A Ku Indeed!

Suggestions Needed: Teaching Culture in China

Posted in China, Course Material, Fun, Life, Pedagogy by Chris on September 27, 2008

Next semester Christie (my wife) and I will be teaching at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Each of us will be teaching a course called “American Culture.” The course content is entirely up to us, and we’ve been slowly engaged in the task of putting together the material we will eventually be covering (individually, the courses aren’t team-taught, but we’ll teach the same syllabus). We really need help accumulating suggestions from people regarding what to cover, and how to cover it. Click below the fold and give us a hand! All suggestions welcome — especially from students!

The folks at Tsinghua would like it if the course covered standard cultural stuff (politics, religion, race, etc) but also a fair amount of “pop” culture as well. In addition, they seem to like the idea of using movies and other artistic media to get out lessons across or our discussions going.

This means that we have a lot of things to consider. First, there’s the question of “what to cover?” Second, there’s the question of “how to cover what we cover.” In the first section, we’re looking for subjects to cover. So — when you think of “American culture” what subjects seem to you to be no-brainers? In the second part, we’d be happy to hear suggestions for (a) movies that could be shown that highlight those themes, (b) artwork, (c) music, (d) literature, etc. In both sections, it’s pretty much open. So feel free to add what you can! We need every idea we can get!

Section One: What to Cover?

So far, we’re thinking of the following “units” (not in order):

1. The Autonomous Self

2. The American Dream (Economics, Class)

3. Immigrants

4. Gender and Sex

5. Race

6. The (Wild) West

7. The South

8. Religion

9. Politics

10. Culture Wars

11. Education

12. Holidays

13. Consumerism

What else? I have no doubt there are lots of themes we haven’t thought of. Please feel free to add more!

Section Two: How to Cover What We Cover

This is totally open ended. We have lots of readings and some films in mind, but I won’t list them. Instead I’d rather just leave it open: what would you do? What readings would you use? Films? Literature? Cool and fun class exercises? Really anything here — the sky is the limit.

Really — feel free to suggest anything here. For instance, in unit 13 (Consumerism) I’m thinking seriously of showing “Dawn of the Dead” (I know Alexus would be happy), which has an interesting way to present a critique of American consumerism.

We’d appreciate any suggestions you might have. The more the better!

20 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Alexus McLeod said, on September 28, 2008 at 9:10 pm

    Awesome! I was going to suggest “Dawn”, but then I saw at the end you’re already thinking along those lines. Also–how about Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” for the “Wild West” section? (another of my favorites. That would be pretty funny–Dawn of the Dead and the Wild Bunch–how much gore and violence could one class take? (any of the Sergio Leone westerns would be cool too, even though Sergio wasn’t American.)
    Here’s some quick notes about films and books that come to mind when I see your categories there:

    Race–Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is the best novel I’ve ever read on this; way better than Wright’s “Native Son” in my opinion, even though the latter is usually what gets assigned in high school (and college!) courses. The downside is that “Invisible Man” is mad long, so it would take up quite a chunk of the class. Also, as far as nonfiction, Haley’s “Autobiography of Malcolm X” is a good one. Or the movie adaptation by Spike Lee, for that matter (which also might fit the “Religion” topic). Although I think the best movie on this topic would be either Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” or John Sayles’ “Brother From Another Planet”. The latter is one of my favorite films. It does a fantastic job looking at race, violence, and a number of other topics. The only problem with this one is that it might be difficult to understand for students who don’t already have a really good understanding of American culture. It’s very indirect, subtle, and artsy. “Do The Right Thing” is also this way, to an extent, but it’s not as abstract as “Brother”.

    American Dream–almost any film by Martin Scorcese. It occurs to me that “Gangs of New York” might be good for both the “American Dream” and “Immigrants” section (even though in my opinion it wasn’t one of Scorcese’s best). Not sure about the book this was based on.
    Oh yeah! Another one of my favorite films would fit great into the “American Dream” section–John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” (which features magnificent performances from both Jon Voight & Dustin Hoffmann). I’d only show this if you want to make your class depressed, though. One of the saddest films I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot. As in the case of “Gangs”, I haven’t read the book on which this one was based, but I know it’s a novel by James Herlihy.
    It might be a stretch, but maybe “Rocky” would work for the “American Dream” section. As lame as I think Stallone’s work is in general, I’ve always had a soft spot for that one.

