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An American's Experience - 
Teaching in Beijing, China


Leaving the US

Just before Halloween 1995, I left the security of my home in the deep South to travel to a country that has fascinated many around the world - the People's Republic of China.  Apart from traveling to Montreal, Canada, I had never been anywhere outside the United States without a "safety net" of friends or family.  My reason for going was under the guise of teaching English.   I had just graduated from college where I received my second and third degrees and wasn't quite ready to settle down to a "real" job.   So it was with excitement and trepidation that I set off for the experiences waiting for me in China.

Hong Kong

Before going to the place of "the Forbidden City," I had to fly to Hong Kong and get a work visa to teach English.  It wasn't an immediate process and I ended up waiting in Hong Kong for about a week.  During that time I explored, with another teacher about 20 years my senior, the sights of the city.  The bright neon lights screaming for attention reminded me of a trip I had taken to Las Vegas, and the traffic was something I had only briefly experienced in Los Angeles.  From Victoria Peak to Stanley Market  we went enjoying the sights and the food the city had to offer all the while taking the two-story buses that wildly careened around curves.  It was quite a start to my adventure in another land!

Airport in Beijing

The time finally came for me to pack up my belongings and board the plane for Beijing, China.  The flight was uneventful and the time passed with my stomach churning and my mind racing with all the possibilities of things to be.  As we started our landing process, I was dismayed at the sights outside my window.  All I saw was brown everywhere.  It was nothing what I had imagined in my mind - no beautiful lush, green fields.   Small bits of fear starting gnawing at my insides, as I was beginning to wonder if I had agreed to something that was quite out of my element and ability!

Once I deplaned and was dealing with the craziness of the airport and customs, I was totally unprepared for what was about to happen.  I met with the representatives from the language institute and we went to put my luggage in a taxi, which was actually a miandi. (A miandi is a small van, sometimes referred to as a "bread box.")   Realize that I was always the type of person who wouldn't touch doors in stores because of the "filth," so I was horror-stricken at the sight before me in this van.  The seat covers, which had been white at one time were a very dingy brown and the windows were equally filthy.  I wondered if the representative had made an effort to find the dirtiest van around to test my reaction, so gingerly placed myself on the seat and vainly attempted to keep clean.

Getting to the University

On the way to the university where I would be staying I was shocked by the lack of color around me.  Everything seemed to be brown or gray - the buildings, the streets.   We finally arrived at the university and I was introduced to the other teachers - everyone seemed so young!  I was 24 at the time, a college graduate 2 times over, while most of the others were sophomores or juniors in college!  After the initial introductions, I learned I didn't have a place to stay and would need to stay in a hotel.  It was then that I also learned I might not be staying in Beijing, but be sent to a remote city near the North Korean border, Yanji.  Since all the other teachers were established, it was a "lottery" for the other new teacher and myself.  As the other teacher was from the Caribbean and detested the cold, I knew I would be the "lucky" one.  

The time came for me to be assigned my teaching location and I was stunned to find out that no one was going to Yanji.  I had been assigned to two schools in Beijing.  One at a university in Beijing and another university in the Haidian district of Beijing. This meant another obstacle for me to overcome, but I didn't care - I would be in Beijing!  I would be living in an apartment on the Beijing campus with the other teacher - the one from the Caribbean who was twice my age.

Since it was registration time, that is time for a new term, I was required to help register prospective students at both universities and place them in an appropriate class level (with "1" being the lowest level).   I felt overwhelmed with this task, as I considered myself to be ill-prepared for proper classification.   Since to deny interviews with the students wasn't an option, I blundered my way through to the last student!  It progressively improved, but would still never be my favorite aspect of teaching.

Traveling to Teach

In view of the fact that I would be teaching in Haidian in the mornings and returning to Beijing to teach more classes at night, I had to learn how to get to the other campus.  The first week or so, someone from the institute hailed a taxi and took me to the other school, so I was relieved.  After I was familiar with the route, I was given a map and told I would need to get my own taxis from that point on.  This was fine because I knew where I was going and I could speak some directional Chinese if there was a problem.  

