First Year, Second Year

English teacher and student in the classroom
The all-important ID card
The all-important ID card

In September of 1984, I arrived at Xiamen University in Fujian Province, China. As happy as I was to be in this beautiful and fascinating place—and I was happy—the trouble started immediately.

I’d been teaching since my first gig as a graduate student 1966. I thought I knew students, and I wasn’t above playing it for laughs. So why did I see all these expressionless faces? I thought the kids must have been so abused by the system that they couldn’t react normally. After about two weeks they started to thaw out, and I realized having to deal with a foreigner had scared the shit out of them. After all, this was only a year after the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, when any foreign contact meant big trouble. I had also insisted on speaking in class, which was not the Chinese way of teaching English conversation.

Someone must have talked to my students, because suddenly they opened up and started talking. They became a joy to teach—we did a lot of small-group discussions, some skits they wrote themselves and acted out, anything to communicate verbally. One of the first questions I got from the freshmen, who were all very young and looked younger, was, “What does the United States hate about China?”

Out of the mouths of babes, I thought to myself. “Well,” I said, “People like President Reagan are afraid of socialism.”

ID with photo in subtropical heat

They looked very surprised for a minute, and then they laughed. This was not an embarrassed giggle. This was genuine amusement.

“That’s why they are afraid of the Soviet Union and China. When I said I was going to come here, some people said, ‘You mean Red China?’”

Recognizing this as paranoia from the other side, they laughed uproariously. After that, my biggest problem was to get students to shut up when other students are talking. They seemed to be used to listening only to authority figures, not each other.

Another problem was textbooks. The older ones were full of political slogans like “Long live Chairman Mao” and extraordinary inaccurate information, such as hints about pronouncing the tones in German, which the author had assumed was a tonal language like Chinese. Cultural information was also problematic. In response to “thank you,” students were taught not to say “you’re welcome,”  but “never mind” or “it doesn’t matter,” translations of mei guanxi or bu keqi.

The new official strategy was to fill English language textbooks with reading selections on modern technology, which was as familiar to my students as the dark side of the moon. The freshmen had a pirated book—a fairly good one—written for students learning English in the States, where they would be picking up cultural information just from living in the country. For example, one lesson was about sending medical information from remote areas to hospital computers via the touch telephone. My students might have used a telephone a few times, but it would have been an operator-assisted call on a dial phone. They didn’t understand, and it didn’t help for me to describe the touch tone by drawing a picture on the board and bleating out BEEP BEEP BEEP in different pitches. Except for the computer science students, they thought computers were like typewriters with television sets attached. Some of the others still longed for access to typewriters. The students didn’t understand this or any of the other readings, and the Chinese teachers of English didn’t either. How were they going to know what was meant by “the next best thing to being there” or “reach out and touch someone”?  Where could they have looked it up?

There was also a communication problem with the professors in charge, who told me, with regard to the chapters in the two first-year reading texts, “The proportion is one to four.”

“One of what to four of what?” It made no sense at all if you looked at the books.

“The proportion is one to four.”

“But I don’t understand…”

“The proportion is one to four.”

One of them explained at length what he did in his own class. He read the little reading selection aloud and asked the six students whose pronunciation was the worst—one at a time—to stand up and read it aloud. That would explain the blank-terrified expressions on the kids’ faces, I thought. Then the class did the exercises, which simply required them to supply missing words from the reading. Every class period, the students wrote out these oral exercises. If their handwriting wasn’t good enough, they had to do them over. When the professor finished explaining, clearly expecting me to go and do likewise, I couldn’t help myself. I said recent research showed reading aloud was of questionable value in learning a foreign language, particularly texts meant to be read silently. So much for making a good impression on my new boss.

