Confucius Say: Control Yourself!
Guest blog post by Kristen Rzasa owner of InterPlay Health, LLC and Jazzercise of Southwestern CT.
I looked out at the twenty-five eager faces of my first English class at Xiuning High School a little trepidation and a lot of excitement.
It was the first day in the classroom on the Yale Alumni Service Corp trip to China.
I teach English, Introduction to Theater, and Collage Art in the mornings and dance in the afternoons.
This cross-cultural experience was created to bring new ideas and opportunities to a rural area and was historic because it brought more Westerners to Xiuning (pronounced "Shu-ning") at one time than the residents there have ever experienced, in a context of sharing and learning.
Xiuning County is a county in the Anhui province under the jurisdiction of Huangshan City. Its population is 270,000 and its area is 2125 square kilometers.
I assumed the trip would be full of rewards, lessons and adventures. I'd have to adjust to the language and food (not to mention the bathroom facilities). I suppose, like perhaps many others, I went with bit of American smugness, believing we have it all figured out. I left recognizing how much we can learn from each other.
The first morning was a lot of fun, despite the language barriers, and I was impressed at how attentive and well-behaved the kids were. I was excited to get to the Middle School, as I would be more in my element having taught Junior Jazzercise, a children's dance fitness program, for many years in Stamford.
I quickly learned that self-expression is not valued in this culture. Encouarging my dance students to strike individual poses of their own choosing was a challenge. In the U.S. "thinking out of the box" is encouraged. American kids clamor for “freeze dance,” a chance to dance free-style and uninhibited.
I knew immediately that a round of freeze dance would instill terror in these kids. They were quite content to remain in whatever box they were given. They were skilled at replicating, master technicians, but in terms of creative expression, they were like toddlers on unsure footing.
One of our guides talked about the influence of Confucianism on the culture, and in particular the revered concept of "controlling one's desires." These children did not grow up influenced by Madonna’s '90s anthem proclaiming “Express Yourself” or Nike’s mantra, “Just Do It”?
Instead, they were children of self-control and self-discipline, in their studies, words,actions, and, as I had just witnessed, in their movement.
What would it be like to grow up in a culture that encouraged you to hold back? Perhaps it would be without rising debt and alarming obesity statistics, and who knows what else.
I imagine the optimal solution is somewhere in between the two worlds. But in the end, the biggest lesson is that there are just as many commonalities as differences that bind us.
Despite cultural differences people everywhere are essentially the same. Like American teenagers, they get bored with school, stressed about exams and giddy around the opposite sex.
The girls asked me about wearing make-up, boys and fashion and were full of giggles. The boys liked to rough house and one even played what I’ll assume was a ‘prank’ hiding my cell phone. As fellow participant Puneet Barat observed, “...on a deeper level, they are the same. They want to be successful and, I quote, ‘want to be rich’.”
There was a lot of talk about how much the experience ‘changed lives’ -- our own and those of the people we worked with in Xiuning. Another participant, Brendan Woo, summed it up beautifully. He said:
“The true signficance of the program was in the nature of the change itself. The result is that upwards of two thousand people will never again think of ‘foreigners’ (whether Chinese, American, or of another nationality) as just simple abstractions or empty generalizations, but as the individuals who were their students, their teachers, their guides, their mentors, their new friends. Looking back, this grassroots connection is the real accomplishment, and it is a remarkable and enduring one.”
Kristen Rzasa lives in Norwalk, CT is the owner of InterPlay Health, LLC and Jazzercise of Southwestern CT. She has a passion for travel but is happy to be home and using a fork.