I cannot hope to communicate to you the complexities of life in China. There are too many facets of this experience to even know where to begin. Every time I find myself writing about this place, this life, or myself, I begin to develop new ideas about this whole adventure, ideas I hardly even realized before. I can only hope to give you a glimpse at certain parts of my life here and allow these moments to speak for themselves. If there is one thing I would want you to understand about my experiences thus far, however, it is that I have never stopped learning.
Being in China has afforded me the somewhat unique opportunity to be both a student and a teacher, an opportunity for which I'm very grateful. This dual position gives me simultaneous access to two sides of education, and I'm convinced it helps me to be both a better student and a better teacher. At the very least, it helps me to better understand classroom dynamics. As a teacher, I can empathize with my students because I know what its like to sit, baffled, in a foreign language classroom. As a student, I can empathize with the teacher, because I daily face the same challenges. I also realize that everyone I encounter has something to teach me. I have learned about teaching a foreign language from my Chinese teachers. I have also learned something about the value of practicing speaking from my students, especially the ones who take every opportunity to speak. My encounters with students and teachers in different situations continually inspire me to become better myself. I hope I can show you how.
Our first day of classes seems almost an eternity ago now, so much has happened since. I remember, though, finishing my first class and feeling ready to crumple. All the grand notions I had about teaching had unraveled in those first 45 minutes. All the advice in the books I'd read failed me. All my previous classroom experience had not prepared me to handle 30 teenage students who would not stop talking, even during listening comprehension. Though my second class that day went far better, the students at some points seemed even engaged, I couldn't erase the feelings of failure that accompanied that first class. I still don't really know what went wrong. Of course, we didn't know until that morning which students we'd be teaching that day. There was no class list, and students didn't seem to know where they were to go. Though Ellen and I split the 55 students in each class between us, I ended up with all of the boys during that first hour, and they all seemed bent on disrupting the class. I had no way of assigning seats since I had no idea who my students were. No amount of shushing, yelling, flashing disapproving faces, or staring silently seemed to set things on track. Thus was I introduced to my Senior 2 students on the first day of teaching.
Since then, the Senior 2's and I have come a long way, many thanks to the seating chart and helpful advice from fellow teachers. While one of the biggest frustrations for me is that I still don't know my students much better than I did a month ago (we have over 300 students, each of whom we see only once a week), I certainly enjoy them much more. I can empathize with my students who do not pay attention because they cannot understand what I say, and I'm learning to handle their disruptions more productively. I've restrained myself from approaching them in restaurants or on the streets to ask them why they didn't do their homework, but I have begun to talk to students individually about our class, and I think they appreciate my efforts to treat them like adults. The Senior 2 students, when they participate, can generate some good ideas. They understand important words like religion and government, so I see these classes as fertile ground for future discussions about different countries and international issues. We have yet, however, to have a truly productive discussion as a class. We've come a long way so far, so I'm optimistic about the future.
At the other end of the spectrum, I spent the 2nd day of classes speaking to students who never said a word. I talked about myself and asked them about their favorites because these were my plans for the day, though I quickly became convinced, and their teachers reassured me afterwards, that they didn't understand a word I'd said. Actually, there was one word they understood. When I dismissed the class with a "goodbye", I was met with a resounding wave of "good-byes" that contained a mix of relief, eagerness, and joy. This was finally something they knew how to do. As I watched them bounce out of the room with their backpacks on, I knew I had some serious planning to do. I remembered something that I have often heard and believed to be true-that students are eager to learn if lessons are presented to them in the right way.
Of course, I still struggle daily to figure out just what the right way to teach these students is, but things are generally improving. I've been acting out professions lately for the younger students, and my demonstration of a play earned me hearty applause from the Junior 2s, a group of 12-13 year olds that seems particularly difficult to please. My senior 1 students asked me questions about American schools, and my comparison of Chinese and American students ended in laughter after I pretended to be a 3rd grader eager to answer questions, complete with handwaving and the "ooh me, call on me, I know, I knows." I have students who actively participate, and even some who stay after class to ask questions. The Junior 1 students can tell me how their holiday was and they are beginning to be able to explain themselves. The Senior 2s are quiet now during listening comprehension, and some of them even ask questions. We're just beginning to leave behind the lessons about school, which were not as exciting as I'd hoped. I'm looking forward to starting a whole series of new units ranging from space to stereotypes to foreign countries. While new subjects are exciting to me, I'm learning that the subject is not as important as the way class is structured. I keep tinkering with the format, and sometimes things seem to really work.
