Saturday, December 29, 2012

My father and the fish market

I like the fish market.  I like particularly going to the fish market with my father.  He seems to know everything there is to know about fish.  I learned from him the difference between the almost identical 馬頭 (horsehead fish) and 青斤, with faint lengthwise lines.

My father also taught me that eels 白鳝 (鰻魚, 鳗鲡) for steaming (softer) are different from eels for hot pot (firmer and more crispy).  But with little outward difference.  You simply have to ask the vendor. They grow up in rivers and ponds, lay their eggs in sea water near the river mouths, spawn in the sea and return to the rivers and lakes to live.  To raise eels, one has to find where they spawn, and catch the glass eels - very young eels and then grow them into the eels that we buy from the market. 

I found out myself how grass carp (鯇魚, 草魚), with smaller head and larger scales, is different from bighead carp (鳙魚, 大頭魚, 大魚), with eyes set lower.

The fish market is really fascinating.  There are crabs tied with straws that probably weigh more than the crabs themselves, clams that look more like very thick pencils, and frogs that do not look very appetizing but turn out to be quite tasty. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Special Kids at Christmas

Every year on Christmas Eve, we take a group of our students to Hong Chi PineHill Special School to organize a Christmas Party for the children there.  Their disabilities run from mild to severe.  Some can talk, function normally and even attend school; they are just slower than normal.  Some cannot even sit up straight, nor communicate.  We played games with them, sang with them, and danced with them.  We all had fun.

There is a girl L that we have known since 2003, when our family visited Hong Chi.  She was about pre-school age then, with a pretty face and easy smile.  But she could not talk.  What I remembered most vividly was that her hands were always wound very tightly in a fist, probably because of some disorder with her muscles.  We felt it must be uncomfortable, so we massaged her hands, and after a couple of minutes, her hands would start to relax and open. And she would smile.  It was their dinner time, so we stayed and helped to feed the kids.  It was there where our girls, still in primary school then, learned to serve.

Yesterday, we saw L again.  She sat in a specially designed wheel chair.  She still could not talk.  Her hands remained in tight fists.  We massaged her hands again; and her hands relaxed.  And she would smile.  I think she recognized me, but I am not too sure.  It was as if nine years had not passed, except that she has grown a little bigger.  She was clean, and looked healthy (other than her handicaps).  Hong Chi has taken good care of her.  But what can she look forward to in life?  What can we, as a society, do for her?   It takes a lot of resources, time, and love to take care of her and others like her.  But if we don’t, what kind of human beings are we?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Service Children with Learning Difficulties

Children with learning difficulties may not be less intelligent than other children.  They may have problems recognizing shapes, sequences, words, sounds, or emotions.  They may have difficulties in memorizing, writing, gesturing or drawing.   They may be perceived as being slow, clumsy, or even retarded.  They may not be completely cured, but can be treated if diagnosed early and professional help is available.

A professor from our university is teaching a subject in Service Learning on treating children with learning difficulties.  Her team explained to us today how they taught our students, without prior training and equipped initially only with enthusiasm, how to assist the professionals in helping these children.  Experts diagnose the children’s specific difficulties.  Teachers treat the children with appropriate methods.  Our students act as assistants in the programs the professionals developed for these children.   In one case, there are 2 children in the small group.  One is more interactive and received all the attention; another is more reserved and ignored.  How ready are we to notice the situation, and how should we handle it?  It is a challenge for our students and  equally, ourselves.

The children receive additional support which the professionals are hard-pressed to provide.  Our students discover a lot about these children’ special needs.  More importantly, our students discover a lot about themselves, their ability to step out of their comfort zones, and their own capacity to care for others.  We, as teachers, also discover a lot about how to teach, to encourage, and to support our students.  Society is enriched in the process.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Student’s Reaction to Service-Learning

In January 2008, we took 10 students to an orphanage in DingXi, Gansu. It was one of the poorest  places in one of the poorest provinces in China. For one week, we installed computers, fixed computers, installed a network, taught computer classes to the students and the teachers, and played with the students.  The place was clean and spacious.  The teachers were dedicated and caring.  The children were never hungry.  We stayed in the same dormitories as the students, and ate the same food. The orphanage was funded by donations.  And it was bitterly cold, consistently below freezing.  Hence fresh vegetables were expensive. And so was meat.  Our diet for the week consisted mainly of noodles, plain steamed buns, potatoes, with just a little bit of vegetables and even less meat.

When we were finished at the orphanage and returned to Lanzhou, we decided to give the students a treat.  We took them to a restaurant which specialized in mutton, and ordered a feast.  We were all very tired, but excited about having more appetizing food for a change, and in anticipation of going home after a challenging week.  While we were tugging into the food, however, one of the girls couldn’t eat.  She was one of those who wore her emotions on their sleeves, and she was obviously down.

