Teaching in China by Jonathan Goetz
It took me less than ten minutes to decide where I wanted to volunteer during my gap year: I was going to China, the rising superpower, the most populated nation, the 5000 year old culture (a fact I was reminded of on a daily basis). I spent three months teaching conversational English in a college in Wujiang, a town three hours drive outside of Shanghai.
I stayed with my supervisor, an English teacher, along with her husband and nine year old son. Although I was just a guest for a few months, she brought me into her life, inviting me on outings and trips with her family and friends. I have no doubt that my experience would have been far less rich, deep and varied without her.
I would be lying if I said I was not nervous about teaching students a few years older than me. However this turned out to be an asset as it really helped the students relax and feel comfortable. My first lesson with every class was exactly the same. I would walk in and talk a little about myself while the students giggled and tried to subtly take photos of me with their phones. After the first few times this happened I asked my supervisor whether I was doing something wrong or embarrassing. She smiled briefly before saying “Most people in this town have never seen a Westerner before.” I had honestly never considered that possibility before.
As I was teaching university aged students I had expected a reasonably high level of English. Even so the students written English far exceeded my expectations. They could comfortably write about almost any topic, from their personal lives and experiences to the environment and economy. However their spoken English appeared very poor at first. I could ask a very simple question and be met with five minutes of silence. Fortunately I discovered that this was an issue of willingness to speak rather than ability to speak.
It took a month of coaxing, mixed with a generous portion of bad Chinese on my part, but I finally got the students to speak with me without breaking down in nervous laughter. By the middle of the second month I was chatting with the students out of class, getting their advice about interesting activities in town and even playing badminton and table tennis with them. By the time I left I felt like I have made some genuine friends in the students.
My time outside of work was almost completely spent with my host family. I got to see the differences between Chinese and Western families first hand, and there are some big differences. Table manners in China are totally different to those in the West. Spitting, slurping, eating from the serving bowl are totally acceptable, and often required. And I have never seen a nine year old work so hard in my entire life. I also spent some time every night helping my host with her conversational English. These conversations taught me so much about Chinese culture and view of life. They also helped me understand and adjust.
For example I noticed that Chinese people use please and thank you sparsely and only for important things. This confused and bothered me a little until I asked my host about it. She explained that many Chinese interactions involve favours being traded and that overuse of please and thank you may mean that a person is trying to get out of repaying a favour. Instantly it made sense. Once I understood the roots of a difference it became much easier to adapt to.
Holidays and school breaks also gave me time to explore some of the major cities around my town: Suzhou the water city, full of canals and classical Chinese gardens. Hangzhou the city of silk and tea, with a large, beautiful lake in the centre that is famous throughout China. Nanjing old capital, complete with a 25 mile, 3 story high city wall around it. Before visiting China I had never heard of any of these places. But each of them was completely different from anything I had seen in the West before. I would never have thought of visiting these places on my own before, and certainly would never have enjoyed them as much without insider tips from my host family.
After three months teaching I spent two weeks touring China; a week in Shanghai and a week in Beijing. My students often told me that Shanghai was a very Western city. I would argue that Shanghai is probably more Western than any city in the West. Modern, efficient and clean (other than the pollution), Shanghai was all about the new China. In the same way Beijing is all about the old China.
I spent my last week visiting the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace, the Temple of Heaven, all the stereotypical attractions in China. I had seen everything I knew of in China before my trip in the space of five days. The other three months were all about exploring new things. This trip has taught me more new things than I could have possibly learned on my own.