Book Club: “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze”

This Spring Semester the Staff English Class began a Book Club, reading Peter Hessler’s “River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze”.  Meeting every other Thursday during lunch, our group consists of SUSTech Staff members who enjoy English literature, and who value the notion of constructive dialogue as it applies to both cultural and educational frameworks.  The Book Club consists of 17 students as well as myself, acting as a facilitator, reading three chapters (about 100 pages) every two weeks, coming prepared with issues which we both agree and disagree with, along with questions and concerns about the writing.  As active and engaged readers, the Staff Students take notes during their readings, highlighting and underlining important passages which speak to their own experiences.  Challenging ideas while understanding context allows for the discussion of different viewpoints, learning that when combined, our individual realities form a cohesive bond.

Discussion
Book Club Discussion

River Town follows the path of Peter Hessler from 1996-1998 while he was a Peace Corps. Volunteer at Fuling Teachers College in Sichuan Province.  Much like my own current set of circumstances in 2017 Shenzhen, he taught English and culture in a university setting, writing about many of the challenges and opportunities which I too encounter on a daily basis.  For our Staff English Class, this seemed like an ideal book to study, as even though it describes events from 20 years ago, in a number of respects, it mirrors the complexities which both myself as well as my students face in modern day China.  Development may improve infrastructure and access to foreign capital but cultures change less rapidly, providing learning opportunities to explore our differences in opinions.  Whether along the Yangtze River or the South China Sea, there is no right answer, rather a combination of ideas which encourage discussion and ultimately lead to compromise.  Literature reflecting life!

To underscore our understanding of the book, I reached out to the author to see if he would be interested in speaking with us directly about his experiences in China, discussing with our Book Club via videoconference.  Peter Hessler still writes, most notably for The New Yorker, and his articles continue to delve past the surface limitations of image and into the greater depth of substance.  To our delight, he agreed to set up a time to talk with us, allowing a refined definition of the words we are reading, told by the author some 20 years later.  It is these expanded opportunities for learning – stretching beyond language into culture – which emphasizes the true nature of global education.

The SUSTech English Book Club is another example of the creative ideas for learning which are being fostered by those who understand the value of authentic educational models.  Twenty years ago, students in Fuling learned new ways of approaching common ideas by being introduced to an American teacher who brought with him a different perspective.  Today, as I work with motivated staff students in Shenzhen, I too am looking for innovative approaches to teaching about English and culture as well.  Reading River Town in our Book Club provides us with such an opportunity, where we reach beyond the traditional classroom, beyond our own circumstances, and beyond time and place, only to arrive at a new understanding painted by differing viewpoints which allows reflection as we continue to move downstream.

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Shenzhen Daily Newspaper Article

I have had the opportunity to write for newspapers in Korea, Ethiopia, and now China, getting an article published in The Shenzhen Daily, the only English Newspaper here in South China.  As is usually the case, I wrote about the cross-pollination of culture and education:

“Global Education: Differing Ideas to Common Dreams”

Peering through the morning haze which hovers like a blanket over Shenzhen, I walk through a campus overlooked by neighboring skyscrapers from across the street, seemingly created from scratch within the last week.   These buildings of gleaming glass house companies which are recognized across the world, not only creating products that will be used from Africa to America, but similarly, attracting talented employees from countries on nearly every continent.  Creation through innovation – this approach to business has helped China along the path to prosperity it currently finds itself on, utilizing a local as well as international workforce to create a positive economic and educational environment which tries to benefit everyone involved.

On a daily basis at the university I teach at in Shenzhen, I hear the word “Internationalization” used with frequency, recognizing its importance, trying to emulate these successes in the classrooms which are being demonstrated in the boardrooms.  Foreign professors sharing their expertise with international students who likewise come equipped with different viewpoints are both an integral part of a constructive learning environment.  The world outside of campus is becoming less and less homogeneous, reflecting a changing business climate and it is prudent to prepare students for these realities.  Similarly, the approaches in deliverance of classroom information should also address the non-traditional methods of communication, shying away from conventional lectures and instead embracing cooperative learning models where students lead discussions; as involved in their learning outcomes as they would be in an innovative company which promotes cohesion, not separation.

Geographically, Shenzhen has an innate advantage, as people from all corners of China come here in search of brighter futures, creating a multicultural city of sorts which boasts regional cuisine, distinct dress, and even local music from the varying provinces across the country.  These cultural complexities are what draws others – from outside of China – to Shenzhen, to teach, learn, and work, experiencing both professional and personal development with lessons taking place daily in their offices and on the streets.  These examples of difference should be fostered inside university campuses as well, promoting learning from a variety of backgrounds, exposing students to different ways of thinking while expanding their worldview.

As an American with teaching experience on four different continents, I try to highlight not only Western methodology and pedagogy but furthermore, allow my students virtual access to the other places I have taught.  The internationalization of the classroom underlines the global environment we find ourselves in and likewise helps us to define the role we as individuals play.  Lessons which extend outside of campus, from participation in an American Book Club to a Webinar with African students helps to shape a different approach to common problems.  As a global citizen, I am grateful for my teaching and learning experiences here in Shenzhen, crouched underneath those clouds of haze yet knowing that the bridges built from here extend into that vast beyond where the possibilities are endless.

Matthew Jellick holds a Master’s Degree in Teaching from the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, and is currently a lecturer at Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen.