Thursday, March 27, 2008

"T" Words

We were told that three “T” words would get a very strong response from our students: Taiwan, Tiananmen, and Tibet. And I (Linda) have found myself embroiled in discussions about Tibet with my students. Interesting, frustrating, exasperating, mind-boggling . . everything.

It started off in one class – the students were watching a press conference during a break and I asked them, “what’s so interesting?” This lead to a long discussion about Tibet, censorship, and other related topics. Keep in mind that this discussion occurred about three days into the recent deterioration of the situation in Tibet, and the censorship from our usual news sources was at an all time high and my frustration level was soaring. The students were outraged by any suggestion that their government was out of line; there was a strong sense that the international media was out to get them and that foreigners had manipulated the situation in order to embarrass Beijing before the Olympics. Several students articulated that China had invested heavily in Tibet, building roads and infrastructure to raise the standard of living there. It was unheard of to consider Tibet as separate from China, and, according to my students, almost all Tibetans are perfectly happy with the status quo; the Dalai Lama is interested in furthering his own power and political ambitions.

Unfortunately, they were trying to place me in the role of official representative of all foreigners. I tried to maneuver around this delicately, saying things like, “the Western Press is saying,” or, “Westerners would probably view things in such and such a way.” Keep in mind, I’m their English teacher – and I’m not trying to indoctrinate them in any way, just trying to achieve open and critical discussion in class. I have never offered my personal opinions in class, rather I have tried to hone the class discussion by asking them questions regarding their statements, and encouraging them to question each other.

Yoni, who has his own frustrations with this issue, helps me to focus on encouraging the students to think critically about what they hear in the news. To ask “why” questions when they hear a report – like – if the situation is really so wonderful in Tibet “WHY” do the Tibetans seem so unhappy? “Why” is it advantageous to the Western Media to lie about China? What ends are met?

However, things are never cut and dry in these heated discussions and later in this same class, in response to a student’s question, I mentioned that there are “Free Tibet” bumper stickers in NY. They almost lost it. One of my students, a lovely, intelligent, very articulate young woman almost cried. She clearly felt so outraged, so misunderstood.

After this class one of my students came up to me and asked to speak privately; turns out that she grew up in a Tibetan autonomous region (not Tibet itself, but an area in a separate province where most people are ethnic Tibetans). She had been silent during the class but stated that she has been struggling ever since she first enrolled in university; her fellow classmates never want to hear her opinions on Tibet and constantly tell her she’s wrong, until she’s virtually stopped talking about the topic. She said things like, “I love my country even though I don’t support my government’s actions,” and, “most Tibetans think that the Chinese built roads and infrastructure only to help rule and control the Tibetans,” and many more such statements. It was refreshing to hear her speak, but sad to see how marginalized she had become regarding this subject.

Then, a week later (that would be today) in another class, things got even worse. I have a feeling (can’t prove it – but I’m beginning to see conspiracies everywhere) that the students in one of my other classes heard I was discussing Tibet in a different class and felt it’s their responsibility to disabuse me of my false notions. Keep in mind, this is despite the fact that I really haven’t shared my personal opinions in class, at least not according to Western cultural norms. So the students in this second class immediately said they wanted to talk about Tibet (so much for lesson planning). Learning from my past mistakes, I guided today’s discussion more towards censorship – I asked the students how do they learn about news events, where do they get their news from, do they trust the news, etc. This lead to lots of interesting discussion – I’ll give you the highlights.

  1. Student A said that the main problem was that China’s censorship was not good enough yet, as China is still a developing nation. If censorship was “better”, then there would be no problem. When I pushed him regarding what did “better” mean he refused to be specific, but did say that a country with “better” censorship was N Korea. No, I’m not joking.
  2. Student B said that she saw a documentary of Tibetan monks speaking candidly about Tibet (not quite sure how she got her hands on this video, not an easy feat here in China). The monks spoke about how Tibet is historically different and separate from China, and should be independent. In addition, they spoke of repression they have experienced under Chinese rule. This student said this was very difficult for her as all her life she’s been told a certain story about Tibet, and yet these Tibetan monks clearly have a different story. And now she doesn’t know what to believe. She doesn’t think that anyone has really lied to her, but maybe there’s some miscommunication or misunderstanding.
  3. Student C said that he totally and 100% trusts his government to handle this situation.
  4. Student D said that China is like a family, if there is a problem within the family then the father must deal with it privately, it is nobody else’s business. When challenged on this point (what if the father can’t handle the problems, what if the father refuses to handle the problems) the student said, “the father can ask someone for help if he feels it is necessary.”
  5. Student E (who disclosed to me personally at another time how terribly her family had suffered during the Cultural Revolution) challenged her fellow students, “what if it was your relatives who were the victims?”
  6. Student F said that it’s better if they know nothing about “these kinds of problems” as there is nothing that they can do anyway. The government is merely trying to protect people by not informing them of problems, so they can focus on their work and be productive.
  7. Student G asked, “why are the monks killing the policemen?”
  8. And, of course, a very common response is to shift attention. Many of my students repeatedly point out that Americans and other Westerners should first deal with all of their problems (and they are happy to rattle off a fairly accurate list), or should look historically at how they have dealt with their own people in the past before they judge others. And that is a good time for a reminder that the only way that they even know about such things is due to a (relatively) free press in the West.
  9. When I told the students the Western estimates of number of people killed during the recent unrest they responded angrily, “Western lies.”

I hate to stereotype genders, but I’m afraid that all of the pro-censorship voices (in my classes at least) are male, and all of the “questioning” voices are female. But there are plenty of people in my classes who sit quietly and don’t express an opinion.

Anyway, I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed by how firmly some of my students are digging in their heels, and by how some of them seem to have literally taken on the task of “correcting” my views. One is, of her own volition, writing a report for me so that I can better understand the Chinese.

And at home, the censorship of the news continues and it’s amazing how it affects how we now “hear” the news. Were watching the Olympic torch leaving Greece the other day when the screen went blank (yet again) and Yoni and I turned to each other and said, “better find out what happened” and went to the internet. We know when something big is going on because of the censors – maybe they should work on improving their censorship technology.

And on a lighter note the mangoes are in season - both mini mangoes and regular sized. They are out of this world. Even better than the mangoes I ate fresh from the fields while on kibbutz in Israel.