    A good “holidays” movie is that one many of the networks play over and over every time December comes around, “A Christmas Story”. I used to like it when I was a kid, but now I find it way too Garrison Keillor-esque (and I can’t stand Keillor–I want to blow up my radio when he comes on NPR stations on Sundays).

    This is all I can think of at the moment, but if I come up with any good stuff I’ll let you know.

  2. Bill Haines said, on September 29, 2008 at 12:53 am

    Toward planning a course it’s a good idea to be well briefed on Mainland urban culture, so that one doesn’t present as distinctively American something that the Chinese in fact do more, such as internet social networking stuff with cellphones (over my head). One place to start is the “China Beat” blog (qv). Also you might want to sign up for Kirk Denton’s MCLC list, if you haven’t already. I’ll send you a couple of things from there by email.

    One of the big differences between Chinese and American or Western culture has to do with the sources of the sense of security. Where Americans want protections for disagreement and difference, the Chinese want to see that everyone is committed to working together, committed to the community. One world, one dream, dammit.

    Another big difference, I think, is in the notion of privacy, which isn’t very familiar in China. A phenomenally good and very accessible book on that is “The Right to Privacy” by Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy. Its chapters are mutually independent. And it gives a wonderfully vivid view of the use of the legal system to settle matters of principle.

    I imagine the main thing the students will want from such a course is some cultural vocabulary. Bart Simpson, the Enterprise, Judge Judy, Oprah, etc. In fact I’d be tempted to build the whole curriculum from television. Or even just the Simpsons. I think there are Simpsons episodes dedicated to most of the topics you list.

    One could use television to sketch a history of the Recent Decades: 50s, 60s, etc.

    I would guess the Chinese students are familiar with many Hollywood movies and American music videos. I don’t know which – except for the Panda, which doesn’t count. They have their own YouTube and Google, called Baidu. Some lessons on classifying kinds of music might be nice.

    The students might be interested to see how transparently many of our TV shows and movies about aliens are really about Asian immigrants. Those eyes … and what was the name of the TV show a few years back with real alien immigrants, looking like humans with spots on their heads or something?

    I haven’t seen ANY zombie movies, but I’m guessing the point is the concept of the dangerously mindless crowd. That’s not an unfamiliar phenomenon in China though. There might be briefer texts that focus on the same topic, such as episodes of Twilight Zone or Outer Limits – though these tend to focus on xenophobic crowds rather than consuming masses. Maybe the YouTube video “Shoes” would serve, though it doesn’t involve a crowd.

    If Tsinghua has a way for students to get on-line access to the NY Times or at least Time Magazine, you might use that as your main curriculum, picking some articles yourself and rotating responsibility among students for picking others. Talk about what comes up.

    Tocqueville is available in an inexpensive bilingual edition.

    Gangs of New York looked and felt to me throughout like actors on a set. I assign the Autobiography of Malcolm X whenever I get a chance, but it is long.

  3. Bill Haines said, on September 29, 2008 at 1:19 am

    Stephen Lukes’ little Harper Torchbook on individualism is brief, clear, and rich.

    About half of all Americans believe that Noah put animals on a boat. I suppose one should cover that phenomenon, but no materials come to mind right away. I read the first volume of the Left Behind series: it’s very easy reading, but otherwise utterly devoid of literary merit in any dimension whatsoever. The Chinese students are likely to have read some of the Bible, though I don’t know what parts. Robert Duvall’s movie The Apostle is great, but it doesn’t get into doctrine at all.

    A bit of Carol Gilligan might be interesting (cf. PJ Ivanhoe’s essay in Li Chenyang, ed. “The Sage and the Second Sex”).

    Soul on Ice?

  4. Million said, on September 29, 2008 at 1:45 am

    Depending on what you want to cover, I’d suggest talking to Dr. Renoff about “the South.” Ya know. Since Southern History (especially culture) is his area of specialty. 🙂

    In all reality he’d be a great resource and I’m sure he would love to help.

    Whatever you do with the American West, I’d suggest tying that to the concept of the “Autonomous Self.” While we seem to have received that concept from Europe, there’s something to be said about the role it played in the U.S. Financial, social, and agrarian independence were par for the course until after the turn of the century.