Unfortunately, the taxis who passed me every morning without stopping didn't realize I knew where I was going and that I had a map!   Although for the most part, I would have a ride within 5-15 minutes, there were a few times when I stood out in the cold for almost 30 minutes before I was able to flag down a taxi!

Teaching

The Haidian branch of the language institute was a relatively small one and I was the only teacher in the morning.  I had three classes every morning and two every night.  My first class was of level one students, these students had very little grasp of the English language so the class was very little discussion but repetition from the textbooks.  The second class was a level two class and comprised of those who could speak very limited English, but a small conversation was possible.  The last class at this campus was filled with level three students, those who could speak relatively well and have fairly good conversations, but aren't fluent by any means.  

Sightseeing with Students

In comparing the two branches of the institute, I much preferred to be in Haidian, as it had a mix of students.  Instead of just Chinese students, like the Beijing branch, the Haidian classes filled with Korean students from the Beijing Language and Culture University.  I enjoyed getting to know my students and went on excursions with them.  One of the first places I went with them was to the Fragrant Mountain (Xiangshan), which is about 15 miles north of Beijing.  We had a lot of fun hiking up the mountain and taking photos of each other.  Another excursion took me to what would become my favorite place in Beijing - the Summer Palace (Yiyeyuan).  The beauty of the place is almost overwhelming and a person could literally spend all day there - which I did many times.

Traveling through China

When it came time for the Christmas holiday, three other teachers and I decided we would experience other parts of China.  Our plan was to take a train from Beijing to Xian in the west, spend a day or so and then go to Guilin in the south and spend several more days.  Fortunately, one of the other teachers was relatively fluent in Chinese and was able to purchase our train tickets and get us a hotel for the night in Xian.  We visited the Ming Tombs, bargained for a Sichuan blanket outside the gates and watched street vendors stretch noodles for ramen.  It was a cold but thrilling experience! 

After we saw all we wanted to of Xian, we took the train on Christmas Day to Guilin.  Since Guilin is in the southern part of China in the Guangxi region, it took us almost all of Christmas day and I believe part of the next day to get there.   We didn't mind since we were traveling in luxury - soft sleeper!  The train has four options available, hard seat and soft seat (they are self explanatory) and hard and soft sleeper.  The soft sleeper was a small room with two bunk beds, one on each side of the door - it was cramped, but private from the rest of the train. 

Wearily arriving in Guilin, we were swarmed with the locals telling us of "wonderful" places to stay.  We bypassed them and got on a minibus that took us to Yangshuo.  Yangshuo is about 75 kilometers south of Guilin and on the minibus, there were a lot of stops, so it took us even longer to get there.  Once we reached the town, we knew it was worth the wait.  There were people everywhere and it was very tourist friendly.  A lot of backpacking foreigners were in the town and many of the restaurants had English on their menus.

Our glee upon choosing Yangshuo quickly turned to dismay when we realized there were no hotel rooms available.   We didn't have to wait long to find a room, although it wasn't what we would have normally chosen, as a hostel had a room available.  A room that didn't have any heat or hot water!  

With all the sights to see and the busy markets to explore, even though we were exhausted, another teacher and I went around the town.  Since renting bicycles was so inexpensive, we decided that would be the best way to explore the area.  Over the next day or two, we rode our bikes all over the countryside from one little village to another.  We rode to the Green Lotus Peak, and rode to the several hundred-year-old banyan tree as well as to Moon Hill (Yueliangshan).  The scenery was breathtaking and worth the sore muscles experienced afterward!

After living it up in Yangshuo and breathing free country air, we resigned ourselves to heading back to the city.  We left Yangshuo with heavy hearts which became even heavier upon arrival in Guilin.  We went to the ticket office to get a train ticket, but we were told they were sold out.  We couldn't even get a hard seat back to Beijing!  We were horrified since we had to be teaching in a few days and knew that if we didn't get a seat, we were stuck until a seat became available for us to purchase.

