I've been back from China for about a month and I'm still processing the experience, but I thought I'd tell you all a little about some of my observations in and out of the classroom. I was hired to teach English language and culture but really, in three weeks, there's not much language teaching you can do, so it mostly winds up being an English culture summer camp and conversation program. Which is great. There's a lot more learning of language that goes on in informal sessions than formal ones, and it was really a pleasure to get to know both the students and faculty of the Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT).
Harbin is an industrial city in the north of China, with a population around the same size as New York's. As Chinese cities goes, it's pretty new, springing up in the late 1800's when the Russians built a railroad from Vladivostok to a sleepy fishing village on the Songhua River for trade purposes. Russian Jews migrated there and helped build the city, giving Harbin its first hospitals, schools and libraries as well as two synagogues and a sizable cemetery that's still lovingly cared for by the Chinese. At one time the city housed an international, multiethnic population and was called the Paris of China, and passed through both Russian and Japanese hands before becoming wholly Chinese. Now, its population is almost exclusively Chinese, with a few Japanese and Korean residents. (If you're interested in pictures, you can see what I took at my Flickr account, or our fearless leader, Marcy Bauman's. You can also take a look at my blog posts about the trip.)
The city has a number of universities and top-notch schools. HIT is the third-best university in China, on par with our MIT and like MIT, focused on science and technology fields. The students are chosen from the top 2.5 percent of those taking the national admissions exam, so they are smart, smart kids, and HIT tends to promote from within its graduate population. One thing the language barrier often does is disguise just how darn smart folks are, and I know I was underestimating the intelligence of most of the people I was talking to. The few technical conversations we had were as much hampered by my lack of technical vocabulary as their lack of English vocabulary. I met aerospace, civil, environmental and all other kinds of engineers, materials scientists, chemists, computer scientists and new media specialists, economists and architects, and people specializing in technological innovation, with research areas as diverse as composite materials, solid oxide fuel cells, optical thin films, and microporous and mesoporous materials. Many of my students were studying alternative energy technologies and environmental sciences.
These last two subjects are big issues for China, and you can see the need for them all over Harbin itself. The weather was beautiful during the first week of my stay: warm and dry and windy. I was really puzzled when people kept asking me if I found Harbin's air dirty. And then the next week we had a temperature inversion and I understood the question. You can see the difference in the two photos I took from my 15th floor window on campus:
There's blue sky underneath that smog, believe it or not. And that's the way it was for most of my visit. It's not eye-stinging or smelly like the air in Pittsburgh was when I lived there in the late 70's, but it makes New York on a bad day seem edenic. Ozone shmozone. Most of what's in the air is not car exhaust but coal smoke. There were several coal-fired electricity plants on campus, and that's where most of China's power comes from. At least in Harbin, cars are a relatively small part of the problem because there just aren't that many per capita yet (not so for Beijing and Shanghai). That doesn't stop the traffic from being completely insane, but that has more to do with the total disregard for signs (if there are any) and rules of the road than numbers. And the donkey carts don't help, either, I'm sure. Especially the ones on the expressway. Or the massively laden trikes.
If Harbin is any indication, one of China's biggest priority has got to be infrastructure. I'm used to not being able to drink the water when I go somewhere out of the country, but in Harbin no one drinks the water. You can wash in it, and wash your clothes and dishes, but you can't drink it because there are no purification plants and largely unregulated wastewater dumping. Cooking and drinking water is all bottled, which adds its own problems in recycling (that's what the guy on the trike is hauling, incidentally). In one of the first conversations I had with the faculty when school started, I spoke with a prof whose specialty is construction materials and engineering and we talked about the lack of regulation in China, not only in building materials and codes but in industry as well. Where we have legislation like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts (however badly they're enforced), China has nothing but local committee oversight, which is subject to bribery and corruption. (Interestingly, while I was writing this, the New York Times published the first of a series called "Toxic Waters: America's Growing Pollution Problems." So it's not like we're doing such a great job either. But the major difference is that we have the legislative framework to deal with it.) There seems to be a major push in Harbin, to correct some of these issues, at least on the wastewater front; streets all over the city were torn up both for new sewage and water lines and for a new subway the city is putting in. And many of my students were keenly interested in environmental issues and abatement technology. I got a lot of questions from both faculty and students about how pollution is managed in the States (and was grateful for 10 years of editing environmental impact statements to give me the background to answer them).
But the two issues that really struck me as an educator and a science geek were the attitude toward education in general and how different it is talking about science without religion getting in the way. I was teaching mostly incoming freshmen and sophomores, and not only were they some of the brightest students I'll ever have the privilege of teaching, I've never had students who were so eager or so respectful. This program was basically a three-week summer camp and still there was nothing my students balked at doing. Homework? Sure, no problem! Write in class? No problem. Ask me awkward questions about Tibet? Sure, happy to. Eat lunch with you? Absolutely. Students were on time, every day, or almost humiliatingly apologetic if they were late. They stood up to answer me in class. And thanked me after each one. After day one, I was reeling with culture shock. This is not to say my students here are not hungry or grateful, but in a completely different way. My students here know they've missed out on something and want to make up for that so they can get good jobs and support their families. The intellectual hunger in Chinese students is just that: intellectual hunger for new ideas, new ways of thinking, new information.They have a visceral love of learning you see in some of the best schools here and with individual students even at third tier U.S. schools. In part, that's because getting into college is so competitive, even more so than here. The major difference, and something I missed, was that Chinese students won't often argue with you. They're so respectful, and often used to learning by rote, that disagreeing with a professor seems rude to them. Teachers are really important people in China, and paid accordingly. We could really learn something from that.
And yet, one of the faculty and I had a conversation about this and he insisted that U.S. schools were still superior because we taught students to think independently. Gosh I wish that were still true. As I recently said in another conversation over here, our schools are leaning more and more toward shaping students for particular careers and offering them skill sets, rather than the ability to learn quickly and think for themselves, which can be applied in any career. (I'm not saying you don't need skill sets, especially in the sciences, but along with that, you need critical thinking skills and imagination, rather than just the skill sets. It's what sets a technician apart from a scientist.)
The unit that I taught was about science in the U.S. and covered a little history of science (the development of the scientific method, major discoveries, major players); the two-way exchange between science and culture; women in science; science in entertainment (thanks, Jen!); communicating science; current controversies; and how the public views science. We watched a couple of CSI episodes, Minority Report and The Matrix, and a couple of clips from Babylon 5. Some of the entertainment was familiar, and some not, but the references that went right over everyone's head were the religious and mythological allusions in The Matrix—not surprising, since that same stuff goes right over my head in Chinese opera. More confusing for them, though, was the whole idea that people would actually disbelieve scientific fact in favor of religious teachings or myth. When I described the controversies about teaching evolution in public schools and what ID and creationism were, they were clearly boggled. When I asked how many of them had some sort of spiritual belief, whether Buddhism, Confucianism, Islamic, or Christian, not one hand went up. (Just to clarify, each of those religions is legal in China; there is an active Buddhist temple in the city, some of the faculty are Buddhist, and though the Jewish population is long-gone, their synagogues were not razed during the Cultural Revolution as were most of the Christian churches. So this wasn't fear of reprisal that kept them from professing religious belief. It was simple lack of interest.) For the Chinese, if anything plays this role in forming or deforming scientific thought, it's politics, and I think that's less true now than it was during, say, the Cultural Revolution.
And these two facts, if anything, are what's going to allow the Chinese to roll over us economically in ten or twenty years. Not their sheer numbers, but their respect for education and their lack of muddying religious issues. They're intensely proud of their country and their accomplishments, which are indeed impressive, and that pride and ambition and ability will carry them a long way. Unless the US gets its priorities straight (more money for education, better pay for teachers, more access to quality education for everyone), we're soon going to be buying more than cheap tchotchkes, outsourced electronics, and pirated movies from China. We'll be importing technology we should have invented and produced ourselves.