Alex Schmidt is a graduate of St. Olaf College with a B.A. in sociology/anthropology and Asian studies. He was kind enough to talk to us about his experience researching Salar secondary school students’ attitudes towards higher education, which brought him all the way to Xining, Qinghai. Alex is currently a Teach for China fellow in Shantou, Guangdong, where teaches seventh grade English and spoken English.
When and why did you first come to China?
I first came to China during my junior year of college. I had started taking Mandarin freshman year after finding out Spanish was unavailable. My goal had been to finish my language requirement as quickly as possible, but after starting Chinese classes I was hooked. Even though my characters were, and still are unbearably ugly (难看死了), I enjoyed the fact that Chinese was different from anything I had ever studied. By sophomore year I couldn’t stop thinking about spending the first semester of my junior year in China through the program my school, St. Olaf College, offered. So I applied and was accepted.
Where did you end up?
I studied at East China Normal University in Shanghai for five months. I was intending to stay only four months, but I was enjoying China so much I decided to stay on for January and the Spring Festival. The time I spent studying Mandarin, traveling, and making Chinese friends made China real for me in a way I had never experienced in class and made me realize China would be much more than a place I merely read about.
What is one of your most memorable China experiences?
During my second trip to China, I was part of a National Science Foundation-sponsored trip headed by Central Washington University to study the Great Western Development project in Northwestern China and its environmental implications. I was part of the sociology group, and we traveled to a small village in a mountainous area in northern Gansu that could only be reached by a narrow dirt road that wound up the side of the steep hills. We were going to visit the village of a worker we met in our hotel, who had dropped out of school to go work in town so she could pay for her younger brother’s education. The village was impoverished, and had no running water. Their entire water supply was collected rain water.
After we finished our surveys, the hotel worker took us back to her home, where her mother had used her best noodles and vegetables to prepare a large dinner for us. If it had been any other meal, I think I would have come away unimpressed. The flavor was not memorable at all, but the fact that this family—who had already been so much help by introducing us to their neighbors and coaxing them to fill out surveys—would give us the best they had made that meal one I will never forget. As we left, our advising professor tried to pay for the meal, but the mother continuously refused more adamantly than I have ever seen in China. I think our professor may eventually have been able to slip the money somewhere, but the mother threw the money back into the window of the car.
I spent my Fulbright year researching the attitudes of Salar secondary school students towards higher education. (The Salar are a Muslim-Turkish minority group almost exclusively located in an autonomous county of Qinghai province.) I learned an incredible amount about Salar history and culture, and began to understand the many economic and social factors that shape Salar adolescents’ views on higher education, but there were many times when I desired a more thorough understanding of the educational system in China. This desire led me to apply to Teach for China.
I was accepted, and began training in rural Yunnan in July after my Fulbright grant concluded. We trained there for two months, taking classes on pedagogy and completing a practicum. I then moved to the rural area of Shantou, Guangdong, where I am co-teaching one class of seventh grade English and the spoken language classes for the seventh grade.
My work in Guangdong has inspired me to make education, in some capacity, a part of my future study and work. Working as a teacher has allowed me to begin understanding the difficulties teachers in the area face, and has made me realize the impact the education system can have on teachers’ ability to lead their students to success. Although I don’t think I want to be in the classroom for the rest of my life, I want my future work to have an impact on the classroom.
What led you to apply for a Fulbright?
As part of the sociology group of the NSF research project, we focused on issues of access to water and land, environmental awareness, and the roles of women in the communities we visited. It was this last aspect which inspired my Fulbright research. After meeting one Salar woman who had gone to college, worked in the city, and then decided to return home to take up a more traditional role in a household, I became intrigued by minority groups’ views of college, and how that view was influenced by their cultural traditions.
My Fulbright research focused on the views of secondary school Salar students in Xunhua County towards higher education. I spent my 10-month grant interviewing Salar college and high school students about factors that influenced their perceptions of college, as well as conducting and analyzing surveys of students at Xunhua’s high school and vocational school. The latter made up the majority of my research.
My research helped me understand many of the aspects that influence Salar students’ views of college (including parental attitudes and the economic situation in the area), but also made me realize how much I still had to learn about the educational system in China. Specifically, I was interested in the educational issues facing rural schools, especially after visiting some of these schools during my research.
What has your Teach for China experience been like?
As a seventh grade English and spoken English teacher, my current responsibilities include preparing for class, grading homework, and providing extra classes and out-of-school assistance for struggling students. Thankfully, I am working together with another Teach for China fellow to manage our class of almost 80 students, making these responsibilities much more manageable. We are lucky compared with local teachers, most of whom are responsible of two classes of around 80 students each.
Together with my teaching partner, I have found many difficulties facing the teachers here. It’s difficult enough ensuring all 80 students in one class are motivated and successful, not to mention the 160 students that most teachers have. Due to the large class sizes, there is also a wide range of abilities within the class, and the physical layout of the classroom plus the short amount of time we have in class makes differentiation between students of different skill levels difficult. Finally, the sheer amount of information presented to the students over one semester is intimidating, and also hinders teachers’ ability to ensure every student is on target to meet our learning goals.
What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about China?
What has disturbed me most while reading western news sources in China is that China is oftentimes portrayed as a mysterious, faceless force that is threatening Americans, be it economically or militarily. The articles plant seeds of fear because, for those who have not been to China, there are no names and personal stories included the foreign concept of “China.” I won’t debate Sino-US foreign, economic, and military policy, but I will say that these types of irresponsible media portrayals objectify China and the Chinese people, simplify complex issues, and make it much easier to rely on a fear of the unknown instead of reason when when making decisions that will impact the almost two billion people in these two nations.
What is your favorite hangout spot in China?
Warm-Heart in Xining, the capital of Qinghai province. It is western-style, homemade ice cream and waffle cone shop that opened shortly before my grant concluded. It is hard to beat sitting outside on a beautiful Qinghai spring/summer day eating a double scoop waffle cone.
Photos courtesy of Alex Schmidt.