While trying to figure out what we were going to do, we toured Guilin.  We went to see the Mountain of Piled Brocades (Diecaishan), Elephant Trunk Hill (Xiangbi Shan) and Whirlpool Hill (Fuboshan), as well as other less notorious places.  Finding a hotel for the night was another less than pleasant experience.  All the places the locals urged us to go to had ridiculously high prices, so we attempted to find one on our own.  After many unsuccessful attempts, we finally found one we could afford.  We ended up sharing a small room and sleeping on cots, but we were warm and clean!

With a better start to the day, we tried again to get transportation back to Beijing.  This time we were successful - instead of taking the train - since we now didn't have enough time to get back - we would fly back to Beijing!!  The flight left that day - New Year's Eve - so we had to scurry to get a taxi and go to the airport.  When we were finally able to board the plane, we looked at each other in wonder.  The airplane was obviously from Russia as the exit signs and other lettering around the plane was in Russian!  We didn't feel too secure flying in it, but knew we had no other choice.  As we were taxiing down the runway, the entire plane rattled as if it were about to fall apart...and part of it did!!  A  ceiling panel fell down just as we were lifting off!  To pass the time we amused ourselves with the trinkets the airline had given us and chatting with each other about our good fortune in being able to fly - without emptying our pockets too much!  We finally arrived in Beijing after dark and we hustled to find a taxi to take us back to our apartments. 

To bring in the New Year, we went to one of our favorite American restaurants, TGI Friday's!  A crowd of teachers from the institute were all there and we brought in the New Year in bright spirits and with happy hearts.  


Guilin China

Winter in China

After the eventful Christmas break, it was time to resume teaching.  My classroom, which had been fine during the fall, had turned bitterly cold once winter came.  It was often that I taught while wearing my coat and sometimes even my gloves or mittens.  Rarely did I wear less than two layers of clothing.  Another drawback for me - and for my students - was a chronic cough that wouldn't leave.  It was brought on in part by the cold, very dry air and aggravated by the chalk dust I was inhaling every day.  The result was a coughing fit after every few words that interrupted class.  This condition lasted until spring arrived, and even then it still hung on a little.

Winter in Beijing is bleak, gray and cold.  The wind just goes right through you, no matter how many layers you have on.  When I went to Simitai (a less commercial section of the Great Wall) in late January, I remember I had on 2 layers under my pants, 3 layers under my coat and and 2 pair of gloves/mittens!  Even then, the wind went straight through at the unprotected parts of the Wall.  Normally, I love the cold, but this was a bitter, bitter cold that once it seeped in, it took a long time to warm up!

Spring in China

Needless to say, when spring arrived, it was a breath of fresh air.  The birds singing, the trees budding and the wind blowing...blowing dirt that is!  Sunglasses were a necessity while riding my bike.

By spring, I had obtained approval to move from the university in Beijing to an apartment in Haidian.  This meant that I no longer needed to rely on a taxi in the mornings, instead I rode my bicycle the kilometer or so to school.   This was a wonderful time, idyllic in the sense that I could get to class when I wanted to, without the stress of getting a taxi.  I'll never forget riding the bicycle from the apartment, down the streets and alleys, and taking shortcuts to get to the university - what a thrill!  At every opportunity there were also bike trips to the Summer Palace, Qinghua University and other picnic spots nearby, or even far away!  

Summer Palace

After moving to Haidian, weekends were spent riding my bike to various places around the city.  My favorite location was to the Summer Palace.  Many, many days were spent in this immense palace with its beautiful scenery and spectacular flora.  A favorite place to go was a picturesque field with its lovely wildflowers that were so inviting.   Another favorite spot was next to the lake past the Marble Boat, very beautiful and scenic, particularly with all the flowers and trees blooming.  Picnics, reading books or just relaxing in the sun were some of the ways time was passed in this magnificent place. 

Biking in Beijing

Biking was a thrilling experience and since many people ride their bikes, it tended to get crowded at times on the side street.  In Beijing (and other cities) the main road is for vehicles with another road running parallel for those riding their bikes, horse carts, etc.  For anyone not very confident riding their bike, it's not a recommended activity, particularly in busy areas!  I loved the feel of the wind on my face and the thrill of getting ahead of the pack of cyclists.  There were times I rode with friends from the northern part of Beijing to temples and sights in the southern portion of the city, such as the Temple of Heaven and several markets.  It was great exercise and fun as well - and I rarely went without my handy backpack!

