Attendees crowded around the food table after the lecture to sample jiaozi and other traditional fare.
||Organizer Sylvia Bryant welcomed the audience, promising “We came here tonight to experience China with our senses.”|
They came for all different reasons.
Parents wanted to find out more about the Chinese language and culture instruction that would be offered this fall to their elementary school-age children. Staff wanted to hear about the Superintendent’s trip to China this summer and how his new Chinese instruction program was born. Community members wanted to know about the new direction the district is taking as, increasingly, the Montclair schools “go global.”
As for the students: no matter their grade level, they came for the food.
On the evening of April 9, Dr. Virginia Cornue, a cultural anthropologist, research associate at Rutgers University, author and Renaissance parent, presented “Don’t Burn the Jiaozi, Steam Them” in the George Inness Annex atrium. It was the second of two free “A Taste of China” workshops offered by the district to acquaint parents, teachers and students with the Chinese language and culture courses that will be offered for this first time this fall.
Like the first workshop on March 26, last week’s gathering featured food, a slideshow and lively discussion. But whereas the first workshop focused on language learning, the second explored the culture, geography, history, politics and cuisine of China – a country many Americans still know very little about.
But that will change in a generation, if not sooner, Superintendent Alvarez believes – along with most of the world’s leaders. As China’s role becomes increasingly important in the global economic market, societies around the world are adjusting their perspectives of the emerging global picture. As Dr. Alvarez said after his trip to Beijing this summer, “The world as we have known it is changing. We need to pay attention.”
In Montclair, that process will begin this fall when a Chinese language pilot will launch at Nishuane and one of the district’s middle schools. Chinese culture classes will begin at the high school.
|Among the native objects Dr. Cornue brought to display was a dragon teapot, used in traditional ceremonies for dramatic effect. The teapot can dispense tea from 10 or more feet away.
So where does jiaozi fit into all that? (And what is jiaozi, anyway?)
As the parents, staff and students who attended the April 9th workshop can tell you, jiaozi are Chinese steamed dumplings, often referred to as “pot stickers” here in the U.S. In China, jiaozi are as common as fried chicken and spaghetti are here, Dr. Cornue explained. The Chinese eat them on special occasions, like New Year’s celebrations.
“We’re here tonight to experience China through our senses,” event organizer Sylvia Bryant, the district’s Parent and Volunteer Coordinator, told the assembled audience during her introduction. Sure enough, attendees had the opportunity to sample the meat and vegetable jiaozi while Dr. Cornue presented her slideshow.
Dr. Cornue, who lived in Beijing between 1994 and 1996, then displayed a table full of traditional Chinese garments and household objects, explaining the significance of each.
In the evening’s liveliest presentation, audience members were then asked to write stereotypes they’d heard about China and the Chinese people on index cards, which were passed to the front of the room for discussion. This exercise illustrated how little is still known about the Chinese, who comprise the largest population on earth, by other countries – including broadly educated countries like our own.
Throughout the presentation, audience members were invited to share their own experiences or impressions. A father whose three children (two of them adopted in China) all attend different schools in the district described watching a noodle master make noodles by hand. In China, this skill is prized and those who are adept at it may even win awards.
“The best noodle masters can spin noodles that are many feet long and as fine as a hair,” Dr. Cornue said.
||As in all regions of the world, China’s geography and climate have played a part in its history. “China and the U.S. are roughly the same size,” Dr. Cornue said, “yet consider the size of their population compared with ours.”|
It was just one of the little-known facts presented during the course of the evening. Similarly, the English expression “long time, no see” is actually a phonetic translation of a Chinese phrase that sounds almost identical.
As the March 26th workshop also explained, Chinese is a tonal language in which meaning is conveyed through sound. The word “ma,” for instance, has five meanings, with tone of voice indicating which meaning is intended.
As for fortune cookies, Dr. Cornue said, they aren’t actually Chinese at all, but European.
Aside from fun facts like these, the audience on April 9th walked away with a greater awareness of how differences in Western and Eastern thought can have serious consequences.
For example, Dr. Cornue explained, there is no concept of intellectual property in China. Unlike in the West, thought is believed to belong to all; for that reason, Chinese students and scholars may commit plagiarism, considered a grave offense here, without feeling that they have done anything wrong.
|Students of all ages came away from the April 9 workshop with new knowledge about China — and a pocketful of fortune cookies, too.
Chinese stereotypes that persist in Western consciousness can create obstacles to understanding between nations, Dr. Cornue said. Popular misconceptions about China – for instance, that Chinese women are subservient, that the government is rife with corruption or that the country is populated by war lords belonging to ancient families – are often reinforced through the movies and in casual conversation.
There is much to be gained in today’s world by promoting mutual understanding among powerful countries like the U.S. and China, Dr. Cornue said, and education about one another’s cultures is the best place to start. Although negative stereotypes about the West also exist in China, “The word for America means ‘beautiful land’ in Chinese,” she said.
Ending the evening on a high note, Dr. Cornue gathered all the workshop participants together for a sampling of fortune cookies, Chinese sweets and, of course, jiaozi.
Community members who would like to learn more about the Montclair School District’s introduction of Chinese culture and language in its fall curriculum are invited to attend the May 8 Spring Seminar, “Think ‘Go,’ Not Chess.” Check this site for updates.