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Reveling in the spirit of politics as usual

Lack of experience? Playing the race or gender card? Pregnant teenage daughters? Sometimes the political stage resembles more of a soap opera than an exemplary part of the democracy America was founded upon. As new allegations are thrown from deep inside each party's base, the most popular defense results in either Barack Obama or John McCain claiming his opponent is playing "politics as usual." In fact, so many criticisms have been fired in the past few months that many Americans simply dismiss each side's tactics with a resounding (and in my opinion, heartbreaking) "who cares?"

On Nov. 4, America will elect a new president and I will have completed my 16th month of service in the People's Republic of China as a Peace Corps volunteer. For the past year, I have taught Chinese university students English language and literature and have been submerged in almost every aspect of Chinese culture. I have studied the language, traveled far and wide, attended the Olympics and blogged about my trials and triumphs as a foreigner living and working in the Middle Kingdom. And yet, the most exciting moment of my day is entering one of the small Internet cafes and reading the latest condemnations from the campaign trails.

Why? As an educator, I've noticed something very odd about how my Chinese students face criticism -- they divert almost all eye contact and grow completely silent. Having been educated at a Western New York high school and university, I learned the importance of critical thinking skills, the value of individualism, the weight of exercising my freedom of expression and the significance of recognizing and battling injustice wherever it surfaces.

These skills are neglected by the Chinese education system for a variety of reasons, mostly political, and thus even playing Devil's Advocate in my class results in a roadblock. To criticize someone in China results in what the Chinese call diu lian -- losing face. Plus, society runs on guanxi, or relationships, and a break in guanxi could result in alienation and thus, inevitable failure. All in all, it's best to keep your mouth shut.

Last semester, I gave my students their first dose of American politics with a lecture on the then three candidates for president: McCain, Obama and Hillary Clinton. I played various video clips from debates where Clinton and Obama battled, raising fingers, voices and eyebrows at each other. Another showed McCain reprimanding a reporter.

The clips showed a wide range of emotions, and the crowd of 200 students stared, bright eyed, at the screen in silence. But the mood slowly began to evolve into laughter and excitement. When Obama stabbed Clinton with an accusation, the debate crowd roared, giving my audience the green light to roar along. This, I dare to say, was the students' first taste of real politics, as opposed to the countless political classes that are mandated at the university level in China.

I had no political agenda while delivering the lecture, but when it ended, students had very opinionated, diverse views on who they thought should be the next president. And they openly argued with each other about it. I never thought the endless contemptuous diatribes that float around American politics would be my saving grace in a compliant China.

America might seem like a war between red and blue states, and Americans might get sick of the endless belittling and tactful banter. We might all want to end partisan politics, but this exemplified criticism is what makes America free, and ultimately, great. Politics as usual? Sure, and I love it.

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