January 28, 2011

Culture Quiz: It’s in the details

Filed under: china,cross-cultural understanding,istechina,learning,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 2:56 pm

home.jpgVisit any place: a town, a school, a neighborhood, a college campus, even a restroom, and you will see telltale signs of the culture that lives there in the details that surround you. The trick is noticing. Here are images of details some may or may not notice when traveling in China. Each gives rise to some possible revelations about China– and raises some questions to ask about the culture in the place you call home.


cleaningrailing.JPGThis lady was carefully dusting every opening of a rooftop railing inside a garden in Shanghai. As tourists and other visitors walked beneath her, she continued cleaning. I immediately thought of the people we had seen sweeping the side of major highways with brooms. What might this possibly say about China’s employment or interest in cleanliness or care of public areas? What would I see on an equivalent place where you live?

bathsign.jpg I know I have possibly said too much about”western” and traditional (squat style) toilets in China. This sign was on the door to one stall where there was a western, seated style toilet. What does it tell you?

lib-books.JPGThe library at the village school we visited had these books on the shelves.  All the bookshelves were arranged in single layer displays of books like this. What can you tell about the school and the library? What would we learn from looking at the details of your school or town library?

libraryshoes.jpg Speaking of libraries, in the brand new private school we visited in Shanghai, I saw students taking off their shoes to enter the school library. They lined them up neatly under the bench outside the library door, then went in. What might this say about libraries, shoes, or…? For what places do you take your shoes off?

doorsill-keepout.jpg In the ancient and older buildings of the Forbidden City, a Buddhist temple in Xi’an, and the beautiful garden home (now museum) of an affluent Shanghai family, we saw elevated door sills that our guide said were designed to keep the evil spirits out. You have to step up over every door sill that goes to the outdoors. What do architectural features —  even in non-religious buildings– reveal about the beliefs of people? What architectural features are common in your town’s buildings, and why are they there?

roof-animals.JPGThis photo from the Forbidden City shows another architectural feature we saw in many, many,  places in China. Can you find out what these rooftop animals mean? Do you have any decorations that have meaning on the buildings in your city or country?

tiananmen pole.JPGRight outside the Forbidden City is Ti’ananmen Square. This light pole has more than lights. What else do you see? Why is it there? What would we see on the utility poles in public areas where you live —-and why?

street laundry.JPG The necessities of everyday life take up time and effort in every culture. What does this street photo tell you about the people of Shanghai? Actually, we saw this in every city. How do people where you live handle the same tasks? (Please pardon the blurriness. This was taken through a bus window.)

one rollerblade.JPG Play is important for children everywhere. This little boy had one rollerblade while his sister wore the other. They were playing outside the front door of their village home during the two hour break when children went home from school for lunch. What does this tell you about Chinese village children? If we watched children play in your neighborhood, what would we learn?

kidsatplay.JPG In the same small village, we saw this sign. What does it say about what is important there? What would we see in road signs (even on roads like this with few cars) where you live — and why?

dancer- tangdynastyshow.JPG Ceremonies and dances appear n every culture. This reenactment of a dance celebration from the Tang Dynasty was even more breathtaking when “stopped” by the camera. What ceremonies and rituals would strangers to your home find striking or surprising? Why do these ceremonies continue?

foodstall-beijing.JPG People say, “You are what you eat,” and one of the first thing everyone asks about my visit to China is about the food. This street stall in the middle of a Beijing neighborhood was well-stocked on a chilly December afternoon. What kind of food would visitors see for sale where you live, and where would they have to go to find it? What does that say about the economy and transportation systems where you live?

lunch-bnu.JPG If we are what we eat, what would people say about you? These dumplings held mysterious contents, prompting us to ask “what’s inside?” before we tried them. What foods would visitors ask about when they visited your home?

Sometimes looking at the details reveals more questions than answers, but guessing and hypothesizing about culture from the outside details is as delightful as biting into it — and you discover some good stuff.

January 21, 2011

China “snapsnacks”

Filed under: china,cross-cultural understanding,gifted,istechina,learning,Misc.,musing,teaching — Candace Hackett Shively @ 6:15 pm

Snapsnack: (I made this up) n. a quick impression, much like a handful of M&Ms or crackers to give you a small taste but nowhere near a “meal.”  Snapsnacks also make your brain work :)

There are still so many things I have not written about the China trip, so–just for teachers and kids– I am sharing some quick “snapsnacks” from China. My disclaimer: As with any short trip (11 days), my impressions may not be fair representations of China as a whole. Think about a visitor to your town. If he came on a certain snowy day, he would have one set of experiences, perhaps thinking that everyone always wears boots. If he stayed for a year, he would have a much truer sense of what your town/city/country is all about. For fun, try people-watching at your local grocery store and imagine what a one day visitor would say about your community!

