"Wish You Happy Every Day": An Expat's Life in China

When people act like your career is a joke (and why it isn’t)
May 9, 2015, 1:25 pm
Filed under: efl world, teaching, the expat life | Tags: ,

Oh, if I had a kuai for every time a fellow expat said to me, “Teaching English isn’t a real job…” And indeed, it’s easy to fall victim to the “my job is an illusion” mentality–that’s the guiding principle of your co-workers, perhaps, and it’s an unspoken truth that your manager knows as well.  So what’s to stop you from going down the same dragonhole?

Let’s add another kuai to every time people said, “Teaching is easy,” and I think I’d be a millionaire in RMB. During my first year I thought that there must have been something wrong with me. Why were all of my painstakingly wrought lessons coming apart at the seams? How do you get your “little friends” to stop throwing tantrums like little hysterical hyenas?

I realize that not all English teachers here are in it for the career development. They’re here to travel or to learn Chinese. Some are even here because jobs are scarce in their home countries. And some just simply are not the 9-5 types.  Some are artists, looking for a way to make a living while making art.  Of course, these are all legitimate reasons.

Really, not matter why you’re here at the front of the class, it can be hard to summon the motivation to keep going. There are so many things that can bring a teacher down, like:

  • demanding work, possibly long hours and weekend work
  • disinterested management (I experienced that a lot in China)
  • lack of resources or support from school
  • abysmally low pay (in the U.S., at least; in other countries, including China, teaching English can be lucrative)

Add it all up, plus or minus other factors like culture shock, a faulty curriculum, an unrealistic schedule, difficult or confrontational students, etc, and suddenly you’re looking at grad school programs in anything other than teaching.

So if you tell me that teaching is an easy job, I will charge you a kuai and point out that you just insulted every language teacher. Good job.

But if you ask me how I stay motivated, I will show you this card:

samantha note

This is from a current student of mine who has encountered a lot of difficulty in her classes. She particularly likes to fight with me about English grammar.  I, along with other teachers, poured a lot of time into her studies.  It’s been hard for her, and sometimes she’s not the easiest student to work with, but she’s been making small strides!

I also think about former students who have enjoyed greater success because of their English skills–a student who got a promotion in a bank, another one who is now finishing up her MBA in the States (with mostly A’s), and of course Lipeng, who is pursuing his ambition of becoming a director (and recently got offered a job as Assistant Director! Whoo hoo! Go Lipeng!).

I’m not saying I’m responsible for their achievements. It just feels good to know that I did something to help them forge their own futures.

I’ve sat in on classes, though, with foreign teachers who make it very clear they have better things to do. It’s really embarrassing to watch a “teacher” scrap the lesson entirely just to rant about things they find annoying about China.  They even make fun of the students sometimes!  Or they just go on about their own petty problems.  Basically, anything unprofessional thing a teacher can do, I’ve seen–and it’s always been a foreign teacher in China. 

Why settle for being just another foreign face when you could be, well, an inspiration? Or at least a positive representation of your country? In China, people have such limited resources to learn about the world beyond their borders, so they look to foreign teachers for a something more intimate and informative than a Friends rerun.  

How to become a better teacher is perhaps not the sexiest of topics at the expat bars, but it’s worth talking about. At the very least, I hope all of you teachers out there, expat or not, career-driven or in it for the experience, will remember your worth, and that your job is as real as any other job. It is not a joke unless you think it is, and if that’s the case then that’s how your students will treat your class. And you.



Baseball, Chinese-style
April 22, 2015, 11:37 pm
Filed under: Asia abroad, Chinese culture, efl world, teaching | Tags: , ,

Ah, spring time in San Francisco: mornings of cloudy, cold, constipated sky, trying so hard to rain.  Oh wait, it’s like this all year.  Living in the Bay Area, I often lose track of the time. How does one tell that spring has sprung?

From the Giants fans.

It’s more like baseball season has sprung.  In the evenings and on weekends, hordes of people decked in black and orange Giants merchandise cram onto the BART and on the T Line.  In North Beach, every bar lining the streets is imploding with cheers from the fans.

Baseball season is the kind of thing so cultural that its energy seeps into the most curmudgeonly of us–even I get excited by it, and I’m about as sports savvy as Millhouse from The Simpsons.  So it seemed like something I should teach my Chinese students.

