Category Archives: Teaching

Things I will miss in China

Here’s the second part–despite the truth of the first post, there are many things that I will truly  miss after I leave China.  Here are some of them.

  1. Having restaurants and markets within short walking distance
  2. Cheap and delicious restaurant meals
  3. The shopkeepers who line the block around the school and let me practice my Chinese
  4. My kindergarten kids!
  5. The fun middle school classes who ask questions, use English in class, and do hilarious skits to practice their English
  6. My apartment, despite its plumbing flaws
  7. The man and woman who make the chicken sandwiches across from the school
  8. The man from the fried chicken and french fries place that always chats with me and patiently tries to understand my Chinese
  9. My weekly lunch dates with my girls from class 22
  10. Playing rambunctious games of Settlers of Catan with the foreign teachers and dishing about our week
  11. My students that I’ve tutored to study abroad–Volcano (Aiden), Chris, Eileen, Echo, Victoria, and Peco
  12. Seeing my kindergarten kids walking together to the playground and having them all shout my name at the top of their lungs and hug my legs as I go by
  13. Walking into class 5 (middle school) and having the kids run up to me and ask what we’re learning today
  14. Pretty much every student in class 18 (middle school)
  15. Learning random Chinese words from hearing students say them in class
  16. The cheapness of taxis
  17. The sushi chefs from our weekly sushi restaurant who chat with us as they prepare the food
  18. The adorable couple who own the Taiwanese restaurant and the staff there that laughs when we order the same thing every time
  19. Kenneth, the man from Hong Kong who owns the honey shop and chats with us when we stroll past his store.  A kind, wise person.   He was the hardest so far to say goodbye to.
  20. The guy who gives us haircuts and talks to us about his dream of opening a hair salon in Los Angeles
  21. Being able to go home and take a nap at lunchtime if I need to
  22. Making coffee for my tutoring students
  23. Being able to take a train to just about any other city
  24. Street food
  25. Countless milk tea shops
  26. The old man and woman who sell us fruit at the outdoor market and always sneak extra fruit into our bag as a gift
  27. Chinese babies
  28. Sharing and hearing travel stories with other people
  29. Making friends unexpectedly
  30. Hot Pot on cold nights
  31. The Muslim restaurant with the little boy that always runs around the tables
  32. Julia, the kindergarten teacher from Xiao class 5
  33. Watching people ride on their bikes with strange objects, like trees
  34. The thrill of a fast, frightening taxi ride
  35. The familiarity of able to call any older woman I’ve just met “Auntie”  (ayi)
  36. The mojito place in Beijing on a hot summer day
  37. Letting my cat out at night to go gallumphing down the empty hallway and back
  38. The guard at the east gate who always smiles and waves at us as we go in with our grocery bags, and sometimes asks us what we’re making for dinner
  39. The pretty girl that we buy fruit from just down the street
  40. The lady who used to have a restaurant next to the school and gave us food from her own table so that we could try new things
  41. Eating the amazing meals that Jerry’s mother makes
  42. Hanging out with Jerry…but, maybe we’ll be hanging out with him in the U.S. as well once he begins university there!
  43. Peking Duck
  44. Meeting people from so many places in the world
  45. Those moments where I recall, again, the excitement I felt about being in a different place when I first stepped off the plane in Beijing

Things I won’t miss in China

This is the first installment of a two-part post on the things I won’t miss and the things I will miss after I leave China.  Some are a bit amusing to me albeit annoying, others are far weightier.  Here they are, in no particular order:

    1. My leaky kitchen sink that floods the kitchen every time I wash dishes
    2. My nightly mosquito search and destroy missions before bed
    3. The heavy duty industrial Shijiazhuang dust that is everywhere
    4. Floors that are impossible to clean
    5. People who look at my feet
    6. People who stare at my grocery basket to see what foreigners buy
    7. Flip-flops being disdainfully referred to as “Japanese-style slippers”
    8. Awkward teacher-training meetings
    9. The absence of cheese
    10. Relying on public transportation
    11. Teaching untouchable wealthy children who don’t experience much discipline
    12. Teaching children who make so much noise that the responsible, attentive children in the class can’t hear and participate above the noise
    13. The adjective “interesting”
    14. Taxi drivers who tell you to get out and catch a taxi across the street if they’re not already going the same direction as your destination `
    15. Living one door down the hall from my boss’s office
    16. Waking up on weekdays and some weekends to the sound of students and school employees in the hallway outside my apartment
    17. Not being able to see the sky most days because of the pollution
    18. The assumption that I don’t know grammar because I teach oral English
    19. The CCTV cameras that watch me enter and leave my apartment and apartment building
    20. Cooking on a stove that takes many brave and dangerous clicks of a lighter to get lit properly
    21. Drivers who speed on the wrong side of the road to get in front of cars stopped at traffic lights
    22. People who push onto elevators instead of letting you get off first
    23. People who cut in line
    24. Employees with microphones who shout the prices and sale items at you as you walk by a store display
    25. The ER
    26. Keeping my blinds closed so that the high school students can’t see into my apartment from across the courtyard
    27. Shoe prints in inexplicable places on my apartment walls
    28. Students who shout “hello teacher!” at me in Chinese, and then immediately shout “she doesn’t understand that!” in Chinese…  I understood that since two years ago.
    29. Being told that a 7th grader is too young to know right from wrong
    30. Working on the weekend to make up for getting a few days off for a holiday during the week
    31. Rampant xenophobia
    32. Running out of my arsenal of Chinese phrases right after a local tells me my Chinese is good
    33. Kids peeing in grocery stores, parks, on sidewalks, and pretty much any place else that’s not a toilet
    34. People who appear to show hospitality but who really just want free English lessons
    35. Feeling conspicuous every time I step out my door