Snapsnack 1: Students in China do not work in groups much. They do things all together as a class, often sm-desks.jpgreciting things out loud as a whole group. When one student is called on, he/she stands, hands behind the back, and looks at the front wall as he/she answers. We never saw a student raise his/her hand. I don’t know if this means they do not ever raise hands to ask questions/volunteer or if our visits just did not happen to see it. The students sit two-across or four-across with long aisles from the front to the back of the classroom. The only schools where we saw other seating arrangements were the international schools– where desks and tables were arranged many different ways. Do you think the way the seatssm-jaderocks.jpg are arranged in your classroom affects the way you learn and behave?

Snapsnack 2:  Did you know that high quality jade changes color over many years of being worn against human skin? I guess it is the warmth that changes it. The hardest jade comes from a mountain that is only partially in China. It is called jadeite. People in China give jade, not diamonds, when they get engaged. What natural resources from your area are rare? How rare are they? How do people use them? What affects their value?

Snapsnack 3:  The terracotta warriors were not always brown. When they were first excavated, they had brightly painted colors, but the colors faded very quickly once exposed to air. When the Chinese officials figured out that even the experts could not stop the fading, they stopped excavating the warriors. They are waiting to dig up the many thousands more (that they know are still underground) until they have found a technology to prevent the fading. They have consulted experts from around the world. What ideas do you have that might prevent the warriors’ colors from fading? How would you test your ideas?smrestorations.jpg

Snapsnack 4: Most people in the Chinese villages have never had  “land line” telephones. Your grandparents probably still have one, even if your family does not. The people in the villages do have cell phones.  Knowing what it takes to put “land line” telephones into homes vs. making cell phones work in the countryside, why do you suppose most villagers never had landlines? What do you know about the economic level of people in the Chinese countryside villages? What happened in China during the years since cell phones were invented? Can you think of reasons why the villagers’ phones are mostly cell phones?

The picture below shows a village home. What can you tell about what jobs people have in villages?


Snapsnack 5: There are web sites that do not work in China because of censorship, but people still “see” them. YouTube does not work on computers, but it does work on smart phones that have web browsers. Some sites do not work, but people pay to “get around” the censorship using a proxy server service. The cost is about $50/year. Teachers even pay it so they can use some sites with their students. Do you know of censorship that people “get around” or rules that people ignore? What is your definition of a rule that is “made to be broken” vs. one that should be respected and followed?

I hope to share more soon. For now, stay warm — those of you in the northern hemisphere.

January 14, 2011

“There is a policy” reactions

Filed under: china,cross-cultural understanding,istechina — Candace Hackett Shively @ 4:54 pm

Today I am sorting through, labeling, and selecting photos from the China trip for an upcoming slide show for this blog. As I relive the trip, I find myself revisiting questions I have about the amount of voice we Americans assume we have as individuals in deciding laws and policies of the federal (or state or local) government. As the aftermath of the Tucson shootings plays out in the media, my first temptation would be to launch into discussion about civility or a comparison of U.S. citizens’ assumptions and Chinese citizens’ assumptions. But I fear I would miss the subtleties of really understanding the way many Chinese citizens feel about “policies.”

As we talked with Shawn*, our country guide in China, (and I asked questions endlessly) we heard over shawn.jpgand over,  “There is a policy…” — ending with an explanation. There were the One Birth policy (not really One Child, since twins are OK), provincial policies about motor vehicles, policies about teacher professional development, apartment ownership, etc. Shawn never flinched or seemed at all uncomfortable answering our questions. He had a marvelous ability to distance himself from any pro or con, simply explaining the policy and sometimes venturing a rationale, such as for policies to limit the number of cars to cut pollution. The infamous One Child policy has eased,  he explained, to provide for the aging population. There is no way there will be enough Chinese workers to support all the older people who retire so young in China. (Sound familiar?) What was striking to me was the dispassionate way Shawn and our other three guides apparently viewed “There is a policy.” They might as well have been saying, “There is a tree.” I marvel at the dispassion.

As teachers, we often face students who balk at rules, especially in middle school, where a “That’s not FAIR!” fundraiser paying $.10 each time this cry is heard could fund iPads for several classrooms. In young children, that voice is far less prevalent, probably because early elementary kids are more developmentally aware of  “rules”  than “fair.”  But I can’t say that Shawn’s response to “policy” was a developmental lag or lack of awareness. He has spoken with and guided people from many, many countries. Rather, his demeanor is a totally aware acceptance without malice. There were no signs of fear that he could get in trouble for questioning or saying the wrong thing to us. He just seemed to care about other things. Think about people you know. You probably know someone who simply accepts things without getting hot and bothered. He/she is not stupid or naive, simply detached. These people care about something else.

So, as a loud-mouthed, questioning American,  I wonder what it is that Shawn and his compatriots care about more. THAT is the cross-cultural understanding we should be working on, instead of asking why the Chinese do not question “There is a policy…” as many Americans would.

 *Shawn is his English name. His real first name is Shunqiang.