Last year, infected with baseball fever myself, I led my students on an expedition to a nearby park, where we would play a game of baseball.  Beforehand, I had explained the game in detail, showed them clips from different Giants games and taught some essential vocabulary.  Some of the boys were eager get onto the field and go, while the rest just sort of blankly looked at my diagram.  “It’s OK,” I said. “Let’s just go play. You’ll pick it up!”

Once at the park, they sorted themselves into teams. They eager boys got to bat first. Unfortunately, they hadn’t watched the video I’d showed them closely enough in class, because they had no idea how to throw the ball or swing the bat. 

My dear students standing around, waiting for somebody to do something.

My dear students standing around, waiting for somebody to do something.

The thing is, in China, baseball is an unplayed game with mysterious rules. Racket sports, however, are all the rage.  Go to any park in the evenings and you’ll see friends, couples and semi-professionals playing badminton, and pretty much everyone is reasonably good. (Further proof that I am sports-challenged: in China, after I played badminton with some students, one of them told me that I looked like a cartoon character. So that’s why a couple of them kept giggling…) 

It should come as no surprise, then, that every ball that got pitched followed a vertical path over everyone’s heads, and the batter kept waving the bat around like it was tennis racket.  Miss after miss after miss, the basewomen (they were all girls who didn’t want to play) slumped, hopped and daydreamed on their respective bases.  Good thing this wasn’t real baseball, otherwise we’d be sleeping in the park.

I showed them again how to pitch and how to bat, and they kind of got it, enough for the batter to actually make contact with the ball, which went rolling along the grass.  The batter looked around. “Run!” I shouted. “Run to first base!” The batter ran to first base, looked around and kept running.  Pretty soon the basewomen were running too.  The ball lay forgotten in the grass.

“Why are we running?” one girl asked.

Can you believe that, at the end, the boys wanted to know where to buy a metal bat and a hard baseball? Don’t worry, they came back to class on Monday with a full set of teeth.

Silent Classroom Syndrome, and Tricks to Fix it
March 25, 2015, 3:47 pm
Filed under: efl world, teaching | Tags:

You know what I’m talking about: that dreaded minute…or twenty minutes…or whole hour of staring at ten to fifty people who have absolutely nothing to say.

It’s frustrating, stressful and just downright uncomfortable when you get stuck with Silent Classroom Syndrome. You may think, “What’s wrong with these people? I can think of a million things to say!”

Well, of course you can. You’re a native speaker, after all.

Whatever you do, don’t take it personally! We’ve all been there, and luckily there are a few things you can do to cut down on the silence and up the energy. The following are a few “hacks” you can apply to your own classroom; nothing fancy, just quick tweaks that will make your lesson run smoother, all of which I learned in my CELTA course, and then tested/perfected through personal experience.

