Case study 1: The school EWFZ
Our first impressions of a site, a person or a project reveal our personal reactions, therefore natural, to an external stimulus that is usually unknown. Our first observations are the first thing we see and therefore understand as realities. To both impressions and observations, our own comments or those of others are added and may come to complete the understanding of the studied phenomenon. As such, our memory is our best tool to remember what we felt and saw in each moment. I still remember October 2, 2017, the day I arrived to Beijing. My partner came to pick me up at the airport and I still remember very clearly my first impressions of the Bolin Aiyue residence when the taxi dropped us off at the door of our building and I stared out the window, surprised by the greyish ugliness of the building and disenchanted by the garbage piled up at the entry. Those were my first impressions and observations, joined by comments that I kept to myself. I would say that impressions are emotional and intangible while observations are more rational and visual, although not more trustworthy. Therefore, trusting our memory is a way to revive old impressions and observations, although risky to keep oneself true to what was really felt and seen at that moment. Rather, I would say that writing down everything through lists or maps at the moment of the event, or even recording oneself after reading the brief of the project, after meeting a person, after visiting a place for the first time, may show itself a more effective method to later remember the event as it truly was.
In this chapter, I would like to discuss my first impressions and observations from my first weeks in the Chinese public school where I have worked for three years, as well as the comments from a Chinese co-worker, in contrast with the opinion I would have nowadays. My annotations are listed on an A4 paper of March 2018, which I still keep in my documents. The more time passes remembering my experience in that school, the more objective seems my analysis on its system of thought and organisation. Some impressions remain true to me and some observations remain unchanged while many others have progressively evolved. In any case, they are all the beginning of a long personal reflection that never lasts, since to this day I continue to talk about the qualities and defects of this system with my closest family and friends.
The flag salute on the stadium always seemed an exciting ritual of unity that was repeated every Monday morning, but it seemed exaggerated to stop walking in the corridor to listen to the anthem, something that I never did and that few Chinese colleagues did in the absence of superiors. Nor did it seem appropriate to me that there be a person in charge of checking if all the Chinese teachers were present and seeing who were missing as if it was an unbreakable protocol, as those mandatory meetings from which one could later be blackmailed and threaten with a pay cut if discovered absent from them, something that foreign teachers did not have to fear. As a foreigner immersed in the system, one can understand it without therefore accepting it, sometimes both understanding and accepting it, but the most complicated of positions was undoubtedly not being able to understand it nor accept it. For example, if I go back to my past annotations, I could understand and accept that the hierarchy was very present in a country with strong traditional values. Further, I could also understand that my Chinese colleagues have a different way of communicating than us, but it was difficult to accept it in work situations since it implied disorganisation, last minute surprises and opaque communication, which one did not get used to. What I could do was to anticipate my reaction to the problem that was recurring week after week, year after year, and thus avoid much bitterness. I could also understand that Chinese colleagues think that foreigners are privileged since we are paid more than them, but I could not accept it as an excuse to encourage victimisation since our added value was worth a salary increase in the market. Nor did it seem correct to me that it should be seen as an injustice because in other matters we also have very restricted rights that nationals do not experience, which is a matter of perspective.
Finally, I will take the fifth point of the list concerning the students on guard in the corridors, who allowed themselves to correct their classmates, to illustrate my lack of understanding and unacceptance of certain realities, not so much due to the fact that a student watches over others which may seem understandable according to the context, but rather because surveillance was extremely rigid and children were involved in creating a climate of surveillance, distrust and intimidation. Children gave others away easily and were rewarded for it. Once, the school launched a campaign to reduce food waste and since the classes had their waste bin after lunch, two students on guard passed by to measure the amount of food wasted with a ruler, awarding or taking points away to one class or another in a rather hostile competition. Then there are different degrees of understanding and acceptance. It seemed strange to me that elementary school children were asked to carry out such a task, but it did not reach my indignation since it was an anecdote among many others. For sure, it did not fit into my scale of acceptance, but I could consider it somewhere in the middle of my scale of understanding. I would say that an example in which both scales were speechless by not understanding and accepting the situation, was when teachers waited for their students to write their admiration for the weapons of the military parades as a glorious display of power and love for the nation, when there are other ways to educate a child to love his country without having to go through the promotion of arms at such an early age. Another example concerns a Chinese art teacher, who asked her students to put finished drawings under their desk, before a drawing class in which Dutch school principals seeking to establish links with our school had to attend to. Students pulled their drawings from under the table as foreign guests looked away, then gave the impression that everyone knew how to draw well and that creativity flowed quickly. In both cases, it may be difficult to go beyond our personal, professional and cultural ethics trying to understand the reasons for each phenomenon, but if one started to empathise with that insecure teacher and her full responsibility in the success of that workshop while also knowing the consequences that she could face by failing the school, there would be a slight rise of the scale of understanding.
This study on my understanding and acceptance of one or another situation are specific to the example of the school that I have chosen, to illustrate the change that has arisen between the first impressions, observations and comments of the past with the slower and more analytical reflection of today, which can be theorised with general concepts. If one compares, the change is clear and shows that most of those first reactions are now lost or transformed. The analysis, fruit of time and experience, prevails over the innocent gaze of three years ago. This is the reason why I would invite my students to write and treasure their first impressions and observations about a project; whether it is a topic, a problem or a need to investigate, even an experience, because it will always be useful in their creative process and reflection. At times the first insights are the answers we have been looking for months; at times they are just a starting point. If it is a new stage of life and uncertainty is the first thing we encounter, as for my first months in Beijing, it will be distressing, but a moment to be enjoyed too, as it will then change towards certainty and will never be lived again in the same way.