Every Coin Has Two Sides

Or so my students say.

The Chinese have a saying for everything it seems. Getting married? Your friends will feel obliged (if not outright invited) to tell you everything they know on the subject, even if they themselves are not married. Both their own wisdom and the wisdom collected by society at large will be yours to have. Fungal growth on your buttocks? It may not be Confusious who say, but somebody will.

One thing my students are fond of explaining to me is that every coin has two sides. I can count on one hand the number of final exam speeches that have excluded this phrase. In the beginning, I thought it was a tactic to pad out a speech with useless information. But the phenomenon is too wide spread. I've heard the excruciatingly boring details on the two sides of most any topic you can imagine, ranging from using the internet to girlfriends. The girlfriends speech was sort of hilarious. I'll let your imagination run with that one.

While I've enjoyed the time I've spent as a teacher, I've faced a few challenges.

The foremost challenge has been getting my students engaged in class. It seems to me that teachers are one part instructor, one part entertainer. If you can't get your students to pay attention, you might as well stay home and save everybody a couple of hours. Add to this situation Chinese High School. The Chinese are hellbent on being the best nation in the world. Chinese high schools are meat grinders in which students are forced to attend class and study all day long (and I mean all day long in the most literal sense of the phrase). If they are to have any hope of attending university, they have time for nothing else. The best and the brightest are funneled into the communist party and towards the top universities. How far you fall short from the heights of achievement determines where you can go to university, if you are able to go at all. By the time students finally achieve the soul crushing dreams of their youth, they're a bit burned out. Having been deprived of things like a normal social life or the needed chances to explore themselves as individuals (It's pretty hard to find yourself between the lines of type in a textbook.) they arrive at university and suddenly find themselves... relatively speaking.... free. You can imagine how high on their list of priorities my class is. Can you blame them?

Students are pretty bored. The other problem is that students are shy. Often hilariously so.

The first time I stepped out from behind my podium during class and asked a student a question, I thought I'd killed the poor kid. The look on his face made me think he was going to start shaking his head back and forth and shout "No, that's not true! That's impossible!" He can't be asking me a question, right? In fact, if I had produced a red laser sword, chopped off his hand, and told him I was his father, I imagine he would have clutched the burnt stump of his arm and smiled. Relieved that the existential horror of answering a question, in English, had safely passed him by. That is, until I repeated the question.

So picture my surprise when my Tuesday Business Negotiation class nearly turned violent.

I came into class with a simple plan. Today we'll play a game. I wanted them to have an in class negotiation experience so I could refer back to it as an example as class progressed. My tools were a couple of decks of cards, some money, and some candy. The cards were worth special values. Rewards of candy, money, and bonus points were doled out based on achieving certain objectives. There are all sorts of interesting observations I made about the nature of the game as it progressed, but I'll save those for discussions in which they are appropriate. Suffice it to say I let trading go on for both forty-five minute periods before I called on the students to sit down near the end of the second one.

As I had been watching the game, I noticed something I had perceived to be unfair. During the second period, the students had been gathered into groups. One group had made a secrete deal with another in hopes of winning one of the prizes. I had intended there to be a level playing field at this point, so I revealed the secrete to the class at the end of the bargaining phase.

The students who had been taken advantage of erupted. In the space of a few seconds smiles disappeared. A few people knocked over chairs standing up. Faces went red or purple. I could not be heard over the shouting. Once I finally got everybody quieted down, I told the class they had five minutes to make new deals, thus softening the blow of the secrete deal, but not completely taking away its advantage.

The other two groups bolted to their feet. One student flew out of his chair, across the room, and started shouting in my face.

The prizes:

1) A bag of snickers bars. The individual bars were about two inches in length. There were enough that a person might get one or two if their group won the prize.

2) Money prizes: 10 RMB to one student, 5 RMB to two other students. 10 RMB is enough money to buy a cheap meal. Five is enough for and a snack. To give you another comparison, one dollar is worth around 6 RMB.

