Friday, July 11, 2014

The Controversial Confucius Institute

In 2004, the Confucius Institute (CI) program was established with a mission to spread knowledge of Chinese language and culture around the world. Along with rising numbers of people interested in studying the language, these academic centers have hired and trained teachers, designed curriculum for teaching Chinese and educated people worldwide about fast-growing China. The institutes have also sought to promote friendly international relations and trade.


Chow Yun-fat as Confucius, still a figure of interest almost 2600 years after the Chinese sage’s birth

Sponsored by the Chinese government as part of the Ministry of Education, these nonprofit public institutes are run in universities, colleges, and secondary schools. The first campus opened in Seoul, South Korea, and today there are over 350 Confucius Institutes in dozens of nations. Most of these educational centers are located in the United States, Japan, and South Korea. The University of Chicago, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Stanford University, and Purdue University are just a few of the schools in partnership with Confucius Institute.

However, this growing number of institutes has also met with backlash.

China’s Confucius Institutes have been known to spread Communist propaganda through cultural exchanges at host schools. The United States and other nations in the West have criticized these government-run institutes for limiting academic freedom, keeping tabs on Chinese students studying abroad, and seeking to spread the country’s own viewpoints on controversial topics. Issues that avoid discussion include the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and China’s relations with Tibet and Taiwan. There have also been questions regarding Confucius Institute’s quality of teachers and academics.

Just last month, the American Association of University Professors requested that universities partnered with Confucius Institutes either terminate or reexamine their relations with these branches of the Chinese government. They argue that by allowing the Chinese government to control their methods of teaching, these universities in the United States have risked losing their integrity. Instead of being limited by these institutes’ narrow curriculum, restricted from meaningful debates, and controlled by tight staff hiring procedures, American institutions should fight for their belief in academic freedom in all teachings and research. If the Confucius Institute continues to clash with this notion of academic freedom, then schools should sever ties with the program.


China issues a special stamp for the Confucius Institute, trotting out its #1 ambassador

There have been happenings regarding those accusations. In 2012, former Confucius Institute instructor Sonia Zhao reported discrimination against her because of her faith in Falun Gong. Zhao asserted how her employment contract explicitly prevented her from associating with the spiritual discipline, which is regarded as a threat by the Chinese Communist Party. The school where she worked, McMaster University in Canada, sided with Zhao and declined to renew its contract with Confucius Institute the following year. When the Dalai Lama planned to speak at North Carolina State University in 2009, the occasion drew opposition from Confucius Institute, and the university ended up cancelling the event.

In the United States and other nations where academic freedom is crucial, Confucius Institute’s restrictions may not be accepted for much longer. With the support of many American universities at risk, perhaps it is time for something to be changed.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

More Than a Pretty Face?: Teaching Without Thinking in China

I have a Swiss friend who is infamous for his unwavering pragmatism in the face of invitation. If someone asked him if he wanted to do something – grab a bite to eat or go swim in the creek – he’d almost always agree to join in, if he didn’t have other plans: “Why not?”

I was thinking of him when I agreed to a money-making opportunity on Thursday. It was my second day in Qufu, a city in China’s southwestern Shandong province. It’s known throughout China as the birthplace Confucius, and nothing else. It’s a poor and gritty city, where air pollution has stained the sky perpetually grey and residents drive shabby motorbikes and half-constructed tuk-tuks through dusty streets. It’s called a third-tier city, and without its connection to ancient Chinese history, it would be nothing more than a gray blot among gray blots.


The Confucius Temple in Qufu

From Beijing, it took me exactly two hours by high-speed train to get to Qufu. Until the outskirts of the city, where the landscape becomes dynamic and mountainous, the view from a train window is painfully predictable. Miles of flat farmland are interrupted briefly by drab, hastily constructed cities and condominium parks, although to call these “parks” is misleading when there is nothing green in sight.

The unnaturalness of the cities – I passed Tianjin and Dezhou – is unrelieved by farmland, which too has a feeling of artificiality, with its square plots of land and pencil-straight irrigation canals. Every plot of earth is utilized, hardly anything left to nature’s command. Wilderness is an unfulfilled promise here.

The peasants working the field, surprisingly few and far between, looked small against such a never-ending backdrop, like tiny figurines moved by an invisible puppeteer. They worked with the same tools used by their ancestors thousands of years ago, and the only difference between their landscape now and then were the motorbikes, radio towers, power lines and water-heaters. Everything else was the same.

I had come to Qufu to meet up with my friend Matty, an old friend from high school who spent the last nine months teaching English at Qufu Normal University. We were sipping coffee at the campus cafe when he got a WeChat message from a friend, who worked for a “training school” and wanted a laowai to help advertise the school that afternoon.


Canadian expat and famous “laowai” Dashan (Mark Rowswell), for many a polarizing entertainment figure in China

“Do you want to do it?” Matty asked me. “They’ll pay you 100 RMB.”

I thought about it for a second. “Why not?” I said.

Three hours later, I was in the back of a three-wheeled motor cart being driven by a boy named Smiley. Sitting with me were Kate and Abby, two college students at Qufu Xingtan University and employees at the Excellent A Training School.

We drove through the dusty boulevards of Qufu, past the ancient walled town in the center of the city and out into the surrounding countryside, where rows of corn, which the locals call “sticks”, dominated the earth. Kate and Abby chattered happily as our cart buzzed past piles of freshly pulled crop surrounded by dirt-stained farmers. They teased Smiley whenever he went too fast through a speed bump.

We arrived outside an elementary school. There was a couple old tables and stools stacked along a wall, and Smiley threw them silently in the back of his cart and drove a few yards to where adults were standing patiently by their battered motorbikes, waiting for the school to get out. A red banner along the school gate read: Delve deeply into developing “educational safety”.