It turned out that she was upset about the thought of us feasting on mutton, while the children  continued to eat noodles and potatoes and could only look forward to more potatoes.   We decided that there weren’t much that we could do at that point, but we would try to do something later.  Many of us went back again, and again to that orphanage.  And we would probably still be going back there if it had not been closed down.

When the orphanage was shut down, we were quite angry for some time.  We missed the children but couldn’t do much because of the circumstances.  Many of that team continue to serve in other projects.  And the children’s photographs remain on the white board in my office.  Service Learning has made a big impact on our lives, and on our students’ lives.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Academic Integrity and Political Courage

Earlier this year, Victor Sit of Baptist University published the so called “Blue Book of Hong Kong Investigation”.  It was blatantly pro-mainland Communists. Among other things, it claimed that ‘The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s general education curriculum is sponsored by, and its materials written with the assistance of, a US fund. Its teaching direction has, in practice, been directed by that fund’.  It caused a great uproar, and CUHK complained, naturally.

BU set up a panel to investigate the matter.  The panel upheld the Chinese University’s complaint, that the statement was unfounded and inaccurate.  It also found that Sit “willfully intended to promote ill-conceived information as scholarship ... compromised academic integrity”.  Professor Albert Chan, President of BU, apologized to CUHK on behalf of BU.

BU deserves credit for taking a firm stand on academic integrity.  Even more so, it should be applauded for the courage to stand up to the political pressure.  Sit is one of the many pro-mainland Communist “academics” in Hong Kong and his book has already been adopted as a reference by the government on the mainland.  Taking such a stand is not going to endear BU in the eyes of the men in power on the mainland and their supporters.

But that is precisely one of the “core values” of Hong Kong that we find so valuable.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Fruits of Service-Learning

 In 2006, we took a group of students to Huang Shi in Hubei province to help run a summer camp on English and robots for a secondary school.  That was our first service trip outside Hong Kong, and we were all very excited.  It was extremely hot, the food was very spicy, and our Putongua was rather basic.  But we enjoyed working with the other volunteers and the local students. 

K was only a first year student then, yet he was enthusiastic and was already taking a lot of initiatives.  Later he signed on for another project, and another one, …, both local and off shore. He went on all 3 of our Cambodia projects,  2010, 2011 and 2012.  In 2010, he was still participating as a student leader. In   2011 and 2012, his role was that of a teaching assistant because he had become a research student.

Now he can be trusted to initiate and manage projects, negotiate with NGOs, and to train other students.  He has become indispensable.  His experience from service learning is helping him in his studies, in becoming a systematic  and level-headed organizer, and a civic-minded citizen. K and others like him are the reasons we believe in making service learning a core component of our academic programs.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The absurd situation of Chinese vs English

All universities in Hong Kong require applicants to achieve level 3 in both Chinese and English as a minimum qualification for admission.  On paper, that sounds like fair and equal treatment to both official languages in Hong Kong.

For some reason, however, it is much harder to achieve level 3 in Chinese compared to English.  Many students whose first language is Chinese, who can speak, understand and read Chinese perfectly nonetheless fail to achieve level 3.  In fact, it is quite evident that the Chinese subject is harder than most other subjects.  Many students who achieved 4s and 5s in other subjects in the first HKDSE this year could not get in a university because they could not achieve level 3 in Chinese.

On the other hand, many students who achieved level 3 or even 4 in English cannot fully understand spoken English and read English text with difficulty.  Many of them speak English haltingly and cannot write a grammatically correct sentence in English.   These students are having great problems in their classes in their first year university studies right this moment because all classes are supposed to be taught in English.

How about Chinese?  It is not needed in most classes in most programs.  Simply witness the hundreds of foreign students and exchange students studying in the universities in Hong Kong alongside the Hong Kong students.  They don’t seem to have any problems not knowing a word of Chinese.

So, why is the bar for proficiency in Chinese set so high, if it is really not needed in the university?  And why is the bar for English set so low, when it is so critical for study in the university?  Is it because of political correctness?  (Just imagine the potential uproar if the requirement for English is set at 4 while Chinese is set at 2.)

This is an absurd situation which deserves our attention, but few people seem to care.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Flow in Study

Many of my students and young friends are facing lots of tests and homework, and feel pressured. I would like to make a suggestion which may help to make it easier to study. Whatever you are studying, try to find a small part that you do better than other parts, and concentrate on doing that part well. When a problem is solved, you will feel good. Stop and enjoy that moment of success. Repeat that process with something that is slightly more challenging. Gradually you will get better and better at it, you will be able to concentrate better, and you will enjoy the process better.

In time, you will study for the joy of discovery, of overcoming a challenge, not just because you have to do it. You will achieve a state of "flow" while studying - a most enjoyable experience. I learned this from personal experience, and also from a lot of serious research done by psychologists such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.