An LETC Teacher in China

Kelsey Gustafson is a weeknight PM teacher at Language ETC. She taught English as a second language at a university in China from August 2010 to February 2011.

By Kelsey Gustafson

All of us who teach here at LETC have our own motivations for doing so. Some of us are the sons or daughters of immigrants, or immigrants ourselves. Some of us just enjoy teaching mature and interesting students from all over the world. Many of us signed up to teach English because we’ve lived abroad, and we know how frustrating it can be to communicate in an unfamiliar language.

It was my experience in a foreign country — China — that made me realize how important language classes are for immigrants and ex-pats. Last year, right after graduating from college, I lived in Chongqing municipality of southwest China and taught English to university students. This was both an incredibly challenging and an extremely beneficial experience for me.

Kelsey (fourth from left) with the group of foreign teachers.

Even though I was, as a teacher, supposed to be in a position of authority, I relied heavily on my students to teach me about my new home. They were incredibly gracious as they responded to all of my panicked text messages asking how to pronounce a certain phrase, accompanied me on various errands around the city to act as my translators, and took me out to hotpot dinners for special occasions.

My first few weeks on campus, though, were a struggle. Not knowing the language, or what exactly I was expected to teach my students, or even how to order any food except gong bao ji di (kung pao chicken), I struggled to find stable ground. Things would change, with no explanation, and no way for me to ask for one.

Kelsey in her (unheated) classroom in China.

Every morning I would wake up and be surprised to find once again that I could not communicate with anyone on the street. My default “common language” setting was English, and that took weeks to change. Every interaction with my city was a series of internal questions and answers:

Is that a persimmon? Do I like persimmons? Is that chocolate or bean paste? How do I tell this guy that I want to add more money to my China Mobile phone, not buy a calling card? How bad is it going to be when I need to get a haircut? Is that dog growling at me or at something behind me? How common is rabies here?

My first weeks in China, I was in a constant state of shifting. Shifting my perspective, shifting my expectations, shifting my way of interacting with Chinese people.

I realized quickly just how dependent I was on the people around me. It became necessary to cultivate humility and a sense of humor at all times. As frustrating as it was to have shopkeepers constantly correct my pronunciation, for example, I knew this was an act of goodwill and compassion on their part, and I was thankful for their help. And as frustrating as it was when my students didn’t want me to structure class the way my college classes were structured, I came to appreciate that a Western education is not the only education, and that my way of doing things is not necessarily the best way.

While I was there, I spoke in terms of “good China days” and “bad China days.” At first, there were more bad China days than good ones. My mood would swing constantly, and these swings were based on events that I would not have thought twice about in the States. I found popcorn in the grocery store: good China day. I tried ordering fried noodles and the owner brought soup: bad China day. I told the bus to stop and it stopped: good China day. My mint toothpaste was actually tea toothpaste: bad China day.

I wonder often about how much my students at LETC would relate to my experience in China. Do they have good America days and bad America days? Do they have all the resources they need to run errands and navigate daily life? Are they surrounded by people who will help and encourage and correct them while they’re shifting?

At one level, the classroom is a place where students learn how to tell the bus to stop. But more than that, it’s a support group for people who are navigating a whole new language and way of life. Our job as teachers is to help them do both.

Next week: Kelsey writes about language learning and communication pitfalls in China.

Life in China was often bewildering for an American. How is life in America for our students?

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