An American in China with Professor Ben Grams

If you’re a twenty-something living in the Northland, chances are you know somebody with a four year degree or even a Masters working as a waitress or gas station attendant. Every once in awhile though, the Job Gods let someone slip through the gate. It’s good to know that some people can graduate from college and actually get a job! Even if one has to travel across the world to fill the position. Literally. Ben has been in China for about two years teaching Chinese college students. Also, he was the Duluth News Tribune Player of the Year for Baseball in 2002. NBD.

Reader: What’s the most noticeable difference in Chinese/US culture beside language?
BG: The first thing that comes to mind is the public nature of their culture. They spend a lot of time outside of their homes, in the streets. Things like group dancing at night. They utilize their public spaces and public transportation. There’s more people out and about. There’s a unique street life. People walking around, people riding bicycles.

Reader: Describe your job a little and why you’ve been in China the past two years.
BG: I went over there to teach after I graduated from law school. Right now i’m teaching applied ethics, media law and ethics. Interpersonal communication. The faculty of the college comes from all over the world, but almost every student at the college is from either Mainland China or Hong-Kong. The Chinese study English early on, so a lot of them speak English very well. By the time I finished school I kind of knew I didn’t want to be an attorney. I wanted to teach. I had a professor at Scholastica who was over there teaching and he recommended me and I got the job.

Reader: How are the colleges in China? How does their educational system compare to ours?
BG: I work at a small liberal arts college. It’s a progressive thing for China. They’re trying to model it after a western liberal arts college. Our curriculum is very different from most Chinese Universities. Our university is much smaller. A typical Chinese university would have more than 20,000 students. We have about 4,500. Their secondary education is very focused on preparing for a test called the Gaoko. It’s a sort of placement exam and it is extremely important as far as what colleges those students go to. Our college  is trying to offer an alternative to that system.

Reader: How are Americans viewed in China?
BG: There’s not one specific view of Americans. In my experience it’s been very positive. As a foreigner you receive a certain amount of special treatment. Some people hold a little resentment towards Americans and their special treatment. Westerners get paid a lot more than your average Chinese person. $500 a month is good money for the Chinese. The TAs at school make less than $1000 a month. Overall experience has been very good. People are always smiling and helpful. People compliment me on my Chinese, even though i’m terrible.

Reader: As one of the primary stockholders of our national debt, China plays a big role as a sort-of arbiter in our current economic turmoil. In other words, their model of productivity, saving and living within their means has well surpassed that of the US. In other words, China is on the up and up. What are they doing that we’re not?

BG: People pay for everything in cash. People carry a lot of money in their pockets. Businesses prefer cash. People pay cash for big things. People save their money. They save a significant amount of their income every month. They live frugally and don’t use credit nearly as often as Americans.

Reader: What’s your favorite thing about living in China?
BG: China sometimes feels like a free-for-all, Wild, Wild West situation. I ride a motorcycle even though I’m not officially sanctioned by law. I (and almost every other motorcycle driver I know) drive down the wrong side of the road against traffic fairly regularly. I drive by a police officer and they don’t even care. Other than internet stuff, sometimes I feel more free in China than I do in America. Food is really cheap and good. You can go out with friends every single night if you want to. I bought dinner and drinks for 7 of us and it added up to about $40. Other than that, the whole experience has been enlightening. The people, the scenery, the buildings, everything is different and it forces me to pay attention. Things are always new and interesting. I love riding my motorcycle to work everyday, November - March included.

Reader: How’s the nightlife? Music? Trying to talk to people?
BG: Live music kind of sucks. If anyone from Duluth wanted to move to China and play bars, they’d make a killing. There are clubs that are pretty hilarious. If you’re with a group of foreigners, you get the special treatment. Sometimes a random bottle of Johnny Walker shows up on the table. They’re pleased to have foreigners. It get’s pretty ridiculous.