When I reached my door in Nanjing, I pushed the button on my stopwatch and looked at the time: 28 hours and 37 minutes. That’s door to door timing from my home in New York to my new home in Nanjing. I used my electronic key to open the door. As I pushed in my bags with my feet, I felt around for the light switch. I found it and flicked it, but there was no response. I went in a bit further to the pitch black room and felt around for more lights, but with every flick there was still darkness. I opened my curtains and brightened my room with the city glow. Then instinctively, I began feeling around my bag; I knew what I needed.
Before I left for China, there was a running joke in my family that no one really quite knew what I was getting myself into. For my family, China seemed like such a far and different world that even in a city I would need basic tools, a headlamp, for example. So, that night when my power was obviously out, I thanked the moment that along with safety blankets, first aid kits, and water expanding towels, my mother also gave me a headlamp. After searching for a few minutes, I found the headlamp, turned it on, and began unpacking.
After a day I was able to get my power fixed and I put away the headlamp, but in many ways my mother was right: I needed tools to survive in Nanjing. For me, the most challenging yet simultaneously rewarding tool has been Mandarin. I’ve studied Mandarin for five years and while I feel confident in my language abilities, there are still so many times when I am completely stumped. The most important thing I’ve learned about language here is that only a small part of understanding someone has to do with what is actually being said. So much of comprehension relies on context, tone, and physical gestures. For instance, it’s a rare occasion that you walk into a store and a clerk starts talking to you about endangered blackface spoonbills. It’s much more likely that an employee will ask you what you want. The location and social queues of a situation tell me most of what the person I’m talking to is saying. As I struggle in the streets to buy food and find my way around, my language learning strongly reflects process my students at Nandafuzhong face in my classes.
Recently, I’ve been questioning my role as an Oral English teacher in China. After many frustrating classes, I began asking myself again, “What do I want my students to accomplish this semester?” Only seeing my students once a week, and often only two or three times a month, makes progress and tracking difficult. There is a general sentiment among the NDFZ faculty that my classes should be fun. I struggle to balance being fun, with creating progress, and the schedule I’m given. Almost halfway into the year, I’ve realized that I can do it all; I just have to change my goals. Rather than teaching my own vocabulary units, I’ve found that my time is better spent giving students a feel for the English language and giving them the best opportunities to practice speaking. There is no easy way to teach experiencing a language, but I can help by having students focus on the value of context, intonation, and physical gestures—the same things that I’ve come to notice most while communicating in a foreign language. If my students walk away with a better understanding of how these aspects function in the English language, I think I will have showed them the proper tools to speak in a real life situation, and we can have fun along the way too.
Getting to know NDFZ has been quite an adventure in itself. Part of it is learning about education in China. The head of the junior students, Zhou Laoshi, recently told me, “We learn together.” What she means is that, the Chinese teachers and students learn from the foreign teachers, and the foreign teachers learn from the entire NDFZ community. There is a lot of learning going on in and outside of the classroom. I knew that the Chinese style of teaching was very different than the American style, but I did not realize to what extent. It is hard to generalize or summarize all the ways in which school in China is different than school in the United States, but one of the most significant differences to me is the role of the teacher. A good teacher in China is the sole authority in the classroom, and he or she often times tells the students one right answer. This concept was explained at teaching conference Carolyn and I recently attended. A keynote speaker, who is a Chinese professor specializing on cross-cultural education, said that many teachers in China are “Fish Salesman.” This term refers to a Chinese proverb that has been adapted to the English saying, “If you give a man a fish he will eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish he will eat for his whole life.” The saying she was referring to is more or less the same, but rather than giving someone a fish, you sell it; hence, “Fish Salesman.” By calling teachers “fish salesman,” she means they give students the one right answer rather than having them figure out answers for themselves. From my educational experiences, I’m used to teachers who work as mentors and collaborators to help students discover answers; someone on the latter half of the saying. I’ve come into a situation where I am a teacher in China, but I don’t want to be the fish salesman. This paradox has made it hard for me satisfy my position at NDFZ. Sometimes I need to encompass both teaching roles to reach my students, and knowing the right balance is hard. I am still learning, and trying to figure out what is comfortable for me, the faculty, and my classes. I think that things have been successful so far, and I am optimistic about the upcoming months.
Outside of teaching, my experience here has been very positive. For me, there has been such a fine line between culture shock and what I would consider to be hilarious or bizarre. I frequently ask myself, “Did that really just happen?” Almost regularly I will get sideswiped by a motorcycle, and that’s not such a big deal. But, when I notice that said motorcycle is packing four propane tanks and the driver has a lit cigarette, I quickly get away, then ask myself, “Did that really just happen?” Or the time that I opened a bank account but only under the name “Dylan.” The teller assured me that my last name was way too long for the form—“Did that really just happen?” Children defecating in the streets, people smoking cigarettes in the pharmacy, my co-workers singing karaoke at school, pig’s foot on my plate, people taking photographs of me with small children—“Did that all really just happen?” There’s a part of me that loves the bizarre moments, and a part of me that’s still confused by them. I’ve found the best way to cope with this is to smile and keep going.
Travel has been another large aspect of my life in China. I’ve had the opportunity to see beaches, forests, mountains, rice fields, Frisbee fields, soccer fields, and lots and lots of tall buildings. One of my first trips was to Wuhan, a city in central China. I went for a Frisbee tournament. To get there our team took one of China’s famed high speed trains. Along the way, I was stunned by the scenery. Spending so much time in the city had played tricks on my memory; I had forgotten how vast and amazing China’s landscape could be. As we zoomed past rice terraces and green farmland, I watched on with amazement. I wanted to take pictures to capture the moments, but I couldn’t because we were moving at about 400 kilometers per hour. I always feel like I am moving this fast. It’s not just the trains, it’s my everyday life.
Everything I have seen in and outside of Nanjing is enchanting and new; it’s a cultural shock; it’s just plain bizarre. Yet, I let the moments fly over me and try to utilize my memory. I will wait for the enchantment and shock to pass, if it ever does. Until then, I will go day to day letting the moments of awe and the sights I might only see once blow over me like scenes in the window of a Chinese high speed train.