Back in the saddle again

It’s been a while since I was a full-time English teacher. Sometime back in 2009, if memory serves. So it’s back in the saddle again for me, at least for this year. I thought some observations about that might be in order.

First, it’s both wonderful and sad that Chinese students of all ages take such joy in simple interactive activities. For my first class, I always like to do an introduction exercise called “Find Somebody Who. . .”, which includes a series of statements for which the students have to find a classmate who fits. For example: “Find somebody who has traveled outside of China.” They have to move around the room and ask questions of each other. Every time I do the activity, the students enjoy it so much that it’s evident from my spot at the front. There are smiles, laughter, noise, and in short, a party atmosphere reigns. The thing is, it’s about the simplest activity you could devise. If I did the same thing in an American classroom, I’m willing to bet most of the students would find it stupid and not want to do it. I say this is both wonderful and sad in China because on the one hand it’s immensely rewarding to know that people are able to so enjoy something simple, and on the other hand, it’s sad that their educational experience prior to this class has been so devoid of anything truly stimulating or interactive. The vast majority of my students’ classes (they’re freshmen, so this is their first university experience) have been teacher-focused lecture courses where the only major activity is the exam at the end, with absolutely no interaction included.

Second, the old jokes still work. Here’s a tip for all you new English teachers out there: include the names of some local Chinese food in your class and you are GUARANTEED to get a laugh. Every time I mention da bing ji dan, which is a local street food consisting of a fried egg and special sauce in rolled-up flatbread, the class cracks up. Being an English teacher in China is a lot like being a stand-up comedian. After you’ve been doing it for a few years, you can predict what’s going to make people laugh, and if you want to, you can figure out a lecture or a short class that will consist entirely of side-splitting humor. Not even clever or witty humor, either. Make a few faces and funny noises, reference local food, tell them how much you suck at ping-pong, and they’ll think you’re a comic genius.

Third, the students are getting younger. I know, I know: I’m getting older, so maybe I’m the problem. But I swear to you, I have freshmen students now who look like they’re twelve years old. They’re so quiet and vulnerable; it’s like a class full of baby deer. Imagine you were teaching Bambi or the puppy from The Fox and the Hound and you’ll have some idea of what I’m talking about.

Fourth, man do they hate Japan. I’ve only had a handful of classes so far, and I’ve already had two students stand up and express their intense hatred of Japan, even though what they said had NOTHING to do with what we were talking about. In one class, I was doing a creative activity where I put the students into small groups and had them pretend they were a superhero team. They had to decide what their power was, who their enemy was, and what their goal was. I called on one student and said, “So what is your special power?” His answer: “F*&k Japan!” I answered, “Is that your superpower?” Which, sadly, he didn’t understand. I would have loved it if he’d said, “Yes!” because I’m pretty sure we could successfully market a line of “F*%k Japan Man” superhero tee-shirts. The other statement I heard, in a different class, was similar. I had asked the students, after reading in our textbooks about the importance of protecting your possessions when in a crowd (it’s a unit on law and order), if they’d ever had anything stolen. A cell phone perhaps, or a wallet? A student raised his hand and said, “Japan is trying to steal our islands from us!” Which, like the other, has nothing to do with anything, but whatever. Is it surprising? No, but it’s still disturbing.

Fifth, there are still surprises. In one of my classes I asked the students who wanted to study abroad someday. Several raised their hands. (Though I should point out that in China, that’s not an indication of how many people WANT to study abroad. If something is considered impossible or close to impossible, it’s common for someone simply to not “want” to do it, by which I mean they figure it’s not even worth thinking about.) I asked these students where they wanted to study. One said, “Japan.” This was, of course, followed by gasps, loud muttering, and general consternation. I politely reminded them that China has a very long tradition of sending scholars to Japan. Lu Xun studied there, after all. If you ever want to inject some perspective into an angry conversation about Japan, just bring up Lu Xun. Lu Xun is one of the only figures in Chinese history EVERYONE agrees is a hero, and the fact that his time in Japan was one of the great turning points in his life can be hard to grapple with if you’re convinced the Japanese are all evil.

More observations as they arise.


1 Responses to Back in the saddle again

  1. Joel says:

    I’ve had that unsolicited Japan hatred routine before. Never had to teach classes of all freshman though. Come to think of it, there’s a lot of unsolicited opinioning in China, like that guy in your other post telling you about Japan and the US.

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