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12/27/2012 11:22:00 AM
In search of the greatest teacher of all time

By Sandy Wollschlager

"You know what Confucius say?" asked our tour guide. "Who is the greatest teacher of all time?"

Someone shouted out "Internet." It was a great guess, considering many had their smart phones along with ample sites to quote from the World Wide Web.

Socrates and his student, Plato, - whose style of stimulating thought through question made him as famous as his teacher - were candidates for the job, but not good Chinese choices.

Earlier we had learned that the Chinese hate comparisons to the West, but of course, they would never be that direct in saying so. Was this a trick question? Had he given the answer in his question like the quip from Robin Williams, "Time is the best teacher, but unfortunately, it kills all students." Or, was Confucius the answer, since he was of the East and his name had already been alluded to?

"The answer is simple," he finally revealed, "The greatest teacher lies within each of us and it is INTEREST."

I wish my travel experiences in China could be summed up as neatly as this introductory question. For many, however, maybe the introduction was frustrating because we just wanted to know the answer right away.

Chinese culture is not black and white, but many shades of gray. It is multi-layered - not easy to take the cover off and peer inside. There is an official day-to-day behavior and there is the street goings-on layer.

The central Communist Party regularly bans information that isn't complimentary to the People's Republic of China - like books, operas or plays. They regularly deny permits to places like Tibet. The media is state-run, so information is censored, or perhaps they don't report on an issue at all. And yet sometimes these things appear or happen because the local government doesn't enforce the laws, or an expat shares information with a micro-blogger and "everyone" knows. So, the Chinese people live in a dual world, feeling their away around subjects - first trying to find out who wants to know, why you want to know, what you all ready know, etc. It's both exasperating and fascinating.

All together we were 25 delegates, twenty-two women and three men, who had signed on in hopes of learning more about the role of women in contemporary Chinese society. Over the course of nine days, we participated in professional meetings and site visits, but also experienced some of China's greatest cultural treasures, including the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta Warriors.

This was my third trip with AAUW, and by now some of us were friends, enjoying one another's company as much as the destination itself.

AAUW was invited to China by Ms. Zhang Lixi, president of China's Women's University and the All-China Women's Federation (ACWF). The ACWF reports directly to the Communist Party of China and it was important for us to be an invited guest. I was especially excited by an option to extend our stay to visit Lhasa, Tibet.

Shortly after I signed on, however, the trip to Lhasa was canceled. No special permit to a U.S. citizen would be granted and no explanation was given. The travel agency came back and said that AAUW could go to Shangri-La, a fictional hidden paradise made famous by the novel "Lost Horizon" and a name the Chinese government took to market (and renamed) an existing city called Zhongdian. I balked and stubbornness set in. While it took a lot more research and some risk on my part to travel alone, I made my own extended plans and was richly rewarded in the end.

First though, I would like to share my favorite parts of the official visit.

Prior to our tour, we were asked to submit three questions we would like our hosts to address in their presentations, and I thoroughly enjoyed coming up with what I thought were some humdingers.

For example, I submitted one question, asking about consequences of China's one-child policy. I based my question using material from Mara Hvistendahl's book, "Unnatural Selection," where she talks about choosing boys over girls, and the consequences of a world full of men. Hvistendahl spent five years in China researching how lopsided birth totals came to be, concluding it was not only the start of a one-child policy in 1980, but also the arrival of mass-produced ultrasound machines in 1982.

Sex discrimination is illegal in China, but Hvistendahl learned there was not much incentive for local officials to crack down on it. It seemed so basic: you cannot have all boys, all the time, and expect your society to get very far. And yet for parents who select for sex, gender imbalance is easy to dismiss as someone else's problem. Her research has linked the sex ratio imbalance to a spike in sex trafficking and bride-buying across Asia.

Our tour began in Beijing and we first met with administrators and faculty at the China Women's University. The officials wanted to showcase China as a proud problem solver. Regarding the one-child policy, they highlighted the other side of the coin. China is the world's most populous nation with greater than 1.3 billion people. During Chairman Mao's leadership (1949-1976) millions starved to death. In 1980 implementing a one-child policy was the right thing to do. One child means a greater amount of resources for that child, and that one boy or girl became one lucky prince or princess. In a country where prior to 1949, women did not receive any formal education, the plight of girls and women improved.

They showed slide after slide of how women's education has improved. The mean years of education for women has increased, the gender gap has disappeared in primary education, and the number of female college students now equals that of male students. In addition, the average marriage and reproduction age for women is increasing, while the fatality rate is declining. For Chinese women born after 1980, life is getting much better.

We then met with eight female students who shared their hopes and dreams, and we recognized they sounded a lot like our own children. Some told stories of determination to succeed. Some students said they were here because this is where their parents wanted them to attend. (The University is for women only, and the parents had hoped they would study versus find a boyfriend. There was a lot of laughter over this comment.) Some expressed gratitude toward their parents. Some wanted to travel and see the world. Some wanted to marry and have children. Some wanted it all.

One young woman put it this way. "My mom goes shopping with me and she is willing to buy me anything. Then she looks for something for herself, and she is very selective. I hope someday to make enough money to take my mom shopping and have her pick out anything she wants."

Later we traveled to Kunming, about three hours by plane from Beijing to the far southwest corner of the country. Kunming is located in Yunnan Province between Tibet to the north and Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar (Burma) to the south. Here we went to Yunnan University of Nationalities. True to its name, half of the students represented ethnic minorities.

A student said she wants to learn English so she can translate her ethnic culture to the rest of the world in hopes that it is preserved. She said, "I want to help my people because it's my responsibility." She continued, "The government doesn't have creative leaders for my people, so I need to be a leader. I want to learn and return to my home to help." She was so passionate and impressive; I could hardly wait for the official meeting to end so I could talk with her one-on-one.

Sharon He was her name and she was from a village in Yunnan Province. She said it was her dream to go to college and she had scored high on the college entrance exam, making it possible. Her dad is Tibetan and her mom is Naxi, both minorities in China. (There are 56 recognized ethnic groups in China, but ninety-three percent of the Chinese people are Han.) Sharon has a younger sister and a younger brother. (Regarding the one-child policy, rural officials are more lax in enforcement. Her parents were allowed to try for another child because the first children were females.)

Sharon's parents are paying for her college and she said it costs them about $500 per year for her classes, plus room and board. She knew it was hard for them, adding that she was not sure how they were paying because both parents are farmers. I told her that where I came from most farmers are wealthy, especially if they grow corn. She smiled and said, "My parents grow corn, and fruits and vegetables and raise ten pigs." We parted with happy faces.

In summary, we learned the China organizations we met with want to improve the status of women by boosting opportunities for education and career advancement - same as AAUW. And I believe it was important for AAUW to be an invited guest of the Communist Party, but it complicated things for delegates like me who wanted to know the rest of the story - the informal culture of how ordinary people live.

Please watch for a future story on some of the characters I met as I traveled through China.

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