Part Twenty-Five in a series of articles about the experiences of an Australian Conversational English Teacher in Hong Hu, Hubei Province, China. Self published author of 'The King's Calendar:The Secret of Qumran', (A chronological study of the Bible, Josephus, and The Damascus Document of the Essenes), R.P. BenDedek is a pseudonym.
Photographs in this article are placed randomly.
My first and only teaching position in China has been in Hong Hu, and I originally came here with my brother. He had previously taught in China and so agreed to stay with me during my first contract. This school was the first one that required two teachers at the same time, and so we jumped at the chance. We knew nothing of Hong Hu at all.
My brother eventually moved on and I remained. Up until September, I was the only resident foreigner in this city. At that time, another foreign teacher arrived to commence work in a different school.
Throughout this series of articles, I have received a few emails suggesting that I was racist, and that I should get out of China because I am obviously not suited to life here. Of Course, these emails come from those who have never actually lived in China. Emails from those who have lived here have always been encouraging.
|My revenge on Judy for always pulling faces when I try to take a photo of her.|
In this article, we will meet Judy, an American born Chinese person. As both one who is currently living in China and whose ethnicity is Chinese, I think this article will be able to provide some 'enlightenment' for those 'high brows' who think that political correctness is the 'be all and end all' of human evolution.
|Judy on her bike with the Yangtze behind her|
INTERVIEW WITH AN 'ABC' IN CHINA. (American Born Chinese)
R.P.: Judy, before we begin discussing your life here in China, would you care to give our audience a little personal background information?
Judy: Well, I was born and raised in Fresno California, so I'm not from a place with a high profile Chinese population and I graduated from U.C. Davis with a Managerial Economics Degree.
My Dad is an Ethnic Chinese from Malaysia and my Mother was born in China, but was raised in Hong Kong by her uncle. I also have one sister who, like myself, was born and raised in America.
When I was younger I made a trip to Malaysia to meet my father's family and one of the reasons for this trip to China was to meet my mother's family. I wanted to experience life in China for myself, so I applied for a teaching position, and while waiting for that to come through, accepted a Summer Camp position in ShenZhen where my Mother's family now live.
|One of the canals that empties into the river running through the middle of Hong Hu but which is blocked at the Yangtze.|
It had been my anticipation to teach in a big city but 'reverse discrimination' being what it is here, I couldn't find a place that wanted a 'Chinese' Foreign Teacher. In China, if you don't have the stereotypical blond hair and blue eyes, you don't fit the description of "a good foreign teacher'.
Anyway, my agency was finally able to find for me this position here.
|Scenes from our visit to the Temple on the banks of the YangtZe. Bottom right: In the background you can see a pine forest. Behind it is the Martyrs cemetery.|
R.P.: Thanks for sharing that. A little later I want to revisit the issue of discrimination. First however, I want to tell the readers that while we were preparing to do this interview, you and I were laughing at the reactions of one of your Chinese American friends, to comments you made in your newsletters to the folks back home. Would you care to share a little something about this?
Judy: Sure. Basically he just didn't believe that life here is how I describe it. I often get asked: 'Is this really what life is like out there? Is this really what you have to put up with in China?'
R.P.: And as we both know, the answer is yes. Just as one of your friends thought that you were being "creative" in your descriptions, I had a son who thought I was becoming racist, until that is, he came to China for three months and experienced it for himself. Until someone has actually lived here, they really have no frame of reference by which to accurately judge what people like us write.
Now while I know some of your experiences in China, my main purpose today is for you to share some of those experiences with the Magic City readers. Would you do that?
|Judy, Cotton and Owen in top frame and the three plus Harry Potter (Zhan Yan) in bottom frame.|
Judy: Sure! Not a problem! I think that as far as my good experiences are concerned, as a foreign teacher, mine are better than most, because I am Chinese.
The discrimination I encounter is different also, and arises from the fact that I am Chinese but can't speak Chinese.
