In September, 2000, I boarded a plane from Toronto to a different world
and spent five months living and teaching English at a university in
Beijing, China. I encountered joy and pain, enthusiasm and resentment,
hilarity and loathing, innocence and deceit. And I reported it all in a
series of letters written and emailed at the time to a list of 65
I was free to teach as I saw fit, so I took the students on a figurative
flight to my own world through readings drawn from The New York Times,
Shakespeare, Monty Python, and the scripts of a few popular sci-fi
movies such as The Matrix.
There were confrontations with recalcitrant students or wrongheaded
administrators. I followed the unusual route of taking a principled
stand rather than submitting to banal "cultural misunderstanding"
rationalizations. Readers thus witness confrontation scenarios that
rarely get played out in real life. The reasoning as expressed was:
"Someone has to yield. Why should it be the guy who's right?"
The letters are opinionated, easy to read and often humorous, but the
observations they report are conscientiously factual and objective. The
picture they paint of life at one college provides insights into modern
Chinese society that would challenge the preconceptions of many
readers -- for instance, that Chinese students are generally
hardworking, that they live under a strict regime, or that a Western
teacher would face considerable restrictions on classroom discussion
To read all of Uriel Wittenberg's China letters, click here.
By Uriel Wittenberg