The usual Chinese way was to read the text to the students or play a recording, do every exercise, explain every third word and make the students recite from memory or read aloud. Pronunciation was one word at a time with no regard to the intonation of the sentence or the word group. It sounded a bit like machine-gun fire. The students read along or fell asleep. Anywhere you went on campus, you saw students walking along blubbering over some English text they were learning by heart. Sometimes you’d hear, “This is the way Chinese students learn. You need Chinese methods to teach Chinese students.” These methods preserved the status quo—no one asked questions—and supposedly prevented the students from seeing that the teachers couldn’t speak the language they were supposedly teaching.

At least I had a text for my freshman classes. Since I’d been told I’d be teaching fourth-year writing, I’d brought over a box of different writing books from the Linguistics Department at the University of Pittsburgh. When I arrived, the writing classes had been given to someone else. I had no materials for nine hours a week of junior and graduate classes, so I had to scramble. When I finally met other expats in my building one said, “We didn’t want to disturb your typing. I said to Elizabeth, ‘Have you seen the new shuan jia [Foreign Expert]? What’s she doing? What’s all that typing?'”

So, what to type from? I blew up when the librarian wouldn’t let me into the closed stacks of the library. How can you tell from looking at fifty titles, all more or less synonymous with “Basic English,” which one or two might do for this or that? That was when I discovered that if you bang on your fist on the counter and yell your head off, you get access. Not long after, I saw that in China banging the table was common behavior among expats, although perhaps less effective than the Confucian method of “going through the back door,” or getting someone to arrange things for you. I was also frustrated at being barred from the part of the bookstore with the pirated foreign books. When the Foreign Affairs Office took the foreigners on campus to another town, I was delighted to pick up a few pirated books. Back at the bus, one of the officials asked about my purchase.

Stupidly, I let him see. “This is a book that’s well known in the States.”

“Hmm. And you got it across the road there?”

When I showed the books to another foreigner, she said, “Don’t show them to the Chinese.”

“I’m afraid it’s too late.”

“Well, you aren’t used to China yet. One of those people is a bigwig in the Communist Party. He’ll call the bookstore, and if we come back later to buy books, the clerks won’t let us.”  At the first opportunity, she ran into the shop, but they didn’t have anything she wanted.

Back in Xiamen, I sent a couple of friendly Chinese teachers to the “no foreigners” room with instructions to write down titles. I didn’t want them to get into trouble by buying the books for me. Then I announced to my official minder, “I’d like to donate some books to the department library.”

“Oh, you are very generous.”

“Please buy these for me.” I gave her a list and the money for the books. “Now, I’d like to use them first.”

“Oh, yes, of course.”

There might have been a photocopy machine on the campus, but if so I’m certain few people were allowed to use it. A year later, I heard about the one photocopy machine at the Xinhua News Agency school, which was behind a locked door and guarded by a military man with a rifle and bayonet. The work unit didn’t have the proper foreign paper for the machine. If it was used with thin Chinese paper, it broke down. They weren’t taking any chances.

Anyway, I folded a mimeograph stencil so it would fit into the carriage of the manual Olympia portable my father had given me as a high school graduation present, which was perfect for China, and I typed. I had to use a lot of correction fluid, and I had to type with the ribbon on so the keys wouldn’t tear the stencil to bits. The result was ugly, but as a practical Westerner I assumed only the finished product mattered. I’d take my typed stencils into the English office and get interrogated about what students the materials were for and what other classes the students were taking. I didn’t know students were billed for all the handouts and the secretary was just trying to find out whether I was teaching Foreign Language students or College English students. Nobody explained that the two departments shared the same office. No one wrote my schedule down so a secretary could look it up. I was afraid that if I gave the wrong answer they wouldn’t fill out the forms for me and I’d have to go to another office and go through the same thing. I felt frustrated that I was having so many communication problems and that everyone seemed to find my frustration amusing.

After the questions were out of the way, the interrogators—everyone in the office—would comment about how awful my stencils looked. When I tried to explain, no one would listen. The same scene was repeated ten times. The fact that I counted shows how thin-skinned I’d grown about criticism, even though there was nothing personal in it. Anything different from the norm, clothing in the inappropriate colors or a shirt tail too long or too short, for example, drew minute and persistent criticism. That’s how China kept people in line. After I got through that phase of culture shock, I could ignore it.

