Packing

It’s really getting close now. I’ll be back in the States in two weeks. The bags are slowly packed, all purchases are on a purely nutritional basis, and there’s a definite feeling of anticipation. It’s not the sense of getting ready for some adventure that I had when first setting out almost ten months ago. Rather, it’s the feeling of slowly sliding towards the door to put your shoes on after a visit to a friend’s house that’s gone on a tad too long. After a certain point, while things had been fun, it feels stretched long just for its own sake, and everyone’s sitting on the couch fiddling with their cellphones and not talking with each other.

It doesn’t help that I literally have nothing else to do, teaching-wise. This was not of my own choice. About a month ago, I had spoken with the university staff to let them know that I was looking to leave a little earlier than the end of the semester (because my visa expiration is only a couple days after that and I simply do not want to shave it that close ever), and that it was important that I have my final exams on the first week of finals so I could grade them and turn them in before I left. I was assured that this would be no problem at all, and I promptly set up the flight back so that I’d arrive on the afternoon of the Fourth of July.

This morning, I go into the office to see what my exact day of the finals will be (since nothing is ever told to us, or even made available until the last minute), and learn that the English writing finals have been scheduled for July 3rd, during which I’m set to be outside the country. I was not surprised to learn that the people I had spoken with first denied that a verbal promise had been made, and then backpedaled once I showed them the relevant texts and said it had been impossible to implement to their labyrinthine scheduling work.

The result of this is simply that I will not be there to grade the tests. I will not change my travel plans to satisfy them, particularly when they (in an all-too-common habit in China) promise the world to save face then fail to deliver, and seem not to remember that it’s important to notify early the people who will be affected by decisions. I’ll just need to pass on my existing grades (for the meager 30% they’re worth in the final score, all-but-meaningless next to The Exam).

I worry about how my students will be graded. Despite the very clear instructions I have given about how the written questions are to be scored, I worry that my students will be judged on their ability to pull out a series of convoluted over-formal “sentence patterns” toppings and idiom sprinkles to indiscriminately flavor their writing, instead of focusing on strong ideas that connect with their thesis.

I worry a lot about my students in general. The system here is terrible for them. If something’s not on the exam, it doesn’t matter to the students, because it doesn’t matter to the system. The gaokao decides the future for the students. Many of them aren’t majoring in English because they like it or even chose it; it’s because they happened to do best on that part of the gaokao and the universities will only accept them under that major.

Prestige and face matter more than education. Next year all the Chinese students are getting moved to a new empty campus in the middle of nowhere, isolated from the heart of the city and opportunities to communicate with foreign travelers, all so that this campus can be reserved for international students who can increase the school’s name. One student who’s not in my classes has some of the most native-sounding English I’ve heard in China, and she plans to transfer to an American university. The staff and administrators are very uncooperative with her when it comes to giving her transcripts, I suspect because they don’t want to lose their best students.

And most of all, critical thinking has atrophied in the students. I was helping one of my students one-on-one as he prepared for the exam that I’ll no longer grade. He was practicing writing paragraphs from example topic sentences in the textbook and was having trouble creating support ideas with details and examples. As I slowly helped him reach some write-worthy concepts, it slowly dawned on me for what was honestly the first time. It wasn’t a translation issue. It wasn’t an English language level. It was an idea issue. Thinking of the ideas and branching out the relationships between topic and support just wasn’t there, at least in the levels that should be present in college students.

On one level I had always “known” about the problems with critical thinking being eschewed in favor of memorization and lecture, but I had never before been so starkly confronted with it. And the students know it too. They’ll openly talk about how the educational system ruined their thinking. Everyone knows there’s something missing, but how to find it and pursue it is still absent. If the students got a proper dose of Socratic questions throughout their education, it wouldn’t be this way, but how can you easily and quantifiably test for Socratic questions?

They deserve better, from the system, their upbringing, and their teachers. I make no secret of the fact that the only things that make me “qualified” are a college degree, living in an English-speaking country all my life, and being white and thus look the part. And the only reason why I’m at this university, which should have higher standards than New Standard, is because I was jobless and CIEE could probe some connections to land me a job here. I’ve done what I can and have learned a lot about teaching, but ESL in China is certainly at its end for me.

I enjoy teaching and explaining concepts to others, but I don’t know how well I can function when the actual means of communication and teaching are the things I’m teaching. It’s better with the college students than the 5-year-olds, of course, but I don’t know how much gets through that barrier. In fairness, it does truly help that I have to reevaluate what I’m saying and teaching in order to translate it into simple English, but my range feels underused and in fact lessened over time.

