretary, so the principal would have no authority to change it.
The irony is that we are teaching the Nova Scotia curriculum. According to the education law of Nova Scotia, students must receive 187 days of instruction per year based upon five hours of instruction per day. These are called instructional days under the law, but teachers refer to them as student contact days. Last year we had about 205 student contact days. This year will not be any different. But if I am teaching the Nova Scotia curriculum, maybe I should stop teaching them sometime in April.
China is full of ironies, not least of which is their frequent translation of a day off from work as a “holiday.” Certainly it is easy to discern the meanings of the two parts of this word. Yet, when we get a day off from work in China, it is a holy event. That is really no problem to me. I am an American. I have the right to worship anyway I want, to say anything I want, to associate with whomever I want, and to write whatever I want. I just have to wait until I am back in America ducking the gunfire and where I can take these things for granted again.