Teaching, Living, Learning

Things are great here on my side of the world. October in Hangzhou brought many adventures and chances to learn about China’s culture. Seven of the foreign teachers from my university took a little weekend trip to a village called DaTou, four hours west from Hangzhou.

The town was so small that there is no restaurant. So the home we stayed in cooked for us each meal. One morning we were awoken by the screams of a pig who was dying to be our lunch. Life in the village is simple, yet the people are content. There is no rush to make money, be anywhere, no traffic to fight and no deadlines to make. What is important is that the eggplant is harvested on time, the pigs are fed well so that they can be sold, and that the children learn to harvest as their parents do. It was a wonderful experience to live amongst such proud and wholesome people even if only for a weekend.

November started off with much excitement with my first trip to Shanghai. I took a train for the 90-minute journey and celebrated a friend’s birthday with a weekend of dancing, eating very expensive Western food (my first salad, fries and pancakes in 10 weeks), and reminiscing about our graduate school experience.

Shanghai was overwhelming. The streets are very narrow and the buildings are very tall, giving pedestrians a feeling of being oppressed. I visited the Shanghai Museum and The Bund, both of which were fascinating cultural experiences. Throughout the weekend I was thankful that I lost my visa and had to move to Hangzhou, because I realized how different my life would be if I lived there. It just reaffirmed my belief that all things happen for a reason.

Lately what has been consuming my life (besides learning Chinese, trying to make Chinese friends and doing my online school work) has been my job as a graduate school teacher. I absolutely love my students. All 197 of them.

The class I teach is called “English Speaking and Listening” which basically means we get to talk about whatever I want for 90 minutes, once a week. All of my students are computer, automation or foreign trade majors. So I see English class as a chance for them to loosen up, relax, laugh and actually enjoy school because all of their other classes are so rigorous.

Ninety percent of my students are male, and every single one of my students is older than me.

Monday mornings I always have a rush of panic. Will my lesson go over well? Will they understand? Is the timing right? Is this stupid? I always question myself, but once the bell rings, the show must go on and all my worries fade away. When I am in front of the class I have a piece of chalk in one hand and my heart in the other, offering it to them in hopes that they will respect and appreciate my efforts to share my language with them.

We have done lessons on pronunciation, listening, persuasion and mystery solving. They have role played travel scenarios and tried to sell household products. They have played telephone and listened to the tunes of Taylor Swift, Coldplay and Kanye West. We have drilled tongue twisters and been frustrated with the pesky difference in sound between “sat” and “that.” We have learned the value of body language and facial expressions and I think they think all Americans are as loud and expressive as I am (whoops).

Every week I do the same lesson eight times, so by Friday afternoon I have all of my jokes timed and class is running really smoothly. What I like best about my job, though, is each class has its own personality. I am digging into my student’s lives trying to figure out what moves them, what they respond to, and what their dream are.

A student recently told me how his parents lived in “Old China” and that they tell him to be thankful for what he has because 30 years ago they had no money under the Communist regime. A student today brought me an orange lollipop because she did not know if I knew what a lollipop was and wanted to share with me. And last week when I told my students that my younger sister was coming to visit, I cried out of happiness and was swarmed by students offering hugs and sharing in my joy.

I love them.

On Halloween I received a text from a precious student wishing me a, “Happy Hallowmas.” And when I checked my email Halloween night I received a Chinese e-card from class 19A. They have become my family in this far away land. I am anticipating celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas with these people who do not share the same customs, but who care about me even in my differences.

I do not feel so foreign when I am in my classroom. My students are my main source of constant joy in this place where sometimes I feel very alone. When I look at them sometimes I wonder how much my lessons really are helping them in their English skills because they are learning English in order to aid them in business or the international work force. Then I realize that it is not so much what I am teaching them, but how we are relating.

I like to think of my classroom as a mini peace-making process. Small bridges between our countries are being built every day — even by an action as small as the sharing of a lollipop. I love my job.

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