"Can you tell us about your city?" my classes often ask me.
"OK." So, I tell them about Grand Rapids, Michigan. "In my city, everyone has a house. And everyone has a yard." I illustrate this point on the board. "Rich people have big houses; middle-class people have medium-sized houses; and poor people have small houses. And rich people have big yards; middle-class people have medium-sized yards; and poor people have small yards.
"But, in these yards, they don't have potatoes, and they don't have vegetables, and they don't have animals, and they don't have flowers, and they don't have rice. They have ... grass.
"And every week, they have to mow the grass." I illustrate this point by walking around the room, pushing an imaginary lawn-mower, with a blank look on my face, until they laugh. "And then they go inside and watch tv. Americans really love their 'privacy'.
"Because of this, you have to have a car to go anywhere; even to just buy some milk, because you have to drive past many yards. Rich people have big cars; middle-class people have medium-sized cars; and poor people have small cars. Therefore, I prefer the life at Ludong University, because you can just walk and ride buses everywhere, and say, 'Hello. Ni hao,' to friends."
I conclude the tale of my city. "And many people have dogs. Rich people have big dogs; middle-class people have medium-sized dogs; and poor people have ... what?"
"... small dogs!" say the beautiful Chinese students, laughing.
A cute, kind of chubby, short Chinese student with stubby hands, whose English name is "Vicky", meets me weekly to discuss our cultures and to assist with my struggles to learn her language. One day, I was telling her about a very good aspect of American culture.
I was telling her about how, at the small college I'd attended, those students who had cars frequently lent them to those students who didn't have cars. Sometimes, the lenders barely knew the lendees. It was very nice of them. Of course, there were also understandably students who wouldn't lend their cars out.
Vicky responded to this by saying Chinese students do their best to never say "no" to anyone - even to someone they dislike. She said they're taught from a young age to be good, and they want to be good.
So far, I've been very impressed with the Chinese students' nature. They're humble and cooperative. They eagerly offer me their services, in matters I might need help with. Playing basketball, they pass unselfishly amongst their teammates, and they play without keeping score. Short males are comfortable and secure and peaceful. In actuality, everyone seems to like everybody. And they get along well, living six or eight to a room, with no fights or arguments occurring except playful ones.
I wonder how much of the Chinese people's character is influenced by Laotse's teachings.
I'm reading the scholar Lin Yutang's English translation of Laotse's poetic "Tao Te Ching", in which each poem is accompanied by a fable of Laotse's student, Chuangtse.
Laotse, whose philosophies fathered Taoism, preached: selflessness; inaction; non-contention; preservation of character; and adherence to one's true nature. He argued that people, if left ungoverned, would be good of their own accord and live harmoniously; when rewards and praise are offered for good deeds, when bad deeds get punished, the people become confused and act insincerely. He said all is one, all is nameless, all is Tao.
Here are some of my favorite quotes:
"the Sage ... gives (things) life, but does not take possession of them." - Laotse
"(He who understands) does not regard a high position as honor, nor is he ashamed of poverty and failure." - Chuangtse
"The ancient men lived in a world of primitive simplicity, and the world was simple with them. That was the time when the yin and the yang worked harmoniously, and the spirits of men and beasts did not interefere with the life of the people, when the four seasons were in order and all creation was unharmed, and the people did not die young. ... This was the time of complete unity, when nobody interfered and people lived according to their natures." - Chuangtse
"When (the doctrines of) humanity and justice prevail, hypocrisy follows. And then, we resort to devices to induce (the people) to do good, and it becomes possible for one man to decide and impose on the world what it regards as desireable, which in effect is like (surveying a given situation with) one wink of the eye." - Chuangtse
"He who boasts of himself is not given credit." - Laotse
I'm in agreement with most Taoist beliefs.
Of course, today's China has its negative sides.
Some Ludong University employees, in a fashion that strikes me as arrogant, drive new Mercedes' with tinted windows, and they honk their horns on campus roads and make crowds of students part for them.
And the country chases business opportunities and races after modernization. Sledgehammer sounds of construction rattle the air everywhere - as peaceful homes, whose stone gates contain wood doors wearing red tapestry and Chinese letters, are replaced by mass-built apartment towers. Taxi and bus drivers swerve around pedestrians and honk. And many people work or study six or seven days a week, giving them little time to see family. There isn't much Taoist "inaction" here.
But, I'd say, Chinese culture is generally good.
Yesterday, over two plates of noodles at lunchtime, Vicky told me that, many years ago, the followers of Laotse and the followers of Confucius had fought a war.
