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A Year Teaching English in China

Teachers must not talk politics or ‘spread eroticism’ when employed in China

Every summer many new graduates head off to teach English in China, attracted by the pull of the Orient and a steady wage. Last year, eager for distraction during caffeine-fueled revision, I was one of them. When an email plopped into my inbox offering teaching jobs in China with Student Guardian, I was tempted. An email and five minute telephone interview resulted in a 10 months at Shimen School in Foshan, Guangdong, at 4000 rmb (250 pounds) per month.

Search the internet, was Student Guardian’s teaching advice. From googling I gleaned that Guangdong is industrial and renowned for varied cuisine – insects, dogs and animal genitals. I blithely got on the plane with a few Mandarin phrases and a suitcase of English novels, insect repellent and an emergency tin of baked beans. At Guangzhou airport: I found a teacher from Shimen School, cheerily waving a photograph of me. That evening, I nervously perma-smiled during dinner, as she discussed me with the school secretary in Cantonese,

“Mrs Yu says you are very beautiful.”

I felt like one of the fish in the tanks lining the restaurant walls, as families eagerly selected dinner.

“Can you use chop-sticks?”

A huge fish with resplendent yellow fins grinned up at me – in China your food often comes with a face – as the guest I was supposed to begin. I didn’t. I squirmed.

In many ways that evening was representative of what was to come. As a ‘foreigner’ (rarely dignified with a nationality) I was an exotic animal, stared at and prodded. In Huang Qi, the town near Guangzhou where Shimen School is located, there were few foreigners – Shimen’s four foreign teachers were probably the only Westerners living here. When we went out, people stared. And I mean they STARED. So much so, that we nearly caused traffic accidents when drivers turned around to look. Sometimes they snapped a mobile phone photo. As you can imagine, this was uncomfortable and isolating, especially when no one spoke English.

After the meal we went to my school apartment. As we stepped over the threshold, a cockroach scuttled past my foot.

“This is er…lovely.”

Every surface was thick with dust, the walls studded with squashed mosquitoes and indeterminate stains. My bathroom was a shower head above a squat toilet; a rusty tap and bucket in place of a sink. A grimy mosquito net covered a lumpy bed with the previous occupant’s unwashed sheets. And no bowls, plates or cups – not a lone chopstick.

In spite of assurances that the school had cleaned the apartment, my first night was spent squashing cockroaches and scrubbing and I woke eager to purchase utensils and insect spray. I waited. And waited. I picked up the grubby archaic telephone: bleeping and Cantonese. By 10 am I was so hungry that I ventured outside. The only thing I could identify in a shop was a packet of wafer biscuits. I sat in my apartment eating wafers and having a little cry. Finally I got through to the school secretary, and we went to the canteen. Disturbed by the laissez-faire approach to my first day I asked to visit a supermarket. I was unceremoniously dumped in the car park to roam the aisles of odd looking products and wonder where the chocolate was.

By this time I wanted to go home. I had consumed my emergency baked beans and things were looking a bit desperate. Student Guardian refused to send the other foreign teachers’ email addresses for weeks, claiming that we would compare cockroaches, I mean conditions. For a week I had no contact with other foreign teachers, and in such a disorientating time all I wanted was a little moral support.

Then I met my students. They were so welcoming, so unlike grumpy dysfunctional English teenagers that I began to feel vaguely at home. Yet they emphasised their teachers’ chilliness – many don’t speak English, but those who do are hardly voluble. One told me:

“Shimen has had foreign teachers before,” and, as we’re obviously all the same, they’re simply not interested any more.

The school asked me to teach early, a mere 36 hours after my plane landed. It was a relief to discover that my ‘foreigner’ allure (for many students we are the first they meet) made up for inexperience. The 60 students in each class were enthusiastic as well as impressively well-behaved, despite their grueling 7 am to 10.10pm schedule.