The next (and not so depressing) list will be posted shortly, so stay tuned!  I wanted to save the best things I want to remember for last.

Exam Time

Last week after Friday’s classes, I was elated: the classroom part of teaching here is finally over.  It was a hard week of review–hard because the students didn’t seem to realize I was doing it for their benefit and didn’t pay extra attention–but it was tempered with the happy thought that we were almost finished. There were moments during that week, however, where I was able to feel a tinge of sadness that I would be leaving some of these kids who have become a source of some joy to me.

Some classes are really fun to teach, and I am a different person when I am with them than when I am with a terrible class. The good classes are the ones who pay attention and actually love learning, the bad ones hate being told anything.  I am able to be freer and joke more with the good classes, because I know that I have their respect, but with the bad classes, I can’t show much of that side of me, because if I loosen up much at all they walk all over me, and don’t hesitate to show their disrespect.

By my last class on Friday, I had worked up so much energy in the sheer anticipation of almost being done, that I was a far quirkier teacher than I usually am, and had them in stitches the whole class period.  It was kind of like an out of body experience, to be honest.  I’m pretty sure they couldn’t believe how much energy I had, because I’m usually not that chipper with them on Friday at 4:25 pm.

This past week, I’ve been giving the final oral exams to my students.  I have written 3 tests so that the students can’t listen in on the previous student and copy their answers (cheating is unbelievably rampant).  Each student has 2-3 minutes to answer my questions, correctly pronounce some sentences, use two vocabulary words correctly in a sentence, and describe a picture.  That’s it.  It’s a short test, but that’s necessary in order to get through all the kids.  I got through something like 325 kids this week, and that’s not quite half of them.  Testing is easier than teaching in the classroom–I can save my voice and some energy, but it’s still draining to do 3 class periods in a row.  I am grateful to sit down though and do more listening that speaking so that I can really gauge each student’s progress.

In the Oral English teachers’ classes at this school, only 20 points of their final grade is obtained.  The Chinese English teachers’ classes make up 80 percent of their grade, which is probably another reason why we don’t matter that much to the administration or students.  10 points of the final grade is for class behavior and participation, and 10 points is for the actual exam.  By this time in the year, for most students, I can take one look at their faces and know exactly what behavior score they should get.  Last semester, it wasn’t as easy to remember, so I was slightly more generous in giving them the benefit of the doubt.  It may have satisfied my sense of justice and dignity to give low behavioral scores to the students with awful attitudes and behavior in class, but it felt even better to give high marks to those who  deserved them. Some students have improved a lot this semester, and their grades show it.

Next week, we will finish the exams, and if any students are absent and miss the exam, then we have another week of contract left for them to make it up.  I am hoping that I can finish all of the testing next week so that we will have a free week to just relax, pack, and say goodbye to all of our favorite people and places in the city.  Only three more weekends left in China.  I can hardly believe it.

Noticing beauty

For nearly two years, I’ve taught oral English to Chinese middle school students.  I never knew that 12 and 13 year old children could have the collective power to make a day terrible and worn, or bright and interesting.  One of my Wednesday students has twice made statements that had slightly annoyed me at the time, but later made me reflect sadly about the way her life must be. The first one was on why she doesn’t like hiking–naturally, there are people who do and don’t like hiking, no problem.  She said that it’s too tiring and boring to enjoy.  I asked her if she could reconcile the whole tiring part by looking around at all the beauty you can see on a hike.  She made a face and said “oh, I don’t care about that.  I don’t like those things.”