The language and cultural barrier is inescapable, even when your boss speaks good English and has experience working with foreign teachers. There’s a sense of being a cog in a machine but without the ability to even reason with the other cogs pushing and pulling you. There’s no heroic champion working to change the system by finding some novel way of getting through to the students or something, there’s just the system, too big to alter or even comprehend (like most of China).

My hours are low, my pay sufficient for my needs. It’s amazing how little I have to actually work here — at most three hours a day, 3 days a week, then the rest is fiddling with grades, looking at assignments, or cobbling together a lesson plan, which I could get away with doing on a hungover Sunday afternoon if I had a habit of such a thing. You hand in your lesson plans or schedule every couple months and then that’s all the school hears from you. For those who want free time, this kind of job has it in spades.

But ultimately my free time feels squandered at best, and ill-gotten at worst. The work simply doesn’t feel rewarding. There’s almost no feedback on whether you’re doing a good or bad job, and it’s just plain hard to tell. I know in some ways I’ve made a difference, especially in improving spoken English of students just by being friends with them and listening to them when no other teacher has, but as a “gap year” ESL teacher in China I can’t shake the feeling that I’m cheating the students — even if the universities and entire system are cheating them more. I feel like I’m putting in a lot of effort but I just never know.

If there’s one great thing I’ve gotten from my time in China, it’s a reinforcement of knowledge of what I need when I work. In the same way working as a bagger in a grocery store in high school motivated me to reach higher in life, the time here helps clarify what I want out of what will essentially take up a good portion of my life for the next several decades. Teaching can feel like a service profession — and while there’s no dishonor in that at all, I’m learning that I need something more creation-construction-based. Work can’t just be a way to make money just so I can have free time on the weekends, it needs to be a craft I can find meaning in. From my time working in a computer science field, I know that I can find that there if I seek it out, and hopefully do something in life that is advancing in some way.

For some, this is life, but I can’t fully understand it. For me, this is not a career path or a future. It’s great as a one-year thing that gives some real eye-opening experiences by being thrown into the deep end of the cultural pool, but beyond that one year I can’t help but imagine it not only as a “resume hole” but just a hole in my own development. Life feels paused, especially in my chosen field (improving your Web development skills when poor wiring means 2 KB/s at best?).

I expect that when I return, I’ll be asked if it was worth it or if I’d do it again if I had the chance to go back and do it all over again. I really don’t know. I’m glad I didn’t do this for the money, as at the end I’m actually a few grand poorer than ten months ago. The first four or five months at New Standard were absolutely miserable, even if I made great friends with Dessa, Alex, and Sarah. In the end it feels very fuzzy and vague — I can’t even remember some of the names of the employees there. The rest of it at GXNU turned out all right but I worry about the effect a protracted time here has had on my personality. I know I feel more jaded and cynical. Mandarin, the language I had studied out of pure random interest for two years, has been whittled slowly out of my brain into just “survival Chinese,” my fascination by the characters and grammar suffocated by immersion to the point of drowning. I’m actually doing some German study at the moment, to give myself a new problem to work on and to rest from Chinese. As for the culture itself, over time the captivating elements dull and the negative aspects feel more pronounced and I seriously worry when I look at those old, bitter, grizzled expats who have been here for years and complain about everything and hate the culture as a defense mechanism because I can see how it happens. There’s a lot of mental exhaustion that can manifest itself negatively and I know I’ll have to rehabilitate things upon my return.

There’s a lot I’ll miss. Cheap mangoes. Those iconic mountains. The ability to walk around for half an hour and be assured of seeing something new and completely insane. And of course the students. I really hope we’ll stay in touch as long as we can.

There’s a lot to sort through after this very long experience.

But what an experience!

3 thoughts on “Packing

  1. I’ve really enjoyed reading your experiences, mate. As we say in Georgia were I’m from “you’re preaching to the choir!”

    Hope you’ll read River Town by Peter Hessler once you’re home. It will give you a bit of perspective as to what you’ve experienced over the past year.

    Travel safely.

    • I actually read River Town a few months back, and you’re right in that it gives some real perspective on things. As I was reading it I was just struck by lots of little things that show “yep, that’s China!”

  2. Mate, I came across your blog by chance whilst looking for some information on Guilin and I’ve been reading it on and off for a few months – love it. I was at GXNU a few years ago, and you’ve hit the nail on the head with so many things, about China and the university!! Feel like I’ve relived my time whilst reading this. Cheers!

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