On Tuesday night I judged a speech contest (so this is what they call "service") -- and it was ATROCIOUS. Two rounds (majors and non-majors). 2 minute speeches (you would not believe how long these can feel). There were basically 3 kinds of speakers: 1 (probably 50 of the 60ish): mumbling, no eye contact, no movement of any kind unless it is nervous twitching, forgets speech and stands for 20 or more seconds in silence (in bad cases, multiple times), unable to improvise a single thing about "my college life," i write in my notebook, "coll. life. no e.c. accent ok. forgot speech. WHY THE HELL AM I HERE??!!!" [at the same time, i have a lot of sympathy for this, because of course i know what it's like to choke. but to stand and do NOTHING?? after tens of students did this, i began to wish we were all dead]. 2: very scripted, very rehearsed, robotically and manically miming coordinated hand gestures (e.g. when saying the number 1, hold up 1 finger. 2 fingers for 2. hand over eyes when indicating seeing really far. the worst, though, was one student who repeatedly gestured to the right and to the left... to the right and to the left... over and over and over through his whole speech, which i found so hilarious that i had to keep my head down to keep from bursting out laughing (at some point could not hold it in anymore and had to have a fit of coughing). he won 3rd place). 3 (2 people): spoke naturally, had a little personality and a point. took 1st and 2nd place, obviously. the English majors were hardly any better.
Today language class was without a classroom because the university had decided to switch classrooms mid-semester without telling me or my students. I explained what Thanksgiving was and asked students to tell me what they were thankful for. Everyone said, "my parents" until I began to feel there was no point in asking them questions individually. Besides, what could trump parents in a Confucian society? Then I took a small group to the museum of contemporary art, where there was only one tiny exhibit open. It was hot and raining at the same time. There were too many (14 -- I try to take them in groups of 5 or less usually) to have a proper conversation, and no one wanted to talk to me anyway. One of my students had to leave for his job -- frying chicken for six hours every night.
I see my students have hard lives. I see that they are 18 and have white hairs. I see that the passivity has been drilled into them, and that they are so frightened of saying the "wrong" thing that they don't even let themselves think. Sometimes I think I can give them something they've never had before (that is, an imperative to be creative and to question their lives) -- but the reality is that they don't even notice.