Issues Become Real For VLS Family in China

Front Page / Jul. 15, 2010 1:47pm EDT

By Mary Margaret Breed

“We can’t ask China to improve its production behavior unless the U.S. is willing to change its consumer behavior,” said Professor Jason Czarnezki of Vermont Law School, who returned in late June with his partner, sociologist Andrea Voyer, and their young daughters Lauretta and Hazel from a 10-month residency in China.

Visiting under a Fulbright scholars program, the family settled in China’s Guangdong Province at Sun Yat-Sen University, with which VLS has a partnership on environmental issues.

The parents taught while the children attended Chinese kindergarten and Lauretta became “near fluent” in Mandarin, according to her teachers.

Czarnezki taught an introduction to the American legal system and American environmental law; Voyer taught cultural sociology.

The family makes its Vermont home in Montpelier, where Lauretta will begin American kindergarten and Hazel will be in a Montessori preschool

Home to 1.3 billion people, China is developing its economy and bringing its people out of poverty “faster than any country at any time in recorded history,” Czarnezki said. Much of that accomplishment is taking place in Guangdong Province, source of the bulk of inexpensive plastic goods currently available to Americans.

A side effect for Guangdong Province, home of 10-14 million Chinese, is a “terrible haze” of air pollution and respiratory vulnerability for people who live there, including the children in this visiting family.

“Both girls had multiple episodes of respiratory problems, and we all had coughs. Hazel had to be hospitalized and treated intravenously for pneumonia, and was close to being medivaced to Hong Kong. The kids had four or five courses of antibiotics in 10 months, as opposed to zero in their previous lives,” Czarnezki said.

Chinese Kindergarten

Yet most aspects of their lives in China they intensely cherished and now greatly miss.

“The kindergarten teachers had perhaps 50 words of English, at most, so our children learned Mandarin. And, while the class size was 35 to 40, each class had three to four teachers, all of whom are required to have expertise in art, music, and/or dance. Each day starts with choreographed movement to music. The level of physical activity is phenomenal.”

“It’s more structured. Rather than just say, ‘create’, art class says ‘today we will learn to draw a fish. Here’s how.’ Many logic and patterning games teach critical thinking, including, in some cases, a whole extra day of such games.”

The family is thrilled to be home to “the greenness of Vermont, where you can see for distances through the clear air.” But all four miss their Chinese friends.

“And we feel completely cut off. If you came back from Europe you could stay in touch but few of our Chinese friends have access to email or affordable telephone service.”

"Almost Embarrassed"

Although when the family moved from Milwaukee to Vermont a few years ago they decided to downsize with fewer possessions and a house from which they could walk downtown, after living in China, “we are almost embarrassed at the amount of stuff we have—things we were without for a year and never missed. The size of our washing machine, the expanse of our yard, our simple three-bedroom house seem unimaginable luxuries.

In their Chinese apartment they cooked on a burner and had a dorm-sized refrigerator but no oven and no hot water in the kitchen.

“The counters were two feet high—we had the girls wash the dishes!” Czarnezki recalled.

American expatriates in China warned the family that in the U.S. few would be interested in the environmental messages they brought back.

“But that isn’t the case. We find people are very interested in our experiences. And many Vermonters live very intentionally and choose quality of life over money, conservation over spending. We know many people, whether or not they have a lot of formal education, who are involved and engaged in world issues.”

On his return to VLS, Czarnezki will return to teaching natural resources law, property law and environmental policy. He plans to stay active in the law school’s China program.

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