Well, our first week as real live teachers has come to an end, and none too soon, for some of us.
You might expect that when two monolingual, English-only speakers such as ourselves come to live and work in a country like China, most of whose 1 billion or so residents don’t speak a whole lotta English, that there’d be a miscommunication from time to time. You’d be right about that.
On the other hand, you might expect that regardless of which country we’re in and who speaks what language, everybody would make sure that we knew when to show up for our first day of work. That, dear reader, I’m afraid you’d be wrong about.
At about 8:00 pm last Sunday, I answered the phone. It was the secretary of the foreign language department at our college, the one who helped us get these teaching jobs and get set up here in Shaoxing.
“I’m calling to make sure you know that you will start teaching tomorrow,” she said.
“Right,” I said. “I know that tomorrow is my first day, but Sarah doesn’t start until next week.” This was a piece of information she’d emailed to us roughly a month ago: I would teach sophomores, and Sarah would teach freshmen, who start school a week later.
“No,” she said. “Sarah also will start tomorrow.”
“Uh,” I said. Sarah wasn’t exactly prepared in any sense: she hadn’t planned any lessons and was looking forward to a week of getting ready for classes and maybe hearing what I had to say about the teaching I’d be doing.
“Uh,” I repeated. “No one ever told us this.”
“I think I told you,” she said.
“Uh,” I said. “OK.”
So with a little over eleven hours remaining, we discovered that Sarah would – surprise! — teach her first ESL class ever. Luckily, I already had something planned, so she “borrowed” my lesson (ironic, since we’ve both been explaining that plagiarism is a big no-no) and managed, if I may say so, to pull off an admirable week of classes.
Since I was actually aware that I was supposed to start teaching, I think my week went a little more smoothly. I really like teaching, and I’m glad that I’ve had so much preparation from my MA studies at Humboldt. I have a mind-boggling 400 students; I’ve met 310 of them so far. And by “met,” I mean stared blankly into 310 faces of students whose chosen English names are “Jo,” “Joyce,” “Jody” and “Jo-Jo,” and wondered if it would even be neurologically possible to remember 25% of them. I tried a getting-to-know-you exercise I learned from one of my profs at HSU, which involves a circle of students each introducing everyone in the circle before them, but I had to stop because I realized it would take about three hours.
Some other bits of information:
The overwhelming majority of our students are female. I think the highest number of boys we had in any class of 45 was around six. It reminds me of good ol’ SPU in some ways…
Our college, which is an independent institution under the auspices of the larger and slightly more prestigious Shaoxing University, is a school that admits students who perform relatively poorly on China’s version of the SAT. Most schools won’t take students whose score is below a certain level, but Yuan Pei sure will, the only catch being that their parents have to fork over about three times the tuition they’d pay at another university. This doesn’t mean our students are bad, or even, as one of our Chinese colleagues warned us, “not very diligent.” As far as I can tell, it’s not a school full of misfits or delinquents; it’s just a place for people who are bad test-takers.
Other than teaching and lesson planning, we’ve still been timidly venturing out into Shaoxing for meals and other supplies. Stumbling into any given hole-in-the-wall (a phrase that is much more literal here than in the US) usually yields delicious and cheap food, so we’ve tried a handful of little restaurants nearby. I think our favorite so far was a noodle restaurant around the corner, where a guy actually makes the noodles from scratch right there on the street. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted fresher – or better – noodles. And it doesn’t hurt that two heaping plates and a 600 ml bottle of beer costs the equivalent of $2.
Another interesting thing we’ve done for the last two weeks is to attend Shaoxing’s “English Salon,” which is an informal gathering of people in Shaoxing who speak English every Friday night. I assumed we’d meet a lot of fellow foreigners there, but actually each week we’ve only seen one or two. Most of the people who attend are in the textile industry and need to speak English in order to do business with foreign companies, but some are teachers and some are students. One nice guy I’ve talked with a few times is a manager at an engineering firm that tests all kinds of products, including Shaoxing’s famous rice wine (more on this later, I think). I’ve really enjoyed going there and I hope we’ll continue going.
We have to spend a lot of time explaining to everyone we meet that Sarah doesn’t speak much Chinese, that her parents didn’t live in China, but she’s ethnically Chinese, etc… It seems to be getting through to some people, but mostly the information is met with incredulous stares.
There’s a bit of news for now; we don’t have anything major planned for the next little while, other than trying to get into the routine of school. We hope everyone back in the USA (or “Expensive-Land”) is well, and we look forward to hearing from you sometime!