[pullquote]Why stay in an abusive country?[/pullquote]
A teacher recently dismissed, I gather, for encouraging critical thinking in her class in (where else?) my native United States writes:
I am stunned by the number of “conservatives” who truly appear to loathe teachers. What is up with that? Why the distrust of educators?
And all I can say is, “Come teach in Asia. They respect teachers here.”
To back that up, a little story that taught me that about four years ago:
Passing Through Customs
During my five or six years teaching secondary history and literature in Shanghai in the early-to-mid ‘naughties, my hobby was going on DVD scavenger hunts. I’d spend a good four or five hours weekly, usually on Saturday afternoons, making the rounds through a handful of DVD shops I’d discovered had the richest selection of offerings, and in each one I would literally check each disc on its shelves for any new arrivals. We’re talking hundreds of discs, sometimes over a thousand, in each shop.
To understand the beauty of this ritual, you have to understand the Shanghai DVD shop at its best. Shanghai is as cosmopolitan as it gets. People from every point of the globe live there, and they’re all potential customers for these shops, which cater mostly to foreigners. So to skim their shelves is to skim through titles in Chinese, Russian, German, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Thai, on and on.
For a history teacher totally uninterested in this year’s version of a lame-ass Tom Cruise blockbuster, these shops were a fantasy land. I’d find dozens of films I never knew existed, exquisite things: documentaries from the Soviet Union mashing up footage from the Nazi archives they’d captured when they defeated Hitler, giving the Soviet take on Fascism and the Great Patriotic War; other documentaries from around the globe, like the incredible Darwin’s Nightmare, that Americans would never see or hear about at home; box sets of Tarkovsky, Fellini, Cassavetes, Bergman, Chaplin, Zhang Yimou, Kurosawa, and other international Shakespeares of the Film Age; concerts of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Gustav Mahler, Beethoven, Nick Cave, Joni Mitchell, and other gods; on and on and on.
(Hey, if you click on all those links above on my blog instead of in your feed-reader, Apture popups will give you some wonderful clips from the directors and my favorite pieces from the musicians, links to Wikipedia, and more.)
Don’t tell anybody, but each of these items cost one to five US bucks. For the price of a fine meal that would turn to feces within four hours (pity the poor “live to eat” types), I’d come home with a feast of hours to last a lifetime — at home and in the classroom.
That weekly habit, over six years, produced a library of at least a thousand discs, whose thousand dollar investment proved Oscar Wilde‘s maxim about people who “know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” Because this collection was priceless.
And the day came when I expected to lose it all.
That day came because those Shanghai years fell victim to the international teacher’s wanderlust. Wanting a change of Experience, I’d resigned my post and sought employment in a new land. Fate offered Korea, among other possibilities, and I took it. But that turned out to mean, I learned, that I probably wouldn’t be able to take that collection with me. Anybody familiar with airport customs knows what I’m talking about. DVDs from the People’s Republic of the Middle Kingdom scream “contraband.”
So there I was passing through the gates into Life’s Next Chapter: The Korea Years, and I mean that “gates” literally: I was at the [name withheld to protect the guilty heavensent] airport’s arrival gate, sweating bullets, because I’d packed my Collection in my suitcases instead of shipping them with my furniture. I’d been told the odds of getting them in were higher this way. Picture two large suitcases stuffed with more DVDs than clothes.
My first suitcase had already spewed forth from the baggage carousel without incident, so I was hopeful as I watched for the second one. That hope was shattered when it slid to me with, of all things, this strange yellow collar locked to the handle. Printed on it were instructions for me to proceed to a customs officer.
As my luggage cart approached the customs desk, the lock went all Rabbit Hole on me: it belted out this weird electronic alarm. People within 30 meters stared. I hear convicted pedophiles have to wear such things around their ankles, and that they do similar things when said convicts approach schools. It’s not a pleasant feeling. And it wasn’t an auspicious start for The Next Chapter, this entry as a branded criminal.
Hollywood really has a hold on airports worldwide, I thought. Freaking weird. What’s in it for foreign countries to protect the profit margins of Western corporations?
