No More Chicken on Handlebars

nI1984, my wife and I were living in Kaifeng, China.  On a trip to Shanghai, we saw a bustling city, yet China was known as a rural country. Gazing across Shanghai’s opal-grey Huangpu River, we saw rice fields.  Today, the water reflects the fireworks and Christmas lights of multiple Manhattans.  Back then, the airport was claustrophobic and oppressively hot.  In 2006, the Shanghai airport was immaculate and air-conditioned.  The big cities of the China we knew in 1984 were framed by imperious, inaccessible Soviet-bloc style monoliths. Now, it’s a queue of glass and steel tributes to Ayn Rand.  Before, average citizens wore maintenance-man blue.  Today, it’s high fashion.  In 1984, we were the object of baffled stares.  Today, foreigners rarely elicit a glance.

Back then, in order to buy a toothbrush, one had to stand in one line for a stamp, and move to another line for a clerk to tell you that (a) they didn’t have it (though you could see the toothbrushes lined up like soldiers) and (b) for you to insist one one.  The transaction not yet completed, you must join a third (long) line in order to pay and wait for the receipt.  This time, I had to wave my arms to get the attention of a checker so that she could get off her cell phone, roll her eyes, and scan my tube of toothpaste.

In 1984, meat hung from windows, chickens from handlebars. Today, that’s harder to find, though I suspect restaurant kitchens have not changed much.  Back then, the afternoon nap was sacrosanct. Today, shops are open after lunch.  As a newly-married couple spending our year in China over two dozen years ago, entertainment included watching workers climb bamboo scaffolding and reach out to collect mortar pulleyed up in hemp bags.  A generation later, a popular joke goes like this—Question: “Do you know the name of the national bird of China?”  Punchline:  “The building crane!”

A country once known to think and move in centuries had somehow been transformed into a well-oiled machine that builds mass transit in months. Worried about supplying its people with enough food, China has begun to think about obesity. Where dung collectors once carried just enough to fuel a home, China has become an energy dragon with an insatiable appetite for oil to power a billion people.  1984:  rice paddies.  2012: the largest iPad factory in the world.j

Our project—teaching science inquiry methods to middle school and high school teachers—was planned for a community an hour and a half from Chengdu, in Sichuan province.  I remember only the Chairman Mao statue, throngs of bicyclists, and haze.  Today, Chengdu is throttled by cars. The statue remains, along with the haze.

The Mao Zedong statue, one of the largest in the country, anchors Chengdu’s Tianfu Square, a downtown commercial shopping district.  Mao stands in front of a Stalinesque Science and Technology Museum in his characteristic pose—waving to the masses.  But no one seems to notice.  They’re busy shopping, perhaps, or finding their way to the iPad factory.  Mao looks somewhat forlorn now, as if he has had no luck hailing a cab. Below ground, a subway fans commuters to other stations.

In the 80s when we traveled to Chengdu, we did not recognize anything western.  Today, in Mao’s direct view—McDonald’s, Gucci, and Starbucks.  In my first visit back, street vendors sold Mao kitche. On my latest trip, even those were gone. An underground artist circulated photoshopped images of the Chairman holding a latte in his outstretched arm.

Against this backdrop, I met brilliant chain-smoking educators. We discussed the role of school leadership in building a climate of change; the capacity for technology to reach more people and deliver education efficiency. We discussed impediments to teacher effectiveness. We tackled social issues in urban and rural areas.  I expressed concern about violence in schools.  He described his concern about a “little emperor and empress syndrome” he had not seen before: indulged children of the one-child family planning policy, inwhich a higher standard of living and fewer obligations led to a disregard for Chinese culture and manners.  I talked of metal detectors and drive-by shooting drills in high-schools.  He talked of children walking several paces ahead of their grandparents trailing behind, carrying the child’s lunch.

Several of us traveled together to Dujiangyan, the site of our workshops, an hour’s car ride from Chengdu, through a new High Tech Development Zone,  one building as ostentatious as the other.   China’s Silicon Valley eventually gave way to farmland and the China I could remember—at first.  In front of the car, a man struggled to pedal his bicycle with a pig draped over a grate fashioned to the back of his seat.  The difference between 1984 and 2006 was stark—this time, he was also talking on his cell phone.  I wanted roll down my window and shout: “Bringing home the bacon?”

Dujiangyan is known for its irrigation system (still providing water to Chengdu) built in 250 BC by thousands of workers carrying stones in baskets of bamboo.  Gunpowder had not been invented yet, so fire and water would heat and cool rocks until they cracked. Li Bing, the governor at that time, wrote instructions:  “Year by year dredge at the bottom until the iron bars clearly appear.  Respect the ancient system and do not lightly modify it.”  He sought to ensure that workers dig “the channel deep and keep the spillways low” to hold  “for a thousand autumns.”  They had to discover the means of doing this—engineering, chemistry, physics, model-building, testing, data-gathering—a perfect model for science inquiry.  One’s backyard has always been the source of fabulous lesson plans.

