Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Letters to a Young Waijiao

You don't have to be good at Chinese to know that 老师 'teacher' and 外教 'foreign teacher' are two different words. You don't have to be inexperienced with China to find this creepy.

Here are my seriously fallible points about how not to act. They run contrary to what many people with China-experience will tell you, and maybe I will change my mind on some of them. But here goes:

1. Don't believe what people say about you
You're probably not a wealthy, well-connected person with loose sexual morals. Although most Chinese people will think that you are.

2. Don't feel you have to tolerate your linguistic identity
Finding opportunities to converse in Chinese can be an uphill struggle. Lots of people see you as a toy to practise English with, others will not be able to get their head around the fact that a foreigner speaks their language, and therefore not understand a word of your perfect Mandarin. Be firm and be thick-skinned.

3. Hello is not a swear word after all
This is easy to forget after being in China for a while. No words are bad, it is the way people use them that is bad. "Hello" is a word that is capable of a lot of friendliness and even tenderness.

4. Teaching oral English is a kind of performance
Language teaching always has a visual element to it anyway. I once got indignant about being required to be different to their Chinese teachers, but Chinese youngsters are generally a lot more passive than what a Western person might be used to. "The best teacher makes you forget that there's a teacher in the room" is a good sentiment, but it simply can't work in a class of more than a dozen students. They're looking to you - perform.

5. You are merely leading horses through water
Your school may try to convince you that you are at fault if some Students are uncooperative, or blaming you for unsatisfying progress. I have been directly involved with formal learning for all but a few months of my life, and in my experience, a person who is not self-motivated will simply not learn. You can't build an ark for everyone.

6. You are not the Messiah - honestly
You are here to do a job, not to make dreams come true. The education system here is corrupt in a way that will take more than a generation to fix.

7. You are a plaything - get used to it
You might be an excellent teacher, but that's not why you're sought after. You might be excellent at Chinese, but that also isn't why you are sought after. You are wanted because of wht you look like and the linguistic identity that it carries. People in authority will often seem corrupt and indifferent to/ignorant of the learning process. They might well be. But that doesn't make them terrible people, they were fucked up in their turn by fools in old-style trench-coats.


Nick Herman said...

I agree with all your points; only would like to add an optimistic point, that one can sometimes make a difference in ways that are the least expected. Dougald kept trying to tell me that when I was there, but I didn't realize it until after, that the most fulfilling parts where perhaps I "taught" the most, all happened outside the classroom, when I was playing my guitar in the courtyard during lunch-time, or sneaking by security guards with a group of my students.

Just watched your sueno. Nice--although it's hard for me to judge the quality of the tone as it's a very poor recording. Personally, it sounds a little rushed, but that might just be my preference. I would emphasis the sustain a bit more.

Dougald Hine said...

Good post! Brings back a lot of memories for me. And the performance thing is absolutely true.

Can you say more about the nature of the corruption you refer to? You've spent a lot longer in China now than I did and your grasp of the language is far greater, so I'm sure you've tuned in to things I was barely aware of.

Kevin said...

8. You have the power to influence people. Don't do anything stupid

There aren't many jobs in which you can influence people. And in most of those, you have to have grey hair and laugh-lines to get into that position.
But when you're a waijiao, plenty of people want to hear what you've got to say.

Few things are more important in human affair these days than increasing understanding between China and the English-speaking world. Don't pander to people you hate but be a douchebag

Kevin said...

It's a cliche to say that two pillars of Chinese socity are 面子mianzi(face) and 关系guanxi.

One memorable thing that wouldn't happen back home:
I was pissed off with the school's administration one morning, their inability to plan a piss up in a brewery prevented me from being able to execute my lesson plan well. So I spent 90 minutes sitting like a sulky teenager allowing the Students to watch karaoke videos.

Instead of being disciplined, I was wined and dined by the vice-Principal. Of course, he didn't want to know about my Chinese, so we had to have a 1hour conversation in broken Chinglish.

They seemed afraid that I would grass the school up and cause them to lose mianzi. Although the debacle was at least 60 percent my fault.

When it comes to 拉关系la guanxi - establishing relations, their language has some beautiful phrases. 拉关系zou houmen - enter the back door: this refers to people who enter prestigious schools for reasons other than merit. Of all the sources I've had on this phenomenon, not one has told me that less than 50% of people have '走后门zou houmen'

In our culture, we think it crazy to place as much importance in one-off exams as is done over here. Of course, most people here think it crazy too, that's why cheating is widespread, sometimes spilling over into systematic.

The only way to keep it real over here is learned and leisurely hospitality. Even "hello" catcalls or the usual reel-off of dumb questions can lead to interesting, ranty conversations. It's important to be open-minded and tolerate the flow of 酒肉朋友 jiuroupengyou (alcolhol and meat friends/fair-weather friends) to establish enough 知心朋友 (have knowledge of each-others' heart friends), they're always out there.

Kevin said...

I mean "don't be a douchebag" just don't be

Chris said...

This post would be invaluable in a handbook for foreigners heading to China to teach, all spot on points. Although I haven't been in China for very long, I can certainly relate to the point about being a performer or play-thing.

I find the "hello" to be increasingly annoying of late too. Mostly it's very welcoming or fun, but sometimes -- especially when spoken by males in a very high pitched voice -- it sounds like they are trying to make fun of me.

Kevin said...

I am only a year older trhan you, and have only been in China since May 2007. All I have to my name is unusual progress with the language and extreme chutzpah!

Kevin said...
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