Joe Weber teaches four months in China

Joe Weber, an associate professor at UNL’s journalism college and former editor at Business Week, spent the fall semester of 2011 teaching at Tsinghua University’s School of Journalism and Communication in Beijing. In early January, he talked with the rest of the faculty about his experiences in China. This is what he said.

Students from the Tsinghau University

I had high expectations for my time in China, and my four months there exceeded them by leaps and bounds. It was in many respects a magical place.

So I left my comfortable home in Lincoln, leaving behind my wife, dog and book club. I traded in pancakes and eggs at the Village Inn for food that often stared back at me from the plate.  Sometimes, the hot water didn’t work in my apartment, a three-room place in a modest dorm-like building on campus. And the Party, through a few folks, kept a low-key watch on me and a colleague in our time there.

So all that is not cool, right? What could be good about a place like that? Well, I also got an extraordinary in-depth exposure to a culture more exotic than any I had ever seen before. Not everyone lives or thinks like we do in the U.S.—we all know that, of course—but to live and work among people whose history, challenges and values are so different is an exceptional thing. It makes you appreciate and at the same time be critical of your own lifestyle and maybe even some of your own values.

What’s more, the go-go nature of the Chinese economy was downright exciting compared with America’s current political and economic paralysis. In China, there are construction cranes everywhere. The only question is whether growth will slow down to 8 percent a year, as it seems to be doing now. Shockingly, newspapers and media in general are healthy and expanding. CCTV, the state TV service, and Xinhua, the news agency are hiring by the hundreds. Newspapers make money there!

Following a leader

For a journalist, China is arguably the most important story in the world right now. The country is either assuming a leading role among all others now, or it is in for some very rough days politically in the future. Either way, it’s a big deal. Certainly, people like Peter Herford—the former VP for news for CBS and former “60 Minutes” producer—say that. Herford has been teaching in southern China at a journalism school there for nine years, and I got to spend some time with him for a piece I’m doing for the Columbia Journalism Review.

Herford talks about how the current generation of 20-something Chinese are different from any before. They’ve known only hell-for-leather economic growth. They’ve been surrounded by Western culture. Their freedoms are so much greater than those of their parents. Their parents had to deal with things like the Cultural Revolution, where millions lost their jobs and their identities and were forced to work in the countryside.  Their parents came of age at a time of Mao suits, uniformity and widespread poverty even in the cities. Many of these kids speak English and, by the hundreds of thousands, they are studying outside China.

To these kids, the explosive growth of cities like Beijing, with 20 million people, is the norm. Their grandparents knew war and starvations, including one of the greatest man-made famines in history. Literally millions starved.

One person I met there, a Fulbright Lecturer who coincidentally used to work at Business Week, suggested that one great assignment for the kids is to have them tell the story of themselves and the prior two generations. You would get a sense from that of the whole modern history of China in microcosm.

The growth in China since 1978, when it embraced capitalism, has been astonishing. Its prospects are bright, if it can deal with various political pressures it faces, and it is taking full advantage of them by, among other things, opening its door to the West. Two schools there—Tsinghua University in Beijing, where I taught, and the Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing, where I visited—are champing at the bit to exchange students and faculty with us here at the journalism school. This is part of an effort by the Chinese to expose their young people to the West in hopes they will bring ideas back that will help the country grow still further.

Up close and personal

While in China, I got to see the growth up close—with the good and bad that it has brought. Beijing, with a population estimated at various levels around 20 million people, as I said, is a sprawling city of architecturally fascinating towers. Street after street after street of office buildings and apartment complexes. The sheer size of the place is exhausting. Getting around town, even on the very efficient subway system, is challenging. It would take me an hour of standing nose-to-nose and back-to-back with teeming crowds to get across town, something I did fairly often because I liked the Embassy area, where a lot of the Westerners live and shop.

Depending on how you count, there are more than 160 cities in China that have populations over 1 million each.  The U.S. has nine or maybe 10, depending on how you count. One of the biggest cities in China is Chongqing, which has about 33 million people. That is about one-third bigger than the combined population of the extended New York metro area including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.  Overall, China’s population is 1.3 billion, which is nearly four times the U.S. population, and increasingly the Chinese are flocking to their cities for opportunity, which is creating enormous stress in the place. The Chinese government can barely keep up with demand for housing, jobs, etc., even with the growing economy.

