Monday, February 16, 2009

Politics, "Owning School," Culture and the Commercialization of Education

I have a professor who loves to predict the death of many of my classmates whenever they tell her about their travel plans, particularly if they are going to places she deems unsafe, like Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East.

I’m not a brave person. With the exception of Prague, I don’t have a very keen interest in going anywhere that might fall in those three regions. But when I signed up to come here to France on exchange, I never imagined that I would be in the thick of political unrest.

Many people here are very upset with the government because of a set of proposed reforms. The universities in Nice have been on strike for three weeks and counting; I hear that the momentum is still going strong, and that the strike will even continue beyond our reading week (the last week of February). As a result, I’m freaking out because I got conditional acceptance into a postgraduate program, and I need to have a degree before it starts in September.

My friends in this program are completely confident that I’ll get all the credits I need. “We PAID TUITION, so the school owes us marks. It’s not our fault that they’re on strike here. There’s nothing we can do about it. They can’t deny us our marks or our credits because we paid for them and we were prepared to do all the work necessary to earn them,” I’ve been told.

However, I’m not used to of feeling like anyone owes me anything. I’m entitled to nothing. While I appreciate their efforts to comfort me, I still think that it’s up to our school. We don’t really call the shots here. So I’m still really worried and am hoping, hoping, hoping for the best.

But this conversation really made me wonder: What kind of relationship am I in with my school? The way my classmates see it, it’s almost like they view themselves as the patrons, and the school as their employee. They paid for the academic institution to provide them with the service of teaching them, grading them and awarding them degrees. So they’re the ones who are in charge. They (we?) call the shots.

This is completely at odds with the attitude about school that was instilled in me. Modern Chinese culture is still pretty Confucian. Even as non-traditional as my family is, I was raised with many of those values. We’re all about filial piety and respecting our elders...sometimes to a point I don’t agree with, but regardless of the divergence of opinion that exists in me because I grew up in Canada, this is still The Right Way to Be in the back of my mind.

School is supposed to be where a person’s mind is cultivated, so teachers deserve our utmost respect, and we don’t question them. Consequently, the Chinese values of pedagogy are also very serious. Teachers have almost an equal responsibility to their students as their parents do because they play a vital part in how they turn out. Teachers were traditionally called 師父 (“sifu”), which is comprised of the words “si” (師), meaning teacher, and “fu” (父), meaning father – because, of course, back in the day all teachers were men. You’re supposed to respect your teachers as much as you respect the knowledge or the art they pass on to you.

Now, this would work very nicely if we were living in a Confucian utopia, where the lowest common denominator for every teacher in the world is, virtually (and impossibly), perfection - completely fair, super qualified, super intelligent, super ethical, very accomplished, etc. In that case, of course we wouldn’t ever question our teachers.

Unfortunately for us, it’s not the situation we’re in, or even a realistic one, so I think that to maintain this viewpoint about school and teachers requires a lot of faith on the part of everyone who has ever been a student, or who has entrusted the intellectual development of their child to an instructor. For those who are raised to have this attitude, they respect their teachers as much as they do because they trust that they will be completely fair, that they are qualified, intelligent, ethical and accomplished enough (that is to say, way more so than the average person) to merit their utmost respect. But the fact of the matter is, while there must be plenty of teachers who are this amazing and deserving, there are also lots of crummy teachers out there because, well, we can, essentially, purchase our qualifications, and we all do. Just like I’m doing right now. And I’m lucky to be Canadian, but there are countries in the world, like our neighbour down south, where the credibility, status and usefulness of our qualifications depend on how much money we can shell out.

So what happened to the noble pursuit of knowledge known as education? How did it become all about money?

Photo of the Carlone Campus (Fac de Lettres) of the Université de Nice Sophia-Antipolis, taken by the lovely Ms. Lesley Oosterman

Monday, February 9, 2009

In Honour of Valentine's Day

Being in love – or believing that one is in love – has very interesting effects on people. Every moment and every emotion seems magnified, to the point that people speak in hyperbole and they tell each other all kinds of beautiful lies. They may not be intentionally deceiving, but the giddy feeling of being twitterpated tends to inspire people to say things that are impossible, untrue or both.

“It was love at first sight.”
“We’re all we need.”

You get the idea.

