Friday, April 4, 2014

The Critical Mom and the Chinese President's Wife

For weeks, my husband and I looked forward to a performance.  It was important enough to be on our calendar along with reminders to remember it--because the Chinese President's wife was coming to our boys' school.  A superstar singer of treacly hits who, according to my smart fifteen-year old, dared to trill,  "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead," right after Mao Zedong died, she's now trying to make sure Chinese girls in villages get an education.  And our boys are getting a model education, she believes, along with many girls in their school, which went co-ed not too long ago. 

But we weren't going to hear her sing.   We were going to hear our boys sing to her in Chinese, and the elder was going to narrate a play in Chinese, plus play Chinese songs on his clarinet.  

Alas, we didn't get to go!  Less than a week before the event for which we'd cleared our calendar, we learned that a mere seventy policemen could be assigned to the event, since the lady had no official security clearance, and all students would have to empty their pockets, open their musical instrument cases, answer questions (No jokes! I told the smart fifteen-year-old, who was brimming over with wisecrack answers to security questions).

The kid has been learning Chinese all year, and speaks it fluently enough so that I believe he'll be able to understand waiters at the Columbia Cottage restaurant we like to visit on trips to New York.  I told him he should tell his Chinese teacher about the Chinese guys who deliver take-out on bikes, and who know one word to blurt into the intercom, "Food-ee!"  The kid does not think his teacher would appreciate this anecdote, and it has occurred to me that had the kid been educated in the Chinese style, he would not disagree with me so much.

China is building bridges with the U.S.A and Angela Merkel is trying to build them too, but she couldn't get Ai WeiWei a passport three years ago.  At the moment, his exhibition, "The Evidence," is at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, one that I bet the singer would love to visit.

A Chinese friend who studied in Germany made the mistake most Chinese students I teach make:  he memorized everything he read for his oral exam, and when the examiners asked what he thought about a particular text, he began reciting.

"No, what do you think?"  they asked.  "Not the critics you read.  YOU!"

Confusion.  "Ahh, uh, ahh . . . "  

I know this confusion.  I ask my university students, not only Chinese students, for their own thoughts.  And they answer, "You mean what I think?  You mean, really, my opinion?"  They seem astonished.  The worse the German high school they attended, the less they've been asked to have an opinion and to express it.  But students raised anywhere in Asia, especially Chinese students, have usually been taught to parrot the opinions of others, or of their teacher, or to determine the opinion of the group, or to make sure that the group has one unified opinion, and to express that opinion with as little individuality as possible.

The friend all but failed his oral exam.  Next time around, he criticized the teacher and got an A.

I'm imagining the school visit the way it should have been.  Not kids getting frisked and security forces guarding the doors.  Just parents coming to see their kids, and the lovely, relaxed atmosphere of other concerts we've attended--which are so good that even folks who don't have kids at the school attend them.  Mom-baked muffins and sandwiches and quiche for sale with wine in the intermissions.  And a conversation with Peng Liyuan, the wife, in which I ask:  "How are you?  And do you like Ai WeiWei?  Do you hate him?  Why?"  And in my dreams, she would have a very clear opinion of her own, the opinion of a girl who had been educated in the Western style, with exactly the type of education she is promoting right now for girls, the kind in which the teacher asks you for your opinion, and you actually have a very clear, considered opinion, and you articulate it.


  1. Sooo... why didn't you get to go? Did the concert take place at all? Did she not come because there weren't enough policemen? I'm confused.

  2. She came! But we were not allowed to go because she was only allowed seventy policemen, and that was considered enough to protect her from the ravages of a bunch of school kids but not their parents. So Alackaday! Did not get to see the kid narrate a story in Chinese.