Being a Foreign Expert in English at South China Teachers University was my first teaching job. I was thirty. I’d gotten my MA three years earlier and, after five years in the clerical jungle, I wanted badly to be in the classroom. However, I wasn’t going after a PhD and I was not the greatest student in my masters program (I was essentially thrown out) so what was I to do? Someone said, “Become a Foreign Expert in English in a Chinese University.”
To get this coveted position, all I had to do was send letters to Chinese universities. I started with the major ones — Beijing University on the top of my list. I got no response and essentially forgot about it, moving on with my life, then, two or so years later, I got a letter from South China Teachers University inviting me to come. One of my letters to some Chinese university had found its way to Guangzhou.
There is a lot to say on this subject, but most of it is teacherly stuff, and all of it would make a book. I don’t want to write a book here and now, so…
Classrooms were large and comfortable with windows on both sides. Guangzhou is on the Tropic of Cancer and air circulation is an issue much of the year. The teacher stood on a podium and most teachers lectured. I am not a lecturer and that was the biggest change for my students. For months they couldn’t figure me out, but as all of them were training to become English teachers themselves, they got a lesson in one of their training classes describing the “direct method.” They were very excited to come to class and explain to me that they understood now.
My biggest challenges were the radically different learning tradition they had grown up with, the indoctrination my students had experienced all their lives, and my own inexperience. I taught three classes of seniors American literature. Three classes of juniors, composition. I taught a graduate seminar in American literature and I coached anyone who came to me needing help.
My students had been in the same class with the same classmates for their entire time in college. Each class had a “head” and the nature of each class reflected that student’s personality. One of my classes was almost always silent because the “head” was a passionate Young Pioneer and a Party Member. The other two were more liberal.
A day came when I couldn’t stand the silence of the silent class any more and I yelled at them. “I’m just talking at you like you’re a bunch of empty jars I’m supposed to fill up!”
That comment made it all around the campus. The next day the “head” stood up and apologized, saying, “They’ve been silent for four years now. You can’t expect them to start talking all at once.”
“You could all try,” I said. From then on, having been criticized, they began to venture their ideas, but they were still a very reticent group.
From then on, though, it was kind of a rueful joke throughout my department; my students were empty jars. But I didn’t know — and they didn’t know — how quickly China would change and their being empty jars would be a problem for them when (and they couldn’t have expected it) they went overseas to study. At that time, almost NO ONE left China; few people ever left their village.
After reading my students’ first essay assignment, I discovered that the Soviets had written Communist literary commentary on most works in the USIA textbook I was using. An example of this kind of commentary is, “Rip Van Winkle is the story of how the bourgeois revolution did nothing to help poor peasants like Rip.” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening shows the hard life of the peasant while the rich man is warm in his house.”
In combination with Communism, Confucian philosophy isn’t conducive to original thought A good scholar is humble and repeats what the experts have said. You see how it was… When I read their first essay, 2/3 of them said the same thing. Half of the remaining third said some of that. Five out of the 75 essays offered me unique student readings.
I decided that I would write my own textbook for my literature classes. I typed it on ditto masters, sitting in the office of the Foreign Language Department secretarial pool. It was a small anthology compiled of work that wasn’t in any of the American literature books in the college library or the USIA textbook.
Chinese generally love poetry, and it’s a big part of their tradition. I love it too, so that made classes fun for all of us. I’d read a bit of Chinese poetry and sometimes dared to bring it into the discussion, not very successfully because the Chinese truly believe (believed?) that other nationalities and cultures are inferior and cannot truly understand anything Chinese.
Maybe they’re right, but American literature did not prove to be so inscrutable. 😉
One of the most beautiful and memorable teaching moments of my 35+ year career was teaching Longfellow’s poem, “A Psalm of Life.” Maoist propaganda was all about inspirational BS, but none of it looked at the struggles of an individual against personal despair (all despair would end when they reached Communism). That doesn’t mean that personal despair wasn’t part of being Chinese. Non-Maoist Chinese literature is full of it. It was that in the collectivist world view, personal anything is at odds with “serve the people.” I believe that serving the people is a good mission. But you need to be healthy yourself, and life demands the individual courage Longfellow writes about. Plus, I knew the poem by heart.
So I taught it, all over the chalkboard, pictures to illustrate the journey of the poet. I used a piece of marble as a metaphor for a person’s life, something we, ourselves make. One of my students suddenly said, “Teacher, you mean Rongferrow says we must carve our stone, even when it is very hard, to make our life as beautiful as possible so others will be inspired.”
Their first, non-Soviet mediated moment with American thought, American literature. My “empty jars” were learning to engage directly with ideas on a page. I have tears in my eyes thinking of that moment, the moment my class — for those students — became an adventure.
And “Rongferrow” became forever my secret name for a poet I love very much. In Cantonese, R and L are difficult sounds. More than once, on a picnic, a student asked to borrow my “life” meaning my Swiss Army Life. ❤
I was always happy in my classrooms. Life in a place like China (as if there were another place like China) was a dream come true for me. I loved teaching. You can imagine that I was deeply, deeply happy. I went to class every day smiling.
Then came a time when I learned the difference between a smile of happiness in Colorado and in my Chinese classroom.
“Teacher, why are you always smiling? Do you think we are funny? Our English is funny?”
“You’re English is good. And no, you’re not funny. I’m smiling because I’m happy.”
“Why are you happy?”
“I’m in China. I’m teaching. I love both those things.”
My students were amazed. They were all going to be teachers, but they hadn’t chosen it. The government had compelled them to become teachers. One boy asked, “You love China?”
“Yes. I love China very much.”
“Do you love America?”
“Yes. I love America.”
“How can you love both countries? Don’t you miss your family?”
“Yes, I miss my family.” I didn’t but I thought of the Rocky Mountains as my family. “I miss the mountains. I miss a lot of things, but in China I get to be a teacher and I love teaching. And, I love you all. I love everything I learn every day here. It’s beautiful.”
My students were stunned. That was the end of that class. There was no where to go from there. They’d asked a question, expecting to be humiliated and got that instead. The “head” got up and addressed his classmates in Cantonese (they’d figured out I might understand if they spoke Mandarin). When he finished, my students collected their things, and he said, “Come on, teacher. We’re going to show you something.”
They took me to see some of the future of my village, Shipai. A new park was being made out of a blasted out slum. The grounds of a large garden had been laid out. Some had been built and planted. There was a brand new moon gate through which the little mountain behind the college was framed. Above the arch of the moon gate were four characters. “Sky, wind, clouds, mountain.”
“Can you read it, teacher?”
“Yes but what does it mean?”
“It’s a famous poem.” Some Chinese poetry is like that. Very, very spare, part of its beauty comes from the characters and the scene. I looked through the arch. All that was missing was “wind.”
I live in that poem now.
A Psalm of Life
BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW
What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
P.S. The sign in the featured image is funny. It should say, ‘Hua Nan Shi Fan Xue Yuan” but “h” and “n” do kind of look alike. Chinglish was one of the best thing about daily life in China. But I made mistakes, too, all the time. Communication was a huge source of laughter for all of us.
P.P.S. South China Normal University now has three campuses and is a prestigious university with more than a thousand international students. It looks NOTHING like it did when I was there.