Eventually I started going to a department typist’s home with long selections for her to type from books, while I typed the stuff I wrote myself and the shorter things I stole from books or newspapers. The typist filled out the forms for the printing factory because I still couldn’t write Chinese. I took the stencils and the forms to the printing factory and picked up the mimeographed copies a few days later—often piled up in my luggage cart, which my next door neighbor maintained should be the logo for the Foreign Expert, airport luggage wheels with a cardboard box full of papers.

Foreign Experts and Teachers, Chinese administrators (my boss, Prof. Wu Yidi, and me on the right)

In later years I came to distrust the Asian habit of making arbitrary decisions which affected people as a category, rather than as individuals. But what happened next was perfect for me. A couple of months after my arrival, it was announced from on high that all department heads above a certain age would be replaced by younger faculty. I was so far outside the information loop that, when a very pleasant, nice-looking, rather Westernized man came ambling over in my direction, I didn’t realize he was the new head of College English. He asked me whether I intended to stay on for another year. I said, “They haven’t asked me yet. — Oh, I see, you’re asking me.” He came to a class, beamed at what he saw and pumped my hand up and down vigorously. That was the beginning of one of the best working relationships I’ve ever had. We’ve remained friends, and I’ve been back to visit twice.

Fishing net on Xiamen beach (1984 technology)

I now felt better about going my own way, writing materials the students could understand and providing cultural information they would need in order to communicate with non-Chinese speakers of English. So, for example, technology on the level of the butter churn the students knew very well, particularly from their experience in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. So I gave them social history from the American frontier, complete with drawings of buildings, furniture and farm implements. They got lessons in what to say and what not to say. This was the start of my set of thirty-one dialogues illustrating Western social mores. The dialogues dealt with subjects the students were curious about, like dating, which at the time was frowned on for undergraduates. Each lesson included class activities, composition topics, and reading assignments. The thing mushroomed into a full-year course which I spent my second year developing and showing Chinese teachers how to use. It was run off and distributed as a book to the department faculty and people in other schools at the university.

Chemistry was the largest and best known department at Xiamen University. Now, suppose a graduate student, faculty member or administrator were chosen to act as a Chinese guide for some bigwig visiting chemist from America or Europe. That guide could very well show up unexpectedly before eight in the morning, knock continuously on the door until it was opened—maybe for fifteen minutes straight—barge in without being invited, look all around, ask a lot of personal questions indicating a good knowledge of the chemist’s personal life, pick his or her nose, make suggestions sounding like orders—“You’d better do this, you’d better do that”—and, once outside, spit loudly on the road. Then the person might push too hard for help getting into the chemist’s department overseas. Individually, at least, none of these indelicacies seemed to violate Chinese codes of behavior, or if they did they were frequent violations. This was still in the post-Cultural Revolution days when having nice manners meant being considered bourgeois, which of course was a no-no.

I felt this hypothetical foreign chemist, this visitor for three weeks, might conceivably be more interested in chemistry than in Chinese behavior—particularly before eight in the morning—and could well overlook the nice and friendly and polite gestures that student was also making. Many Chinese were obviously anxious around foreigners. They knew our expectations were very different, but they don’t know the specifics. I analyzed my frustrations, figuring that when I answered the door I was irritated because the Chinese knock longer than we do and continuously. Explaining my responses to my students gave me an outlet for emotions which otherwise might have remained trapped inside. This was the start of something I continued in Korea as I developed an advanced, two-volume cross-cultural language textbook from the interviews which are featured on this website. At Dongguk University I taught from it for ten years.

The culture gap was enormous. Chinese teachers of North American literature have asked me questions like, “Are there elephants in America?” And I thought, Wouldn’t your reading of nature poetry be different if you imagined a landscape with elephants in it? Would Walt Whitman evoke the same image from the top of an elephant?

One of my graduate students, a Ph.D. candidate in ancient Chinese history, told me on an individual oral exam that Columbus arrived in the western hemisphere “in 1852—no, 1850—nineteenth century.”