My greatest advantage as a foreigner (one that you often try to overturn when we are out together), is that looking Chinese, as long as I keep my mouth shut, I can go out and just blend into the crowd. I can disappear. No one can spot the foreigner. Unlike you, I don't like the attention.
R.P.: So what about the bad experiences?
Judy: The bad ones come from certain closed minded individuals who judge me and look down upon me because of my background, by which I mean that even though I am Chinese, I am still not good enough for some people. There is this whole class system going on here, and some people look down on you because they can't get past their own ignorance. But not everyone is like that, but it only takes a few of them to really get on your nerves.
|High rise accomodation the old fashioned way, right beside the gas station|
R.P.: What were your expectations if any, when you arrived in Hong Hu?
Judy: I suppose that I expected the students to be disciplined and respectful, but when you see how they treat the guards, canteen workers and others, it comes as a bit of a shock because I sort of expected that the Chinese consider themselves to be one big family, given that they call everyone Aunt or Uncle.
I also expected this country to be cleaner. Having such a long and distinguished history, I thought that they would know how to take pride in their environment and use a trash can.
|One of the alleyways in the 'Big Market' in Hong Hu. It was here that one of the 'Hong Hu' adoptee Children was abandoned.|
R.P.: In your September newsletter you devoted one whole section to the issue of 'litter', and I remember you saying that you took some children to the park, and even though the trash can was just a metre from the picnic table, they just threw everything on the ground.
Could you describe your impressions of their attitudes to the litter problem?
Judy: I don't think that they see it as a problem at all, because they know that someone else will pick up after them. That's someone else's job. Not theirs.
|A brand new (well renovated at least) hotel in AiGuo Lu|
R.P.: Are they clean and tidy in the classroom?
Judy: The students do have rotational cleaning duties, but on a regular day to day basis, they are pretty messy. I guess if they are not on cleaning duty they just don't care about the mess.
R.P.: In your October Newsletter you wrote: "When I came out here, I was thrown into a classroom and told to teach. Fine, but what do I tell the kid who has just taken his shirt off in class? What page do I need to turn to in the teaching manual?"
Now I have to comment here Judy and say that I think that you were lucky the kid only took his shirt off. I had one who stripped to his jocks. Tell us about student behaviour in the classroom?
Judy: Classroom discipline is a challenge everyday (said with a cheesy grin in an effort not to sound too unkind). The students who really want to learn, do try their best, but those who don't, make their presence known by talking, sleeping or being totally disruptive.
On one hand it is frustrating, but then again, if I were in their shoes, I guess I would feel the same way, because I was being forced to learn a language and culture that I may never be a part of.
|Students of Hong Yi Zhong. Top view is of morning exervise at 9:55am every day and bottom view is of someone else's class.|
R.P.: While I understand your opinion about being forced to learn, under the title "The Pretentious Illiterate" you wrote in one of your newsletters that:
Contrary to the title, I know my students can read. I just don't know if they comprehend anything.
I figure after reading dialogues and short stories for three years, students would be able to pick up on re-occurring speech patterns. However, you wouldn't be able to tell that when speaking to many of my Grade 3 students. I asked one of my students, Tell me about Mid-Autumn Festival. He replied; Eat moon cakes and see the moon?
You also wrote: "Here's the deal, I don't see the point in teaching grammar if my kids will not speak. I can only correct what they are willing to say. I'm more concerned about them overcoming their shyness and fear of public speaking rather than whether they're correctly used a preposition, tense, or modifier. My kids cannot give a one-minute presentation about themselves even after two years of studying English".
R.P.: How do you feel about this chasm between theoretical and practical English?
Judy: It's frustrating. All the teachers here recognise that this is a problem but there is no change in the system. Several of my students are currently entered in the English Olympics where they are tested on Grammar and reading Comprehension, but there is no actual English Speaking component to the test. It's a big problem.
|Two shots of AiGuoLu taken from different directions - both showing the entrance to the big fruit and vegetable market|
R.P.: Does your frustration carry over into your 'out of classroom' daily life?
