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Teacher Journal: Sarah

Taught in China

I am currently teaching English to adults at Gateway Language Village, an immersion school in Zhuhai, China. My sixth month anniversary in China is coming up, and I am still quite happy here, mostly because my students and this country continue to fascinate me. Daily.

I wanted to respond to your questions about fostering "mutual respect, and encourage[ing] understanding among culturally diverse peoples" and whatnot because I feel as if that is my job, sometimes even more so than teaching English. Because I work with adults as opposed to young children (which as I understand it, most English teachers in China do), I feel extremely lucky to be engaged in a constant cultural exchange. For one thing, the teaching staff at my school is quite diverse: we have Indians, Brits, native Chinese, Australians, Uzbeks, Filipinos, Canadians, and Americans. I hear my fellow teachers yelling across the office at each other in any number of languages. Lots of (usually PC) ethnic jokes, lots of travel stories to trade, lots of cultural idiosyncrasies to learn.

And then of course, there are the students, who still make my day, every day. From those who can barely pronounce their own names to those who are all but fluent, each one of them has something to share or give or tell. Oftentimes my classes are little more than cultural lessons, for both me and the students. I have been able to absorb more about China in the six months that I have been here that I ever could have from books in the same amount of time. And what's wonderful is that on more than one occasion I have heard students remark that before they came to GLV (my school) they thought foreigners were these nameless, heartless beings who all looked the same, but after meeting so many of them within GLV, their opinions have drastically changed.

There is nothing like hearing a student say "You are my first foreign friend!" or "You are the first foreigner I have ever spoken to." Coming from NJ, that's amazing to me! I especially enjoy sharing western music w/ my students; I teach a class on the history of rock and roll and we talk a/b racial tension and Woodstock and the Vietnam War and even teenage angst. Students often comment on how in China, music is no place for politics, which often leads to more serious discussions on rights and freedom of speech and even different styles of parenting; it blows my mind how different life in America is for the average citizen than it is for those in China.

I felt the need to tell somebody despite the small scale of it, I do feel that my job is important. As my mother said to me before I left, I am making the world a smaller place, and hopefully a safer place for us foreigners.

Today I stood in front of twelve adults and asked them to please describe to me and the eleven others in the room their short and long-term goals. Of these adults, one was a young woman working on her university degree. One was a moderately successful businessman who had recently quit his job. One was pregnant. Another was waiting on a visa, and yet another was a manager at an international trading company. Their long-term goals included such things as "get a lot of money", "be a successful mother", and "start my own business". Short-term goals included "find my ideal job", "get married", and, from each and every one, "improve my English".

I am 22 years old. I have a bachelor's degree. I got a hard-earned education at an expensive liberal arts school. My major was anthropology. I do not want to be an anthropologist.

I work as a teacher at a private English immersion school in the south of China, in a small city (by Chinese standards) of 1 million on the Pearl River Delta. I make the equivalent of 600 US dollars a month. My official title is "English Teacher," I get paid to be picky about tenses and sentence structure and pronunciation, but oftentimes I feel that even more so than teaching, my job involves fostering the kind of respect that exists regardless of first languages, cultural differences, and the ability to use tricky utensils. Because I work with adults as opposed to children (which as I understand it, most English teachers in China do), most of my time in the classroom is spent encouraging students to express themselves; I ask them "what do you think?" instead of "repeat after me." We touch on topics ranging from the war in Iraq to broken hearts to marriage rituals to AIDS to why I don't look like a "typical American" (I have brown hair and eyes, instead of the blonde and blue many of my students expect to see).

I am engaged in constant, intensive cultural exchange. Oftentimes my classes are little more than a lesson on the differences between the West and China, for both the students and myself. I have been able to absorb more about China in the 6 months that I have been here than I could have thought possible on the day I arrived. On more than one occasion I have heard students remark that meeting foreign teachers has drastically changed their opinions of foreigners. We morph from nameless, heartless, indistinguishable "laowai" to individuals with depth and experience and genuine curiosity. Though I have heard it many times, I still react in much the same way, that is, with raised eyebrows and a huge smile, when students say to me "You are the first foreigner I have ever spoken to." My job is fascinating.