Nearby Mount Qingcheng (the “green city”), one of the birthplaces of Taoism, rises serenely above it all like an ancient ink-wash scroll–a long vertical landscape dotted with temples.  In 2000, the Dujiangyan Irrigation System and the tourist site at Mount Qingcheng were both named UNESCO World Heritage sites.

A colleague born in South Africa agreed to coordinate the program in China with a deeply-committed employee from the foundation funding our work.  We would add curriculum, new teaching methods, and a few American teachers, as well as identify Chinese teacher leaders and co-teach the workshops.   Standard bill of fare.

The sessions went well.  In the evenings, we stuffed ourselves into taxis to visit restaurants for banquets of 13 courses, cheery toasts, and karaoke, all paid for by deeply appreciative, though poorly-compensated,  teachers.

I had a chance to teach, at long last, and that familiar charge came back. At last, the real work, rather than Powerpoint presentations or grant proposals seeking support in order to do the work.  My students preferred to be called by American names—Southern names like Mary-Sue and Barbara-Ann for women.  Men preferred early Americana— Andrew Jackson and Benjamin Franklin were particular favorites.

The program was a success, we were asked back, the funder promised continued support, and the following year, in 2007, the curriculum was translated into Chinese for even wider dissemination.  My daughter had been interested in teaching and accompanied me, joining the English team. The Director of Education, Mr. Zhang, had a daughter, too.  Our friendship was sealed.

But, just as I feared in South Africa, professional development should not be a summer activity alone – arranged by convenience – but an ongoing, consistent process.  The Chinese agreed.  By the time the American teachers had left, several Chinese teachers had convinced their principals to demonstrate new teaching techniques during their faculty meetings.  They sent me translated versions, which I shared widely.  They had it covered.  It was time to take the next step—to develop a plan for true collaboration, across borders, to use video-conferencing and translators, to build this for scale.

Our funder was thrilled and more came to the table.  We were able to make more planning trips to keep the fires burning.  This was going to be a year-round project, truly shared, evaluated for effectiveness.

By mid-April 2008 in Dujiangyan, I met with curriculum directors and officials for hours at an outdoor cafe in order to craft a Memorandum of Understanding. We sketched out a model of university partnerships, e-learning, field supervision, and leadership development. Dujiangyan would be well represented in Shanghai as a model of science inquiry methodology and new approaches to education. They would, of course, have to keep the online component on a short leash.  China has always been about tight controls on information, and I knew that the three Ts (Taiwan, Tien an Men, and Tibet) were off limits.  Nevertheless, our Chinese colleagues were willing to try new cross-border collaboration ideas.

At the scale China represents, I thought, this project could affect hundreds of thousands of teachers and students.  Few international organizations were working in Dujiangyan. This would be a launching pad.

We met in a private room on an upper floor of an expansive Sheraton Hotel in downtown Chengdu for the signing ceremony.  The Chinese presented me with the document (using both hands, always a gesture of respect).  I received it accordingly and signed it immediately, without asking an interpreter to look it over.  Someone leaned over and stamped them both with a red seal.  Smiles all around.  Long handshakes. Director Zhang smiled and took my hands in his.

During the celebratory banquet immediately afterward, the interpreter whispered in my ear that I had shown my hosts great cultural respect.  At the moment when I signed the documents, I did not ask to compare them side by side with the English version.  No longer were the “other” people to watch; we were friends to keep.

I can’t remember the banquet, other than the thirteen toasts and thirteen shots of baiju, a colorless Vodka-like drink, that seems harmless at first, but at between 65-85 proof, can pack a punch.  It is customary to stand and to express one’s respect and gratitude toward the host or a colleague, then each must drain the shot glass in front of the one doing the toasting. I did—several times.  I am told that my Chinese got better, but I can’t recall what I said.  Someone took my arm and walked me back to my much cheaper hotel around the corner.  It was 2:30 pm.  I was told to go to bed. I couldn’t find the light switch.  I awoke the next day.

Within a week of returning to the United States, I was back in Silicon Valley talking to the funders, gathering them together to share the plan. I brought my copy of the MOU.  I had pictures, statistics, plans.  Big things were in store ahead.  I was ready for my next grant.

By the first week of May, I had designed a preliminary grant proposal to move from pilots to a more scalable model. Teachers Without Borders was ready to take China by storm.