Hi, I'm Stephen from "Blogs by Night"
So the ethereal Novelista Barista has put out a call for guest bloggers, and being especially strapped for volunteers has apparently deemed my offering worthy :) The 'challenge' she set of sorts was to write something that inspires me/makes me happy, and being as I was at the time flicking through my photos, I decided to write about the time I taught wee Chinese kiddies to speak the Queen's English.
After university and before law school, I decided to undertake that rite of passage taken by many an undecided British youth: the gap year
Working in a variety of mind-numbing (glorified data entry), back breaking (postroom/box-lifting) and random (sending out pamphlets to the Chelsea Flower Show) jobs to pay for this Far East jaunt, I set off during the first week of January 2008 to Hainan, the little island in the south of China. The first few weeks were spent acclimating to the massive culture shock, the next month and a bit (handily during the coldest China winter for 50 years!) was spent travelling along the south and west of the country, and just shy of March, I began teaching in a local primary school. I must at this point let you know that while I am ethnically Chinese, I was a lazy child, learning English very young and thus being too stubborn by far to learn Chinese. My Cantonese is limited to everyday comprehension and my Mandarin before the trip was non-existent and even now is distinctly pidgin and gleaned from phrasebooks and curiosity.
And so it came to be that I was standing at the front of a classroom, in my shirt and trousers next to the immense chalkboard, fifty-something pairs of childrens' eyes staring right at me. Oh yes, the classroom sizes were all between 50 and 60. As a precaution we had the customary English teachers next to us in the corner for moral support, and all but one of my supervising colleagues were very sweet and extremely helpful. But I had made it clear that this was something I wanted to do by myself and the kindly women with passable English (marred only with hesitation, a distinct Chinese twang to their accents and slight breakdowns in colloquialisms) were to step in for the more complicated instructions only.
The looks in those hundred-plus little eyes was one of anticipation, curiosity and mischief. From observing a couple of classes the day before, I was aware that it would take extreme measures to keep their attention. As such I was armed with A4 flashcards of my own invention, the supplied curriculum textbooks, a notebook containing interactive games I had thought up and another with the words I was to teach along with pinyin pronunciation (yes they giggled at my terrible attempt at Chinese but I think it was appreciated?) and the Chinese characters (my attempts at writing out the calligraphy was on occasion so terrible I just rubbed it off and pointed to it in the textbooks).
The most scary part of the entire process, as I'd foreseen, was the initial meeting point. Yes, the children all looked cute or vaguely podgy but with their numbers there was the likelihood that they would all form on me as a mob if I failed to hold their attention or respect. How then to introduce myself? To show none of the apprehension that I was sure would break out and expose my inexperience. I dove right in, "Hello, I am your teacher, you can call me Stephen." All the while writing my name on the chalkboard as I spoke in the clearest and most projected voice I had (the classroom, as you can expect, were large. Larger than a few tennis courts laid end-to-end I would say). I laid out the structure of the lesson, revision of the previous class first, that I would give points for children who were 'good' and who answered the questions correctly. Then the possible mistake. I opened the floor to the children for some quick questions to clear the tension, so the learning could begin in earnest. The first few were simple: how old are you? Have you got a Chinese name? After which came the question I was surprised hadn't come first: So you are Chinese? Yes. But you are from England? Yes, which elicited an almost farcical gasp of disbelief and talking amongst themselves. I promptly shushed them, fingers to lips and all (feeling not a little like a pantomime) and pointed at the small girl at the front, whose hand shot up instananeously. Clearly forgetting the "My Chinese is VERY bad" bit from the beginning, she ran off a question in fast and completely untelligible Mandarin to me. Noticing my bewildered look, the teacher stood from her chair and said "She asks, in that case, how do you eat your dinner? Do you use a knife and fork or chopsticks?" Struck dumb by the absurd logic behind the question, I burst out laughing. Decorum unceremoniously cast aside for those few seconds I leant on the teacher podium and just let loose. Full-out LOL.
Which set everyone else in the classroom laughing too, of course. This set the tone of my classes to come. They were as uncertain as I, and I was then to cement my reputation as the curiously non-Chinese Chinaman English teacher who was strict but fun. The children seemed to love me and I loved them right back for that, especially the cheeky ones who found excuses to come to the English staffroom and try out their English "What are you doing?" even though they had no hope of understanding my reply. As I wrote in my highly cheesy China journal:
"Some of the classes are so co-operative, keen to learn and so delightfully smiley that, to be cheesy, they are akin to little balls of sunshine! When I find them in that mode, it's sucha pleasure to teach them and my heart swells a little with pride with every unassisted correct answer and melts a little with every smile on their cute faces. It's a small but not easily quantifiable happiness when they greet me with a little grin or wave, and even on my most homesick of days my mood lifts a little when they cheer upon my entrance into the classroom."
What you learn from experiences like this, so completely out of the normal cycle of everyday life is that you are capable of things that you would never think of unless you give it your best try. You can counter language barriers, culture shocks, challenges never before faced. And sometimes, all you can do, is all that is necessary: to be yourself.