One of my favorite times at school is English corner on Wednesdays when Ellen and I sit in the courtyard and wait to be mobbed by students eager to practice their English. While being in the spotlight for so long can be draining, I'm constantly impressed by the willingness of these students to come and speak. I've had a 13 year old student come to ask me about September 11th (which, by the way, was covered thoroughly on the news here) and share his opinions about America. There's another student whose English is not so good, but who is so eager to speak that she will sit there for the whole hour asking me simple questions. "Do you like bananas?" "Do you like sports?" "Do you like Nanjing?" "Do you like noodles?" Sometimes it's a challenge to balance these questions against the more developed discussions with older students who have more vocabulary, but once again, the students often surprise me. They are more likely to help each other understand than to compete for attention. Above all, for students with limited vocabulary, their ability to keep the conversation going and continuously ask more questions always impresses me. If I can muster even half of their curiosity, then I'll be on the way to really learning.
The teachers at the school, too, are both mentors and students of ours. Once a week, I teach a class of middle school English teachers. So far, we've been spending most of our time discussing schools in the United States and China, and I've found the discussions quite enlightening. Although I'm the native speaker, some of the teachers find ways to phrase their ideas better than I do. Our discussions have encouraged me to consider the role of morality in the classroom, the problems of standardized testing, and the struggle to balance real learning against the mastery necessary for advancement in the educational system. As students, these teachers are eager to write down new words and phrases and willing to struggle to understand things. As fellow teachers, they have helped me to revise my own teaching practices. As mentors, they are teaching me to think and learn about education and the best way to serve our students. And perhaps most importantly, I think we have a good time together. I am very much looking forward to our class this week in which we will role play parent teacher conferences. I'm curious to see what kinds of actors we have amongst us.
Our fellow teachers, in fact, are one of the best things about this job, besides the students, and the freedom to design our own curriculum, and the three day weekends, and the long history behind the program, and the generally friendly people in China. Our teachers go out of their way to help us with everything we need, treat us as friends, teach us Chinese, and support us in our classes. They welcomed us at the airport, threw me a party on my birthday, invited us to their homes, and even tried to help me get my phone fixed (which has been dysfunctional for the last 2 weeks). My Chinese tutor, Nancy, helps me twice a week with my speaking, but also treats me as a friend. We go out to eat together. She's introduced me to her best friend, invited me to her house to make dumplings (Ellen and I have decided that if all else fails, we'll return to Grinnell and make our living selling dumplings outside the pub and night), and offered to teach me to knit (perhaps she doesn't know how incredibly difficult this could be.) We've encountered this same openness and generosity with many of the teachers at the school, and I feel very lucky to have been welcomed into that community in this way.
As a student in Chinese classes, I've been able to learn from my classmates and teachers as well. I was pleased to learn that it is not only teachers at Grinnell who invite their students home for dinner. This afternoon I'll be heading to my professor's house, following the directions she's given us in Chinese. I hope I don't end up terribly lost. I'd like to invite my students to my house one day, but I think 300 students would have a hard time in my room here. Learning Chinese from Zhu Laoshi has helped me improve my own classes. In her classes, I remember how interesting it is to hear personal stories and cultural anecdotes from time to time, mixed in with the lesson. Today she told us about how she ran into a 50 year old woman on her bicycle. In her class, I remember how important it is to laugh and smile. Even when she is talking about her concerns, this woman is always smiling. In her class, as we spend 75 minutes listening to one paragraph, I realize how important it is to move slowly through a lesson so that students can understand. I'm also learning the value of a well designed text in which dialogues introduce grammar and vocabulary all at once. My lesson plans rarely match that kind of efficiency, but I hope they make up for that with creativity. Writing lesson plans each week certainly takes a significant effort on our part, but I do think it's a great way to tailor the class to the student's interest. While I envy my professor's situation, where the students are all quiet in class and willing to listen to each other, I know that is largely because she can hold our attention, and I work to do the same when I am teaching.
While I find the dual role of student and teacher to be highly rewarding, I also find myself in another dual role that is harder to negotiate. Being here in China for a year means that in some ways I'm both a resident and a foreigner. Living in China means I'm looking for the same things here that I would anywhere: friends, a community, a sense of security and belonging, perhaps some sort of routine, familiarity with the place where I live, and a home. Being a white American in China, and especially one whose Chinese is only mediocre, means I will never look like a Chinese person and perhaps will always be treated differently. While I do expect my Chinese to improve, I cannot expect to be able to function in everyday life without a struggle. My ignorance of this lifestyle, this place, and this language means I'll always be learning, but it also means I'll always be outside the norm. My position is both a blessing and a challenge.