Obviously, life is different there than in Lincoln or even in Chicago and New York. One of the obvious things is the construction everywhere. I heard that they use more concrete than any other place in the world, and that certainly appeared to be true. Building cranes were everywhere. And they work around the clock. Workers actually live onsite in modular temporary housing when they build those towers all over the place, including on the Tsinghua campus. It’s a different approach than we have in most places in America.

The Chinese work ethic is extraordinary. They complain when they can’t get more than 36 hours of overtime a month, a legal limit that they do get waived at times. One of my students, in fact, wrote about that situation last spring in a factory where he had gone undercover as a factory worker to expose a distressing corporate culture. The particular company, Foxconn—maker of iPads—had been hit by a rash of suicides, and the student wanted to explore the lives of workers there. He was an exceptional student, and it was a joy to have him in class.

So aside from seeing all that, how did this touch me? How was I affected? Most tangibly, it was by the students—students such as that undercover reporter. I taught two classes there—one in business and economic journalism, which had 28 students in it, and one in multimedia journalism, where by the end I had eight students plus a couple of auditors. I started with twice that number in multimedia, but there were a lot of washouts, frankly, because they didn’t expect the amount of work that was required for the class. The classes were very different, with mostly Chinese kids in the biz-econ class and mostly non-Chinese, foreign students, in the multimedia class.

In the biz-econ class, I had a group of Chinese students and a few foreign students from places including Iowa, and all of them were hungry to learn. They all knew that their chances of getting good jobs in journalism would be helped by knowing how to cover business and economics. I asked them to do hefty amounts of reading—sometimes four or five chapters in an economics text in a week. Some did find it challenging, since English was not the their first language, but routinely they would get perfect scores on quizzes I gave them about the material.

Some in fact asked me for more work—two young women were troubled that the economics textbook I used had sections with suggested questions for further study but no answers. I had not even assigned those sections, but they used them on their own to master the material. So I got the teacher’s manual for them—with the answers.

To say that they were motivated is a like saying the Grand Canyon is a little ditch. These kids were driven. As I usually do, I had them write pieces for me and then I’d send back an ungraded critique. They would turn in their assignments, often early, and then rewrite, diligently heeding the suggestions. They paid attention in class; they did well on exams. Not everyone was a perfect student, but most were.

Teach English? Or journalism?

But one of the things I learned about teaching abroad that makes it different is an obvious thing, language. When you are teaching in English for non-English speakers, you have to be prepared for terrible writing. The challenge is to be able to look past it. The colleague who was the Fulbrighter gave me crucial tip she had learned from someone else. She said we weren’t there to teach English, but rather to teach journalism. So fix a little bit of their English, if you have time, but don’t grade them on that. Grade them on their reporting and their use of facts. Grade them on story structure—things like good leads and nut grafs and kickers, the basics.

That was an important lesson because you can spend hours correcting someone’s English. Leave that sort of thing, though, to ESL teachers. It’s different, of course, if the students have a shot at working for an English-language news organization such as Bloomberg or Reuters. But most of the kids will wind up at Chinese news operations where the English is less important. They need the reporting chops.

This is very different from what we do in stressing good writing, as well as thorough reporting. It is right that that we do that here, but not as necessary when teaching overseas.

There were other things I learned, too. For instance, the Chinese kids have been reared on Powerpoint in classes. Sometimes, their teachers just read from the Powerpoints. They like Powerpoints, they can take notes from Powerpoints. So I gave them Powerpoints a good deal of the time. Even if it was just basic stuff.

Because of the language problems, I also would load my lectures onto a Blackboard-like site for them. This way, they could go back and check things, which they did often. The site would tell me how often. I write out my lectures in advance, so this was easy to do.

In any event, my point is that these kids were a joy to work with because they appreciated the material they were learning. They wanted to feel like they were going through boot camp, that they were stretching themselves and that they were coming out of it with ideas and sources and perspectives that were new and helpful to them. Nothing could be more satisfying to a teacher.