“Oh, that’s right. Ming Dynasty.”

It was just the two of us, and I couldn’t help myself. I said, “Who do you think China signed the Unequal Treaties with? Plains Indians? They would have given China a much better deal.”

On the other hand, some letters I received from the United States showed the writers didn’t know there was a difference between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China.

College majors were assigned according to test scores. The top students did science. Somewhat farther down, they got English—in 1984, after Russian was phased out—and farther still were other languages. After all, this was both Asia and a totalitarian state, neither of which put much truck in individual differences. At the end of my first year, I found out what happened to students after graduation. For assignments, the important score was the general mark. The exact percentages varied from department to department, but it might have been determined by something like this: 30% morality (being a good socialist), 45% academic scores, 15% athletics, 5% hygiene (not spitting on the dormitory floor), 5% anything else (favoritism). A male student might have been right when he told his teacher he didn’t need to study, he needed to do sports. The party secretary of his department, the Big Potato with the power, might not know enough of the academic area to know whether a student was good at it or not, but being good at running might give the student enough of a halo for a good general mark, which was the important one.

The department party secretary was the one who wrote in the personal dossiers which followed teachers and students for the rest of their lives. Many nominal department heads toed the line for the party secretaries, although there were also people like my boss in College English who were so well-liked and well-respected that they did control their departments. Our party secretary was also a good, well-educated man. The only exception to the party secretary’s control was the department’s Foreign Expert, because we were under the control of the Expert’s Bureau in Beijing.

At the end of the year, a malicious party secretary could set about breaking up student relationships. I knew a top student in another department whose high score allowed her some choice. She thought about asking to be sent to Beijing because her finance’s mother lived in Beijing and she was hoping he’d be sent there as well. The party secretary sent him to a remote area out west. There was no particular reason for it. He was just flexing his muscles. (In a police state, if you might not have the money to show off, but you might have the power.) That meant the couple had no hope of marrying for many years, perhaps no possibility of ever living in the same place. This young woman girl struggled with the question of whether she should give up on her boyfriend and ask to go to Guangzhou, where her family lived. The difficulty was that there is no room for error. You couldn’t change your mind and move. In college you made a decision—or had one made for you—and you were stuck with it.

Since College English was a service department, I assumed my students’ job placements would be connected with their majors. Later I discovered that Foreign Languages majors might be sent off to a diesel factory, an automobile factory, a computer center, a bank or a news agency. One of the foreigners complained, “I could have been teaching them science or mechanics in the target language, but the department insisted on literature, literature, literature. Now I know where they’re going, so I insisted to the party secretary that one of my students be allowed to write his final translation paper on economics, which interests him, and not on literature.” Of course, outside China this is a problem as well. Are the students learning Shakespeare et al. because of their interests or job prospects, or is the students’ presence in the classroom merely providing employment for the university’s literature faculty?

It would have been a mistake to deny myself a second year. Essentially, the first year simply prepared me for the second. I found living and working in Asia not at all like doing the same in Europe, where I was often able to forget about cultural and linguistic differences. It might not have taken me long to love the people and hate the system. But it took a long time to find out how to do things, and somewhat longer for my colleagues to discover they could trust my judgment.

My second year I saw more change happening. Many of the younger teachers spoke English quite well. Some of them sat in on classes and put a lot of thought into possible improvements. I got together with people who were interested in updating and improving their teaching methods. With the start of my second year, my relationship grew to the point where I felt more appreciated than I had in the States. (This was before I arrived in Korea, where I developed a similar bond with my colleagues.) People came to see me, I was invited to their houses for dinner, and they put on a big spread. We talked and shared ideas and had a good exchange. Even the higher administration was looking forward. The second spring we had our first conference on Teaching English as a Foreign Language. It was not spectacular as conferences go, but it was a beginning.

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13 years ago

Fascinating. What courage it took to battle the Asian system. Bet the students ended up loving you. You are still one of my heroes, Carol. Love you. B