TEFL Success Stories – Part 11

China – Gregory

Gregory Kerry talks state education, keeping warm and chicken’s feet.

State education in China is in a mess. The mass illiteracy of the past may be over but there are still terrible problems.

Under funding by the state plus the country’s growing population problem has created schools with huge classes: 50 and 60 students being not at all uncommon. And while this isn’t so bad for the sort of rote learning still prevalent here it does make language conversation classes, which, in traditional terms of great British understatement, might be termed, “challenging”.

And not only because of the numbers. A dramatic change in attitude is also demanded of the students. In one of my first lessons I asked the class a plain, simple, innocuous question. And what did they do? With barely a moment’s collective hesitation, they … repeated it back to me – the idea that I might actually be wanting an answer was simply way beyond their experience.

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Yet by and large, students are keen to learn in a system which has become madly competitive. In every town or rural area everyone knows which are the best schools and every parent wants his child to go there.

Unless, of course, the child is a girl and the family lives in the country and has trouble affording the school fees. Then many parents still say, why bother? She’s only going to get married and become a housewife.

This intense competition means long, long hours usually including at least Saturday morning and several hours’ homework every evening. But it doesn’t stop there: parents just don’t seem to know when to stop pushing. So, weekend English courses and the extra-curricular stuff fill the ‘free’ time of many students.

And, if they attend private schools, things may be even worse. Forget weekends – well, maybe once a month then, OK?

I began my teaching time in China in just such a school but being a pampered foreigner I was lucky: weekends were free – except for same-day, last-minute invitations to join school trips. Oh, you already have something planned? Surely not?

For one other thing, though, that many visitors to China might consider a problem, there was no such allowance for my pathetic, western softness: the chronic lack of heating. Yes, heating. Here in Central China most public buildings and all poorer homes (i.e. most of them) have no heating at all. Other places have air-conditioners blowing hot, which doesn’t so much heat the rooms as simply push the cold air around a bit in them.

In winter it may not exactly be Baltic here but it does regularly drop below freezing. So for me, teaching last winter was a thermal underwear, coat, hat and fingerless gloves affair (and remembering not to stand still too long).

For students it was much the same (plus little hot water bottles – but maybe only for the wimps amongst them). As if that wasn’t bad enough, these Asiatic hypochondriacs insist on having “fresh air” (i.e. open windows) as well – in a city where the air pollution is all too tangible on bad days!

Six months of this was enough. After that I went in search of God. Or rather, he came to me … for a placement test.

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Chinese English students often adopt a so-called English name. But they have a very imperfect idea of what constitutes a normal name – thus “God”. Others I’ve come across include Hitler (still oddly revered here), Lawyer Yo-Yo (part ambition/part Chinese name), Romance (unhappily chosen by a boy), and None (because “I have no house, no car, no wife … “). Trying to explain that such names are perhaps not entirely suitable prompts only quizzical looks.

On the other hand they expect their English to be corrected in meticulous and tedious detail. Instantly. Again, it comes from their education system where the teacher is always right, the students invariably wrong (to some degree or other). Positive praise is almost unknown in Chinese classrooms so students regard it as a puzzling waste of time, wanting to know only when and why they are wrong.

Away from school life can be a similar culture shock for we “foreign devils”. Think you know Chinese food from all those oriental restaurants you used to visit back home? Huh, forget it. That was sanitised Chinese grub for Westerners. The real thing is little like: chickens’ feet, ducks’ tongues, pigs’ brains, not to mention virtually every internal organ from every animal you could hope (or not) to find. And then the rice always comes last, soup and sweets come any time, and it’s perfectly normal just to spit the bones out directly onto the table.

The other most galling thing for me is the non-stop, gratuitous honking. In England, it’s a sign of last resort,of a driver’s impatience or impending anger. In my little Chinese town it’s a general warning alright but an all-purpose, ‘Hey, I’m coming up behind/near/beside you’ type of warning aimed at anyone within reasonable distance.

So: great? interesting? exciting? Well, yes, but …

Incidentally, if you want a good read about such things try the excellent ‘River Town’ by Peter Hessler – an American Peace Corps volunteer’s account of two years teaching here.

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