Chuangtse - in the book I'm reading - made many open criticisms of Confucian philosophy. Confucius, who lived at the same time as Laotse, had, I guess, pushed the ideas of "humanity and justice" on the people, trying to push them into unnaturally being good. And Confucius ambitiously lobbied to get his ideas accepted by political leaders, an act which made him many enemies and almost got him killed - according to Chuangtse's stories advocating inaction.
I wasn't surprised to hear that Confucius' followers won the war. And Vicky said Confucius' ideas have been more widely accepted than Laotse's, since that time. But Laotse's ideas still influence people.
I don't know much about Confucius' ideas yet, except that students should respect and obey teachers. This one works to my advantage.
A student of mine whom I'd described in my notes as "philosophy-loving girl", because she'd offered her opinion on life during class, stopped me the other day.
I said I was reading Laotse. She said she loves Laotse.
She said of him: "Laotse was up in the air. Confucius was on the ground. We're somewhere in-between."
I asked if this meant she disliked Confucius?
"No," she said. It meant: "Confucius was practical."
I and the other foreign teachers in my department came to China to learn from the culture, or perhaps because we thought we'd find happier lives here.
But, the motives of the six Americans teaching in the English department seem less clear. They don't seem as interested in Chinese culture. They go to church together every Sunday; they've introduced me to their student-friends, saying, "She's also a Christian"; and they say they've come - through organizations - to China, because they want to do something meaningful related to Christianity.
A teacher in my department has told me he's known American teachers in China who receive additional money from their churches in the States for being here.
In theory, foreigners in China are prohibited from proselytizing. But, there isn't much regulation of this, especially at Ludong University.
On Monday night, I participated in a students' extra-curricular English Salon that I'm obligated to attend. I asked the students if any have a foreign teacher. A few said they have one of us Public English Department foreigners. Others said they don't have a regular foreign teacher, but that they'd recently been given a special class "on the Bible" - by two women and a man, foreign teachers.
I asked what these foreign teachers had told them. They answered: "They said we should read the Bible."
At around this time, the students all looked at me to say something, but for a long time I didn't. I was too angry.
I, in fact, had tried to read the New Testament this winter. I couldn't get past the fourth chapter. There was too much unharmonious talk, saying we should take joy in the punishment and judgment of others.
I was angry because, as I'm learning so much from my students, and as they're learning from me that they can speak English, if they take anything else away from me I'd like it to be my message of freedom and dreams, compassion and sharing, peace and harmony. With no damnation, when death is life without discrimination, there's nothing to fear, up in the air.
The growing popularity of the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish God threaten this peace.
Taken from a page in my "Book of Philosophy", here are the highlights of what I wrote years ago, detailing the positive and negative aspects of Christian belief. The negative:
1. The idea that some go to heaven and some go to hell is elitist and atrocious. I don't know what kind of terrible effect that belief has on the relations between people on Earth. (I'd rather go to hell.)
2. The Word of God is taken as absolute truth, as with a dictator's law. Christians are taught to not question things.
4. The emphasis on getting to Heaven leads to us believing Earth isn't perfect, and leads to us not trying to make our Earth lives better.
6. The belief in a higher being makes us feel unequal and different from other beings, including humans. The separation of the damned from the saved also causes this.
8. The worship of Christianity is characterized by many dull and boring rituals, it seems, and being forced to observe them trains us to accept dullness elsewhere in life - life shouldn't be dull.
9. Due to the idea that God is capable and we much less so, people enter into a lazy habit of believing they're uncapable of many feats - self-purity, selflessness, reason, discipline, self-improvement and progress - "We're only human!"
11. Christians' idea of good is based largely on God - a flawed creature, whose flaws will be accepted.
And here's my complete list of Christianity's positive effects:
1. It teaches us to not be rich.
2. Good morals.
3. We are taught to care about others, a bit.
Okay, that's a pretty poorly-written list. Christianity also preaches non-violence and honesty. And it provides its followers, and their families, with confidence and - like any faith - important spiritual strength.
Chinese students could benefit from some Western ways, especially - in my opinion - from Western education. Compared to Westerners, Chinese students are low in creativity, passion, and self-confidence.
I'm familiar with two Ludong University students whom I know are Christians - a boy and a girl. Both seem purposely isolated from the others, ambitious, hopeful of assuring themselves that they're better than the others.
I told Vicky that South Korea is already at least a quarter Christian, and that the native peoples of Samoa and Fiji are almost all Christian.
She said teachers and parents tell their children, from a young age, not to believe in God. Despite my fears, she's confident Christianity won't make much headway in China.
Is that a good thing?