Conversely, my nine 40 minute weekly classes were less than demanding. The school chose compulsory ‘New Concept English’ textbooks alarmingly irrelevant to Western Culture, our lesson title. Students endured NCE’s happy little tales about pigeon post, or drunken ghosts, supplemented by my lavish sprinkle of English culture – from chat-up lines to pop, TV to history. Every lesson students gave speeches where they usually praised a singer or football team, but little Jenny began:

“We Chinese are angry with the West. CNN insulted China, and we won’t go to Carrefour…”

I remarked that boycotting a French supermarket was a pointless protest against America and we abandoned NCE for political debate: Class six versus the foreigner. Silence about politics comes after not ‘spreading eroticism’ in my contract, but it’s impossible to ignore intelligent teenagers making bizarre statements:

“England hates China; the Western press lies about China; England hopes the Olympics fail.”

Any inference that they’re narrow-minded results in denial that Westerners can comprehend their country for,”only we Chinese understand China.”

They may have been prejudiced but they loved to discuss topics their teachers skirted around – politics or relationships (‘being in love’ is banned, and offenders are publicly shamed). Our English activities resemble covert meetings, although we’re careful not to impose views. Lucy1 wondered “Why has no Chinese person won the Nobel Prize?”

It was too tempting not to mention a certain Nobel Laureate Tibetan terrorist – a terrorist only in China – the Dalai Lama. After research Lucy was confused,

“Why would Chinese news lie?” Now she compares Western and Chinese news online.

Meeting students like Lucy and navigating potential cultural pitfalls was exciting. Some days I was elated by chatting to my hairdresser in Mandarin, and escaping the unwanted Mohican another foreign teacher received. On other days I was Richard E. Grant stranded in the countryside in ‘Withnail and I,’ yelling: “We’ve come on holiday by mistake! We want to go home!”

Besides the usual cultural shock clich├ęs, I have learned a lot this year. Forming self-reliance was impossible at university where layers of safety netting muffled the real world. In an alien country life experience is immaterial; you have to start again – a new language, new social forms, like the concept of ‘face’, which makes criticism rude and hearing ‘thank you’ rare.

It’s also hard to lose your English political correctness radar to contend with the Chinese habit of unhesitating personal comments; comments that would strike you off a Western Christmas card list. A size 8, I’m hardly overweight, but students observe, “Your stomach is big.” We’re asked after 9 months, “Can you use chopsticks?” As we’re so fat they must wonder how we manage to fill our big bellies.

Moving to a developing Communist country I didn’t anticipate Western manners, but the school’s cavalier, self-important conduct towards teachers, Chinese and foreign was shocking. We were asked to give up a holiday to coach the debating team but the Chinese teachers had no choice. Thanking our Mandarin teacher for a fun lesson, she said, “But I have to do this.” The school was forcing her to teach us without pay.

If we worked in a city school there would be compensations: nightlife and sights. But Shimen School was in a scummy industrial suburb. The only nightlife was a drab cluster of prostitutes outside the school and a few drab nightclubs. And when I travelled to Foshan, the destruction wrought by the Cultural Revolution was more noticeable than in tourist trail cities. Westernised luxury goods leered out of empty shops; assistants outnumbered customers. Brand new American-style malls heaved with products that we – earning 4 times more than average Chinese families – can’t afford.

Then, depressed by the eerie materialism, I’d see something touching. In the evenings squares throughout China fill with line-dancing women. Smiling and trying out their few English words, they taught us steps, and left us thinking, ‘I’d never find that in England’.

With one month left I’m ambivalent about my year in China. I will miss my students, and keep in touch with some. Although my experience has been mixed, I’m trying not to let the school’s attitude overshadow good memories. Whereas Shimen’s apathy implies that they don’t really enjoy having foreign teachers, despite oh-so-smiley welcome dinners, other foreigners praise their schools.

Nonetheless I could never assimilate to Chinese culture; however long I lived here I would always be a foreigner, subject to assumptions, never truly accepted. Sometimes I am unsure why I am here – perhaps the increased fees that schools with foreign teachers charge – when a DVD could replace me. China’s foreign teachers are expected to conform to Chinese culture, yet with no lee-way for our cultural differences. We’re invited here to teach ‘Western Culture’, then instructed not to behave like Westeners.

China recognises the need for its children to learn English. But only on Chinese terms.

Jen Newby