  • Focus on a target language for every lesson. That could range from past simple (a grammar target) to travel language (a vocabulary target) to talking about food (a fluency/oral production target). A lesson without a goal lacks purpose and may inspire your students to turn inward and philosophize: “What am I actually learning? Why am I here? When can I go?” Once your lesson has a goal, keep students on topic by assigning relevant tasks.
  • Always give students time to first talk or work in pairs for a few minutes, then return to the group to discuss what they did. Some students love to take the spotlight as soon as you ask a question, but most don’t. In China, people usually hesitate to volunteer in class out of the concern for losing face.  This is a cultural hurdle that you can easily jump over by having students first commiserate in pairs.  It forces everyone to speak, but also makes volunteering in class less daunting.  Plus, it gives you a little downtime. It’s insane to expect a person to communicate with other people for 4-5 hours straight without a break. Treat these moments as a rest for your voice and your brain, and a chance to learn from your students.
  • Avoid open-ended tasks; give very specific instructions.  Asking a question that begins, “What do you think about…” is asking for awkward silence. Abracadabra! And the Awkward Silence Genie appears. So ask specific questions and the genie will go crawling back into the magic lamp.  For example, let’s say you want to ask about the country vs. cities. Instead of asking “What do you think of the countryside and the city?” you could give them this task: “List three adjectives for the countryside and three adjectives for the city. How are they different? How are they the same? Are you more of a country person or a city person?” Then you can extend the activity by having students give specific examples (ie, “the city is exciting because there are so many people and so many activities, like public dancing and KTVs,” or “the countryside is dirty because there’s not a lot of money for public health”). And don’t have them answer on the spot – put them in pairs (see above). Questions like these encourage language skills and critical thinking without putting pressure on students.
  • Demo. Demo. Demo!!!! You should always model activities before assigning them. If it’s a worksheet, do number one together. If it’s a game, choose the strongest student in the class and perform an example with him/her. Failure to provide a demo will almost always cause confusion and waste precious time (and the students are often counting).
  • To add a little flair to your lesson, use a creative lead in. This is a 5-10 minute activity intended to generate interest in the lesson topic or target language.  Take a look at whiteboard down here, a snapshot of one of my lessonsF309Oot23y7oC5bfqy_tJ24LePr8SGkDGoQOk4UlvZ0 Now imagine the board is blank, except for that picture of the jumping girl. I show students the picture and ask, “What is she doing?” A student will say, “She’s jumping.” Then I’ll ask, “Why is she jumping?” “She’s happy.” “OK. What happened that made her so happy?” And if you have a fun group, they’ll invent all sorts of reasons why, ranging from “She got her dream job” to “She found a rich husband.” This is not the most exciting lead-in, but it’s simple, it’s direct and it’s a lot better than starting class with, “OK everyone, today we’re going to study present continuous. What is present continuous? Anyone?” Other possible lead ins include storytelling, short group discussions, or if you’ve got a theatrical streak, putting on a show and getting the students out of their chairs. (For a lesson on phrasal verbs, I post a bunch of pictures all around the classroom, announce that I’m curating a gallery in a museum, and invite students to walk around and “take in the art,” and of course they’re free to discuss the deeper meaning of the “art.”) By the way, this lesson is on present simple and present continuous, or more specifically, active versus stative verbs. I found that students were often unable to differentiate active and stative verbs, making their grasp over present continuous rather tenuous. After we established that “jump” is an active verb, we were able to make a list in both categories.
  • Test what students learn with worksheets. I believe language acquisition is solidified through writing exercises. Worksheets are doable for most students because they’re a question of plugging in the variables to solve for X. Plus, it means you get a little breather. Check out Azar’s and Macmillan for some solid worksheets; esl flow also has an eclectic, if at times haphazard, selection.
  • Jot down mistakes that you hear students make (especially common Chinglish) and then put them on the board. Most of these mistakes are performance-oriented, meaning students know how to correct them but make them out of habit, especially while speaking. Sometimes, though, they are parroting mistakes that their Chinese teachers erroneously taught them. Perk up your ears, get them down and correct them as a group. Amazingly, the corrections you make together will stick in their brains. It’s a nice way to end the class because the students walk away with a valuable little nugget.

However you decide to proceed, never seek revenge on your students. You may inadvertently begin to ask leading questions, edged with anger–resist. It’s not personal (usually). The students probably dread SCS just as much as you do–they just don’t know how to fix it. And if fifty people can’t respond to your lesson, then it’s most likely you, not them.

Then there are the times when SCS is just unavoidable, and alas, this is just one of the low points of teaching. Sometimes your students have nothing in common, or none of them want to be there, or everyone is locked in shyness . . . I find that these types of classes respond best to group work and less well to Teacher Talk Time, though it’s easy to go toward that direction. It’s important for these students to build rapport with each other.

Also, keep in mind that although silence is grating, even alarming, to new or untrained teachers, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Students aren’t machines–they need time to think and absorb information.  Don’t be afraid of it! Wield it.

Above all, remember that your job is important, and even if you’re not Teacher of the Year, even if teaching is not where your talent or passion lies, you can still make it a worthwhile experience, for both you and your students. Sharing your language and culture, learning about China from your students–it’s all part of the adventure of living abroad, and you deserve to get the most out of it!

Schools in Dalian
June 29, 2011, 1:43 pm
Filed under: teaching | Tags:

Someone recently asked me to name a few English schools in Dalian. Here is a (definitely incomplete) listing:

Aston English/Future English – as far as I know, mainly kids.

New Oriental english.neworiental.org – offers adult classes

English First http://www.englishfirst.com.cn – kids and adults

Web International English http://www.webi.com.cn – adults only

Rockies English School http://www.rockiesenglish.com – mainly kids.