    … plus you could bring up the example of the Marlborough Man. If they knew who he was. 🙂

  5. Chris said, on September 29, 2008 at 5:14 am

    Hey folks,

    THANKS for all these really great suggestions! I’m getting ready for work right now, so I’m pressed for time, but I just wanted to make sure I threw out a quick “thank you! Later tonight I’ll reply again with some questions and some more specific comments/questions about some of what you all have listed.

    Thanks again!

    Of course, that doesn’t mean to others that suggestions are “closed”. If anyone has more, please feel free to list them!

  6. Jonah said, on September 30, 2008 at 2:36 am

    “I think there are Simpsons episodes dedicated to most of the topics you list.”
    Best idea, ever!

    A nice movie for the American dream and immigrant experience is Avalon.

    Another interesting movie addressing identity of immigrants is called The Namesake.

  7. Bill Haines said, on September 30, 2008 at 5:12 am

    Here are some things that show American concerns:

    The Milgram Experiment (available as a film or brief article)
    Brief film: The Eye of the Storm (the brown-eyed and blue-eyed 3rd-graders)

    Colossus: The Forbin Project
    Gates of Heaven
    Hoop Dreams

  8. Chris said, on September 30, 2008 at 6:00 am

    Hey All,

    These are really great suggestions. I’ve copied these and put them with the others (I put a “call” up in a few locations). I have a mountain of stuff now!

    A few observations/questions/comments:

    1. The Simpsons came up in a number of places. I unfortunately know nothing at all about the show. I’m pretty into pop culture stuff, but for some reason I never got into the show. Still, I realize how iconic it is. Can anyone recommend a really good episode (or episodes) ? I can always get the DVD it is on and copy it.

    2. Race Stuff: I thought about “Invisible Man” too, but the length threw me off (600 pages – yikes!). “Do the Right Thing” is already on my list — but; I’m worried whether the urban language or the humor will translate. “Autobiography of Malcolm X” is a great idea — done!

    3. I liked “Gangs” but this may be due to my being from NY, so it had a special historical appeal for me. Otherwise, I tend to agree with Bill that it was a bit staged, I think. It’s also probably a bit too long (over 2 hrs, I think).

    4. “Christmas Story” actually made me think of the other iconic holiday movie: “It’s a Wonderful Life”. The latter, on thinking of it, seems really appealing to me, because it contains some cultural “clashes” within it; the protagonist wants to be an autonomous being, go out on his own, be a materialist, etc., but he keeps finding himself in the little town, working for his family company, with his old girlfriend, remaining faithful to his local community, and so on. It’s an interesting movie where “eastern” values (in a way) seem to get the upper hand but which are seen as fighting against a much larger (Western) foe of materialism and rugged individuality. You always get the impression that it (the anti-communal force) is not only in the town (Potter) but always right there, just outside of Bedford Falls, consuming the whole world.

    What do you think (plus it deals with Christmas, obviously)?

    5. I’ve never seen “Midnight Cowboy” or “Brother” — I’ll have to take a look.

    6. Good point about mainland urban culture, Bill – and for the materials. I’ll check this out. I was asking myself the same question, actually (is some of this reproduced there?) but obviously couldn’t answer the question.

    7. Bill — are you seeing the security and privacy issues as connected? I checked out the table of contents on that book online — it looks great! Any of those cases really stick out as particularly good reading (if you can remember)?

    8. A walk though TV shows of different generations would be interesting, for sure. “The Honeymooners” comes to mind for one, but there are clearer representations, I suppose (the Cleavers).

    9. I love the idea about using the NYT or Time as a regular reading/discussion source. Top of the list!

    10. Believe it or not (sometimes I can’t believe it), I’ve never read Tocqueville, but this might be a good time to do so. It might fit in the beginning of the course as a historical “frame”.

    11. The religion unit is tough. I have no good idea how to do it. The Noah beliefs certainly would need to be covered to give a good feel for religion in the US, but overall I’m not sure how to frame the unit, because I don’t want to be too biased in my approach, but yet put across both positive and negative aspects. One part I do think I want to do is expand that unit to include “secular v religious” to discuss two particular issues: (a) separation of church/state and (b) intelligent design/evolution (in the K-12 class).