Judy: Yes. I came here with a lot of enthusiasm, but lost it very quickly. My classroom experiences tire me out and affects my attitudes to planning lessons, because I know that my efforts will be pretty much wasted.
R.P.: How does this colour your view of the town and its' people?
Judy: It doesn't really because from other foreigners I've learned that my experiences are the 'norm' in China.
As for the town itself, well I guess I would say that it is a simple place. It's a step up from farm life (both of us laugh sharing the nuance of the statement). There are some big grocery stores, several boutiques, and music and book stores in the area. You can get everything you need. It's all readily available. But it ain't Beijing! It's a very simple place.
|This road runs from the top of town past Judy's school and onto the canal that divides the town. This building is basically 2 blocks from the Biggest supermarket and the People's Square.|
I haven't really interacted with the locals apart from School, because no one speaks English and I haven't had the opportunity to get to know people, and the locals I have met haven't had the time to get to know me.
You on the other hand have been here a long time and know a number of people with whom you speak, even though they don't speak English. You've had the time to learn some basic Chinese.
|Side alleyway opposite the big fruit and vege market. It leads to RenMinLu. Another block further on is People's Square.|
R.P.: Do you think it would have been easier for you had you arrived with the ability to speak Chinese?
Judy: Definitely not. It would have made it more difficult.
|Two different rest areas in the Memorial Cemetery|
When I did the summer camp in ShenZhen, there were two other Chinese American teachers. One spoke Cantonese and one spoke Mandarin, and once the kids became aware of it, it proved a hindrance to their learning process because they became lazy.
They preferred to have everything translated into Chinese rather than try and understand it for themselves.
Even the National teachers try to make everything easy for the students and so the incentive to try is removed. In my own classroom, I just keep repeating and repeating the same things, sometimes rephrasing to make things more simple, until they are forced to think and work it out for themselves.
R.P.: What do you think of the Chinese lifestyle as it manifests itself in Hong Hu?
Judy: Do you mean the life styles of the teachers and the rich parents or the local beggars eating leftovers out of the trash cans?
It is something I do not fully understand and it perplexes me (said with a Judy-esque tongue in cheek accent and appropriately pulled face).
I have an apartment with a refrigerator, a propane stove (which I don't use cause I NEVER COOK), washing machine, air conditioner, bathroom with hot and cold running water, a western toilet, a big bedroom, office room, computer and Television, and then I visit some Teacher's homes to discover that their bathroom consists of a squat toilet, a tap and a bucket to fill with cold water so that they can wash themselves. If they want hot water, it is a case of having to put the kettle on the stove or in some cases, add some more coal to the fire.
Most that I have visited have had TV's and some have even had computers. The range of places that people live in is so vast, from the local vendor who lives in what looks like a garage, to the lavish home of the foreign affairs director to one guy I know who sleeps on the garbage pile. The discrepancy is incredible. What gets me the most is that nobody seems to really care about the appearance of anything. Nobody seems to spend much time on upkeep.
R.P.: Have you had any really bad, unpleasant or shall we say obnoxious experiences here in Hong Hu?
|Two views of RenMinLu - different sides of the street|
Judy: Nothing that a nice glass of vodka or tequila won't remove from my memory. No actually, apart from that one incident with a drunk teacher (about which we agreed we would not talk), I have thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed my time in Hong Hu. But I also believe that a person is responsible for their own happiness. Whatever situation you are thrown into, you have to make the best of it. If your skin is thick enough, then life can be fun.
R.P.: Is that why you have a calendar that counts down the days until you leave?
Judy: Not the days until I leave, just the days until I am done teaching. I love my students, but that doesn't mean I enjoy teaching them.
|On of the locks that stops a local river running into the Yangtze (and vice versa). That's Judy.|
R.P.: If someone was thinking about coming to Hong Hu as a foreign teacher, and asked your advice, what would you tell them.