Maple Leaf School http://www.mapleleafschools.com – kids

Anyone is welcome to add to the list via the comments section! Thanks!

Teaching is a Walk in the Park
March 29, 2011, 11:35 am
Filed under: efl world, teaching | Tags:

For the past six months, I have been agonizing over what to do with one of my classes, a group of four astoundingly unmotivated twelve year olds.  Neglected by their parents, they are rude, obnoxious and highly resentful of being forced to attend extra classes.  In fact, I recently had to deal with one girl who was talking about me in class, assuming I couldn’t understand her.  That was a glorious Bitter Teacher Moment for me: watching her face fall in embarrassment as I told her, in Chinese, that if she had a problem she could leave.

I usually walk away from this class feeling like a failed teacher.  I don’t think I really am; most of my classes are pretty good, and deep down I know that my real talent–passion, even–lies in teaching adults.  Besides, teaching is a job that requires a lot of attention, patience and energy.  Even when you have motivated students, it just isn’t a walk in the park.

Except for last Sunday.

As I ushered these students out the door, I told them to say goodbye to China. “Zaijian, Zhongguo!” a few them shouted.  Once we stepped outside, we could no longer speak Chinese–only English.

They actually seemed scared. A few of them closed their mouths and went “MMMM!! MMMM!” Normally this class can’t stop talking, a characteristic which worked in my favor here; by the time we reached Xinle Park, they were at least attempting 1-3 word sentences:


“He flying a kite!”

“Big, BIG dog!”

They got very excited by the dogs.  That one girl who doesn’t like me even engaged me in conversation: “Teacher, I have a big dog at home. I have her for three years.”

As we walked, I asked students to describe what they saw. Sometimes I pointed out the English words for various things that we saw.  I found myself wishing that one of my Chinese classes had been like this; how exciting it must be to see your familiar world through another culture’s language.  Mostly, the students just nodded.  Oh well.  They are twelve–they’d rather be outside playing instead of going to school six days a week, and I can’t blame them.

As we returned to school, I could tell they were running out of steam. Still, I was impressed by their ability to adapt, and I hope they gained a little more confidence.

And finally, I got to brag to my friends about how teaching is a walk in the park.

A Few Gems in Garbage Mountain
December 1, 2010, 3:46 am
Filed under: teaching

To make ourselves feel better, a lot of the teachers at my school–both Chinese and foreign–refer to the school as “Garbage Mountain,” as a pun on its Chinese name.  Needless to say, this is not the best English teaching gig in China.

Still, I have found some real gems buried in Garbage Mountain, and I certainly don’t regret coming and working here.  In fact, working at a school with limited resources due to the administration’s cheapness has its funny moments.  I won’t ever forget teaching a group of 8-10 year olds what “opposite to” means and the differences between their left/right and someone else’s left/right.

I had set up two small chairs, facing opposite to each other.  In one chair, I had a raggedy and dirty stuffed dog, and in the other, a crappy looking fake Barbie doll, courtesy of Garbage Mountain.  Both of these toys looked as though they had survived the Cultural Revolution.  Barely.

So, I raised the dog’s right arm, and asked the students, “Which arm his he raising?”  They all got it right, so then I moved across to the fake Barbie, and asked the same question.  Unfortunately, the moment I lifted her arm, it fell out of the socket.  I tried very hard not to laugh but it just didn’t work, especially because the whole class was laughing.  “Well, that happens sometimes,” I said.  “That’s why she has another arm.”

Actually, I have a lot of days when I look forward to teaching, especially this particular group of students.  I can’t get over how attentive they are, and yet how they can have fun with almost every assignment.  Each student has his or her own distinct personality.  There’s Jack, who’s incredibly bright and still asks questions like, “If we wish we could become an animal, will it come true?” Jack is friends with Andy, who, whenever I have them draw pictures, always surreptitiously calls me over show me his funny picture, just to get a laugh out of me. It also helps that there is one girl who is sort of the mother hen of the group–she’s well-liked by her peers and eager to win all of the games that we play, but she also keeps the other students in line.  This past week, I came into class sick with a sore throat and told the students to please keep the talking to a minimum. When one boy started chatting with his neighbor, I noticed this girl admonish him in Chinese: “Shh! Teacher has a sore throat!!”

And then there are little things that I like about the students.  Just a year ago, if I had met my nine year old student Bob, I would have cringed a little.  He does things like stick his pen in his nose and wags his head to see how long it will take to fall out.  Nowadays, I think it’s rather endearing.  I love that he talks to himself in English in a cheerful sing-song voice, which somehow seems inseparable from the pen up his nose.

I’m becoming one of those teachers that brags about the ridiculous things these kids do and say, even the high school students.  Recently, a bunch of students at the high school drew me pictures of their heroes–and some of these kids have talent!  One student drew me an incredibly elegant picture of his hero, Mao Zedong, and beneath it he signed his English name: “Spiderman.”

All of this makes me think: a family. A Marriage. Kids. Maybe not the white picket fence, but how about a comfortable apartment in New York?  In Brooklyn?  It’s like anything these days for me–who knows? For the first time in my life, I can see it.  To think, I had to come all the way to China to envision myself having a “normal” future.

But not until I’m at least thirty. I still have more traveling to do.

Hello, Teacher!
November 15, 2010, 11:30 am
Filed under: efl world, teaching | Tags: ,

During my first visit to a Dalian public school, I couldn’t believe that I was actually passing children in the hallways and not military personnel.  Everywhere my boss and I walked, a student who saw us coming would stand up straight and salute.  “Hello, Teacher!”

From what I can tell, there are no discipline problems in this elementary school.

By the time these students reach high school, things have changed, but only a little.  In the high school where I now teach, the students aren’t required to greet me in the halls.  But when I walk into the classroom, all fifty of them stand up and greet me: “HELLO, TEACHER!”

It’s most likely that the students are mainly excited to have a foreign teacher.  I later found out that I am the first foreigner to teach at this high school.  When I think about it that way, it feels like a tremendous responsibility and an honor–in a way, whatever I do in this school will come to represent an entire portion of the world. Or is that a bit of a stretch?

In any case, I’m trying to put my best foot forward. I ask the Chinese teachers at the school for feedback on lessons and for suggestions; I try to make my explanations clear and my activities interesting. This week’s class has been the best so far, I think: I taught them what a compound subject and compound predicate are, and then had them write a chain story using these sentence structures. They seemed to have fun.  As a way to connect to them, I also told them that I’m studying Chinese. Once, I used a word that they didn’t know–so I wrote the Chinese characters on the board because I couldn’t pronounce the word.  I expected to hear some surprised murmuring.  Instead, the whole class applauded!

My “rock star” status, however, does not impress everyone.  One of the senior teachers, Mr. Yang, is always quick to point out how hard people here work compared with Americans.  He went to America for a month or so on business, so he thinks he knows everything about it and how Americans live.  He has a point – life is definitely easier in America than it is here.  But I think he lets loose occasionally, like anyone.  Take, for instance, a few weeks ago, when I called him to tell him that I was too sick to come into work.  He said OK, then called me back twenty minutes later.

“Are you better now?”

“Um,” I said, “no? I’m the same as I was when we spoke twenty minutes ago.”

His advice was to drink hot water and take medicine, and then I would be better by tomorrow.

“Thanks. I’ll see how I feel in the morning.”

“OK,” he said. “But you know. I am at my father-in-law’s party. I have drunk. Too. Much.”

“Oh. Okay…”

“I called the principal to make other arrangements. But still. I have drunk. Too. Much.”

So I have a lot more sympathy for the students, who are getting a very different kind of education that I had in high school. I remember feeling burdened with homework in high school, but hey, at least I had a weekend.  How much free time do these kids get? NONE.  Well, they have a day off every two weeks, but then most of them attend classes or tutoring at a private school.  Each and every one of them wakes up at six forty-five; they eat breakfast; then, by seven thirty they’re in class until five thirty, sometimes even nine o’clock.  At night.

High school must be an incredibly stressful time for most families; kids and parents never get to see each other, and on top of that, the kids are always preparing for the “Da Kao,” which is a standardized test that determines where they can attend university.  As one teacher explained to me, their entire lives depend on how well they do on this test.  It makes the SAT sound like a fun party.

But maybe not the kind of party where you drink. Too. Much.