Matt Smith

Further unfurling of the Chinese situation

Cultural observations of Chinese students


I know now why some of the Chinese students in my class were so non-participatory, or why, secretly, I often felt that with some of them it was like teaching the dead – intriguing tales have emerged of how some of the Chinese have been abusing heroin and amphetamines. In other words, they have either been staying up all night during the week drinking and going crazy, and then have been coming to class and just lurking there trying to keep it together. Or, they have been getting smacked out before coming to class, and have been sitting in there actually, as they say, ‘on the nod’ during lessons. Which explains a lot, doesn’t it? As to why I didn’t put two and two together previously, I guess I just thought that Chinese lived very sheltered lives like Korean people, and I didn’t expect anyone getting into a bit of recreational use of narcotics to let things get so out of hand that they would turn up to their university class non compus mentis (and personally, I find it more difficult to know if Chinese are out of it than I do people with whom I’m more familiar, and whose language I can speak) - if it had occurred to me earlier, as is the case with the universities in Australia I would have simply made it an explicitly forbidden act to turn up to my class off your head, thus at least making the perpetrators feel intensely paranoid when they did try to get away with this. More importantly, I would have liaised with my colleagues to make sure that for the cases in which things were obviously out of control, the victim in question received the appropriate counselling.

Of course as soon as the administration became aware of this problem, they took all the correct and most humanistic steps to address it, the educated Thais were reliably understanding about the problems these young people had created in their (the students) lives – perhaps it’s tempting to think that Thailand created the problem, but of course when I asked the Chinese students they told me that drugs were very prevalent where they come from (which isn’t really very far away from where we live in Northern Thailand at all), and as I know many of them travel there by boat along some arm or another of the Mekong, which takes them right through a zone where all sorts of narcotics are very freely available (there’s no reason to suggest, in other words, that they were even buying their supplies in Thailand, because quite obviously they have been regularly travelling to places where this is much cheaper and easier to do – heck, perhaps they were even bringing it back and selling it, who would know?). No, these are just tragedies that could happen at probably any half-enlightened (i.e. not overly police-state) university in the world – the slope from casual fun with drugs to drug abuse is such a slippery one that there are inevitably people who are going to slide down it, and so rather than blaming Thailand in any way in this case, I think we just have to take it as a very commonplace, albeit tragic social problem. Furthermore, like I say, the Thais treated the victims of this tragedy, and indeed the whole situation, in as dignified a manner as was humanly possible, so we definitely have to give full kudos to them there.

Nor would I, by the way, want anyone reading this to assume that I necessarily advocate experimentation with heroin – on the basis of my observations (growing up as I did in one of the most sadly heroin affected regions of Australia, and having seen so many people I knew permanently phased out of constructive human society by this addiction), it’s a permanently life altering experience, or something which all too easily drags you to places from where there’s no return. And how on Earth could any teacher ever advocate doing things that, as opposed to increasing your opportunities to live a free and rewarding human life, in fact diminish them so substantially? In fact, I’d like to point out that the only thing I’m advocating here, along with basic human liberties, is getting yourself a decent education while you are at university – if you’re letting anything intervene in that then whatever it is must be problematic, and quite obviously some sort of offer should be made to help you.

Which directly accounts for some of the zoning out that was going on in class, and, as a catalyst for class dynamics to break down in general, indirectly perhaps some of the other manifestations of extreme apathy towards learning that the Chinese students were displaying – on the lighter side of things, addressing this problem, and also making the promise to participate fully in classes a right of entry into the classroom (part of the official procedure we set in motion at the beginning of this last semester, as per my previous article), seems to really have improved classes with the Chinese students. We’re far more at the bottom of the situation now, another enlightening piece of information I acquired through discussion with the students was that, for many of them, they don’t really see the degree they will get in Thailand as enhancing their life prospects (it’s like trying to use a degree you got in Thailand to get a job in Australia, of course they’re going to prefer an Australian education), and so they don’t turn up here as committed to learning as the Thai students enrolled in their courses – we’ve brought home to them that if committing yourself wholeheartedly to every educational experience you have in life isn’t, for some sad reason, a feature of your outlook, there are in fact a minimal set of responsibilities you have to uphold at a tertiary institution (if only in respect to the learning opportunities of other students), and that in fact there are penalties for failing to meet them. Also too, of course, their English is improving, as is their familiarity with the system here, both of which factors indubitably contribute towards making classes with them more interactive – these days, I have many Chinese students that are prepared to discuss things in class, as well as a steady procession of them coming to my office to talk with me out of lesson time about various aspects of their work.

Some of them, but, if I can resort once more to the vernacular English I so love to use, are still the biggest units – I don’t think we’ll ever get them to realise that academic engagement and honesty are the way to pass exams, and not under-handedness. A Chinese student from my class, whom I made sign a contract saying that if she was anything less than completely honest at all times would absolutely fail my course (and, who I at the beginning of the semester actually made confront the question of what could teachers do when faced with aggressive exam cheating), just last week was caught in an exam for another teacher with a completely conspicuous cheat-sheet – when the teacher tried to remove her from the exam, and we’re talking about the kindliest and most non-confrontational half-Thai, half-Italian lady (and, by all reports, a good teacher to boot), this student physically attacked her. Nor did the unpleasantness end there – a Thai boy stepped in to try and prevent what was going on, and she absolutely put the boot into him as well. Later, one of the Chinese boys who comes fishing with me at times told me there is a particular type of Chinese woman that he says they know as the ‘rude and aggressive type’ (in the light of the circumstances, this seemed apt enough for me) – not only do they have a particularly unenlightened and self-centred agenda, he said, they fight very aggressively to make sure it is fulfilled. Without the fisticuffs, actually, or should I say the footwork, both of which are probably necessary in more populated places, I think there are groups in Australia with whom a comparison might be drawn here, so I could see what he was getting at.

And are there any other interesting observations I can make about the Chinese experience while I’m on this subject? In fact there are. Firstly, some of them have been making themselves unpopular around town by getting haircuts and dinner, and then not paying for them – I can’t imagine there, either, what circumstances they have got themselves in, or what they are thinking, to do such a thing, but one thing’s for sure this practice, in a fairly tight-knit rural community such as ours, isn’t currying them any favour. Thai people are kind, but by no means stupid – once bitten, twice shy, so to speak. But not all cultural interactions are so frictional - there’s also a lot of love starting to transcend the culture gap as well. I know many female Chinese students that have Thai boyfriends – interestingly enough, they seem to prefer either the Indian or Austronesian (legs and arms like tree trunks) looking Thai men. On the other hand, there are also plenty of Chinese men that have a Thai girlfriend – there doesn’t seem to be any particular preference here, it looks like a case of whatever takes their fancy. Also, there are cases of Chinese students overcoming their culture’s social stigma against homosexuality, and I won’t go into the interesting combinations that are meta-morphing on this front – perhaps I could finish here by saying that quite obviously social constrictions, as cultural theorists have been arguing for ages, are very much responsible for determining the social pattern which has overt expression of only heterosexual sexuality, because when people get away from these constrictions all sorts of other permutations begin to emerge. Perhaps I should make the observation here too that Thai people are very adventurous when it comes to mixing it up romantically with other people – by all appearances, much to the dismay of many members of an older generation, I’m told, they seem only too keen to give it a try.

Which fairly much does me for discussion this month, I’m pretty much out of steam – till next month, then, ‘oof widdershins’ (and yes, it’s a pun, actually borrowed from Monty Python, before any of you go sending me any pedantic messages about my ignorance of European languages).




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