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Finally, I could find some time to chat with Jacob about his university education and his dream about his future. As we lied in bed—ignoring the mosquitoes and their high-pitch singing—we were able to exchange many thoughts and opinions on a wide range of subjects or topics that were related to Jacob’s education, career and his future, and also his parents and the farm. Like many students in China, they would seldom volunteer to share with you anything about their personal life or dream or goals or anything, unless you cared to ask them specific questions. And they would avoid the “why” questions like a poisonous spider because that would require of them to think or use their faculty to reason, with me. Jacob did surprise me with something, something that was in common practice or use in old China, something that a new bride would or might use inside the bed chamber on the first night at the groom’s house: a chamber pot. It was certainly convenient in the dark of night to have it handy by the bed. You are so smart, I told him.
I began by asking Jacob about his progress in English. “So how is your English these days?”
“Yes, your English.”
“I feel funny speaking English.”
“What do you mean? To me it is so sad that many of our Chinese students somehow do not speak English well. I think I know why you feel that way: feeling funny speaking English.”
“Every time I try to speak English, I feel strange and uncomfortable. Make sense to you?”
“Jacob, you feel funny speaking English because almost everyone around you does not want to speak English even if they are English majors in college. You feel like a fish out of water…you are embarrassed because no one wants to speak English to you. Right?”
“In my dormitory I have no one to speak English with. For example, last semester, I did give at least two English speeches in class. And that was all I did about speaking
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English. My teacher gave me high marks for my performance.”
“But Jacob, that is not speaking English. You delivered a prepared speech…and that is not speaking English.”
“But on my campus, I had nobody to speak English to.”
“What about your English teacher?”
“She is a female teacher and she did not have time to talk to us. I know it is very difficult to talk to any teacher on our campus. They are always very busy doing something.”
“I wish your campus, Fujian University of Technology, had an English club so any student who wants to improve their English speaking skills can join the club. The school English department should have something like this…for all students.”
“An English club?”
“For example, Xiamen University has a famous English Corner for students who want to improve their speaking. They meet once or twice a week and it is open to all students. It is not limited to Chinese students but to students from many other countries now studying at Xiamen University. Maybe when you return to school next semester, you could help your campus to start an English Corner.”
“I don’t think so. Anyway, I will return to campus for one more semester of English. All non-English majors have two years of English, usually during our first and second year on the campus.”
“I am sorry to hear this. It is also on my campus. The school only provides two years of English for all non-English majors. On my campus, you can still do ‘auditing’ in English classes. Do you know that? I do not know about your campus.”
“I doubt our campus will allow us to do ‘auditing’, attending classes without taking any credit for the course.”
“Find out when you return to the campus, ok? About ‘auditing’ in some English classes. At least you will continue to learn some English after your second year.”
“I am not sure about auditing in English classes in my school. I will try.”
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“I feel you are not trying very hard to improve your English with me. Last semester you did work with me on vocabulary words. You did try and send me list of vocabulary words and sentences. You stopped after a few times. What happened to your vocabulary words? And you were not using your WeChat to talk to me. I gave you many chances to improve your written and spoken English, but you stopped.”
“I guess I got lazy and lost interest in English…”
“You want to spend a year in Australia at the end of your college education. You must continue to work very hard if you are serious about going to Australia. You know that you have to pass IELTS test? If you fail you will not be going to Australia…do you know that?”
There was silence. I had confronted Jacob about this a few times last semester but somehow he was too busy to find time to talk to me using the WeChat…that simple. It does not cost him any money. WeChat is free.
“You started learning English since you were in elementary school. And you continued to study English through your Junior High School and later in High School. And still you cannot speak English,” I said.
“I did not have good English teachers. Most of the teachers were able to teach us English but we did not speak English in class most of the time. The teachers taught us English from the books. They did not speak to us in English.”
“That is one big problem we will continue to have in China, your country. You are right, teachers do not speak English in class to the students. And so most students are not able to speak English after they finished high school. That is so sad to me.”
I encouraged Jacob I would continue to work with him on his English, written and spoken. It is really up to him. I would always be there for him. Then I asked him about his studies. Soon he will complete two years of college.
“So how are your studies? How are your Civil Engineering classes?” I asked.