As I gave the lesson that week on hobbies, I realized that so many of these children had never been on a hike, never been camping, never had a pet to play with outdoors, and didn’t even like the sound of those things–things that had been barred from them in the interests of studying hard and getting good grades in school.  In my limited perspective from the 40 minutes that I spend once a week with my 21 classes, I think that this absence of interests outside of school has stunted them, maybe for life, unless they can relearn how to appreciate simple things, like little children naturally do.  They still have a sense of wonder and awe for things unknown to them, but I’ve noticed that the only thing that really triggers this is through watching a movie or a short clip in class.  Precious little else seems to interest them.

This week, I taught about music genres, with mixed results.  Some kids’ faces lit up as we talked about different kinds of music and listened to music clips.  Some of them shouted out artists and songs that they loved, and were excited when I said I liked them too.  Others had nothing to say about what kind of music they liked, and didn’t respond at all to the music clips that I played as examples of different genres.  But when I got to showing the entertaining music videos, they watched intently.  The same girl offered up her opinion as she was doing a practice dialogue with another student.  The girls had to ask each other what kind of music they liked and disliked, and this girl quickly said, “I don’t like any music,” and sat back down with a smirk on her face.  “Really?” I asked her.  “You don’t like any music at all?”  She responded confidently again that she did not enjoy music.  And that’s something I can’t understand.

There are two classes in the middle school that participate in the band and orchestra.  They were by far the most appreciative of the music lesson, and it made me glad to see that they enjoyed so many different kinds of music, and not just pop.  But, I know that when they enter high school, they won’t be able to play in an orchestra any more.  Music and other art forms will be considered irrelevant to their studies as they devote three years in high school to preparing for the Gao Kao, the nationwide college placement exam.  Their whole lives up until now have been full of studying and exams in preparation for this single exam, and many things have been and will be sacrificed on the way.  And there are very few students who can come away from that and still have the sensibilities to see and appreciate beauty, whether in hobbies or in music.

I guess I can’t judge my students too harshly when it comes to their sensibilities for art, music, or literature.  There’s not much of a place for it in their education, and arguably, in their culture as it is today.  These are not the words of an expert on China, but of someone who has seen kids in the system and been astounded at what the absence of good art, in whatever form, has done to them.  Where creativity and innovation is not appreciated, and educational rigor is focused almost entirely upon exams, beauty is certainly not a flourishing ideal.

The kids who make my job fun

Every week, I look forward to teaching Class 18 on Friday morning.  They are bright, happy, and eager to learn, and we always have a blast.  They are always excited to practice their English and experiment with the dialogues that I give them to practice, and I’m always a bit sad when the bell rings and class is over.  You know you have an exceptional class when they all groan when the bell rings, because they also don’t want class to be over.  In other classes, kids immediately start rustling around and getting ready to jump out of their seats when the bell rings (let’s be honest, I probably would have been the same way), and if I go a minute over to finish something, they start whining and telling me “class over!  class over!”  Either my lesson is boring, or they’re just really eager to run around and go crazy for the 10 minute break between classes.  I hope it’s the latter.  Anyway, here are a few pictures from Class 18 yesterday, in which we learned about ordering food in a restaurant, and Antoine showed off his new invention–tubing manipulated to look like glasses, through which he drinks a bottle of juice.  Oh man, this kid makes me laugh.


On feeling less than human

There’s something about the weary cycle of teaching mostly deaf ears that makes me feel less human than before.  I realize that in teaching English, I can’t impart English to my learners as anything more than a language tool, even though I love English because of its literature, and not because it is a tool to further myself.  It’s useful for that, yes, but that’s not why I love it.  It’s not realistic or useful to teach poetry and short stories to 12-year-olds who reply to questions like “how are you?” with “it’s a SUNNY day!”  And it’s hard to teach something that you love when you have to remove all the parts that you most love out of it.  Whenever I complain about students who don’t care about my classes, I’m not complaining because I think they should love English.  I don’t expect them to, and only the students who have a brain and a heart for the beauty of languages will really love learning English at all.  English is compulsory for them, and they’re not all going to like it.  What I complain about is that they are disrespectful to me as a teacher and as a person.  Because I speak a different language, and because I’m a foreigner, I feel less than human in their eyes.  I’m an oddity with big eyes, light hair, and light skin that says strange things and makes them pronounce such ludicrous sounds as “th” and “v” correctly.  In a foreign teacher’s class, the expectation is to play games and watch English movies, not learn tongue-twisters, practice speaking, or learn about the culture behind the language.  So every time I show up to my 21 Junior classes without a movie, or without a game that is riveting enough for even the back row to stop lambasting each other with pencil cases, then I am not cool.  My class is too boring, and they let me know it with their behavior.  From this, I’ve deducted that my role at this school is to be an entertainer, and that if I try to teach much substance, then I’ll lose the attention and respect of my students.