    12. Million: the “autonomous self” section will indeed be early, right near the stuff you mention. And of course the Marlborough man will make an appearance. Maybe we can all smoke? 🙂

    13. Jonah: I haven’t seen either. I’ll have to take a peek and Bill to the last list I’ve only seen Hoop. Which makes me think: I need a “sports” section. Hoop dreams could go there, or in the “American Dream” section, or in the “Race” section as a commentary on the American Dream. Tough one.

    I’ve left some things out, but only because this reply would be endless otherwise.

    Thanks again folks, these suggestions are invaluable!

    If any more suggestions come up, please add them!

  9. Bill Haines said, on September 30, 2008 at 6:55 am

    Thanks for the fun question, Chris!

    1. I don’t know the names of episodes, and they blend together. There was one on Apu’s immigration … Just watch a pile of episodes, Chris! We’ve given you an entertainment program to fill your evenings for a month.

    4. I haven’t seen “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Maybe there’s a film that captures the true commercial meaning of Christmas better. Are you concerned that a Culture course has to talk about holidays? I think the two main holidays are Christmas and Halloween. Maybe there’s a good Halloween slasher movie.

    5. Do !!! Though I’m not sure I’d recommend either for the course. Cowboy may not be unChinese enough, and Brother – well it’s been a long time and I’m just not sure.
    7. I see the security and privacy issues as connected but meriting separate treatment. I’ve never taught the privacy book, and I don’t have a memory of particular chapters.

    8. That’s “Leave It to Beaver.”

    9. I’ve taught Ethics from the newspaper several times, from the intro to the graduate level. And I often use the newspaper as extra reading for other courses. No matter what you’re teaching in philosphy, there’s an article on it every day in the New York Times.

    Milgram: http://hk.youtube.com/watch?v=mYWYUpka1bw
    The Eye of the Storm: I saw this one in maybe junior high. It’s a documentary about a third-grade class who were told one day that brown-eyed people are better than blue-eyed people, and after a few days they were told the reverse. They took it to heart.
    Colossus: The Forbin Project – a mediocre movie from the late 60s or early 70s about a computer system designed to control nuclear weapons, given microphones and cameras that allowed it to watch everyone. Guess what? It took over. 1984 or Brazil would be more fun, but they’re British and don’t stress the machinery side.
    Gates of Heaven: This is a documentary about a real pet cemetery and the family that runs it.
    Jarhead: in the tradition of Full Metal Jacket, but with a different sort of conclusion that makes a very powerful visual commentary on American policy and on technology v. humanity generally.

  10. Keyser Soze said, on September 30, 2008 at 8:54 am

    I’d suggest 12 Angry Men.

  11. Alexus McLeod said, on September 30, 2008 at 9:03 am

    I think “It’s A Wonderful Life” is a great idea. Hadn’t thought of this one before, but I think this is definitely the one to use for the holiday section.

    Just one quick comment on some of the considerations raised by you and Bill. I’m not sure one would necessarily want to aim at portraying the “unchinesesness” of things American in a course such as this. It seems to me there’s a danger of making American culture seem TOO foreign by concentrating on the aspects that are most different from Chinese culture. Bill mentions online social networking and “Midnight Cowboy” as closer to Chinese culture than one might think, and I agree. But both are certainly also important representatives of American culture, and we should be careful to present the similarities as well as the differences, lest we perpetuate an “American culture is completely different than our own” view, not founded in fact. Of course, there is a danger of the opposite as well: selecting things which minimize difference– see many comparative philosophy works for examples of this 🙂 . But perhaps the selection methodology should be to choose things most representative of American culture, whether they’re similar to Chinese culture or not. This would seem to avoid both traps.

  12. Chris said, on September 30, 2008 at 10:30 am


    I think there’s something to what you both say. I’ve never taught culture before, so some of these issues are new to me.

    Intuitively, I think when people sign up for an “X culture” class, they are likely thinking of learning of those things that are distinctly X. But at the same time, it may very well be that some cultural underpinnings are shared, but perhaps are exemplified in somewhat different fashions.

    Like: Bill mentions social networking. I wonder whether the Chinese interact with technology in these ways the same as Americans do (I believe some studies have been done on this actually, suggesting that we should not see similar usage in various media as “the same” since these platforms will be interacted with and “assimilated” differently).

