|Brad Franklin is a former political reporter, newscaster and federal government employee in Canada.|
I have had two careers, one as a radio broadcaster and the other in Public Relations with the government, each lasting about eighteen years. From my broadcasting I could claim a facility with English and in my government job I had actually been to China, delivering a technical paper to a conference in Shanghai. That didn't make me a teacher but apparently it was good enough for the school in Toronto, which was in a bind. At the time it took at least four months for Chinese students to get visas to go to Canada and, while the school was very successful at finding students wanting to come, the four-month wait meant many of them gave up and did something else. The school wanted someone to design and carry out a four-month, high impact English course to keep their recruits interested and to ramp up their English.
I wasn't their first choice. The school had hired a well-qualified Canadian teacher and sent him to Shanghai to work with a group of students. He lasted less than two weeks before culture-shock drove him to abandon the job. I wanted to try working in China but couldn't leave in time to catch up with the Shanghai group. However, about three months later I arrived at a school north of Guangzhou and met a dozen young men, grade twelve graduates, eager to go to Canada and willing to work with me to get there. My wife, who trained as a teacher, taught me the rudiments, I had some teaching aides with me and, as there was no curriculum, I was free to put together whatever teaching regimen I thought would work.
For the next four months I had one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I settled into a school with about two thousand students and other teachers, taught six days each week and, about every third weekend, flew to student fairs in other parts of China to recruit more students for Toronto. The net result was that I think I have seen more of China than most Chinese people, I have made lasting friendships in that country and I have a view of China not possible to those Westerners who have not been there, and most of us haven't. I'm still learning.
I grew up in the time before the Cultural Revolution when China was in great turmoil. The names in the news included Chiang Kai Shek, Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong. Communism, to a Westerner, was the scourge of the world and China was going in that direction.
As I write this I am packing to make my tenth trip to China. After that first teaching stint,I returned several times to work at an office in Beijing, again helping to recruit students to come to Canada and continuing to travel to student fairs across the country. At one point I, and later my wife, also began to write for a magazine called English Salon that targets students and teachers across China. We still write for it and in Beijing in a few weeks we will have a meeting with our editors. I count the magazine's president among my Chinese friends.
The magazine articles have resulted in hundreds of students from across China writing to me and from them I have learned even more about Chinese life. I have learned of their collective dread of the National College Entrance Examinations, of their aspirations to study abroad after university, of their tribulations with boyfriends and girlfriends, even at the middle and senior school levels. They think they are learning about life in Canada from me but, in reality, they are the teachers. I love them.
I still prefer a country in which people elect their leaders and can throw them out, but it is clear that China has surged into the modern world in a way that could not have been possible under those liberal conditions. Different situations call for different solutions and certainly the American example of democracy with its constant in-fighting is not one to emulate. From the outside looking in, it is tempting to be critical of civil rights issues in China but the government is, of necessity, walking a fine line in moving forward and, it must be said, doing a fine job of it.
Nothing, of course, is perfect. If asked, I would recommend that China remove its restrictions on Internet access for its people, particularly for young people. They're smart enough to understand what they're seeing and make their own value judgements. For years China has been gradually opening its doors, a situation that accelerated greatly during the Olympics of 2008, but it needs to do more, moving completely into the global village by forging stronger ties to the west. Economically, China is poised to surpass America but the world is now smaller and the days of the various heartland countries are over. China doesn't need customers in the west, it needs partners with whom it can exchange expertise, talent and ideas. In my admittedly biased view, Canada could be a significant key to this new relationship.
Historically, Canada doesn't have the adversarial baggage with China that America carries. Canada and China already have strong trading ties, although we import more than twice what we export. Canada also has world-class talent in the sciences, including medicine, and in engineering. We have natural resources and a developed market, yet formal diplomatic ties with China are not much more than 40 years old. Initiatives to promote a vigorous cross-fertilization of technical expertise would benefit both cultures and give China a stronger foothold in the west to our mutual benefit.
And let's not forget ordinary people. Strong tourist movement, particularly by young people, between China and Canada with the exchange of ideas that would flow from it should be encouraged to increase our understanding of, and friendship with, each other. Walking down a Beijing street one day I wondered at the row of bumpy tiles in the otherwise smooth sidewalk. Then I understood; they could be used to guide blind people so they wouldn't step into traffic. That's a simple yet clever idea we could use in Canada. Sometimes it's the little things that show us we are really all the same. It's a valuable lesson for us all.
Brad Franklin is a former political reporter, newscaster and federal government employee in Canada. He is a regular columnist for China's English Salon magazine and lives on Vancouver Island.