The Rhythm of China

At my recent book launch, I was asked what, after all these years of traveling to China, do I first notice when I arrive there. That stopped me for a bit. But then it became clear to me. As soon as I’ve checked into my lodging, I head for the streets–whether in Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, Xi’an, or farther flung places. Day or night, I walk for blocks and blocks.

Beijingers enjoying a sunny day

Adjusting my pace to China’s, I slow my quick, tense American stride. I move with the flow of pedestrians, look in shop windows, navigate intersections, and listen. Stores selling CDs and DVDs pipe loud music into the streets—sounding to me like romantic modern pop. Vendors peddle by calling their ancient cries of services rendered.

In late evening, my favorite time, pedestrians gather around sidewalk grills and small restaurants for meat on skewers or noodles salted with red-hot sauce, squinting through the smoke of the grill or squatting at the edge of the sidewalk relishing the noodles and chatting. But most of all, I soak up the sound of thousands of people talking to each other in Chinese. As I walk, the river of sound, rising and falling in cadences so different from English or Spanish, captivates me and carries me along. It pulls me away from the long flight and hectic trip preparations and draws me into China.

Finally saturated, I head back to my room to hook up my computer, call friends and colleagues to let them know I’ve arrived, and get ready for days of meetings, interviews, and classroom visits. But those first hours of walking have gotten me ready.

Endorsement from Karen Worth

1990 First Grade Class, ChinaA recent endorsement from Karen Worth, an internationally known science educator at Wheelock College in the Department of Elementary Education.  She is planning to use the Educating Young Giants: What Kids Learn (And Don’t Learn) in China and America in courses for beginning teachers.

“This is quite a remarkable book that should be required reading for students preparing to become teachers, for practicing teachers, and also for educational leaders and policy makers engaged in educational reform. The author, Nancy Pine, brings her extensive experiences in education in the US and China to the comparison of teaching and learning in these two countries. But this is not a standard academic study or a simple contrast and therein lies its strength. Nancy is a skillful writer and has used detailed colorful descriptions of her many observations of classrooms and conversations with educators to allow us to see what she saw and hear what she heard. In a strikingly unbiased and non-judgmental way, she reflects on these stories drawing from the literature and her deep knowledge of the history and cultures of both countries to deepen her own understanding and enrich ours.”

Exam Pressure and Ancient Traditions

Junior high school schedule, 7:40 to 5:00 pm

Zheng-Zheng and his friend bent over their first grade homework at the small table in the family apartment, fingers pressed against pencils as they meticulously made each line in the day’s new characters. Their concentration was absolute as they repeated the intricate patterns over and over again placing them neatly into squares on their paper. When they finished they moved on to practice the lesson in their Chinese reading texts until they knew it confidently, and finally moved on to math. When they finished everything, Zheng-Zheng’s sixth birthday party with long noodles could begin.

Continue reading

What’s It Like to Be an Ancient Civilization?

As usual, my feisty preschool collaborator, Huang Ren Song, startled me as she tried to stuff some Chinese history into my head. She’d been talking about how massive the recent changes in China really are, like the introduction of public universities.

Terracotta Warrior, Xi'an

Somewhat exasperated at my ignorance, she finally said, “We’ve had 2000 years of a feudal system that said, ‘OBEY.’ Now we change a little bit.” We both laughed, but I knew she was making a serious point and it would take me a long time to process it.

I just can’t get it into my American head that a country can be so old. I know there are many countries and civilizations whose written histories date back thousands of years, but having been raised in a world where my U.S. history books began with the Jamestown and Mayflower, I have—from Huang Ren Song’s perspective—a pretty warped and limited view of the world.

Continue reading

Illiteracy Strikes

I must have slept, but well before dawn I was dressed and peering down at the awakening street from my room at the Foreign Language Institute on the northern outskirts of Shanghai. The soft yellow light of a small shop across the street warmed the morning darkness; a lone truck rolled by, its tires hissing against wet pavement. A man and woman wrapped in dark-blue padded trousers and jackets moved boxes from

Shop workers in the early morning light

It was my first trip to China, twenty years ago. Another mid-career graduate student and I had arrived in Shanghai near midnight from Los Angeles. Met by friends of our Ph.D. advisor we had been taken to this hotel to get some sleep before traveling on to Nanjing by train.



Continue reading


A year before the Beijing Olympics an article in China Daily, China’s English language newspaper, described a war in Beijing against “baffling English translations” sometimes referred to as “Chinglish.” Some of them are, indeed, amusing to monolingual English speakers or possibly to those fluent in both English and Chinese. For example, one quoted in the article, translates a sign warning about a slippery walkway as “Slip carefully.”

Some English speakers have lamented that corrections are being made. One American living in Shanghai said they “take away one of the joys of China.” The signs, however, are often an embarrassment to Chinese fluent in English. A Chinese foreign language consultant said, “We don’t want anyone laughing at us.” He emphasized that correction of the signs was to help foreigners. The English certainly wasn’t meant to benefit Chinese.

Continue reading

China – A Mind Bending Experience

I’m an educator and curious person who has been traveling to China since the cold winter of 1989-90. That was an amazing trip, launched by my Ph.D. advisor and the Nanjing University English Department in China. I had just studied Spanish for 10 years, and China was not at the top of my travel and exploration desires. But I’ve been returning regularly ever since.

Continue reading