With those words, from the Chinese national anthem "March of the Volunteers", Yali Middle School began a new year.
The last two weeks in Changsha has been a whirlwind between getting my apartment to resemble a livable space, preparing lessons for class, attending banquets after banquets with school and community leaders (each time getting schwasted with Chinese 白酒 (bai jiu), aka the most disgusting liquor in the world), and meeting new friends.
Before starting work, I was concerned that the fact I am Chinese-American would expose me to unfavorable reactions from the teachers and students. I've found the students to be mostly curious, some not really able to comprehend how I can be both Chinese ethnically and American. Rather harmless. The teachers are a bit more straightforward with their preferences, often ignoring me to talk to the "real" foreigners. I am interested in how the teachers will respond to me when my class for them begins. Anyway, after a full week, I am happy to say that most of the questions and suspicions over my foreignness have mostly died away (I am ashamed to admit that at times, I've had to "dumb down" my Chinese just to appear more foreign; the constant need to convince people is tiring). Unfortunately, it has been replaced with suspicion that I am not old enough to be a teacher. Ahhh, the pains of looking youthful.
I am currently only teaching three English classes, so my class load is actually pretty light. I meet each class three times a week, for a total of nine hours. However, my responsibilities also include a separate class for the local English teachers, college counseling for seniors, Improv Club, English Society, English magazine called Wings, Photography Club (hopefully!), Library Hour, office hours, a musical (thinking about doing the Lion King!) and a couple other things. Yeah... so my week is (will be) quite hectic. That said, all of these activities are really fun, and I haven't felt drained or burned out at all (yet...).
The students here at Yali are exceptional. I find them motivated and, more importantly, genuinely interested in learning English and exploring Western culture. The fellows host Library Hour every day, where students can come to the English Library and converse with us. Twenty minutes before this even begins, students begin lining up. By the time we arrive, there are over a hundred students waiting. This hour is always during their break time; they have the option to do whatever they want--nap, play, eat--and they choose to come to the Library Hour. The majority of the students who show up to Library Hour are not even students in our classes! Would this happen in the States?
That said, my students are the best students at Yali, and Yali is widely considered to be the best school in Hunan. So, it can be argued that my students are some of the brightest in Hunan!
We discuss so many different things, from my opinions of China to differences in education systems in China and the USA. They ask about Lady Gaga, they ask me to sing Chinese songs. They are like sponges, hanging on to every word.
Among my students in my class, I already have a few favorites:
- MW asked me what I thought Shakespeare was trying to say in his play "Merchant of Venice." I had to tell her that since I have not read the play yet, I did not know, but that I will read it soon so that we can discuss it. She even texted to remind me. Homework.
- SL comes to Library Hour everyday, and her English is phenomenal. A quiet-spoken girl who digs country music, Sunny asked me if she could spend the weekends in the English Library. As much as I wish I could let her, the entire building is locked over the weekends. It was heartbreaking to say no to her. I think I may invite her to the fellows' apartments, where the book collection has grown over the past hundred years.
- CP is a tiny tiny boy with big glasses. The first day, he squeaked his name and I thought he said "Sarah." So, I called him Sarah for the rest of the day, and the poor kid was too shy to correct me.
This is the first time teaching for me, and everyday, every lesson is a learning experience. How to time-manage realistically, how to balance the necessity to slow the tempo of my speech against the benefits of exposing them to more realistic, natural conversations. How to engage everyone, including the few seated at the back of the room, whose eyes occasionally glaze over with boredom or incomprehension. I am learning that, even though I long badly for it, I don't really need to win over the students' acceptance with jokes or the typical antics usually tied to foreign teachers in China. My friend Sam nailed it when he called teaching "all-consuming." Whenever I have free time, my thoughts are tied up in lesson planning, teaching strategies, and the students themselves. The students' expectations for themselves are as high as mine, if not higher, and I want my classes to be conducive for them reaching these lofty goals.