“I am not interested in my studies. I just want to learn something and make friends with students.”
I wasn’t sure I heard him right. “You are not interested in your studies? Did I hear you right?”
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Jacob was hesitant to talk but I wanted to know more about his lack of interests in his studies.
“Jacob, do you want to return to the farm and live and work there with your parents?”
“No way,” he replied.
“But you just told me you are not interested in your studies. It seems obvious to me if you do not want to study hard, you will have to return to the farm and work with your parents. I am so sad to hear that you are not interested in your studies. I told you I will work with you and help you…to be successful. I don’t think you want to return to live in the farm. You want a better future than your mom and dad. Look at them, Jacob. They have to get up early in the morning during the winter months…and then they go to the farm and work and work and return in the evenings. Is that what you want?”
He was silent. I want him to have a good future and for many of us, like myself, a good education is still the key to a brighter and better future. I refused to be a farmer and I wrote a book about it called Growing up Chinese. I knew at a young age that education will free me from bondage to the farm and I studied hard and eventually was able to study in the United States of America with scholarships.
Then Jacob said something, typical from the mouth of a filial son: “I do want to make my family happy, Steve.”
“Jacob, consider yourself a lucky young man. You are the first in the family to attend college. Your parents never did have a chance to finish high school…I need for you to think seriously about your college education. Without a good college degree, how do you plan to make your parents happy, Jacob? How Jacob?”
More silence. More hesitation. I had no idea what Jacob would or could do to make his parents happy. I worry that he is not taking his studies seriously while he is in college. If I had known his indifference to college education, I might have stirred him to learn a useful skill from a vocational school instead of wasting four years in college. But the problem is that most Chinese parents look down on people going to vocational schools in China. They think vocational schools are for students who cannot study or are from poor families who could not afford college tuition. In some cases it is true that only students who failed to be admitted to regular colleges or universities might end up enrolling in vocational schools. A small percentage of students who attend vocational schools are determined to learn some skills so they can be useful to the society. In their words, I want to contribute something useful and meaningful to the
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society. And these students are the ones who are convinced that book learning in most colleges is too abstract for them, theoretical knowledge that is not applicable to real life situations.
There is a story of a student who scored the highest in the annual high school Gaokao in Qinghai Province and he was awarded the highest honor to study at the Beijing University, one of the top ivy-league schools in mainland China. Of course, this made his parents very proud of him. It did not last long when after a year at the university, he decided, to the surprise of his parents and many in China, to leave his university studies, which he considered too abstract for him, to enter a vocational institution to learn a useful trade or skill with his hands, so he could contribute something positive to the improvement of lives in the society. And he was being himself, honest to the marrow of his bones, that university education was not what he wanted for his life. He wanted to do something practical and useful for his life and the society. More and more now the Chinese government is encouraging more students to enter vocational schools and vocational training because China needs more young people with skills to compete in the international community.
If I had known about Jacob’s lack of interest in a normal university education, I would have encouraged him to enter a vocational training school in China to learn a skill because China needs graduates with more useful skills, not paper college degrees.
The next morning, after our usual breakfast of porridge and some vegetables, I saw something not to my liking. I told Jacob to come to the living room and told him something about emptying the trays of cigarette butts and ashes that were sitting on the low table for a while.
“How come,” I said to him gently, “you are not taking care of this problem Jacob? You heard about second-hand smoke? This room, the living room, and the smell from the ashtrays are no good for your health, do you know that?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Then, how come you did not empty the trays? Do it now,” I said. “Throw away the cigarette butts and wash the ashtrays, ok?” I told him.
I wonder how long this had been going on, I mean, the ash trays with cigarette butts. How long has he been allowing himself to sit in this living room with his parents every evening after dinner? Now I have one more thing to worry about Jacob.
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I also mentioned to him about an area not far from his house that has become some kind of garbage dumpster. A high pile of plastic bags full of garbage…I did not care to tear one open to see what is inside it. But you can see this pile of plastic (white and black) garbage bags on the left side of the path leading to his farm house. I doubt his parents could do anything about it. But who put them there? What smell during the hot summer months? I wonder. I mentioned it but I did not insist on an answer from Jacob.
I will cherish my time with Jacob and his parents out in the farm…life in a countryside paradise.
This is China.