A Fresh Start

My second year at the same university was all blue skies.  My students and colleagues began to greet me in the streets and hallways.  Old grandmothers sitting in the afternoon sun would invite me to sit awhile with them – and I did even though I still hadn’t learned enough of the language to converse with them.  With the additional foreign teachers there was greater social interaction.  I especially enjoyed the company of a Soviet scientist who had a wonderful sense of humor and a quick mind to learn languages.  His companion was a pianist of some ability, so we all often gathered in the piano room to socialize while being serenaded after the evening meal.

Teaching philosophies differ greatly from East to West.  In China teachers are considered the source of all knowledge.  Even in foreign language classes the Chinese teacher lectures the whole two hours and is never to be questioned regarding the accuracy of his information.  In contrast, the Western teacher gives students as much class time as possible to practice their speaking and listening skills.  If the teacher makes an erroneous statement, he will usually correct himself and apologize.  The western teacher doesn’t single out students as “models” or scold anyone publicly.  Chinese children are taught to fear offending their elders, parents and teachers, so they wish to please.  If they fail to please they are very upset.  Thus, students in the foreign teachers’ classrooms attempt to please rather than practice their skills of listening and speaking.

I was accustomed to using an overhead projector in American classrooms and was told that the university had one I could use.  The individual assigned to the audiovisual room was overprotective and my classes were repeatedly interrupted by him to be sure I hadn’t absconded with it, so I decided it wasn’t worth the wasted class time to explain that I was still using the machine.  There were no overlays, so I used plastic wrap I had brought with me from the States and I was asked to turn that in to the audiovisual secretary, too.  The pens were permanent markers, so I couldn’t wash off the ink to reuse the plastic.  At last I gave up and the machines aged safely in their locked cabinets.

The use of audiovisual machines is more common now and videos are popular.  Rather than allowing the foreign teacher to control his own video showing, however, there is a central office where videos are turned on and off.  Sometimes videos are thought of as a form of entertainment rather than a lesson with stops and starts where the teacher may want to make a comment.  Videos need prior approval lest they be politically unacceptable, and they are routinely copied for the use of Chinese students and teachers, thus violating copyright laws.

One of the new foreign teachers was also new to teaching.  One day she came to lunch in tears and we asked what had happened.  She explained that her students wouldn’t respond to anything she said or did.  She even threatened to jump out the window if they didn’t talk to her.  She climbed up on the ledge of the sixth floor window but nobody made any effort to stop her so she climbed down and left the room crying.  Several of us with a little experience tried to explain the different cultural outlook and suggested some strategies for how to elicit responses from the students.  Eventually, she found her own ways to relate to the students by teaching them dance routines and youth subculture language and humor.

                                                  I Learn A Lesson                                                                          

During one lesson I called on the class monitor to recite.  Class monitors are similar to class presidents in American junior-senior high schools.  However, class monitors are chosen by the Party Secretary of the Foreign Languages Department primarily for political responsibilities, among which is to report any unacceptable comments made by the foreign teachers at any time, in or out of class.  This particular class monitor was quite friendly with me and often came with his girl friend to visit me at my apartment.

The lesson in which I called on the class monitor to recite occurred the second year I taught in this university and was also Barry’s second year in my classes.  By this time students knew not to stand when I called on them, but Barry stood with his head down as though he were made of stone.  I waited until the silence was heavy.  Barry began to shed a few tears and the class looked at me to see what I might do.  But I didn’t know what to do.  Barry continued to stand even though I gave him permission to sit, so at last I dismissed the class and asked them all to leave the room except his girl friend.  He still refused to sit or to speak, so reluctantly I also left the room.  The whole class waited anxiously outside the door and refused to go to lunch without him.

Later in the day Barry regained his composure and came with his girl friend to my apartment to explain that he hadn’t read the day’s assignment and couldn’t answer my question.  He was so ashamed to have embarrassed himself in front of all his classmates that he didn’t know what to do; thus he stood and remained standing.  While I was so accommodating he took the opportunity to ask if he and his girlfriend might stay in my apartment some night to watch TV while I was teaching a night class.  Reluctantly I agreed, not knowing how to refuse, for I was sympathetic with the students who had never seen such opulence as their foreign teachers were provided: carpets on the floor; upholstered furniture; a refrigerator, although small to be sure; our own private bathrooms with hot water once a day for an hour; a telephone and a television.

