Tag Archives: we don’t need no education

Teacher’s Strike in Paris

13 Feb

Yesterday, elementary schools across all of Paris were closed due to a massive teachers strike. Teachers are angry about the new educational reforms and aren’t afraid to show it. It’s super refreshing, by the way, that not a single talking head has had a “won’t anyone think of the children?” moment and it’s just accepted that of course teachers have a right to strike. For some reason, this reminds me of my hometown, where the teachers were not legally allowed to go on strike. Their complaints about not having a contract dragged on for years and years. If they had been able to do more than picket the drop-off line before class, they might have actually gotten shit done. But I digress.

Teachers overwhelmingly supported Francois Hollande in last years election, so it’s a little unusual to see him alienate them. Everyone agrees that France needs some sort of educational reform and Hollande campaigned on educational reform and increasing the school budget. The new proposed reforms would add a half-day on Wednesdays and reduced class time for the rest of the week. However, the mayor’s plan was to lengthen the lunch break by an hour in order to comply with the reform but so that school would let out at the same time. Teachers would be required to remain at their posts for that hour without compensation. Nothing like being asked to work for free to make you really, really irritated.

The teacher’s union has complained loudly about the proposed reforms, saying that the government should be lowering class size and increasing the number of special ed classes for children with learning difficulties. These reforms have nothing to do with improving education for the kids – the half-day on Wednesday would be reserved for cultural and sports activities. The strike has widespread support, so this might spread to outside of Paris if the Socialist-led government doesn’t listen. I’m with the teachers on this one.



1 Oct

I start French classes today. In honor of this momentous occasion (and because I didn’t do anything interesting this weekend), have some lovely music.  I much prefer this newer version, but the original by Indochine is a classic in French rock.

The Kingpins – L’adventurier


Like a River Flowing

5 Dec

I’m learning another language again. Yes, I know. Clearly, this is the insanity talking, because why the nine hells would I decide to pick up another miserably hard Asian language with tones and an intricate writing system? Well, actually it kind of went along the lines of Professor Xu telling me there was a graduate seminar on basic Tibetan that she was holding for her students. This meant that I had damn well better be there, or else. (It was implied.)

So, Tibetan. Yeah.

It turns out that the teacher of this class is a grad student my age, a Tibetan guy named Dorjee. He wants to study at UC Boulder. Small world, huh? His English is rudimentary and he doesn’t know any linguistic vocabulary at all. Which is a problem, since I don’t know the Chinese words for linguistic terms either. So for the past month or so, I’ve muddled along in class, reciting after the teacher along with everyone else. The class is small, no more than ten students, but I’m thankfully not the only foreigner there. A Korean woman old enough to be my mother – we determined this when she cheerfully announced that her middle daughter is my age and studying at college in Seoul – is also part of the department. I’m glad that she’s there; occasionally, when things are going not-so-swimmingly, Ann and I will glance at each other and exchange these beautiful, “what the hell are we doing, learning Tibetan in Chinese?” looks.

The class is primarily based around how to read Tibetan. I’ve learnt more spoken Tibetan (Lhasa dialect, if you’re interested in that sort of thing) from the Talk Tibetan podcast, which I highly recommend. I can safely say one thing for certain after a month of classes every Wednesday morning: written Tibetan is patently ridiculous. This isn’t racism or language elitism; you’re talking to a girl who voluntarily studied Chinese and their character-based writing system is so insane it defies belief and makes strong men and women cry.  [See the section on writing in David Moser’s Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard for validation from another source.]

Tibetan at least has the common decency to have an alphabet. Good for it. Well done, Tibetan. Unfortunately, every letter has, by default, the [ah] ending. So, a letter reads gah, kah, jah, or tzah, etc. In order to use the other vowels, diacritics (squiggly lines put above or below letters) are used to differentiate between a gah, gi, gu, ge, or go. Not hard, right? Well, not if you’re trying to glean a method to the madness at 9 am and only have a thoroughly unhelpful syllabary in Chinese and Tibetan at your disposal. I only managed this one with the help of Susan and the Internet, both of which are awesome.

Another fun thing is that spoken Tibetan and written Tibetan have diverged somewhat since the Buddhists adapted Sanskrit to the vernacular in the eight century. So any given word will have a few unvoiced consonants. I can’t bitch about this nearly as much given the English language’s propensity for hanging on to extra letters here and there in words. (through, I’m looking at you.)

