I had no idea how different student life was between China and the US – until, at age 24, I got a job as an expat teaching English at a China university.
My first three months teaching English here have been quite a learning experience – about myself, about Chinese culture and about what college life is like in China. I teach 272 students, who are split into eight classes. All of my students are freshmen and sophomores majoring in English. Most are 18 or 19 years old, just like most frosh in the US, but that is essentially where the similarities end.
When I walked into each classroom on the first day of the semester, each entire class let out a unified, “WHOOOAAAAAA!”
As I’ve said before, the people of Jinan are not used to outsiders. (And especially not blonde ones who are just a few years older than them.)
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: 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 part came from being completely on display.
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. I sort of felt like a freak.
It’s not that way anymore, but teaching still feels a lot like performing. I’m expected to captivate attention, entertain and inform for an hour and a half. (I don’t think it ever crossed my mind how hard teaching would be before this job.)
One of my classes of very sweet sophomores.
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.
On the first day of class, many of my students (always women) announced while introducing themselves that they think I’m beautiful. Compliments from locals are generally pretty free-flowing, and it of course can get a little awkward. But there’s something particularly disconcerting about a university student gushing like a little girl about how she thinks I’m pretty when she should be telling her new professor something about herself.
I’m the first foreign teacher many of my freshmen students have had.
For some, I’m their first English teacher who can speak English – and even the first person they’ve ever met who’s not from China. (I don’t mean I’m their first teacher whose a native speaker. I mean the first who can speak English at all.) Many students from smaller cities and towns have studied English in school for years, but never had a teacher who could actually say a word out loud in the language. They’ve memorized spelling and grammar, but never been taught pronunciation or how to write their own sentences that aren’t copied from books.
Regardless of their ability level, students in China choose their own English names.
Going by a “foreign” name isn’t an unusual technique for language classes. (I named myself Margarita in seventh-grade Spanish class, and it stuck through high school. But later, when I traveled in Spanish-speaking countries, I still introduced myself as Ketti – even though it’s a confusing name in every language.)
But in China, a lot of students keep their English names into their careers – which can be either fine or kind of weird, depending on what kind of name they chose.
Most of my students’ names 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 are really just common nouns, but considering the levels of choice and freedom the Chinese school system gives students (very little), I don’t blame them for getting a little creative when they can.
Almost every part of college life in China is controlled.
Majors are determined by students’ scores on a national standardized test they take 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 (at least that’s the number at the university where I’m teaching). 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 all four years of college.
The dorms here make the one I lived in as a freshman 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 to take a shower. Some students have told me this is unique to northern China, but haven’t confirmed the south is any different.
Curfew is what really makes student life in China different:
At 10:30 p.m. the dormitory 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). The concept that “rules were made to be broken” is not part of college life here. Some of my students have even told me that bars are where dangerous, bad people go. It’s hard to imagine a 19-year-old American college student saying that earnestly.
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.
More to Read…
If you’re looking to understand China a little bit better, one book that’s been helping me is Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China, by Peter Hessler. It’s a really wide-ranging overview of Chinese history, and the aspects of the culture and politics makes it the way it is today, written by a journalist who lived here for years. (The link above is an Amazon affiliate link; or you can buy Oracle Bones here, on Bookshop, a platform that lets you buy books online while supporting local, independent bookstores.