3) Bonus points towards their mid-term grades. Which the students obviously didn't give a crap about.

One girl looked like her head might explode. Another girl was on the verge of tears. One girl got up and stormed out of class. The boy who charged me nearly did as well.

It was pretty pathetic.

But I was so shocked that I had a hard time reacting. I barely went beyond standing there and staring at them.

I got the room under control. I should have sat everybody down and chewed their asses for acting like children. In the aftermath I got pretty angry about the whole affair. But again, I was shocked.

I sat the groups down reasoned with them. I admitted that it had been unfair to allow the second round of trading (If I didn't want them to make secrete deals, it was on me to make that clear). Currently, they were playing for largest and smallest group. I told the groups they would be counted as they stood rather than go through another round of trading.

The groups were counted. Two groups of the four were gunning for largest group. The largest group who had made the secrete deal, had 11 members. The group that hadn't had 8 members. However, the group of 8 had a secrete of their own.

If you had a Jack of hearts in your hand, you could add fake members to your group. The group of 8 had 6 jacks. They now had 14 members.

The kid who had gotten in my face earlier started screaming that the other group had cheated (something face conscious Chinese people almost never do) . I could make him out because he was still standing close to me. The roar of his friends was indistinguishable as individual voices.

I doled out the rest of the prizes as best I could. There had been massive numbers of cards changing hands after I had told them trading was over (the whole class, save for a small group of five, who had been prepared, started scrambling to win the money). Then I dismissed them so I could collect my wits.

Every coin, it seems, has two sides.

This wasn't the first time I've seen the darker sides of my Chinese neighbors. But it's always surprising. I think the reason is the strength of the contrast. People either seem to have everything under control and treat each other with an almost maddening degree of civility (even in situations that should call for anger), or they are screaming, stomping mad. I've not witnessed much in between.

I have no idea why this is.

Part of my student's volatility can be explained by their high school backgrounds. Most of them have the emotional maturity of middle schoolers because they've not got much social experience. This is usually endearing.

But why so much anger in this situation? Bargaining has been involved in every outburst I've seen in China except two. I've never seen a fight at a sports meet, in bars, or any of the places you'd usually expect them. What is it about bargaining that gets the Chinese so riled up?

I'll keep considering the question. It is interesting. I think that when I find the answer, I'll have learned something essential about Chinese thinking. In the meantime, my students are going to get the scolding of a lifetime on Wednesday.


Life goes on. I've been keeping busy. The school has given me yet another subject which I know nothing about to teach. Business Negotiation. Between studying text books and relaxing, I fit in bouts of reading, writing, and guitar playing. I'm a heck of a lot better at the process of digesting and presenting material for class, so I'm not as swamped as I was last year, but I'm still busier with class than I'd like.

Books I've read: Hrm. I plowed through Stephen King's short story collection, then went on to read The Cellar. Stephen, as usual, was a delight. The Cellar, on the other hand, was pretty mediocre. And weird. No, not in the good way.

Non-fiction, sadly, has sucked up the rest of my reading budget. I've been reading three other books at the same time. One for class (Getting to Yes), one for research/fun (Inside the FBI), and one for fun (Stephen King's Everything's Eventual, a collection of short stories. Hard to go wrong with Stephen).

On the writing front I wrote a short story and a poem. Various fragments have made their way across my screen and into the trash bin. My other blog is getting more attention than this one, I'm sad/happy to say.

I've been spending an inordinate amount of time watching TV. This is going to have to stop. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy watching Castle, White Collar, Game of Thrones, Sherlock and Doctor Who. But I'd get a lot more reading done if I weren't watching so much TV.

The Hobbit Premiers in 9 months, 1 day, 9 hours, 33 minutes, and 7, 6, 5, 4.... seconds.

I'm unhappy about the prospect of not coming home this summer or even next year. Not see The Hobbit in theaters? Inconceivable! But I might be staying over here for a plethora of reasons.

Anywho. Hope you're all doing well. Catch you later.