Chinese authorities dole out perks according to the perceived status of their teachers and are not pleased when the recipient shares his bounty, so I was hesitant to allow the two to watch TV in my apartment while I was in class.  I asked them not to answer the door if anyone knocked and not to answer the phone if it should ring.  Having received their solemn promise I went to class.  Knowing something of the culture, I should have known better, for when I returned Barry told me he had answered the phone and an FAO helper had called.  The FAO assistant, also a student, was furious that Barry was in my apartment and came immediately to throw him out.  Barry assured me that I had nothing to worry about because he had whipped the Foreign Affairs assistant.  The assistant had lost face so nothing was said to me about the students being in my apartment, but I never again allowed anyone to stay in the apartment when I was out.

Barry’s very pretty girl friend came to visit me fairly often and I enjoyed her company because she was quick-witted and had a keen sense of humor.  Sometimes I noticed bruises on her face and arms and asked her about them.  She always had an explanation.  However, other Chinese and American teachers observed the bruises as well, so we spoke to the Chinese teacher in charge of this class.  The Chinese teachers suspected that Barry was beating her and then threatening to harm himself if she told.  We asked her to quit seeing him but she was too afraid of the consequences if she did.

Finally, at the end of the two-year normal school training, students were assigned by the provincial government to various rural elementary schools.  Barry was assigned to a small school in the countryside near his home and his girl friend was sent to a small rural school near her home, far from Barry.  As is common in China, Barry tried diligently to get his assignment changed to be nearer her but his father didn’t have enough power or money to influence the officials.  Thus, the girl was free at last from Barry’s abuse.


Because non-English majors are required to know some English, the engineering students wanted to have a foreign teacher.  It was university policy to give foreign teachers classes of 100 or more students in lecture theaters, which made student-teacher interaction difficult.  Rather, the teacher was expected to lecture/entertain for two hours.  However, I refused to lecture two hours, preferring to involve the students in a little oral practice though it be minimal.  After the first hour’s lecture there was a 10 or 15 minute break, then l took attendance again since students tended to slip out during the break and not come back.  After attendance students counted off and I passed out simple questions about the lesson.  In their small groups they answered their questions for their classmates.  They loved this non-threatening strategy so attendance in my classes didn’t wane at the end of the semester as other teachers’ classes did.  Their grades were based on attendance and participation, so they were able to get good grades with relative ease in my classes.

Occasionally I gave written quizzes.  Students regularly helped each other so I explained that I would walk around with a red pen and mark zeros on the papers of those who loaned or borrowed seat mates’ papers.  But when I actually began walking around marking on papers there were cries of indignation.  One young man declared in a very passionate letter the following week that he would never like me because I gave him a zero unjustly.  Keeping in mind that this is a very relationship oriented culture, I was supposed to be crushed because he had withdrawn his favor.  The next week I handed him a response in which I explained that both the person who “loaned” his paper and the person who “borrowed” the paper were equally at fault.  There was no question about the reason he got a zero.  The third week the student’s letter had a less vitriolic tone as he explained that he was not to be blamed because he was an excellent student.  The friend at his side was to be blamed because he was not such a good student and needed extra help.  Shouldn’t the better student help the less able one?  The fourth week I replied that some day he would be in charge of others as a leader.  As one responsible for the lives of his men, would he condone incompetent workers in places of accountability?  This was the last week of our correspondence for he let the matter drop.

At the end of the semester this student had the highest grade not only in his class but among all the undergraduate engineering students in my classes.  One evening he knocked on my door dressed in his best suit.  I was delighted to see him, sincerely respectful of his courage in writing the letters to me as well as his consistent class work and commendable attitude.  He came to thank me for my letters in response to his.  He had given thought to my point about responsibility and decided he wanted to rise to my concept of an accountable leader.

A Stranger Visits the Classroom

As a teacher in China I was sometimes surprised by classroom climate.  One day Tim, who had been assigned by the FAO to be my translator during a holiday event, unexpectedly knocked on my classroom door.  I was busy presenting the lesson so I asked a student near the door to please answer the knock.  The student was horrified to see a stranger and refused to let Tim in so I went to see who was there.  Seeing Tim, I invited him in and asked a girl student to share a seat with another girl because there were no empty seats.  Tim sat and seemed to be pleased but the students all leaned away from him and were silent, not even responding to the lesson.  After class Tim commented that he didn’t like my students.  They weren’t friendly.

The following week I asked the students why they were so rude to my friend.  They declared that I lacked judgment in picking up strangers in a foreign culture and they were afraid he was a murderer.  This was no laughing matter to them so I explained how I had met Tim.  Then I further explained that since this was an English language  classroom taught by an American I hoped they would understand my perspective and be more hospitable next time.  There was no next time but I have related that incident to other groups of students as a springboard to discussing cultural differences and ideas about hospitality.  Apparently the reaction of the class Tim visited was not typical although rural areas do tend to be insular.

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