My first three months of teaching have been quite a learning experience. I teach 272 students in eight classes. All are freshmen and sophomores majoring in English. Most are 18 or 19 years old, just like most underclassmen in the U.S., but that is essentially where the similarities end.
When I walked into each classroom on the first day, each entire class let out a unified, “WHOOOAAAAAA!”
As I’ve said before, the people of Jinan are not used to outsiders.
In the beginning, I found it hilarious (and I still do), but also uncomfortable and troubling a bit deeper down.
A room full of supposed adults gawking at me like children who haven’t developed egos telling them to act cool is definitely hilarious. They look like college students, but they don’t act college-aged by any western standard. I only graduated a year ago this month, so I could still pass for a college student, and most days I still feel like one. I imagine someone watching the first-day scene and seeing a room full of slack-jawed college kids gawking in awe at another college kid standing in front of them as a sloppily cast authority figure. It’s perfectly silly.
The discomfort layer came from being completely on display. It’s not that way anymore, but teaching still feels a lot like performing – I am expected to captivate attention, entertain and inform for an hour and a half. Still, the first day with each class had so much extra awkwardness. Students looked at me with wide eyes, like I was either in a zoo or on a catwalk, I can’t tell which – but neither felt very humanizing.
Now, my students are used to me and I’m used to them. At times I would like to strangle a few of them, but mostly I love them. Plus, while I certainly wasn’t shy before, I don’t think public speaking will bother me ever again.
The troubling part is realizing the extent to which western culture influences people here. Lots of students, always women, announced during their personal introductions to the class that they think I’m beautiful. Compliments from locals are generally pretty free-flowing, but there’s something disconcerting about a university student gushing like a little girl about how she thinks I’m pretty instead of telling her new professor something about herself.
One of my classes of very sweet sophomores.
I’m the first foreign teacher many freshmen have had. For some, I’m the first English teacher who can speak English. Many students from smaller cities and towns have studied English in school for years and never had a teacher who could actually say a word in the language. They’ve learned spelling and grammar, but never been taught pronunciation or how to write sentences that aren’t copied from books.
Regardless of their ability level, students choose their own English names. Most are either traditional, like Betsy and Frank, or gloriously goofy. A few of my favorites are: Equation, Soldier, Zero, Sing, and Two Baby. I have a student named Monkey. Almost every class includes a Smile, Lemon, Orange, and Cherry. Both men and women go by Silence. A Christ and a Carrot. A few classic seasonal choices like Summer, Winter, April, and May, but also July, Holiday, Sunny, Season, and Storm. A male student named Snow and a female student named Snowy. Damon, Teemon, Yamon. Fish. LeBron. Elvis.
Some teachers don’t allow names that generally only pass as common nouns, but considering the level of choice the Chinese school system gives students, I don’t blame them for getting a little creative when they can.
Almost every part of college life is controlled here. Majors are determined by students’ scores on a national standardized test taken in high school, and are rarely changed. Once your major is decided, so are your roommates and schedules for the next four years. The freshman class for each major is split into groups of about 35, and those students are in lock-step – they live together in the dorms and have all of their classes together, with the exact same kids in each course, for four years.
The dorms here make the one I lived in look plush. Most rooms sleep eight students, with four sets of bunk beds and little room for anything else. Most dormitory bathrooms don’t have hot water, so students carry buckets of it up the stairs from the first floor when they want a shower. I’ve been told this is unique to northern China, but haven’t confirmed the south is any different.
Curfew is the kicker: At 10:30 p.m. the doors are locked, from the outside, with a bike chain slung through the handles. Then the power is shut off. Lights out. Go to bed. Hope there isn’t a fire. On weekends, they have freedom until 11.
And forget about sneaking out to go to bars or parties off campus (most students have never been to either). I doubt anyone ever told these kids that rules were made to be broken.
So if my students want to go wild with self-expression by naming themselves after a fruit for a few years, I say more power to them. They need all they can get.