Most of those waiting were grandparents, as the parents were farmers and would be working in the fields until mid-evening. We set out the tables and stools, and Kate and Abby pulled out a pile of flyers, a sign-up sheet, and pen. What occurred next happened in seconds: we were surrounded by chirping old peasants, eager to hear my new colleagues’ sales-pitch.

Kate and Abby handled them with ease, handing out flyers and explaining the benefits of the training school. Some of them listened intently, while others hung around, entertained by the commotion. Within minutes, Kate and Abby had six names and phone numbers on the sign-up sheet.

Pad of Paper & Pen

Ready for business!

The Excellent A Training School promised to improve students’ English grades; hence, the suspicious “A” in the school’s name. For a few hours a day, at 380 RMB (or US$60) for 30 days, the students would receive English lessons and lunch. The training school targets the farmers because many of them hadn’t received a good enough education to help their children with homework.

Training schools are highly popular in China, and the competition between them is high. Kate estimated that in Qufu alone, there are over two hundred. Training schools don’t all focus on English, either; there’s a training school for nearly every subject, from science and math to music and writing.

A Qufu resident whom I spoke to, a college student whose English name was Peter Philadelphia, works at another English training school during the summer. He was critical of them, believing they focused too much on boosting grades and not enough on improving students’ learning abilities. “I wanted to improve their learning, but they only wanted me to do their homework for them,” Peter lamented.

In the birthplace of Confucius, who taught unquestioning loyalty to ones’ superiors and stressed the importance of test taking, this seemed like a completely normal problem to have.

Kate’s school, of which she is the manager, was started three years ago by a 24-year-old graduate of Qufu Xingtan College. They currently employ three teachers. All of them are college students, as it is illegal to employ officially registered teachers at a training school. (They’re cheaper, anyway, Kate added.) For one month of teaching, they receive 2000 RMB, around US$300. One of the photos on the flyer was of a white man teaching a classroom of Chinese students and was captioned, “Our foreign teacher.” The other was of a crowd of children and read, “Watermelon competition.”

The gates opened, and a crowd of boys sprinted out like racehorses. Some of them ran over to our table to see what was going on, but most just hopped on the back of their grandparents’ motorbikes and sped off. The school was next to a busy road where motorbikes zipped alongside giant trucks carrying sand, gravel, wood, and other construction materials. When the kids rushed out of the school, the street erupted in the sound of car horns.

I pointed at the trucks: “Why are they honking?”

“So the kids know not to run into the street,” Kate answered, matter of fact.

By the end of the session, the Excellent A Training School had collected twelve names and phone numbers. Three of the new sign-ups made 100 RMB deposits to reserve a spot in the upcoming class period.

I hadn’t said more than five words. “Why did you bring me here?” I asked.

“So the parents will believe that the education is more official,” Kate said.

My white face had added legitimacy to their English teaching business: I was paid $15 to sit and smile.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

How Do Asian-Americans Break Through the “Bamboo Ceiling”?

Whenever I ask people if they have any Asian and Asian-American blog ideas, the typical response I would get is: Have you written about the model minority? And the answer is no, I haven’t directly addressed this topic (and am not particularly excited to tackle it) because I didn’t think I had anything substantial to add to the already robust literature on model minorities.

But, as it would happen, I stumbled upon an interesting term dealing with the model minority stereotype that I have not heard before: “the bamboo ceiling”. Going in the same direction as my last article on Asian-Americans and leadership, the bamboo ceiling is like the so-called glass ceiling. Women and many people of color say they hit a glass ceiling when it comes to executive level or leadership roles in the workplace, but do Asian-Americans face additional hurdles and get shut out of top jobs because they are seen as model minorities?


Watch out for the shards

Asian-Americans have the highest level of education and income in the country. Yet, according to a story on NPR and DiversityInc, Asian-Americans make up only 2.6 percent of the corporate leadership of Fortune 500 companies. Asian-Americans have the education and the skills and abilities, but why are they not better represented in corporate America?

Is this institutional racism? Do Asian-Americans not look or act like how leaders are supposed to look and act? What are our associations with Asian culture and model minorities and what is our understanding – the norms and expectations – of leaders in Fortune 500 corporate America? Do model minorities not possess leadership attributes?

Asian-Americans are dealt a double whammy. For starters, the organizational culture of corporate America is set up in such a way that people who are not white and male are already at a disadvantage. The farther you go up within an organizational structure, the more white and male, the less minority and female those organizations almost all become. Second, when people think of leaders and of Asians, there is almost no overlap between those two terms.


We’ve only moved the old boy network into the good ol’ boys club

In my last article, I wrote of my own personal struggle to balance both Asian and American values, particularly staying modest yet having a presence in a group. It may well be the case that many Asian professionals arrive in the workplace with a set of cultural behaviors, such as ways to relate themselves to superiors and elders, that is a recipe for invisibility. These behaviors include having a hard work ethic where you are focused on pleasing your boss and doing an outstanding job on your assignments, so that social relationships are put on the back-burner, or you don’t let others know of all the good work you’ve been doing.

Yet, even if you are gregarious and brag often about all that you have done for the organization, your colleagues and others who meet you may still see you as a smart, hardworking, and unthreatening model minority. I know, because despite how I acted during my 4-week business program with the Fullbridge Program, my coach told me that I have “soft edges” and do not need to worry about being perceived as disrespectful or mean. I thought, at times, that I overstepped and was quite mean, but I was “soft” enough so I got the benefit of the doubt.

This, then, is the bamboo ceiling that Asian-Americans face in the workplace: goody-two-shoes, unlikely to reach leadership positions that need tough, authoritative personalities. Asian professionals and leadership roles don’t quite match up. The bamboo ceiling exists, and it’s a bitter reality.