The customs officer wasn’t exactly warm as he told me to open my suitcase. He was no warmer when he saw the dozen or so DVD wallets stashed inside a folded shirt here, some folded pants there.
He asked me to take them out and show them to him.
“Most of them seem illegal,” he said.
“I don’t know. I bought them in Shanghai. I don’t read Chinese.”
Then came Fate’s Fist:
“You can’t take them in. I have to confiscate them and destroy them.”
I didn’t cry, but I did, just a little bit, whine. But sincerely:
“Aww. I use those in my classroom. You don’t know how many hours I put into building that collection.”
Then came Confucius‘ Grace:
“You’re a teacher?”
“You’re going to teach in Korea?”
“Can you prove it?”
I showed him the business card the school had sent me, and my contract, and this blessed man looked at the Laws of Commerce on his left shoulder, and the Laws of Confucius on his right, and had no apparent difficulty choosing which to serve:
“Go ahead. And good luck. Teaching is an important job. Thank you for doing it in Korea.”
I swear to Goodness, he actually said that. Thanks to Confucius, the Next Chapter had started off happily after all.
* * *
I’ve told this story many times, and most people don’t find it as interesting as I think they should. Because it brought home to me, concretely, what I’d only known in the academic abstract in my years teaching Confucianism in my Asian history classrooms — ironically enough, in China, the very homeland of Confucius. The lesson it brought home is this:
East Asia is blessed by its Confucianism. When the Han Dynasty, 2,000 years ago, put its political support behind the teachings of this Master, it unknowingly rooted in the Chinese spirit a devotion to education and scholarship — and that means to teachers, to students, and to schools.
It’s easy to criticize how East Asian countries educate, and what the word “education” means to them, but that’s beside the point here. Because it’s incomparably easier to criticize American civilization for its disdain for education. Its teacher-bashing vogue, its funds-cutting mania, and a million other details speak volumes on this point. The Chinese have a word for such a culture: barbarian.
Somebody said “A person ages into the face he deserves.” The same is true of a civilization. If America has aged into a face of illiteracy, innumeracy, historical, geographic, and scientific ignorance, it’s no mystery why.
So again, to those teachers who put their minds and hearts into managing and designing and sweating blood for the learning of a small army of young souls each year, and are thanked for it with scorn and bile — seriously, it’s not like that everywhere. There are other lands of opportunity in the world, and after a decade of teaching in China, in Korea, and now in Singapore, I can’t recommend the Confucian ones highly enough.
And with that, I’ll close with a few verses from the Confucian scriptures themselves, so remarkably sane and reasonable to this Westerner, and thus so beautifully civilized. From the Analects:
2:14. Confucius said, “The superior man is broadminded but not partisan; the inferior man is partisan but not broadminded.”
2:15. Confucius said, “He who learns but does not think is lost; he who thinks but does not learn is in danger.”
2:17. Confucius said, “Yu, shall I teach you [the way to acquire] knowledge? To say that you know when you do know and say that you do not know when you do not know — that is [the way to acquire] knowledge.”
And most germane, perhaps, to those Americans described by our ex-teacher in the opening quote, is this final Confucian verse:
8:13. Confucius said, “Have sincere faith and love learning. Be not afraid to die for pursuing the good Way. Do not enter a tottering state nor stay in a chaotic one. When the Way prevails in the empire, then show yourself; when it does not prevail, then hide. When the Way prevails in your own state and you are poor and in a humble position, be ashamed of yourself. When the Way does not prevail in your state and you are wealthy and in an honorable position, be ashamed of yourself.”
–emphasis added, and for good reason: Teachers have “asked what they can do for their country,” and they do it. Daily. But they should have the good sense to also ask what their country is doing for them, patriotic martyrdom propaganda aside. If their country has reached a “tottering, chaotic” point at which it “loathes” them, then teachers do have choices.
One of those choices is Asia. America used to be a magnet for other countries’ brain-drain. Asia seems the better magnet now.
It is for me, anyhow. I’m thankful that I teach in Asia — because Asia is thankful for it, too.