Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Faster Pussycat! To the Library

One of the burning issues consuming the Chinese public at the moment is a public debate over whether or not to recycle school textbooks.
About five or so provinces have tried to start a textbook recycling campaigns for the new semester that aims to reduce paper use and raise students' awareness of natural resources preservation.

According to the State media if all the textbooks in China were reused for five years, the country could save an estimated 225 billion yuan (31 billion US dollars) not to mention saving countless trees that otherwise would have needlessly died doing their part in spreading the word that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.

But reaction, as they say, has been mixed – in some accounts downright hostile. Cited most often are “health concerns.” (Notably absent in the stories is the fact that the entire publishing industry in China is state subsidized and if “new” school books weren’t pumped out annually the industry would take a serious hit.)

This quote is typical: "Recycled books may carry harmful germs from previous users," contended a father in southeastern Fuzhou City. "I prefer to pay for the new textbooks since they are not that expensive."

I know. I know. This from a country – despite its pending Olympic gloss and glory – still largely synonymous in many foreign minds with terms such as “SARS,” “bird flu,” “toxic pet food/dumplings,” “public spitting,” and “filthiest public toilets in the Third World.”

I wondered if this concerned father had, say, considered the school library or, even better, the actual cash he prefers to spend on hygienic textbooks. Pull it from your wallet, sir. Look at that wrinkled, smudged 20 or 10 or 100 yuan note. Consider how many fingers have handled it before you and where those digits were inserted before the money was passed to you … Now compare that to one schoolbook probably reluctantly opened and thumbed through by a single student as few times as possible.

What was the last school textbook transmitted disease anyway?

As someone who grew up with used textbooks from first grade through university the brouhaha is virtually incomprehensible to me. There was even a remote sense of archeological discovery where some of the previous owners had signed their names.

“The same book as Julie Worley’s older sister? Her fair hands actually touched these same pages! I will never wash mine again…”
“Rick Daily had this? He can read?”

I tried asking some Chinese colleagues about the issue and it was clear as one put it that it is also a “cultural issue.”
“We don’t like anything old or used,” he explained. “It means we are poor.”

“Yeah, maybe, I can sort of see that though it doesn’t bother me,” I said, absently mindedly fingering the 2-year-old patch on my 8-year-old jeans and wondering how I was going to make it the end of the month on 800 yuan. “What about the idea that it’s what’s inside the book is more important than what it looks like on the outside?”

Another Chinese coworker laughed. “If you could read what is inside our textbooks, perhaps you would agree that a pretty cover has more value.”


John said...

or textbooks in New York City, where the last president on the "roll call of presidents" is James Garfield!

Matthew said...

Do other Asian countries recycle textbooks? I know most have a similar view about having second-hand things around.

That last bit about your conversation is fantastic. Makes me want to go buy a Chinese textbook and learn to read.