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Teaching and Learning in China

The 6-foot-five-inch tall visiting American physics professor is hard to miss as he towers over the Chinese men and women in the tai chi class that met each day at 6 a.m. in the park.  The ancient Chinese martial art is a graceful form of exercise practiced for health and meditation benefits, as well as originally for self-defense training.

“I was sore for the next few days,” admitted LETU physics professor Dr. Steve Ball, who spent two months this summer teaching physics and calculus at Jilin Normal University, LETU’s sister school in the city of Siping in northeast China, as part of a faculty exchange program. “Their physical flexibility is phenomenal!” Ball, an avid runner, said he was encouraged to try tai chi after the dean saw him running for exercise in the morning. 

Tai chi was only one of the new things Ball tried while he was in China.  He traveled extensively on high-speed “bullet” trains, ate authentic Chinese foods, met and was photographed with dozens of Chinese people and talked to many strangers, many of whom were excited to talk in English with an American.

“The Chinese people love to practice their English-speaking skills wherever they find you,” Ball said.  He noted that when visiting the city of Harbin to the northeast, he saw street signs in Chinese, Russian and English. 

He flew in and out of Shanghai, the cosmopolitan center of commerce for China where he saw many Westerners.  Ball said the international feel of Shanghai was “like a whole different world” from the areas he visited in northeast China. 

Ball traveled in every direction from the university, seeing the Shenyang Palace to the west, Changchun Palace to the east, Harbin to the northeast, Hangzhou to the southwest, Fengcheng to the south near the easternmost edge of the Great Wall of China and Dandong, further to the south, where he toured the Yalu River that is the border of North Korea and Northeast China.  

He also visited the English Language Institute in Fengcheng where LETU biology professor Greg Frederick founded and worked at the institute for 10 years.  The current Chinese director of that institute, Gillian Yu, gave Ball a tour of the area. 

“I was greatly in debt to her, because she took the time to show me the whole area,” Ball said.  “In general, all the people I met in China were very gracious and hospitable, especially Dr. Amy Wang, who came to LETU two years ago and taught linear algebra at LETU in Longview. 

“Amy showed me around the Changchung area.  I never had to go anywhere alone. I always had a gracious tour guide. I probably wouldn’t have traveled to these places by myself but had these invitations and I took them up on it.”

Ball had never visited China before but had a dear friend from China, James Liu, during his graduate school days 30 years ago at the University of Kansas.  One of the attractions to Ball when considering teaching in China was the opportunity to visit James and his wife, Amanda.

Ball said in graduate school, he and Liu were both being considered to join the high energy physics group in Germany at that time, and Liu was chosen, while Ball was selected to go to Chicago to work at the Fermi Lab.  But then Liu came to him and asked him to trade and go to Germany because Amanda was coming from China to the U.S. that summer, and he didn’t want to be in Germany when she arrived.  Ball has always appreciated that he had the opportunity to do the internship in Germany where he did his doctoral research.

Ball returned to the U.S. to finish up his PHD, then went back to Germany for two more years to do post-doctoral research on b-quark physics.

“That made a huge difference in my career trajectory, for sure,” Ball said.  “I ended staying in Germany working at the Max Planck Institute for two years after completing my Ph.D., and I greatly value that experience.” 

One thought-provoking experience Ball had on one of his travels was seeing a Korean War memorial to honor the tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers who fought and died supporting North Korea during the Korean War in the 1950s.  Gillian Yu, the current director of the English Language Institute led that tour.

“My father fought in support of South Korea during the Korean War,” Ball said.  “Her grandfather fought on the North Korean side, and here I am today visiting as an honored guest in China.”

He said no one treated him with any disrespect, but that his guide pointed out a pedestrian bridge that used to connect China to North Korea, before the United States bombed it during the Korean War.  The pedestrian bridge, still standing, only goes halfway across the Yalu River.   

Ball taught all his classes in English, without a translator, he said.  “It was difficult, at first, for them to understand me, and many of them were too timid to speak to me in English,” he said. “I changed my teaching style to speak to each of the students individually.  That gave them confidence and, by the time the eight-week courses were over, they were presenting in English.  It was amazing how quickly their English language confidence grew.”

Ball said he started each of his classes in China with a story, often relating to his personal faith in God, sometimes about the connections between physics, creation and the nature of God. “I left China with an overpowering sense of fulfillment because of the way those students seemed to appreciate so much that I had come there,” Ball said.  “They knew it was special.”