    As well, clearly “race” is not an American issue, but black racism of the type we have is. No doubt, the Chinese have their own racism issues.

    But this is one of the interesting things: you can cover such units and then ask how these things play out for the Chinese, if they do at all. I would guess that consumerism, for one, is a more or less newer phenomena there, so that unit could be seen as a “here’s where you might be in X years” cautionary tale. I’m not sure.

    Surely you don’t want to just make both cultures the same, or even reduce it to “hey, we all do that”. Then it sounds like Jijuan Yu — everything Confucius says or does is really just Aristotelian (even if A comes after C, oddly), but in Mandarin (or whatever the language was then).

    Similarly, you don’t want to turn either side into the distinct “other” that is so different that it is difficult to draw any meaningful similarities or underlying “human” currents, say.

    I’m sure that this phenomenon exists in Chinese philosophy too — as a matter of fact I’m sure I’ve read some of it.

    In general, then, I’d agree with Alexus’ closing remark — pick what seems American, and go from there. If there’s overlap, the overlap will have cultural “refinement” on top of it that makes for a good comparative-based conversation.

  13. Chris said, on September 30, 2008 at 10:30 am


    Great film (not sure which one you mean, though — the original or the remake?)! Thanks!

  14. Keyser Soze said, on September 30, 2008 at 10:50 am

    I meant the original version with Henry Fonda.

  15. Bill Haines said, on September 30, 2008 at 8:37 pm

    Alexus, I agree that the aim shouldn’t be to present the unchineseness of things American, but I think the aim should be to present the unchinese American things. The things that are distinctively American, the things that the students would be most broadened by exposure to.

    And secondarily, the things if any that are solidly American but that the students wouldn’t expect to be solidly American. Maybe Cowboy falls in that category, but I don’t know. The mainland mainstream media used to highlight the sadder & seedier side of American society (maybe you know the language textbook based on such a series of articles in the People’s Daily), but whether it still does I don’t know. Film is certainly more effective.

    Bowling for Columbine?

    A Studs Terkel book?

    Another possibility is an advice column, the kind people write in to. Maybe even Randy Cohen’s ethics advice column in the NYT Sunday Magazine. His answers aren’t great, but the questions might be illuminating. He has published one or two collections, or one could make one’s own selection from the on-line archive and save the students some money.

    Oh, here I have a little book I bought from a branch of a mainland chain bookstore: Xinhua Book City. It gives the complete screenplay of Gone With the Wind in English and Chinese (parallel columns), and in the back is a DVD of the movie itself, with English supertitles and optional Chinese and English subtitles. Video quality is good enough; supertitles and subtitles are very clear. I bought the book to get the movie, which I’ve never seen. Cost me about $2.25, which is a hair cheaper than a cheap VCD of a crummy movie here.

    The back flap of the book lists these other available films:
    Rear Window
    Roman Holiday
    The Philadelphia Story
    It Happened One Night
    Brief Encounter
    Waterloo Bridge

    Maybe others are available from other companies.

    I’m having trouble with the publisher’s web site, and my email was bounced back, but here’s the url:

  16. Bill Haines said, on September 30, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    … It’s a mainland publisher, headquartered in Beijing.

    Another film about the immigrant experience: House of Sand and Fog.

  17. Chris said, on September 30, 2008 at 8:44 pm


    Quick tangential question: how many hours a week does a standard class meet at HKU?

  18. Bill Haines said, on September 30, 2008 at 10:55 pm


  19. Justsomeguy said, on October 1, 2008 at 7:24 am

    One thing to consider with issues like the Culture War would be excepts from books like “Nickled and Dimed” and “Traitor”. Or maybe contrasting “Traitor” with some Michael Moore stuff. Or clips from pundit talking-head news programs. That sort of in-your-face dialogue is pretty different than the sort of political conversation that happens on the Mainland.

    It is something that many of my co-workers simply marvel at.

  20. Chris said, on October 2, 2008 at 1:13 pm


    Thanks! I like both ideas!

    I especially like idea #2. Even more than the talking heads, I can’t imagine that a political figure would ever be satirized on the analogous version of “Saturday Night Live”. That must be a pretty shocking thing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: