First Few Weeks of Teaching & Shaoshan

Originally published at on September 15th, 2015.

I’ve officially been teaching for two weeks now, so here are a few thoughts and reflections-

When I first heard that I was placed at a school called “Changsha Foreign Languages School,” I assumed that my students would have a pretty high level of English. I was wrong. The name of the school is actually quite misleading- like many of schools in China, there is the main school as well as an “international department.” Students in the international department may take their classes in a foreign language. CFLS offers English and Japanese programs within the international department. Students there are typically looking to go abroad for college (usually in the U.S. or Japan), the class sizes are much smaller, and their language ability is obviously a lot higher. Where I teach in the main school, there is the junior school 初中 chuzhong and the senior school 高中 gaozhong. I teach 15 classes a week- 14 classes of junior 3’s (equivalent in age to a U.S. 9th grader), and 1 class of senior 2’s (equivalent in age to a U.S. 11th grader). I see every class once a week for a forty-minute oral English class. Every class has anywhere between 45–65 students, so I have a total of 700+ students a week. While some students in my class can hold a pretty simple conversation with me, others cannot comprehend the question, “What is your English name?” Believe me, it’s as exhausting as it sounds.

I’ve already had to deal with some frustrating discipline issues. As I was reviewing material from the previous week, I confirmed with students, “last week, I asked you what your favorite food was, right?” While most students shouted an excited, “yes!” in unison, one of the troublemakers yelled out “sh*t!” with a smirk. Today, as I was passing out a hand out to students, a boy called,” 服务员!” (fuwuyuan: waiter) from across the room. Another issue I’ve had is when I’ve given students small cards on which to write their name, favorite hobby, and a short introduction. It’s incredible how many boys wrote something vulgar like “favorite hobby: watching yellow movies” (a direct translation from 黄色电影 huangsedianying — a Chinese euphemism for pornography).

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve also had some great moments in class. One day, I was setting up a class when a very eager female student came up to me and started asking questions. “Ms. Chambers, how do you say ‘Chambers’ in Chinese? I looked it up on the internet, but I could not find a translation.” Wow, this girl is incredibly curious, I thought. I explained to her that Chambers is my father’s last name, but for my Chinese last name, I use my Japanese mother’s last name. Her next question? “Ms. Chambers, can you tell me about Japanese and American toilets?” Uh..what? “Where are the dirtiest toilets, and where are the cleanest toilets in Japan and America?” I truly had no idea how to tackle this question, but I fumbled and said something about how public places tend to have dirtier toilets, and she seemed satisfied with that answer. On the aforementioned small info cards, I had one class where probably a third of the students gave me their QQ number (kind of like a screen name for a Chinese IM app) in their self-introductions. In general, many of my students are absolutely fascinated by American culture, especially my female students with pop stars. I have had many bonding moments with girls over our love for Taylor Swift and Beyonce over the last few days.

My first week of teaching was actually not a full 5-day week. We had Thursday through Saturday off for a new national holiday — the 70th Victory of the Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War. Of course, for some bizarre reason that is completely beyond my Western way of thinking, we had to make up our Friday classes on Sunday. This meant that our Thursday classes were never made up, so they would be a week behind the rest of our classes. Such is life in a Chinese school system.

For our day off on Friday, several volunteers and I visited Shaoshan 韶山, Mao Zedong’s hometown, located about 100 km from Changsha. We hopped on a bus from the Changsha South Bus Station and two hours later, we arrived in the sleepy town of Shaoshan. Once in Shaoshan, you can buy a tourist bus ticket for 12 yuan (~USD$2) and a little bus will take you around throughout the Shaoshan sites. The sites are located about 10 minutes from the bus station, which is a nice drive through the countryside. Perhaps it was a mistake to go on a national holiday — all of the sites were packed, and I experienced a Chinese line for the first time in my life. We lined up to see the former residence of Mao Zedong for 70 minutes (Worth it? For a Chinese citizen, probably. For us? Questionable). Just like at the statue of Mao at Orange Island, we saw many people bowing and paying their respects to a large bronze statue of the chairman. As American volunteers, we tried to find think of our equivalent- people bowing towards President Lincoln at his memorial? Probably not quite. It’s easier to try and find parallels between a foreign culture and your own in order to get acclimated to the society, but in some cases it’s just best to accept something foreign just as is.

Last Thursday was the Chinese Teacher Day, where students show their appreciation toward their teachers by giving them gifts or thank you notes. My wonderful students gifted oolong tea, “rice power biochemical gene series (??)” face lotion, and snake oil hand cream. The next day, the school principal and his colleagues took the foreign teachers out for a belated Teacher Day/early Mid-Autumn Festival lunch at a nice restaurant near our campus. It was humorous to have high level school officials continually pour red wine into our glasses at 12:30 PM. Not a bad start to the weekend.

So to sum it all up, I have really been enjoying my time here regardless of the numerous road bumps along the way. The students are quite a handful, but if anything, it’s really given me the opportunity to reflect on my 16+ years of education and the wonderful teachers I have been surrounded by. It really does take a lot out of you to devote your daily time and energy to these kids. Coming up are posts about general culture shock as well as the local cuisine here! Until then, 再见!

The ideas and thoughts expressed in this blog are not the views or opinions of World Teach, the United States of America, or the People’s Republic of China, but rather my own personal views and opinion.

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