Buses in Beijing

I'll never forget my first experience on a bus.  When the bus arrived to the bus stop, there was a crush of people getting off and then boarding it.  Forget manners and waiting politely for everyone to disembark - we had to literally shove our way on board and pay for our tickets.  There was barely room to breathe as we were packed in like sardines- literally.  I remember one of the other teachers telling me to be careful with my money because of pickpockets.  Purses weren't recommended and I soon learned to deal with using just a wallet or billfold tucked into an inside pocket of my jacket (when it was cool weather).  

I was always amazed at the ladies that took the bus fare, they had to remember so many faces and know who had paid and who hadn't.  They were constantly busy taking money, giving change and little paper receipts.  I wondered how they could keep track and if they knew when someone was trying to get a free ride.  Unfortunately for me, I found out not too long after starting at the university that they did. 

One day another teacher and I were going back to the university (the main branch) from a shopping excursion.  We took the bus from the subway, as we still had quite a ways to go, when all of a sudden there was a lot of yelling going on in the bus.  A passenger was arguing with the lady who took bus fares.  The bus stopped and everyone on one side of the bus had to get off while the floor was searched, then everyone re-boarded.  Apparently, that passenger hadn't paid for their ticket or if they did, they had lost their receipt.  It resulted in a very long wait for us, which concerned us since we both had a class to teach soon.  Finally the police arrived and had that same end of the bus disembark and this time the other teacher and I pushed our way off of the bus and took off for the university which was still quite a good distance away.  We shakily made it in time to get our teaching materials and go off again to the other side of campus for our classes.  It was an experience I'll never forget, and I never let go of the ticket stub again - to prove my fare had indeed been paid!

Subway in Beijing

The subway system is wonderful, but very crowded - like the buses.  Even for a person who couldn't speak Chinese, it was amazingly simple to get around.  The signs were in Chinese characters and pinyin, so it made it very easy!  My only problem was that I would get confused as to which direction I needed to go!  Fortunately, the subway went in a circle, so if I went the wrong direction, I would eventually get there going the opposite way!

Street Food in Beijing

Mmmm, I can still taste some of the street food if I really try to remember it.  I don't remember it's name, but it was a wonderful snack made from a batter that was fried into a large flat pancake.  Next an egg was cracked and spread across the cooked batter, then a spicy sauce and finally a thick square wafer.  All of this was folded up into a nice, hot square that was then consumed with pleasure!  Yummy!  There were many wonderful shops where noodles could be bought - fabulous with a bit of the spicy, red pepper sauce in it!  Fresh fruit like slice pineapples, and melons were also available in the spring and by Western standards, were pretty inexpensive.

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Shattering My Arrogance

TEACHING

I thought I had it made.  Being a little older, holding three degrees, with one in education (albeit in elementary education), I just knew it would be a breeze teaching English in China.  English was and is my native language, I'd been speaking it and listening to it for 24 years.   What would be so difficult about teaching it?  If students, who hadn't even graduated from college yet, could teach the Chinese - I certainly could.  

What arrogance I possessed inside!  But there was the one little voice inside me that asked why I wasn't teaching children if it wasn't that hard.  Why did I decide to pursue a degree in a totally unrelated field - business administration and accounting?  The truth was that I was terrified of being a failure.  Personal setbacks just added fuel to my fire at going anywhere and doing something with my life, even if it was teaching English.  Teaching first graders to add, write, and read?  That was frightening.  But teaching adults to speak English?  Easy!  I was soon to learn something entirely different.  As the saying goes, pride goes before a fall and boy did I fall.

Like some people who don't speak another language, I had a superiority complex about being American and speaking the universal language, English.   During my stay in Hong Kong and later China, I just smiled at those attempting to speak English - broken English that is.  Not once, at that time, did I commend them on, either mentally or outwardly express, their effort at communicating with someone in a language other than their native tongue.  Little did I realize that I was the one who was inferior to any of the people in the world who spoke or attempted to speak another language.  Sure, I learned some obligatory Spanish in school and there were even a few French lessons in elementary school, but none of it was ever enough to even have a decent conversation!

