Celebration time! We’ve worked hard during the last four weeks, and now it’s time to honor our accomplishments.Tonight, our Changsha university is hosting a dinner for all of us – instructor-students, student-instructors, and grad student guides – at an awe-inspiring hotel complex. The architecture is traditional Chinese, and the interior of the restaurant is luxurious.
Once we’re all seated at two huge tables, Dr. Zhang, the university VP, proposes a toast and the food begins to arrive. Dish after dish is served onto the enormous lazy susan at the centre of the table so that we can help ourselves whenever we want. The room begins to buzz with talking and laughter. Throughout the meal, people get up and circulate around the room, chatting in small groups. I’m tapped on the shoulder frequently to join in toasts and pose for pictures.
One of my favorite conversations of the evening is with a student who had surprised me during the first day introductions with his BBC-accented English. He tells me that he appreciated learning new techniques to try with his own students. “But most of all,” he says, “when I get back to my classroom, I’m going to be less authoritarian and more of a friend. That’s important, I think.”
Two hours later, after the food is mostly gone and our wine glasses are empty, we all head back to the hotel. We want to make sure we’re refreshed for the next day’s official graduation ceremony.
In a reprise of our first day with the students, Walter and I are greeted by applause when we walk into the classroom in our graduation day formal attire. And then it’s the students’ turn to be honored, with University of Alberta citation certificates and Canada flag lapel pins. It’s a joyful time, but a sad one too as we realize we’re enjoying our last time together before we say goodbye.
Then, it’s time for the exchange of gifts. Walter presents Dr. Zhang with a U of A golden bear. In return, we’re each given a paper cutting that features the crest of the National University of Defense Technology; two group photographs taken previously in the week; and a generous supply of Hunan tea. We shake hands, and Dr. Zhang turns to the students to give his final address.
“When I visited this classroom,” he says, as the room falls silent, “I saw joy. This has not been the Chinese way in education. So, I want each of you to help your students to enjoy learning in the ways that you have experienced it during this program. This is how we will change what it means to learn in China.”
Dr. Zhang told me during our first meeting that learning in China was more about suffering than enjoyment. Will the professors be able to shift that dynamic when they return to their classrooms? When I go home to Canada, some of my favorite memories will be of the times we learned and laughed together.I can only hope that similar memories will sustain these professors as they push against ancient teaching and learning traditions in the years to come.