We haven’t even gotten into grammar or basic sentence syntax yet, but from what I’ve gleaned from research on the internet, it will indeed make me cry. They have two ways of saying “goodbye” for crying out loud – galeshu is if you are leaving and galepe is if you’re the one staying behind. I’m curious as to what word is used if both parties are leaving, but I shudder to ask. Knowing my luck, it’ll be an entirely different word.

My personal goal in this class isn’t to become the next world-renowned scholar in translating Tibetan manuscripts into English. I know my limitations, people. Frankly, I’d like a little conversational Tibetan, enough to get me around in Lhasa or Kham when I go, not that I’m visiting either in the near future. It’s definitely winter here and if you think I’m going anywhere where they measure the snowfalls in feet you’d better have another think coming. Still, a little emergency Tibetan of the “hi how are you where’s the bathroom?” variety wouldn’t be amiss. Besides, how many people get to say they are being paid to study Tibetan? That’s what I thought.

Note: If you are Tibetan and thoroughly offended as to my representation of your native language, let me know, for Buddha’s sake, but be aware that I’ll probably take the opportunity to bug you about my homework problems and where my grammar is going wrong.

Of Mountains and Men

2 Dec

Today we’re going to talk about Tibet. Yay Tibet!

I am a member of the Tibetan Studies Department here at Sichuan University. Supposedly, this means I am working on a paper about Tibet (women in Tibetan Buddhism), but I am lazy and have no real motivation to do so. What I do bother to work on is research assistance to my advisor, Professor Xu. Right now, her thing is all about eco-anthropology. Basically, that means studying how humans interact and change their environment. This is a growing field of anthropology, especially with global warming and the rising human population.  Professor Xu has to give a lecture to non-anthro majors and wanted resources to spice up her presentation. I was set to find the English language bits, for obvious reasons.

Without further ado, I give you what I dug up on Tibet, or at least the interesting bits about the Himalayas. Mountains are cool, people.

Photo taken from “Rivers of Ice”.

Rivers of Ice: Comparative Photography
A visual, interactive look at ice and glacier lost on Mt. Everest. Compares the amount of ice present on the main Rongbuk Glacier by looking at photographs taken in 1921 and in 2007.The loss of ice and snow is simply stunning. It’s hard to argue with climate change when you see such a stark difference over the course of a lifetime. The pictures are fantastic, even without the scare-mongering. I want to go to the Himalayas, even if I will probably NEVER be in good enough shape to hike in the near vicinity of Mt. Everest.

China Green: The Big Melt
A video on the rapidly disappearing glaciers of China. The video is seven minutes long and has Chinese subtitles. It focuses on several mountains in the Tibetan Plateau, not just Mt. Everest. Tibet is known as the “Roof of the World”, but this region also serves as the headwaters for all the major rivers in Asia – the Yellow River, Ganges River, Indus River, and Mekong River all draw their sources from the Tibet-Qinghai plateau. China Green also has some other interesting videos on desertification in China, the problem of pollution, etc.

ECO Everest
A Nepalese Sherpa, Ang Tshering Sherpa, has started a movement to clean up the hiking debris from mountaineer’s attempts to climb Mt. Everest. As the levels of snow grow lower, more refuse from fifty years worth of hiking becomes visible and as the number of attempts climb, the amount of garbage grows, despite the Nepalese government imposing strict penalties on littering. Since they started in 2008, they have brought down “more than 12,000 kilos of previous expedition garbage”for proper disposal.

There were also quite a few journal articles, but they’re a little esoteric to people outside the field. (Hell, they were hard for me to read and I like this stuff.) Also, they’re hidden behind a JSTOR paywall. However, if you feel the need to read anything like “Sustainable Management of Alpine Meadows on the Tibetan Plateau: Problems Overlooked and Suggestions for Change” or “The Headwater Loss of the Western Plateau Exacerbates China’s Long Thirst”, let me know and I will totally send you the .pdf files.

On Monday, we’ll be talking about the language of Tibet and why I already want to bang my head against a wall and cry. See you then!

Scholarly Pursuits

28 Sep

t’s been a month since I landed in Chengdu. Somehow, time moves both faster and slower here in China. I’ve well and truly settled in, although my room does need a bit of brightening up with posters and the like. My schedule has mostly solidified at this point and my classes have finally gotten interesting, i.e. we’re not spending the entire lecture on “how to write an essay” and “plagiarizing is wrong” and “this is the proper way to cite properly” and “if you do not cite things properly, it is plagiarizing, which is wrong”, and my ultimate favorite, “do not copy words directly from a book, this is plagiarizing, which is wrong, NUMBSKULLS”.  (I may be paraphrasing.)  This was given to a class of undergrads, so I’m fairly certain the teacher’s had a problem with this before.