During my flight to China and my eventual arrival at the airport, the enormity of the task I was about to undertake struck me.   I was in a country that didn't speak much English at all, actually relatively little.  Unlike Hong Kong which had the British influence and therefore the infusion of British English, Beijing had no such influence.  In Hong Kong, I really didn't have many worries about going out and about.  Chances were that I could find someone to help me and point me in the right  direction.  In Beijing, I had no such luxury.  Arriving at the airport, I had my first shock.  Throngs of people surrounded me and were pushing in different directions.  Fortunately, people from the language institute where I was to teach were there to help me gather all of my belongings and get me to the school.

After fulfilling the obligations before me, regarding interviewing students and the registration process, my first term was about to begin.  My first class was filled with students who knew almost no English, certainly not enough for a conversation.  My task was easy, no talking was necessary, just go by the book.  Say a sentence, have them repeat it.  Say another sentence, have them repeat it.  This was the way the class went.  My second class was filled with students who could speak a little more English, but not enough for speaking complete sentences but broken sentences.  It was a replay of the first class, but with a bit of "talk time."  The third class was one again the same process of speaking and having the student repeat after me, but they were third level students who were more inclined to ask questions and have "free talk."  

Free talk is just where we talked about issues and topics they wanted to discuss.  A lot of times it was questions about America, but sometimes it was about my perceptions of China.   It was during the third level class that I realized my arrogance and stupidity at making assumptions about these students.  I had classes off and on all day, but it was my night class that really got me to thinking -and cringing.  I always encourage questions and would attempt to answer them to the best of my ability.  Surprising to me, they asked questions that stumped me and when I couldn't answer them, I could sense their disapproval.  After all, they were paying a lot of money to be taught by me.  

In addition, some of my students were in the doctorate program at a chemical university, which actually somewhat intimidated me.   I was asked such insightful, thought-provoking questions it surprised me.  They asked questions about grammar that I hadn't thought about since grade school - and therefore couldn't answer!  Others questioned pronunciation, there were idioms that needed to be explained.  The list could go on and on - which further reduced my sanctimoniousness about being a wonderful teacher.  Quite the contrary - I realized that I had taken my own knowledge of English for granted and assumed incorrectly that just because I spoke it, that was enough for the Chinese willing to pay to learn it.  I very soon realized my ill-conceived notions were wrong - the students weren't less intelligent because they didn't speak English - English was just an additional language for them to learn either for self improvement or to advance them further in their jobs.  Also, many didn't want to just learn to speak English, they wanted to understand why we spoke the way we spoke and the rules behind it!  In addition, many had a better grasp of English than I had of Chinese - and some were even better at the explaining the rules of English than I was!  Furthermore, even after a year of being in Beijing, I didn't know any more than enough Chinese to get by, mainly directional Chinese - left, right, straight, stop.  It was a very humbling experience.


Fortunately, I had never shown this attitude or spoke of it to anyone, it was my little secret.  I truly liked my students and my students liked me as well and we went on outings many times on the weekends together.  But my secret was there hidden deep in my heart.   After being enlightened regarding my awful attitude, I began to see how truly they were more rounded in many areas than I was.  They would ask me my thoughts about a famous Chinese actor, Jackie Chan.  I had no clue who he was (which upset many of them).  Did they know American movie stars?  Yes, they even rattled of their favorite male and female actors.  They even gave themselves English nicknames so that we would remember their names and be able to pronounce them - one student's nickname was Lancelot, at other times they asked us to give them a nickname - it was a source of pride to have an English nickname.  Did I change my name when I went to China and later Korea?  No. My name remained the same.  So many times other countries change or adapt to English speaking countries, but it seems that we, in America at least, have very little patience for those who don't speak English, or speak it well.

If my only purpose in going to China was to teach English and have fun, well, I received more than I bargained for in that I saw myself for who I truly was and became a better person for it.   The experience was wonderful, but to have gained a greater understanding of another culture was even better.

M.L.
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