Christopher Walsh graduated from the MAWP in 2009 and then spent nearly a year living in China and teaching English. Here are his reflections on that experience.
Confucius once said, “Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.” Now, Confucius said a lot of things, and if you happen to go to China, there will be no shortage of people who can recite something the great sage uttered. I like this quote though, because it describes the best attitude you can have when choosing to live in a foreign country.
Be heartened: China wants you. China is desperate to have you. It wants anyone who can speak English, but the prestige for having an American is very high indeed. The students as well will be eager to learn from you American English and not that silly British English most of their Chinese teachers speak. Many people will smile just to see you, a foreigner, in their country. And teaching at a university is one of the best ways to see the country. You get tons of vacation time and a salary (depending on where you live) that affords you a serious life of luxury. If only America were so kind to its teachers.
But while there are many similarities between America and China, there are important differences too—differences it is best to be aware of before you can properly jump into China with all your heart. My girlfriend, Christina, and I taught at Anyang Normal University in Anyang, Henan, China, one of the oldest regions in Chinese civilization (our apartment was a fifteen-minute bike ride from the 3,000-year-old Yin ruins). It’s easy to paint China with very broad, generalized strokes, something not helped by a reflex-to-unity present in the mainstream Chinese culture, very different from America’s reflex-to-individualism. Much of what I recount in this article applies directly to the Henan province; however, I have found, through reading other articles written about teaching in China as well as through personal testimony from friends I made who had taught elsewhere, that there are at least resonances between my experience in the Henan province and other regions of the country. Alright, enough hedging; let’s dive in, shall we?
The first thing you will notice is the staring. Everywhere you turn, people will have their eyes on you, parents will be pointing you out to their children, adults and teenagers alike will be shouting “Hello!” at you and then laughing with their friends. An introvert by nature, this was no small hurdle for me. It was fun the first week; I felt like a rock star. Soon, however, I found myself cultivating a practiced aloofness just so I didn’t have to make eye contact with everyone I saw. By the end of the first month, I wanted to punch the next person who yelled at me just to get a reaction. Not unlike, well …certain rock stars. Everyone’s response is different though. One of my lasting problems was an inability to turn off whatever mechanism in my brain responded to stares as though they were acts of aggression. Christina did not have this problem. The stares annoyed her, but they were not intrusions. The amount of stares you’ll receive naturally depends on where you are. Generally speaking, the more modern, the more urban your surroundings, the less likely people will be to harass you. Anyang was a very small city, by Chinese standards, of five hundred thousand, and Christina and I were two of only a handful of foreigners there, making us quite the rarity and the commodity.
The Chinese can be maddeningly calm at times. For instance, on the few occasions our apartment complex would randomly lose power (one instance lasting three days), you could find Christina and I yelling and waving our fists at the imagined buffoon responsible for it, calling anyone we could think of who might know how to fix it, while our Chinese neighbors used it as a chance to gather on the sidewalk with candles and chat about recent news. Is it a consequence of living under an authoritative government or a sensibility cultivated out of a healthier set of priorities—I can only speculate. But it makes perfect sense to me that theirs was the culture that pioneered the Zen mind.
This calm also extends into their business sense. They are not planners. For instance, during all four semesters I taught at Anyang Normal University, it wasn’t until the month preceding the end of the semester that we found out when the semester would actually end. As a consequence, officials have a tendency to spring things on you, such as calling you at 9:00 in the morning to tell you about a mandatory meeting scheduled for 9:30 or calling at lunchtime to tell you about a question-and-answer forum they’d like you to head, fielding questions from as many as three hundred students and faculty members, questions ranging from “Can you use chopsticks?” to “What do you know about the history of jazz?”
The teaching itself is often the source of your greatest pleasures and your greatest frustrations. The class I taught was Oral English, and it was, ostensibly, an entirely student-centered class. They could choose the topics because it didn’t matter what they talked about—only that they talked. Unfortunately, their primary school system harkens back to Dickensian times, when teachers pronounced knowledge from a pulpit and students diligently—and silently!—scribbled notes they would memorize later. So strong is this academic tradition that most of the college students I taught were literally aghast at the idea of taking charge of their own education. Even choosing topics they agreed on would not guarantee an actual discussion.
Students’ language proficiency also varied radically. Regardless of their major, there were always some students in my classes who seemed on the cusp of fluency and others who could not string together two sentences. I largely blame the structure of the educational system for this. In China, it’s extremely hard to get into college. There is a standardized tests high schoolers take just before graduation called the College Entrance Exam. The importance of this test cannot be overstated. This test score not only determines whether or not you go to college, but also which college you can go to. Children kill themselves over this test.
However, perhaps in response to this test, once you get in to college your graduation is all but guaranteed—regardless of your academic achievements. So once students finagle their way into a college, any college, many breathe a hefty sigh of relief and then take a four-year holiday, until they can collect their degree. Thus, you get students who never show up to class other than during the final exam, expecting you to pass them, and students who diligently copy and memorize every word you say, along with anything in-between.
But all of this is not to discourage you from teaching in China; on the contrary, I would be the first to encourage you to do so. It is an opportunity to immerse yourself in a part of the world few can and add to your résumé experience that is sure to make it stand out at a time when it could be competing with thousands of others for a job. I just want you to know what you’re getting into.
It’s hard to boil an experience down to one emotion or a pithy maxim. To do so is to rob it of its complexity and power. My only advice, if you do choose to pursue a job in China, is to do so with all your heart. It’s too easy to become frustrated or measure it by American, industrialized, standards and shrug it off as a waste of time instead of experiencing it in itself, as its own entity, keeping your mind open to the insights its sure to illuminate about yourself and your own culture and expectations. Confucius, at least in this regard, had a valuable thing or two to say.