Here is where everyone gets insanely annoyed about my course load: I only have two regular classes. Yes, you read that right – two classes a week. A paltry four hours in total.

Tuesday morning is Cultural Anthropology with Professor Xu, my advisor.  It’s a class full of History grad students, and we actually have discussions.  Prof. Xu has this weird habit of playing absolutely random movies with bizarre special effects from the early nineties.  I have no clue what’s up with that. Thursday afternoon is Ancient Chinese culture, a class for undergrads in the Tourism majo.  I don’t know why Sichuan University decided that the Tourism department should be attached to the History one, but it is.  So for those of you playing along at home, I belong to the Department of History and Culture (Tourism).  I’m kind of amused at how they’re just an afterthought, even in their own depatment. Wednesday night I used to have a rotating lecture series, but I stopped going after Professor Xu stopped giving her lectures on Tibet. I’ve taken about a dozen courses on modern Chinese culture already, it’s getting a little repetitive at this point.

The rest of the week is spent doing whatever the hell I want. I spend a lot of time knitting and listening to the “History of Rome” podcast.

I’ve been told by Prof. Xu that since she’s going to be in Tibet doing field research for two weeks starting in October, that I will have a reading assignment. That’s it. A measly reading assignment – in English.

Somehow, I’ve managed to get the easiest course load a grad student has ever thought of. I feel like I need to make an offering of food and incense at the closest temple or something.

Oh well, I’m enjoying the laid-back pace, even if I feel like I’m forgetting something huge. (It’s that stupid “Protestant work ethic” all Americans have, I’m sure.) I’m still not sure if I want to continue in Asian studies after this year. It seems like a good time to reflect and contemplate on my options without having a back-breaking course load consuming my high brain functions.


8 Sep

“Someone once said that learning Chinese is “a five-year lesson in humility”. I used to think this meant that at the end of five years you will have mastered Chinese and learned humility along the way. However, now having studied Chinese for over six years, I have concluded that actually the phrase means that after five years your Chinese will still be abysmal, but at least you will have thoroughly learned humility.”  —- David Moser

Every time that someone has said, “oh, your Chinese must be so good”, I’ve cringed. Prevaricated. Tried to deflect what seemed like honest praise. It’s not modesty.

Yes, I know Chinese. Some Chinese. In that “pidgin-language” sort of way. Yes, I can get around, order dinner, and hold conversation on a limited number of topics. But there’s a lot I don’t know. It’s frankly embarrassing, seeing as I’ve given it five years of my life. (Four in college and one in high school.) I am routinely blanking on basic words, and have developed a pathological fear of speaking Chinese in public in recent years. I fluster easily over basic stuff and give off the impression that I’m mildly retarded.

There’s a beautiful essay out there on the interwebs called “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard”. I love that man with the passion of a thousand suns. Go read it, if you have fifteen minutes to kill.  It’s a very good look at learning second languages and Chinese in general from someone still in the trenches.

All of this is a round-about way of my explaining why today sucked. I got a phone call from one of my teachers. (Jiang laoshi is good people, even if her directions suck.) It was impressed on me that I should show up at a certain building around 3pm to meet another of my professors. Sort of. I got the gist, but not the crucial bits of information, like which teacher and which building.

I spent two hours walking around a tiny area, looking in vain for one building. Eventually, in defeat, I returned to my dorm, whereupon Jiang laoshi called again, saying, I will *walk* you to the building in question.

I had passed it five times not realizing that the “Jiang shui lou”, River Water building, was in fact “Zang xue lou”, Tibetan Research Building. (This is not as dumb as a mistake as it seems. Our campus is called the Wang Jiang campus, and we’re right next to a freaking river.)

I lost face again today. I lost my temper several times in my Quixotic search, and frankly, had a major case of Fraud Syndrome.

(Fraud Syndrome is the seventh-grade low-self-esteem equivalent for scholars. Basically, “why am I here, there are better people out there more qualified for this job/scholarship/position, I am useless, I am not as good as they think I am, etc. Fun times.)

Today, I did not acquit myself well. I’m tired of that feeling.