So I can’t impart a love for English to every student, because they’re young, and all they’re concerned about is the next test, and hiding that they’re wearing braces, and tripping as they gallop to their classrooms (oh, the awkwardness of middle school).  Some of them want to use English later in life, and some of them won’t.  That’s okay.  So I stick to my guns (i.e., Oral English doesn’t mean movie time), and do what I can to show them how to use English in real life.  And I’m trying not to tie my humanity up in whatever value my students place on me, my time, or my classes.  It’s just not worth it, and it’s not an accurate picture of who I am.  So, I talk with my friends, read books, and read poetry after classes and on the weekends.  I remember that I’m just a pilgrim on earth (and here), and I won’t be forever. I remember whose child I really am.  I remember that it doesn’t matter what people think of me outwardly, but what’s in my heart.  And then I feel human again.

A ramble, which ends (inevitably) in food

I’m sitting here, on the night before final exams begin, trying to sleepytime tea myself into a state of sleep-inducing exhaustion.  The last few nights, I’ve been tired, but tossed and turned for a few hours before falling asleep.  My students are going crazy with end of semester ants in the pants syndrome, and so am I.  Their crazy involves making noise in class and galloping all over campus; my crazy involves lying in bed every night with my mind woefully awake and my body unable to sleep.  I think we’re all ready for the semester to end and the winter holiday to begin.  Two days ago, I got the welcome news that our last teaching day is December 30th instead of January 6th, which is wonderful sanity-wise and also because it will give us more time to travel before the Chinese New Year, in which–check it–2 billion passenger journeys occur to hometowns and back.   So, the earlier we can book train tickets out of dodge and go south, the better!

I love planning trips and researching countries.  I’m not a big planner with everything in life, but when it comes to traveling, I like reading up on every detail about the places I’m going to go, absorbing everything I see in pictures and read in traveler’s stories.  Right now, after hours spent browsing the online Lonely Planet forum and various other information caches, I have an idea in mind that involves train and bus hopping from southern China to northern to southern Vietnam, and I’m getting braver with the notion that I’d like to hop over to Laos and/or Cambodia as well.  After all, when am I going to get the chance to visit South Asia again?  I may, but I also may never come this way again.   I want to see river towns, and old buildings (get me out of high-rise country, please),  and countryside, and rice paddies.  I want to taste local food made by people who’ve passed down traditional recipes for generations, because loving and appreciating someone’s food is a big step towards seeing their culture more clearly, albeit as a born outsider.

Coming to China has made me appreciate food more than I ever have, which may sound somewhat silly, but it’s true.  Food is so much a part of who we are, what we value in life, and what memories make us love the food we love.  Ask any vegetarian or die-hard steak lover, or even a grilled-cheese addict.  I love grilled-cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, because my mom always made the two together, and I have memories of eating that meal when it was cold, rainy, or snowy out, and it was comforting and delicious.  Chinese people, at least the ones I have met in this city and at the school, have little to no interest in trying Western food, which boggled my mind at first.  Of course I wouldn’t understand this, because in America, though we have our particular styles of cuisines that vary from country to country and town to town,  we have access to international food.  We can eat Italian one night and Chinese the next; Mexican one day and Indian on the weekend.  We may not have access to the most authentic international foods, depending on where we live, but we are aware of and lay claim to various international foods as our favorites.

It’s not like that here.  My students are always telling me that their favorite foods are dumplings and noodles, oh, and maybe KFC.  That’s it.  They don’t even have much interest in any neighboring country’s cuisine, save for occasional Korean barbeque or sushi, but even then, they don’t count it as their favorite.  But, they make up for the foods they never try in their zeal for Chinese cooking.  Which, I can’t blame them for when I’m eating hotpot, or lamb kebabs, or any number of wonderful concoctions that they fry up for dinner. Chinese food is wonderful. But, I still can never fully understand how anyone can live without good bread, cheese, or any variety in cuisine.    I’m still an outsider in that respect, and always will be.  But, I’m glad that after finding new favorite dishes by ordering random things off the menu, and spending some time in the homes of Chinese people who are outstanding cooks, I can appreciate the culture more than I would have if I had stubbornly insisted upon my Western comfort food and just lived on PB&J here.

And now, after these paragraphs of much too compound sentences, I will hie me to bed and hope that I have thought my last thought for the night so that sleep will come quickly.  Actually, my last thought is this:  final exams begin tomorrow morning, and I am happy as I consider what (limited) power will emanate from me as my students meet the grade-giving-teacher side of Laura at last.