The school I work at employs 43 teachers, ages 21 to 73, from countries including but not limited to India, Brazil, China, England, America, Uzbekistan, Australia, Canada, South Africa, and the Philippines. Yelling in the office happens in any number of languages. I am privy to (usually PC) ethnic jokes, travel stories, and cultural idiosyncrasies that stay with you no matter how many borders you cross. Everyday we function as pronunciation coaches, counselors, cultural ambassadors, devil's advocates, friends, and grammar experts. We work with a student body that ranges in size from 150 to 300 students at different times of the year. 98% of the time, 100% of the students are Chinese. They come from all over China: from as far north as Inner Mongolia, as far south as Hainan, from the quiet beauty of Shang Ri La, from the highly industrialized Guangzhou. They all come to Gateway Language Village for one reason: English. There are those that come unable to read or pronounce their own names, there are those that come speaking with nearly perfect fluency. The large majority of students are somewhere in between. Each one of them has something to share or give or tell, and they continue to make my day. These students speak a unique hybrid tongue which the teachers and more advanced students affectionately refer to as "Chinglish".

I spend most of my day listening to Chinglish and do my best to refrain from speaking it, but as with any language, if you are immersed in it, it is all but impossible not to pick it up. More than once I have caught myself dropping articles and rearranging sentences in such a way as to communicate a concept in as few words as possible. Chinglish, while it often resembles a jumble of sounds strung together with hope and determination, and though it may take a good deal of questioning and inference to decipher, can also lend itself to a purity of language seldom achieved by native English speakers. Native speakers of any language have a canon of words at their disposal with which to express the subtleties of how one thinks and feels. As one's knowledge of a language grows, so too grows the intricacy of ideas one can express, and the ways in which one can express those ideas. A native speaker is able to call upon words that convey layered images rooted in the shared experience of culture. And culture itself is enmeshed, oftentimes beyond conscious comprehension, in language.

To engage a non-native, mid-level English speaker (i.e. they can carry on conversations across a broad range of topics, as long as you ask the right questions) in conversation, the trick is to communicate the main idea as simply and directly as possible. Beating around the bush will get you nowhere, and you're wasting time with idioms. Conversations in Chinglish are a testament to patience, determination, imagination, and resourcefulness. Listening to my students speak brings me confusion and delight. Sentences are choppy and hard-won and blunt; words are basic but carry with them a certain weight owing to sincerity. If you listen long enough, attentively enough, a few lines of simple, strong poetry will be your unexpected and tender reward. Non-native speakers are able to communicate an emotion or opinion in a form undiluted by any excess of concepts or syllables.

When you are in a situation that requires communication by any means necessary, you learn quickly those words that most effectively and efficiently get your point across. They are words used commonly by native speakers, and so in conversation between one native speaker to another they may not carry much meaning. Non-native speakers compensate a limited vocabulary and are able to breathe new life into seemingly tired words by relying on animated facial expressions, priceless body language, and unrivaled earnestness.

Before I asked my students about their goals, I told them mine. "My short term goals," I said, "well, to be a good teacher of course." A few students laughed. I went on to tell them, in not quite the same words, that I thought a good teacher was approachable, patient, and to some extent difficult to please. And that just as important as having a good teacher, if not more so, was taking the initiative to learn from one another; "I can teach you English, but I can't make you learn. You will only learn if you speak, and I expect you to speak your mind. I came to China," I continued, "because I want to hear what you have to say. I like meeting new people, I like hearing their stories. And I knew that the people in China would have stories to tell that were very different than the stories you hear in New Jersey." I raised my eyebrows for emphasis. Another laugh.

People endeavor to learn new languages for any number of personal reasons, but humans, as a group, do so to fulfill one very basic need: communication. To be able to speak more than one language is to be able to communicate with a wider group of people. Language allows us access to a wealth of information that would otherwise be out of reach. As I tell my students, language is our primary tool of self-expression; it is a system through which ideas can be channeled and shared and realized in a more concrete form. Language is an equalizer: in cannot cancel out cultural differences, but it can surely smooth the way to cross-cultural communication.

My time in China has been and continues to be challenging simply because I live in a foreign country that is quite different from that of my birth. On another level, living in China gives me no choice but to practice open-mindedness while speaking to students and adapting to daily life 8,000 miles from home. I have had to let go of those familiar structures through which I have come to know the world and the language in which I was able to interact with it. I am teaching English, learning Chinese, and trying desperately to absorb as much as I can about the world through both languages. My students inspire me to see things differently by using English in a way that I would never have thought to. My Chinese teacher, with her very "standard" Mandarin sheds a whole new light on the way I have always seen the world. Until now I have been bound to the way English makes tangible those things that frame my worldview. By learning a new language, I can look at the world and see it in more than one way, in more than one language. Familiarizing myself with the way the Chinese see the world has been an attempt in two languages, though I have admittedly been able to glean much more of China using English. I rely on my students to tell me of their lives, their culture, through English, but I feel as thought I will not be able to fully appreciate their observations until I can communicate with them in their own terms. So I, like many of my students, am determined to acquire those skills that allow me to learn about the world from those people with a very different understanding of it. For now though, I can only hope that I give my students as much to ponder as they give me, in whichever language they choose.

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