Judy: I'd say 'talk to R.P, because according to the locals, I'm not really a foreigner. My students know I am a foreigner, but to everyone else, I'm not a REAL foreigner.
R.P.: That is a cop out.
Judy: Ok, you tell me what I should say other than 'Do you have religion? If not you'd better find it before you come out here!' Don't put that in there!
R.P.: Come on, what would you say?
Judy: Remain open minded and understand that this country has been closed for a very long time and the introduction of foreigners is very new and there is still a lot of misunderstanding and stereotyping on both sides.
There are a lot of cultural barriers that will anger you and drive you insane, but if you are willing to look beyond that (and the snot blowing) maybe you will get lucky and be able to work it all out. Me, I'm still trying to work it out.
Even though I am Chinese, I do find it difficult to understand the people here. It also challenges me to discover who I am as a Chinese person.
At home, American Born Chinese (ABC's) take a lot of crap from all sides. Not Chinese enough to fit in with the other Asians, and not American enough to be like everyone else.
But every day I spend here, I grow a little more comfortable in my own skin. Actually, I'm very happy to say that I am American Born Chinese.
Does this mean that I'm a sellout to my own people and culture? I don't think so. I think I would have a problem accepting a culture in its entirety and doing everything a certain way because I was Chinese or because that is the way things have always been done.
If I was truly Chinese, then perhaps I should start throwing my garbage everywhere. If I was truly Chinese, then perhaps I should find less value in having a daughter because she will not carry on the family name. If I was truly Chinese, then perhaps I should have less respect for those who are different from myself.
So, what am I? Am I a more modern Chinese, a more liberal Chinese, or a more westernized Chinese? Perhaps I am simply American Born Chinese.
|Top: A play thing and reminder of the past. Bottom: This western looking palace is the new wedding reception center on the outskirts of Xin Di|
R.P.: There have been times when you have said things to me and I've said that it's not fair that being Chinese, you can say things that I can't. If I say them, then I am a racist, but if you say them, then that is OK. We both tend to be very down to earth people who speak quite freely about everything. In light of this, would you answer a question for both the readers and myself. "Do you think I'm a racist like some of my mail suggests?"
Judy: Yes! (laughing her head off).
|Top view is of the Lock, and the bottom view is from the Lock Bridge up river (not the Yangtze)|
R.P.: Thanks a lot! (more laughter). Taking a different tack, "Do you think that western politically correct people would find life here a little difficult to come to terms with? In other words, all those polite people who never say a bad word about anyone, do you think life here could make them crack?"
Judy: (Takes several minutes to ponder the question). It doesn't really matter out here cause nothing really matters. If you are offended by someone or upset about something, it doesn't matter, no body cares.
If you are struggling to survive from day to day, it is not important to be politically correct. Political correctness seems more like something you get into in a society that has already taken care of all the basic necessities of life.
There's no universal health care out here, no welfare system, no 401 K, no dental insurance, hygiene is still something left to be desired.
Public schools are not really for the public but for the people who can afford it. There are so many things that people struggle with on a day to day basis that there is no time for PC. And forget about gender issues, because there is no gender equality over here either.
People here tend to describe people exactly as they see them. If you are fat, then that is how they describe you. "Where's Peter?" 'The fat one or the ugly one?' This sort of comes in handy for me in trying to remember kids names.
Now names in China are gender neutral. There are no 'boys' names and 'girls' names. This makes things difficult, and I have a lot of difficulty putting names to faces here. If you had never met me, you wouldn't know if I was a girl or a boy by looking at my Chinese name.
Every time I try to pronounce a name, I find myself being corrected by 40 little voices. So I started asking my students to pick an English name so I could match a name to a face. This way I can cross-reference their English name to their Chinese name.