Life in China is different depending on who you are. If you are a Chinese student, life means a lot of work. Students face a lot of pressure to succeed on entrance examinations where they compete for a limited number of positions with a huge surplus of people. China has a lot of people. You see them on the streets, in the buses, everywhere, in fact. This many people competing for a small number of high-paid positions means that students, in fact everyone, works very hard. After the National Day Holiday, I asked all my students how their break was, and a vast majority of them told me it was very bad. They had too much homework and went to too many classes (although one girl said she went to a costume party dressed as a Japanese drummer, which intrigued me). I told them they should tell their teachers to give them a break. It makes me sad to see them working so hard, except that I wish they'd work harder in my class. College students in China attend classes for 30 hours a week. They live in a dorm room no bigger then mine, but with 8 people to a room. They have no hot water. Ellen has told me that the people who work at KFC, the most popular fast food joint around, earn the equivalent of 40 cents an hour. They'd have to work full time to eat one meal at the restaurant. Perhaps we should boycott. The construction workers who have been working in our dormitory sometimes sleep in the hallways, but I have seen others in shacks by the side of the road. Some people live in their shops, most live in the tall, gray colored apartment buildings all over the city. The richest people have cars and can afford to go out for expensive banquets and waste food. Food on the street is, in contrast, extraordinarily cheap. Nearly everyone has a bicycle. Mine was stolen during my first week here. I hope that means someone who didn't have a bicycle before does now, but I wonder. It wasn't a good bicycle anyway.
Most of this kind of life I am separate from. I live in the foreign students' dormitory of Nanjing University, where most people I meet speak English. I have a room to myself with a computer, CVD player, TV (with a place to plug in video games, I was recently informed), a refrigerator, and a telephone that has not worked for the last two weeks (despite endless complaints at the front desk). I have health insurance (although I don't know how this compares because I have yet to find out what the health care system is like here in China). I work 4 days a week, and I work hard. The kind of responsibility that comes with being a teacher wears me out, and even though I'm not as busy as I was at Grinnell, I'm often more tired. I often eat on the streets, and one of my most recent goals is to really get to know my favorite vendors. Generally all of them are very friendly, which I love. I also feel a craving for Chinese friends my own age, ones who don't want to practice their English with me. I'd like to find a swim team to join. I've been told I'm like Chinese people because I like to eat fried bread and black rice for breakfast, and because I like to sing by myself but not in front of others. Actually, I think I have a lot in common with a lot of Chinese people, and very little with others, just as you might expect.
When I was in Grinnell, especially near the end of my senior year, I began to feel concerned that I'd developed no marketable skills. I needn't have worried. In China, I have many valuable skills. First of all, I can walk. Secondly, I can speak. I really don't need to do anything else. Last weekend I was filmed for a made for TV movie, one that is supposed to be set in France. Actually, it was set at a pretty college campus just outside the city. My job was to walk up and down the steps of the campus as two Chinese actors recited their lines. The whole situation was absurd, but I did appreciate the time I was able to spend with other foreigners. Funny that I refer to myself as a foreigner now. You know your in China whenâ¦.
Anyway, my language skills are far more valuable than my walking skills. Apparently, the key to getting a good job in China is to be able to speak English well, and so native speakers are very much in demand. Very much. I could earn more money teaching English here than I ever have before in my life. Granted, I've just graduated from college, but this still surprising to me. I could earn about 7-10 times as much as a Chinese student could earn teaching me Chinese. Its an incredible thing, and largely unsettling. Just as unsettling is the fact that I can sit on the steps and meet Chinese people or be offered teaching jobs, but my Japanese and Korean friends cannot, even though they speak very good English as well. Of course, they are not constantly called "Laowai," or foreigner, as I am, and I seriously doubt that people point them out to their children. Also unsettling are the people who walk or ride by and say "Hello," not knowing whether I come from an English speaking country or not.
Being a white foreigner, I can go somewhere and have perfect strangers ask to have their pictures taken with me. I can only imagine people showing the picture off: "There's the foreigner I saw on my travels." Notice the verb is "saw," not "met." In Kenya, picture taking was often a touchy issue, but I've never understood the sensitivity more than now, once I've become the subject. I remember reading an article once about photography that argued photographs are more than representation, the very nature of choosing what to photograph makes them interpretation. I feel the import of that choice every time someone asks to take my picture. The question is just another way of drawing that line between what is ordinary and what is novelty. In China, I'm a novelty. I am different, and its not easy to forget.
I can't claim to identify with what I would call racism in America, for I'm sure that is an entirely different thing. Nevertheless, I am learning what its like to be separated on the basis of your appearance. I'm learning how it wears you down and makes you tired. I'm learning how hard it is to explain and to argue with. I'm learning what its like to be valued, not for anything you have done, but for what you look like and where you come from. I'm starting to consider how that kind of privilege seems thin. Not to say that good things are not coming of it. I think the people I'm meeting and the experiences I'm having are invaluable. I hope I'm somehow serving people here as well. Perhaps I'll get to the end of this line of thought and realize it was futile, unrealistic, and impractical. Perhaps my thoughts have been too highly influenced by my latest reading, The People's History, and similar ways of thinking. Even so, I'm glad to have come here and thought these things. I hope it will help me to understand people better and empathize more.
Like I said, I'm always learning. That's exactly what I wanted. This life we live is something rich, I think, and I am grateful for it.
Thanks for reading. If you've got something to say, I'm interested. As the Chinese say, "man zou." Go slowly. Go well.