After five minutes of practice, my students at the University of Iowa joined their first ever "chopsticks contest".
As my teaching assistant, Huang Guannan, kept the time with her cell phone, the four members of the first group ran around the desk, trying to transfer as many wadded up tissue-paper balls as possible from one plate to another. The sticks kept falling, but they managed a dozen.
The second group of five pushed against one another at first but soon gained order. The final group, comprising three tall young men, stood still, reaching toward the plate with their arms, to which I shouted: "Stop! This is unfair to the others!"
So they ran around the desk, with such efficiency that they won the contest.
Last November, when I was given the mission of giving six lectures about Chinese culture in Iowa, I imagined my students to be Americans with little knowledge of China.
During my first lecture in mid-April, however, a mini-UN was awaiting. A girl from Denmark sat by a South Korean girl and a Chinese girl. Two African-Americans always laughed at my worst jokes.
Even among the local Iowans, three have been learning Chinese, one of whom has taught English in China.
For this international class, the "chop-con" was an ice-breaker. We laughed at the meaning of green hats in China (cuckolded) and why one should never plant chopsticks in a bowl of rice to offer to a guest.
I showed them a slide of a lonely little box with a frowning face. "We all live in an invisible cultural box, which keeps us comfortable but limits our vision. I hope that my lecture can help you see the box and even open it to see the outside world," I said.
Over time, I discovered that I actually learned more from my students than they did from me.
My predecessors from China Daily talked about issues ranging from the May Fourth Movement to the latest fashions. I prepared hundreds of slides to help my students understand some essential Chinese values, as shown in film adaptations of literary works.
When talking about Outlaws of the Marsh, I was afraid that the historical context would confuse the students, who came from such diverse fields as health, environment, chemistry, astronomy and international politics. So I put in pictures from Kungfu Panda to show the spirit of wuxia (chivalrous kungfu) is deep-rooted in China.
Surprisingly, several students compared Outlaws to the legend of Robin Hood in their written assignment. Not only did they appear around the same time but also they both praise the rebels, who rose against cruel rulers to help the poor, my students said.
I also asked them to write a Hotpot related to China. To accomplish this, one girl went to a Chinese hotpot restaurant with her boyfriend and mother. She did a great job and provided amusing details.
An Iowan student wrote that he never dared to practice Chinese in public. At his Chinese buddy's birthday, they went to a Chinese restaurant, and he ordered in Chinese. The waitress just looked at him blankly. He thought his Chinese was awful.
Finally, the waitress said: "Sorry, I'm Korean."
After being away from university for some 14 years, I had little idea about what class rules would get the students in an uproar. Luckily, my students were all understanding and offered great help as I fumbled around with the university's online education system.
For the final exam, a friendly professor gave me some "blue exam books" - similar to the exercise books used in Chinese primary schools - so my students could write their answers.
Most of the students wrote that they liked the modern film Getting Home the best. It talks about a farmer carrying his friend's body home despite all sorts of troubles.
"American soldiers would do the same on the battlefront for their buddies," one student said.
(China Daily 07/07/2011 page20)