This is still a difficult task. Now most of my kids do come in the same shape and color. He's an Asian kid, about yeah tall, black hair, brown eyes, you seen him?
|Students at Judy's school during the recent sports carnival.|
|Some shrines on the banks of the Yangtze river. (Enhanced)|
Now I know all Asians don't look the same, but the only ones I tend remember are the annoying ones, the funny-looking ones, the shy ones, and the talkative ones. Everyone else sort of blurs together. So I had to start taking notes on the blurs. And once you start taking notes on kids, everyone becomes suddenly clear. She has freckles on her face, has braces on bottom teeth, has super long hair, always picks his nose, likes to draw in class, reads Harry Potter, likes to throw things, blue glasses, green glasses, pink glasses, can't see, can't see, kids call him Monkey.
After a couple of months of teaching, I have successfully remembered 20 names (20 English names). I figure at this rate, I should know everybody's name by the time they graduate university.
|Temple on the banks of the Yangtze. This temple is still operational and has about 300 'parishoners'.|
R.P.: Speaking of university, you've shared with me your intention to finish your current contract and then go to university to study Chinese. Can you tell us why? Why give up teaching, and why study Chinese?
Judy: My original plan was to teach and while doing so, learn Chinese.
My school however has been either unable or unwilling to provide me with lessons.
Since starting this job, I have realised how much I miss the learning process, and so I've decided to return to a learning situation.
Studying Chinese is a personal choice, as I see that it may eventually allow me to freely communicate with my mother's family.
Despite their English studies, there is only one member of the family that has any ability at all to communicate with me in English.
In addition to this purpose, there is also the possibility that if I become a good enough speaker of Mandarin, I might be able to find myself a really interesting job with a foreign company. I think that as China develops, there will be many such opportunities.
|Living quarters and shrine at the Temple on the Yangtze. On the opposite bank of the outlet into the Yangtze is the Martyrs Memorial Park.|
R.P.: To all those Chinese American's out there, chomping at the bit to come to China and teach, What practical advice would you give them.
Judy: Come with an open mind. Be willing to change and adapt to your surroundings.
When I decided to come, I was warned by some who had experienced life here, that I would have a difficult time, solely because I was Chinese American.
So before I came, I already knew I would have problems, and with that said, I came prepared to make the best of it.
Ultimately you are responsible for your own happiness. You need to decide the outcome for yourself. Will you just accept everything here, learn from it, adapt to it and move on? If you can do this, you will enjoy your experience.
R.P.: In closing this article, could you stop cleaning the house for a moment and reach down into the depths of intellectual profundity and leave my readers with one final comment?
|Martyrs Memorial Cemetery XinDi Hong Hu City.|
Author's note: I guess I should not have phrased the question this way, for it led to a whole stream of unprintable funny remarks that only one living here could appreciate. Eventually, Judy settled on the one thing that not only we, but the locals frequently say: Shen Me? (What?) Wo ting bu dong! (I hear you but don't understand what you mean!)
Thank you Judy, and thank you to the readers at Magic City for taking the time to share our experiences.
|This road runs from the top of town past Judy's school and onto the canal that divides the town. This building is basically 2 blocks from the Biggest supermarket and the People's Square.|
|The brand new YeeKing Hotel opposite the Bus Station in XinDi, and more demolition at the top of town|
|Top: 2 new sets of traffic lights and no one knows what the rules are so they are useless. Bottom: Local peddlers and labourers during siesta break|
R.P.BenDedek is the pseudonym of the Author of 'The King's Calendar: The Secret of Qumran' (www.kingscalendar.com), and he is a guest columnist at Magic City Morning Star News. An Australian, he currently teaches Conversational English in China. Other Stories
"The King's Calendar" is a chronological study of the historical books of the Bible (Kings and Chronicles), Josephus, Seder Olam Rabbah, and the Damascus Document of The Dead Sea Scrolls.