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Friday, August 29, 2008

A story about China

Wrote this for Maryknoll's website. Thought I'd share.

The first day was hot. A new and tropical heat, heat that I had never experienced before, that I could feel rising even as I walked through the tree-shaded campus that first morning: my first day of class as a teacher in Zhanjiang, Guangdong province, China. It was September in this sleepy southwestern corner of the Middle Kingdom, and if the broiling heat of the morning didn’t make me sweat, being on the precipice of the great big unknown that waited in the classroom certainly did. Walking through the door for the first time hushed the forty-odd students into a kind of awed silence: because it was the first class of the first day of the new term, yes, but also because this strange young foreigner, stiffly overdressed in the mounting morning heat, a young man who couldn’t help but look out into the classroom and smile like a little boy, had just walked into their lives. The bell rang, everyone was quiet, still, staring intently; just what was he going to do?

I had agonized over that very question the month, week, day, night before. The orientation Maryknoll had provided in Hong Kong was a good start, but Thesis Writing? Literature? There were few answers as to how I should approach these subjects in an ESL environment. Would their English be good enough to read Shakespeare? Had they ever written a thesis before? Standing there in front of my first class, wanting desperately to do the right thing, to act like a real teacher, I did what novice teachers had done before me on their nervous first day: I spoke, rigidly, seriously, about the coming term, about my expectations, how we would use our text, the consequences of not following the rules. I finished with a brittle warning: “If you don’t write in your journal, you’re going to fail. If you don’t participate, you’re going to fail. If you don’t do your work, you’re going to fail.” There, I thought self-importantly at the end of that first class: that’s being a serious teacher.

As the week went on, and I saw my well-rehearsed bluster fall on ever more shocked and uncomprehending faces, I realized how spectacularly I had failed on that first day. Later that week, tucked under my apartment door, I found a note from Blue (or Kellen, as an exacting fellow teacher would insist), one of the students from that very first day of class. Written in the gorgeous penmanship typical of most of my students, she requested two things: that I smile more, and that I talk slower. Asking me to smile was really a prelude to asking me to speak more slowly, but the subtle advice to smile, to create an environment that would encourage my students, was just as necessary. My students needed to be comfortable with me before they could begin learning, before they could have the confidence to engage their first foreign teacher with their timid English. I needed a different approach. By the end of the week, I had thrown out my speech, sworn off the swagger, and simply talked. And they, in turn, began to talk back, asking about my family, about my university, about my jobs and friends and life “back home” on the other side of the world.

The class was Thesis Writing, and my students were seniors, English majors, mostly my age if not older. The course was ostensibly meant to instruct them on how to write their senior thesis, a daunting twenty-thousand word research paper that every senior had to write and present before a small group of teachers in order to graduate. Like so many things in China, however, what was meant to happen and what actually happened soon parted ways. Our textbook was a pencil-thin pamphlet, a science textbook full of hypothesis, not thesis statements, a book about reviewing the literature, rather than researching literature. It was totally unfit for the class and for the work the students had to do. I asked my waiban, the liaison between the school and the foreign teachers, for specifications for the theses, but beyond the strict, oft-emphasized word count, my questions were deflected or ignored. The school, it seemed, had as little clue of what I was supposed to do in class as I did.

So the weeks were spent reviewing the foundations of basic writing, while also practicing note-taking, citation, crafting a thesis and shaping an argument on the page. For practice, the class chose different sides of an argument and wrote short essays persuading their classmates. Headline-making news about the environment or globalization didn’t seem to stir them, but the Olympics or the age-old debate of “should boys be allowed to visit the girl’s dormitory” was met with vigor. Their writing was beginning to improve, and we were starting to have fun with our in-class writing: the Crocodile Hunter, Calvin and Hobbes, and the Simpsons all became fodder for essays. With the end of the term looming, I felt that I had found a balance between that first day’s severity and the need for accessibility.
And then, a month before the end of the term, the school invited a former student to lecture the entire senior class on the “proper” format for the thesis. One afternoon, one lecture, hundreds of students stuffed into a sweatbox of an auditorium, an entire semester of practice and preparation, all tossed aside. My students were told to disregard everything from class, to follow the lecturer’s thesis format above all else. I was angry, confused at the pointlessness of it all, that everything we had practiced all term was just thrown away, all without any input from or explanation given to me.

But remember: smile more. Clearly, thesis writing, as far as the school was concerned, had been taken care of. So I decided I would occupy the class with something else; again, I needed a different approach. In the face of administrative apathy, I could experiment, make the class my own. And in doing this, in turning the class into something more than what even I had hoped it would be during those first nervous days, I began to feel like my work, my being there, actually made a difference. A lesson on résumé writing mushroomed into weeks of excited class time as my seniors, all on the verge of entering China’s brutally competitive job market, wrote and refined their CVs. Small groups of students personally asked for help with their theses, and together, inside the classroom and out, we crafted strong, persuasive essays that ultimately earned them high marks. And I began frequently meeting with students, individually or in small groups, to review homework, do writing drills, or just practice their speaking. Students like Kaly, who met with me after class every week to review the essays she was practicing for the IELTS exam, with the hope of eventually studying abroad in the UK. We honed her essays to a keen edge, and after scoring higher than she had hoped on the exam, I helped her prepare her admissions essays and run mock interviews. I had the pleasure of visiting Kaly this summer, on my way home from China; she took a bus from her campus in Warwick to meet me in London.

China, what it does to you and the success you have there, isn’t easily measured. The strange alchemy of China is that hours in class can boil away and disappear into the ether, while a short chat after class, lunch with a small group, or an hour’s talk with a single student can offer that flash, that connection between people that bridges culture and language. These moments were the most rewarding for me in China, and the truth is, they often happened outside of class. I was blessed to be a single teacher, engaging my (relatively) small group of students with ideas and topics beyond the narrow focus of the prescribed course, and the great thing was that these connections and friendships continued outside of the classroom, cooking dumplings in my apartment or reviewing essays after class, offering my students something truly valuable: a window, a forum, exposure to a new voice from half a world away.

I left Zhanjiang in the late June heat, a familiar summer heat that had somehow returned without ever really going away; a heat I now knew. I am convinced that I learned more from my students than they could possibly have learned from me. We struggled through a single scene of Hamlet, a whole chapter of Gatsby, and the theses were at last delivered. Some students loved the literature, many were apathetic; some improved their writing, others never showed up for class. My final days in Zhanjiang were spent cleaning my apartment, giving away all the things you accumulate over a year that you can’t take with you. And when the morning came to say goodbye, I was surrounded by students, friends, that had engaged me beyond the class, in that strange nebulous area of life not mentioned in any job description or orientation. Maryknoll sent me to China to teach, and teach I did; but they also sent me to China to live, and as I said goodbye to my students and friends, reflecting on all that my students and experiences had taught me, I knew that I had lived, too.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

man i love zhanjiang!

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