Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Part S - Teaching in China - Shanghai

It’s a sobering experience to have spent more than 4 hours flying across the vast and mostly empty interior of Australia with its approximately 23 million people clinging to a few pockets on the perimeter, only to spend the last few minutes of the 12 hour flight peering down at Shanghai with more than 24 million people in just the one city.

I don't know Shanghai well, but I enjoy visiting. Over the years, I’ve walked along a few streets, I’ve taken a few taxi rides, been on a couple of subway trips. Given the size and density of the city, that’s as insubstantial as someone making an assessment of Australia based on perfect Spring day in Sydney and concluding that no place could be finer!

One year, we stayed at a small hotel in the French Concession and enjoyed walking ... and walking, and walking. Wandering down alleys, peering between fence palings, oohing and aahing at statues. 
As a tourist, I find this area enticing. The generous tree lined streets provide welcome shade and a sense of coolness in the hot, humid summer heat, and while some areas are busy with crowds of people, others encourage you to pause and reflect on the rapidly changing country. 

Shanghai is a living city, with children heading off to school, university students and exchange students milling around with backpacks and take away coffee. Men of varying nationalities in suits, striding purposefully to offices. Others gliding along on bicycles, seemingly oblivious to the traffic, threading through cars and electric motor bikes with apparently no care in the world!

Chubby middle aged men stripped to the waist, some only wearing boxer shorts, sitting on upturned boxes, or with their singlets or t-shirts rolled up to below their armpits to allow their sweat to evaporate in any hint of breeze. Beautifully made up women, slender and haughtily confident of their superiority, clip along in sparkly stilettos and short, figure hugging outfits. 

Older people stroll to get the morning paper, some with small dogs with little booties. Washing hanging on poles jutting from windows in narrow, homey alleyways. 

In parks, in singles and groups, people exercising in the mornings - various kinds of dance, tai-chi, games similar to badminton - all part and parcel of a city so different, but somehow vaguely similar to Melbourne. Maybe it's something to do with the plane trees and the Chinese having been part of the Australian population since the early days. 

Here, as in Melbourne, you're just a face in the crowd, no different to millions of others. It's very different to teaching off the tourist track, where it's obvious many people haven't seen, let alone spoken with people from English speaking backgrounds before, where your every move is cause for curiosity and staring.
Hoardings and living green walls hide construction sites and the crowded relocatable housing for workers who've been attracted to work in the big city. Living conditions are as varied as in any large city, and dust covers the valiant efforts to dry washing on a line outside a hut. The amount of construction is incredible, cranes appear like a giant game of pick-up-sticks, scattered around the huge city. It's a riot of colour, movement and sound.

Shanghai is a city gripped by modernisation, and the pace of the change is breathtaking. On my first visit in 1978 it was like visiting a city with solid roots to the past. Those roots are still there in the lively alleys and the stately old buildings contrasting with the futuristic gravity-defying new ones. 

Not everything relating to the past has been discarded, but what demands attention is the iconic skyline and colourful nighttime lighting.

The Friendship stores are long gone, replaced by international flagship stores encouraging consumption and materialism, but of more interest to me are the people who've flocked from around the world to make this city home, bringing with them skills, interests and services for locals, expats and tourists alike.  
Not least is the availability of international foods, wines and good coffee! Leaf and Bean, Jamaica Blue, and a variety of independent cafes make a stopover in Shanghai after teaching in the country a real treat! 

My previous posts about Teaching in China were our ArrivalBanquets,  Culture and Comfort foods, DrivingExerciseFabulous Food,GamesHistoryIllnessFrom Jerilderie to JiangsuKenny (which is about toiletsLists and Communication MisunderstandingsNon-verbal communication followed by The Observations of an OnlookerPetsQuestions, Rest RoomsShanghai and the next will be .... Teaching Teachers ...!


Saturday, August 15, 2015

Part R. Teaching in China. Rest Rooms.

Ah the joys of miscommunication!

It appears that the term rest room isn't a euphemism for the area where the toilets are housed, but was to be taken literally! At our school in Xuzhou, the rest room appeared to be a formal conference or Boardroom, and during the vacation period it had been set aside for staff to rest in after lunch.

However, we weren't aware of that on the first day, and, on being asked if we'd like to go to the rest room, made polite, non-committal noises and entered ...  I don't really know what we expected, but it certainly wasn't this!

Details of the large room were difficult to make out in the diffused light, and the gentle sounds of deep breathing (some might use the word snoring) greeted our chattering entrance. Stunned, we lapsed into awkward silence and looked at each other. Could this be true? Were the skeleton staff on duty really deep in a post luncheon kip?

Formal Boardroom chairs had been pulled together to make the semblance beds. Heads lolled in what appeared to be awkward, uncomfortable angles, on the backs or arms of the chairs, feet were draped over the adjoining chair. Clearly this wasn't a new idea, as all staff members were completely at ease and relaxed. Some had simply put their head down on the boardroom table and checked out for a while.
Not the Boardroom in question, but similar
except for the alert, focussed students!
We'd regularly enter the classrooms after lunch to find all lights had been turned off and our students sound asleep with their heads on the tables. Even they had the sense to have a complete break!

How civilised! An area specially set aside to have a snooze in the middle of the day! Australia could really learn from this! Less stress! Increased afternoon productivity! And so simple!

