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Inside the Middle Kingdom

Thursday, October 28, 2010

College Life

As of yet, I have not shared any of my experiences as a teacher here in China other than some earlier references about how helpful students have been here. Two months into this, I can now share some better insight into working with Chinese university students.

I teach three different subjects four days of the week. From the first week, I have been teaching Business English to sophomore students. This class is only half credit and I’m lucky if half of them show up. I teach four different class sections of this class Monday and Wednesday afternoons. The initial excitement and chemistry the students and I had has now run its course and I think it’s safe to say we all just show up to class because we have to. Not having any curriculum provided, I teach information, vocabulary and dialogues about telephone use, meetings and negotiations in a business setting. Try as I may, it is very difficult to make this subject material any bit interesting. I have tried to elicit conversations and I ask students about similarities in China. The problem is students do not respond. They do not raise their hands if I ask a question to the class. So the only way I can get a response to questions is if I ask students directly. Students will say “I don’t know” or just look at me. It’s a bit frustrating but I can’t say they are entirely to blame. From their previous education experiences, they may be used to only be lectured at and are not expected to share their opinion or participate in class discussions. Nevertheless, I can only be so understanding, especially when I catch students playing video games or talking on their phone when they should be giving a class presentation.

My saving grace and my pure teaching enjoyment has come from teaching my freshmen 2+2 students. They are called 2+2 students because they will spend their first two years of college here at Nanjing University of Finance and Economics and the second two years at Waterloo University in Ontario, Canada. Therefore, they have intense English courses for the next two years and have the incentive to take their English courses seriously. I teach Writing four hours a week and Oral English three hours a week to them. They are serious, motivated, and inquisitive students and they’re my babies. Every time I show up to class, all 43 of them are already waiting in their seats and they cheer or cry out when I enter the room (Thank you, thank you very much). I push them and give them a lot of work (which in turn is more work for me) but we are all learning a lot. The best thing is that it’s been a great teaching experience for me. It’s wonderful to have a class group of my own with whom I can establish a relationship and I have learned how to manage a class better as well as new teaching and assessment methods. All-in-all, they are helping me become a confident educator.

Go to college and you shall be set free
What mystifies me here is how much freshmen students are coddled. Sunday through Thursday nights, freshmen have mandatory study hall from 6:30-9:30 pm at different academic buildings on campus. By 10 pm, students must be in their rooms and as far as I know, lights have to be out at 11 or 11:30. Women especially have to keep their dorms orderly. Students also live all four years in the same room and with the same roommates (except for my 2+2s because they will go to Canada. Lucky them). The mandatory study time has proven a little tricky because I have wanted to organize an informal English conversation group at a café a ten minute walk off of campus. I soon found out though that they wouldn’t be able to go because of the study hour. I was able to talk to their teacher/ counselor who is in charge of their class. She told me that if students left campus, I would have to give a list to her the day before and then she would have to get the list approved by the dean or other higher ups. I would have to make sure I escort all of them to and from campus. Sheesh- it was too much work so I have agreed to now have dinner with my students in the cafeteria on Wednesdays nights before their study session begins. Freshmen are also not allowed to bring their own personal computers to school. Instead they must go to the library where the computers are quite old and slow. The university wants to limit their time socializing on the internet on Chinese social network sites like QQ. This has also been problematic as I have a class website where I post class notes. After I learned that students do not have easy access to the internet, I decided to stop using the site.

Impressions of love and dating
Students seem very innocent- especially when it comes to the opposite sex and the notion of love (Think 19 years old going on 11). In all my classes, the male students (by choice) sit in one section of the classroom and the female students all sit among each other in another section. Recently when showing the movie “Into the Wild”, there room was abuzz during a scene when the main male character went on a walk with a new love interest. Mind you, they were not even holding hands in scene! I think it was just the underlying sexual tension between the characters that put my students at unease. Still, they are intrigued about meeting the opposite sex. During lunch today, one of my students was checking a text message from a high school class mate. Her roommate exuberantly kept repeating to me, “He’s her boyfriend!” with my student vehemently denying her roommate’s claim. Perceptions of love also seem to be very naïve and innocent. The word love may be used very loosely and for a simple, innocent crush. During an oral exercise in class today, I asked my students a series of questions about interviewing people. One of the questions had to do with what they would ask a loved one if they had the opportunity. Even though I explained what was meant by “loved one” many of them misunderstood “loved one” and its connotation. After they were broken down into groups and were discussing the questions, several of them told me that it was just too personal of a question to answer. They thought that the question was asking what they would ask of a boyfriend or a girlfriend and only after I explained (again) that “loved one” could mean a family member, a good friend or anyone they care about, were they willing to answer the questions. During the same class session, when students were asked who they would interview if they could, I asked one of my students who is a huge fan of the book “Wuthering Heights”, whether he would want to interview Emily Bronte. “Yes!” He exclaimed. “She’s my lover!!!” This obviously got some snickers from the other students and I didn’t go into explaining that Emily Bronte is indeed not his lover. But who am I? Maybe he seriously believes she is his soul mate, that she speaks to his heart, and that they are really star crossed lovers through some strange time-warp dimension.

It's all in the name
Now a word about names. Thankfully for me, many of me students have English names which helps a little to avoid the embarrassment of mispronouncing a Chinese names (usually only embarrassing for me and the student whose name I mispronounce. Also I must admit that eight weeks into the semester, I am still having trouble identifying many of my students). The thing I like about English names is that students can pick an entire new name for themselves and can in fact have a separate identity if they want. Except for the fact that many of my students don’t know each other by their English names. So, for example, when I’m taking attendance and ask for the absent “Maryanne” and try to ascertain from the other students whether she is in fact in class and not saying anything (also common). I’ll repeat her English name 3 times only to get blank looks until I say, “Umm. Sorry. I mean is Zhan Xiu Chen here?” which is then usually followed by a laugh at my total butchering of her name and then the entire class’s recitation of the correct pronunciation of her name. “Um. Got it. Sooo, she’s not here, right??” Also quite confusing is that Chinese custom mandates that the family name (last name) be written and said first before a person’s given name (first name). This is to show respect to a person’s family and ancestors. For the first two weeks I probably called my students (who didn’t have English names) by their last names. I’m sure no offense was taken but I did have to spend some time explaining to my students that it is the reverse order with names in the US and many other countries of the world which may cause them or their foreign counterparts confusion if they ever end up working or interacting in a Western business or social setting.

English name choices are quite interesting. Many names are quite normal while others are quite unconventional. NBA basketball is quite popular here in China, especially among the male students. So it isn’t surprising that Kobe (Kobe Bryant) is a common and popular name. Students may also pick names from a favorite book or movie. My student who is Emily Bronte’s lover is called Austin Earnshaw (having not read Wuthering Heights before, I had to do a google search to figure out how Mr. Earnshaw came up with his name choice). Other unique names include Spawn, Sky, Circle, Arrow, Season, Lucifer and here’s the kicker… Nazi (not one of my students. I think Nazi’s teacher has advised his student to find another moniker).
Students engrossed and involved in group discussions.

More insights on student life in China to follow soon in Part II.

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