University boot camp

Incidentally, all the Chinese university students literally do go through boot camp. For a month or so before they start college, they all must undergo military training. This happens all over the country. They get up before dawn, they exercise, they live in barracks-like quarters and they march around singing patriotic songs. For the whole time, they wear the same unwashed uniform. One of my American students, Eric Fish, did a great piece on this for while I was there. This training is supposed to build up their sense of nationalism and respect for the military.  And many of the kids I taught were members of the Communist Party or planned to join. The Party is open only to the elite in society, the top six percent or so, though I heard it is expanding.

But these kids were not robots. They were very sharp. These kids would literally applaud when I delivered lectures they particularly liked. You can’t buy that sort of feedback. It was a real trip. I was teaching them material they didn’t get anywhere else and teaching in a way they didn’t see anywhere else—lots of interaction, for instance. I talked about heretical ideas, like the fact that the Politburo contains only one woman and this is after Mao Zedong used to say that women held up half the sky. The students—mostly women, incidentally—did stories on unemployment where they talked about how young women couldn’t get hired because employer would frankly say that they’d stay for a couple years and leave to have a baby. The students quoted them saying that.

They liked it when I praised things about China that are praiseworthy—such as its ability to do big things well, such as the Olympics of 2008 or the many very modern airports around the country. I have never airports so big and so gleaming. They make LaGuardia look like it’s part of a Third World country. The kids are nationalistic and proud of their country. They are raised to be so. But they also liked it when I criticized things, like the diminished role of women in business and politics—and media, for that matter.

Well-informed and mature students

They were remarkably well informed, particularly about the U.S. I had an interesting discussion with one young woman about the tensions between the First and Fourteenth Amendments to our Constitution.  And this wasn’t just true of graduate students. I met with a group of my Fulbright friends’ students—all undergrads—at her apartment one evening. Over pizza, we talked about business journalism, about life in America, about politics, about the shortcomings of leaders ranging from Mao to Bill Clinton. We talked about Steve Jobs, who is somebody the Chinese adored. His death was big news there and the newsstands and peddlers’ carts were filled with copies of the new biography of him—both legitimate and pirated. I got a paperbound copy myself for the equivalent of $3 from a peddler on the street.

These undergrads were well informed and mature beyond their years—maybe because they are all from one-child families thanks to China’s one-child policy. Some had already studied in the U.S., and many planned to. I wound up reviewing the application one of them made for a graduate program at Stanford.  In fact, I wound up writing letters of recommendation for several students for several programs.

When I visited Chongqing, in the middle part of the country, they made me feel like a rock star. There were at least 80 students, undergrads, who turned out for my talk about business and economic journalism. They packed the hall, had lots of good questions and seemed to realize that telling the story of the growth—including the ups and downs—of their country would be an important thing. They could get jobs doing it, if they were skilled enough.

One there also asked me a curious question. Had I ever been told by political officials not to write something? When I said no, they applauded. Think about the implications of that. They hope for a journalism that is free of censorship, but they also know controls are a fact of life in China. Getting to see that they were annoyed at the idea of censorship was really heartening for me, and I saw it in the students at Tsinghua, as well.

Pining for pancakes

I would be remiss, however, if I did not tell you the downsides of teaching and living in some places overseas. There were days when I would wake up and be intoxicated by the foreignness. Everything, from the way people drove—in dangerous ways I had never seen before as three lanes became five—to the little bicycle-powered carts they used to haul great quantities of junk and food and whatnot on the streets, the signage on the stores, the foods, the way women old and young walked around holding hands routinely. Everything was exotic and fascinating on some days.

There were other days, frankly, when I just wanted a dinner of roast beef and mashed potatoes. Days when I pined for the Village Inn. The pollution was a major drag.

I also wasn’t too keen on some of the ways the Party kept an eye on me. My colleague from the International Center for Journalists and I would have Thursday lunches with the kids to give them a chance to practice their English. When we would get back, we’d be quizzed about who was there and what we talked about. It was all innocuous stuff—where are you from and what do your parents do and what do you want to do—but it was all dutifully written down for purposes I can only imagine. We were told it was for a newsletter—but we never did see that newsletter.

We were advised early on to stay away from talking about sensitive subjects in the classroom. We were left to define the term sensitive ourselves but it included things like Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananman Square, revolts in some provinces, etc., etc. Students, we were told, were impressionable and easily influenced by teachers, since they give teachers more deference than kids in the West do. Also, we were told that the public sphere—a classroom—is different than private conversations, where we could say whatever we wanted.