Take one of my favourites in my harem, Takeshi Kaneshiro, often heralded as the Asian Johnny Depp. He began his career modelling and then singing before becoming a “serious actor”, and he actually tried to compose his own music for a while. Of his hits, there’s one in particular that he wrote both the music and the lyrics for. I think this is especially interesting because the lyrics really provide a look into his attitude about love – he has an infamously private and mysterious personality. One of the lines is:

Translation: If the sky falls, I’ll hold it up.

How sweet and romantic! How dreamy and heartrending! Would you fall for that one? I think I’d fall for that one. Especially if it came from him, or anyone as good-looking as he is – I’m notoriously superficial.

Swoon, swoon, swoon.

I read that as “I will take care of you in the event of an apocalypse.” Okay, maybe I’m being too literal. But he’s saying that he will support you when you’re absolutely desolate. Is there anything more romantic in the world?

Honey, that is a BIG promise. Huge. On the same scale as vowing to love, cherish and honour someone for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, forever and ever...and we all know that that particular promise only works out and is upheld literally half the time.

But I think that if everyone were as cynical as I am, especially at such a young age, the world would be a bleak place. So let’s galvanize ourselves into action, yes? Let’s restore some measure of hope in the world. The next time you’re fortunate enough to have someone utter such sweet nonsense to you, just realize how lucky you are, suspend your disbelief and believe them! I promise I will if you do, too. :)


Saturday, February 7, 2009

Yan San's Wafuu Pasta

You know that I absolutely love "Italian" pasta that is adapted to the Japanese palate, but I equally love Japanese-style pasta, otherwise known as wafuu pasuta (pasta) - wafuu = 和風 = Japanese style. In fact, it was the first meal I had in the country.

Basically, it's like topping pasta with ingredients and sauces you'd put over rice. I find that the texture of the pasta is of utmost importance - it has to be perfectly al dente, maybe even veering on a little hard - and the kinds I had always seemed to be tossed in a bit of butter before being added to the sauce. Maki from Just Hungry explains the concept well.

I've been scrounging around the net for wafuu pasta recipes in English to switch things up a bit from my diet of fruit and ice cream bars (if there's any good food in Nice, I can't afford it), but there aren't many, and most feature ingredients that I can't get because I live in the middle of nowhere.

So! I took to my culinary laboratory and produced the following, which I'm proud to say turned out quite well and is very tasty. A bunch of the ingredients are optional, in case you are even more unfortunate than I am and are living even more deeply entrenched in Nowhere, in which case you wouldn't even be able to find stuff like mirin. But I know I'm taking a leap of faith in assuming that soy sauce is pretty widely available and universal.

I like my wafuu pasta sauce a little watery because it's more faithful to the samples I tasted in Japan and because they make great dips if you're in the habit of cleaning your plates with bread after consuming the main course. If you prefer thicker sauces, there are instructions in the recipe on how you could achieve that.

Finally, this recipe serves four, but I actually ate about half of the sauce (2 servings, and I made the pasta accordingly) the night I made it and saved the other half to eat with rice. It's super easy, so I hope you give it a try!


Yan San’s Wafuu Pasta

200g ground pork
1 small onion, diced OR half a large onion, diced
1 stalk green onion, finely chopped
1 or 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped OR 2 tsp minced garlic
2 large mushrooms diced OR 4 small mushrooms, diced
4 tbsp soy sauce
¾ cup white wine
dash of garlic powder
dash of dried shallot flakes
dash of ground pepper

dash of fish sauce (optional)
dash of mirin (optional)
1 tsp dashi powder (optional)
1 tsp Japanese garlic paste (optional)

500g spaghetti
1 tbsp butter

1.) Cook spaghetti until perfectly al dente and toss in butter.
2.) Heat some olive oil in a deep skillet and stir-fry the garlic and garlic paste on medium heat until it smells yummy.
3.) Add chopped onions and green onion to the skillet and stir-fry until the onions become translucent.
4.) Add mushrooms and stir around some more, until they become coated with oil.
5.) Add pork, soy sauce, dashi, garlic powder and shallot flakes – try to break up the pork while browning it.
6.) When the pork is just about cooked through, add white wine and mirin. Turn up the heat until it boils to reduce the alcohol.
7.) Do a taste test! I prefer it to be a little bit too salty on its own so that it makes a really flavourful pasta sauce. Add some fish sauce for extra flavour.
8.) I like my sauce watery, but if you prefer a creamier, thicker sauce, add either a touch of cream or corn starch diluted in cold water to the mix.
9.) Spoon over pasta and enjoy!

Serves 4