It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
So what’s Charles Dicken’s got to do with teaching English in China?
Dicken’s opening paragraph to A Tale of Two Cities is analogous to my time teaching English in China because it was full of contrasts – love and hate, laughter and frustrations. And it’s not just analogous to my experience of teaching English in China, but also China itself: a country with parallel worlds.
Why did I decided to teach English in China?
I was 21, and like so many young people, I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do with my life (I still don’t really know). All I knew was that I wasn’t ready to have a 9 till 5 job and I wanted to travel. However, I couldn’t afford to travel without a source of income so I figured teaching English in China would enable me to experience living life in a foreign country, enhance my CV, and take myself completely out of my comfort zone. To be honest, the idea of teaching English in China didn’t really attract me; it was just a vehicle to get out of England. At the time, I didn’t have any friends with experience teaching English abroad so any first-hand guidance was limited, but before I could really think twice about my decision, or allow myself to talk my way out of it, I had my Visa within weeks, and said hasta la vista.
My mother is Irish and my father is Chinese, however, I had never been to China because when Japan invaded China in the 1940s my father’s family escaped to Malaysia where they still continue to live. And despite seeing my relatives in Malaysia on several occasions, I couldn’t shake away the affinity I seemed to possess for China. In a way I yearned to go because I felt through discovering China, I was discovering a part of myself.
How I found teaching
Surprisingly, I didn’t find teaching too overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong, there were times when my stomach would unleash a whirlpool of butterflies right before a class, but adrenaline took away most of the nerves. The most rewarding moments arrived when I had gotten to know my students and it became much more natural and comfortable to conduct a class, and when I began seeing progress in their English that also felt very satisfying. However, this doesn’t mean things were always plain sailing…
The Politics of teaching English in China
There are three things we don’t want you to talk about. You must not talk about Chairman Mao, you must not talk about sex, and you must not talk about Tiananmen Square.
Those were the words of the headmaster before I began teaching a class of fifty that consisted of 18-20- year olds at an engineering college. I nodded in agreement whilst a voice of oppression silently wailed at the back of my head. Had I just walked into an Orwellian classroom?
It’s easy to say I broke my pledge, but most of the time it was completely by accident… There was the time I once tried teaching the concept of a ‘miracle’ but my pupils kept giving examples like ‘The great wall of China’, and ‘The Olympics’, and whilst they are fine examples of extraordinary engineering, they were still not the answers I was looking for. They couldn’t think outside of the box. In the end, I sprouted out the words ‘Virgin Mary’ and was greeted with a class of blank expressions so I figured I needed to expand further (this is where I should have stopped). I continued by asking if they knew what ‘virgin’ meant, which of course they didn’t. So clearly forgetting the words of their headmaster, I now felt obligated to enlighten them on the ways of the world, but as soon as they heard the word ‘sex’ all hell broke loose; the girls started shrieking as though the sheer utterance of the word was enough to contaminate their minds and bodies. A teaching highlight I must say.
Tiananmen Square was a difficult topic to avoid because I was teaching in 2009, during the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. This was a demonstration led by a group of students protesting for basic human rights such as having freedom of speech and press. The protest ended with government military action and countless innocent lives taken.
As you can imagine, the 20th anniversary of such an event would not have been forgotten but the government did its best to try… and try it did. All social networking sites, or any sites that perpetuated the sharing of ideas became banned, this included Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and I couldn’t access my email account for days. Then there were all the websites that were banned on Google. Even now, you can’t type phrases like ‘Tiananmen Square’ or ‘Tank Man’ into Google in China because those pages as well as many others that are affiliated with the historical atrocity are hidden behind a great firewall. Hidden from memory.
It was a big eye opener to live for 6 months in a country that so blatantly denied truth to its people. At least in England, our government tries to be discreet about brainwashing us. No, I shouldn’t be entirely negative, it made me feel lucky that I live in a country where I can voice by opinions without facing punishment.
Despite feeling frustrated about having to censor what I believe to be important truths in society and history, I still consider teaching English in China to be the single most important period of my life. It made me considerably more socially aware, and it picked me up when I felt down and uncertain about what I wanted to do in life, and although I’m still uncertain about what I want to do, it’s a different kind of uncertainty. Before China, I was uncertain because I felt I didn’t have any options, but now uncertainty has risen from seeing too many options. The experience not only made me feel more connected to my Chinese heritage, it made me confident in other areas of my life, because surely if you can go to a new country, on the other side of the world by yourself and finish what you set out to do, it makes your next challenge a little more easy to take on. For those who have ever thought about teaching English in a foreign country, just do it.