Expecting the best

So there were downsides. What I discovered was that it was all a matter of the mindset you bring with you. If you expect a lousy experience, you’ll probably have one. Expect something different and you’ll likely have that. For instance, I used to take the subway a lot—it’s a very easy subway to get around on, partly because the announcements and signs are in English and Chinese. Well, the subway is jammed in a way that is even more intimate than New York at rush hour. And that’s fairly constant through the day. I just took that as part of the experience, when possible, and didn’t sweat it too much.

When my wife and son came over for a short visit, though, they hated that. Made them feel claustrophobic. The smells bothered them. Outside the subway, the dirt and clutter bothered them. For me, it was a fascinating part of the experience. Life is not a four-star hotel in most places, and seeing it up close was a powerful thing.

It can be exhausting to throw yourself into a foreign culture where you have trouble making yourself understood, where there are too many people, where it’s dirty, where some people live in hovels while others live in high-rises. And sometimes, it’s challenging to deal with that. I sometimes longed for home. That’s inevitable in an assignment like that.

But it is manageable. I would cope by finding western areas of town that I could go to. I went to a synagogue an hour away on several Friday nights and, bless them, they served a dinner that often included roast beef and mashed potatoes. On most weekend mornings, I went to a western-style breakfast place called The Bridge for a couple of eggs over easy, toast and potatoes. And I regularly went to Starbucks, in part because of its easy Internet connection. I would grade papers in these places on Sunday mornings.

Finding connections

I also found lots of people to hang with. Another thing that struck me about the experience of teaching overseas was how connected we all are nowadays; the degrees of separation are far fewer. You just never know who you will meet.

One Friday night at the synagogue service, who should I see but a childhood friend of my oldest daughter? She has produced a documentary about Ai Wei Wei, the dissident who was the architect of the Bird’s Nest at the Olympics. And she happened to be in Beijing in September to wrap up some work on it. Bizarre small world connection. Another one was Jing Zhou who had been an intern of mine in Chicago and is now an entrepreneur running a website business in China.

Finding and making those kinds of connections was invaluable. It’s remarkable how willingâ?? even eager—people were to do things for me and my classes. I met another person who is a bigshot with Greenpeace in Beijing. I hooked up with a group called Beijing Hikers and would go out on weekends for long hikes on places like the Great Wall. The people on the hikes were mostly Westerners and were fascinating people. This woman from Greenpeace wound up coming to speak to my class, at my invitation. I wound up giving a session at Greenpeace on how to deal with the media.

Through connections to the U.S. Embassy, I got acquainted with an economist who was also willing to speak to my class. He came in and did a session with the students. It was a real highlight and he’s going to go back to Tsinghua. It’s part of his job to tell the U.S. story, and by telling it to future leaders of China, he’s having an impact. And those kids, by the way, are the future leaders—Tsinghua has produced a couple of China’s presidents, including the current one.

Exploring China

Finally, I also made it a point to get out and see the country. I traveled to a beach town called Weihai—not far from Korea -- for an academic conference where I presented a paper on the top stories in China that I would cover if I were working as a reporter there. The cool thing was that the Chinese had taken a draft of my paper in advance and translated it into Chinese for the scholars there who weren’t so good at English. I have a copy of it.

I traveled to Hong Kong to interview a woman who is doing great things in journalism education both in Hong Kong and on the mainland, and I’ll use that material in a forthcoming piece for the Columbia Journalism Review.

On the non-working front, I got to visit Xi’an—the place where the terra cotta warriors are—you may recall those warriors from National Geographic. I went to Shanghai, a very westernized city, as well. I got to do those things with my wife and son when they visited.

So, the bottom line is, if there’s a place where you have the opportunity to go and to teach, figure out a way to do it. It will probably be the experience of a lifetime for you; certainly, it will be a highlight of your academic career. I think my experience in China will change the way I teach students here. Frankly, I will expect more of them.

Ying Chan runs a Hong Kong university and another one on the mainland. One of the things she said stuck with me. She tells her journalism students that they are not competing with people in Hong Kong for jobs, they are competing with people from all around the world.

Our kids will have to compete with the likes of those Chinese kids in a globalized world. The inspiration I got from the Chinese students means that I will likely set the bar a bit higher for our own kids here. The Chinese kids performed to expectations that I had of them, and our kids can, as well.