Unfortunately the opportunity for total relaxation wasn't for us. We rarely returned from lunch for long enough than to sit for more than a few moments before gathering our bags, books and photocopies and presenting the afternoon sessions. There were times in the afternoons when I thought longingly of the Rest Room and those gently snoring souls.

In contrast in 2015 in Gaoyou, we had lunch at the hotel we were staying at, and so were able to lie back in private and put our feet up in our hotel rooms on the pleasantly hard Chinese mattresses, (my back loves them!) and have a complete break after eating. It did wonders for my aching legs and I was able to give more energetic presentations in the afternoons!

On my list of things to learn however, is the ability to sleep anywhere. It'd be a very useful skill!
I haven't yet worked out the attraction of a window between the
bathroom and bedroom in some hotels.

My previous posts about Teaching in China were our ArrivalBanquets,  Culture and Comfort foods, DrivingExerciseFabulous Food,GamesHistoryIllnessFrom Jerilderie to JiangsuKenny (which is about toiletsLists and Communication MisunderstandingsNon-verbal communication followed by The Observations of an Onlooker, Pets, Questions, Rest Rooms and the next will be .... Shanghai ...!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Part Q. Teaching in China. Questions.

The one question I've been most often asked on my return from teaching teachers in China is, "Would you do it again?"

I've often wished it was, "Did your students gain confidence in their spoken English?" That would be easy to answer with a confident - "Yes, all of them!"

But "Would you do it again?" is harder to answer. Partly, it's related to my undeniably Western upbringing and how my body copes with the change of food - it doesn't adapt quickly to the quantity of oil used in Chinese cooking. I'm constantly on the verge of diarrhoea and have a complaining gut. I have trouble sleeping, and find the sweltering heat and extreme humidity draining. Others suffer with painful heat rash. The lack of easy contact with home is challenging. "Yes ... maybe" is met with "So you didn't enjoy the experience", which simply isn't true. Questions aren't always easy to answer.

Once you've gained the confidence of adult students, and respect and trust has been fostered, questions beyond your expectations may surface.

Stereotypes absorbed from films make for interesting discussions: Is everyone really that wealthy? Do you all have large homes? We might rarely stop to think about the skewed version of the "typical" western family life, particularly as depicted in TV shows and movies glorifying "the American Dream". We know it's a facade, and the reality for the bulk of US citizens and the western world in general, is very different. Westerners aren't a homogenous group and while students might implicitly understand this, it's important to also note differences within and between cultures. We don't all live in huge beautifully furnished homes. Not everyone is wealthy, many people are afraid of overseas travel particularly to a communist country where the main language isn't English.

My Chinese students were stunned to hear that, before I left home, I'd heard comments like: "Be careful, you never know if you'll be safe overseas, especially in China."
"What do you mean you don't know the name of the town and hotel you'll be staying in before you arrive, isn't that dangerous?" "How will your family know where you are?"
"Isn't China a scary place?"

My Chinese teacher-students looked at me with wide eyed disbelief, then looked at each other with genuine shock tinged with hurt. How could anyone think they, as individuals, could present a danger to anyone! "We thought all Westerners would be comfortable travelling to China." "We're just the same as you except we speak a different language."

And one thing leads to another. More questions emerge, and as trust builds, so does the confidence to ask them.

One day, I had the sense that something was going on between a group of the women. There was a general shuffling of feet, and pointed looking at each other.

"Do you want to ask me a question?"

Nod, nod, nod.

Okay, why aren't they asking? Why do they look so embarrassed? They haven't been backwards in coming forward the past few days.

"Is it something you'd prefer the men not to be here for?"

Nod, nod, nod.

Oh my goodness. What on earth could it be? What to do? How do I handle this? Nothing like this was mentioned in the pre training sessions! I checked with our interpreter and she encouraged me to let the women ask whatever it was they wanted, so I asked them to write the questions down with the understanding that I'd do my best to answer as well as possible.

And what followed probably only came about due to my age, and reinforced that we're all in this together. We all face similar problems and often feel the need to share and know we're not alone:

  • How do I get on with my in-laws?
  • How do I teach manners to children?
  • How do I broach the topic of sex education with my child?
  • How early do I begin the discussion?
  • But they also were curious about our attitudes to abortion and single parenthood, about contraception, menopause, age and retirement.

At other times they asked questions specifically related to teaching:

  • How do you inspire students?
  • How do you help the student who is struggling - with school work, or with problems at home?
  • How do you make your classroom interesting when there are tight time frames in which to deliver necessary material?
  • How do you be a great role model?

And like so much in life, there's no single easy answer. Life is complex, answers will be different, depending on your country of origin, your age, experience and personal background.

More than anything I encouraged them to keep sharing between themselves, to find mutually supportive networks and to use this sharing experience as a great start.

As for "Would you go again?" I returned to Jiangsu in 2015 (to the city of Gaoyou) and found the experience just as rewarding the second time!

My previous posts about Teaching in China were our ArrivalBanquets,  Culture and Comfort foods, DrivingExerciseFabulous Food,GamesHistoryIllnessFrom Jerilderie to JiangsuKenny (which is about toiletsLists and Communication MisunderstandingsNon-verbal communication followed by The Observations of an Onlooker, Pets, Questions and the next will be .... Rest Rooms ...!