Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Meaning of Life

How would you explain to a six-year old the Meaning of Life?

Holiday Plans

I currently teach freshmen oral English at a university in China. That’s what it says on my contract, but I aim a little higher in my actual classes. In the last week of classes this semester, I wrote on the board the following question:
What are your winter holiday plans?
I gave them a brief moment to read, internalise and start thinking about the answer and then said in alarm, "Oops! I forgot to write the question properly…" as I bounced over to the board and changed it to read:
What are your winter holiday study plans?
Which earned me a classroom-wide groan and screwed-up faces to which I gave my biggest, most oafish grin.

I let the laughter die down and then changed into Serious Mode and said: "I’m not joking."

You’ve Got To Be Joking

Chinese students are forced to study. A lot. In (and before) high school. All in preparation for the university entrance exams. Once you "make it" to university, though, everyone (the kids, the universities, the parents, society) all sit back and relax. Finishing university is a mere formality. All the kids have to do is coast and conform for another four years and they’ll get their little degrees and be out the door, on their way to the Promised Land.

The Promised Land

The Promised Land is the glorious, prosperous future that has been promised to them since early primary school; dangled as a carrot and wielded as a stick. It isn’t until the kids are months into the post graduation job hunt that they finally realise that the Promised Land was all a lie. There is no comfy, well paid job waiting for them. They are not the "talents" their little piece of paper asserts. They have simply moved from one institution to the next. And unlike their utopian entrance to university life where they had for the first time ever a taste of real freedoms, their transition into working life is far more miserable: mean bosses; competitive colleagues; hard work; long hours; little pay; familial pressure to marry and breed…


But as I said, I’m teaching freshmen at the moment so they don’t hear that message yet. I tell them. Some of the Chinese teachers tell them. But they can’t hear it yet. They’re still relaxing furiously; over-enjoying their free life. No surprises then that they should sneer at my question:
What are your winter holiday study plans?
So to break the ice, I calmly walked over to the board and wrote my own study plans for the winter holidays:
  • Continue with my Chinese studies
  • Start learning Japanese Hiragana
  • Learn to use Freeplane
  • Learn about and start playing n-back games
  • Keep working on LearnVim
  • Improve my existing Vim plugins and dev more
(okay, I didn’t really mention the Vim stuff)

In every class, this opened the door for the more lively students to offer some of their own study plans. And in every class, one or more boys brashly declared that Computer Games would be their sole focus all winter long, which would invariably receive knowing laughter from all in the room. These same boys and many beside them spent the whole semester doing exactly that — why should they aim to do anything else now that they have the permission to do so?

The Meaning of Life

Is this a meaningful life?

I opened this post with the question:
How would you explain to a six-year old the Meaning of Life?
I’m not sure how I would have answered until Neil deGrasse Tyson showed us all.

“I’ve been thinking about that!”

The magic word there is thinking. It’s sad not to see that spark of life in the blank eyes of my lost students. And I don’t know how to help them find it again. I hope they do though.

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