Making the Grade in China, Part 1

I have decided to compile the China posts into a book and then decided to be as inclusive as possible, adding other things I’ve written and published about my life in China in the 1980s. 

When I came back from the Peoples Republic of China in 1984, I had a lot to say. A magazine — the EastWest Journal, long defunct, published my article about teaching in China.

SO — I found the magazine in the garage in a bin and started typing the article into my lap top. Yeah. It was typed on my Smith-Corona back in the day. ❤

Here’s Part One.

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Originally published in East/West Journal April, 1985



One winter a few years ago my thesis advisor spent two weeks in Beijing and Shanghai. During supper one night he told me wonderful stories about the bleakness, poverty, hardship and gloomy, Victorian architecture of what he called “Dicken’s China.” After talking with him I was very curious to see for myself how China was recovering from the wounds of thirty years of revolution. I sent letters to several Chinese universities applying for a job as a “Foreign Expert” in English. A year later, I received a letter stamped with an exotic registration seal from South China Teachers University in Guangzhou (Canton). They wanted me to come that September. Was I still interested in teaching in China? My boyfriend was less than thrilled so I asked him to marry me and we went together to Guangzhou where we both taught English to Chinese university students. 

Before we left, we tried to prepare ourselves — we had heard stories about isolation and loneliness. In some Chinese cities foreign teachers are prevented from having out-of-class contact with students and colleagues. We had also heard of how foreign teacherswere watched in their movements around their “home town” and restricted to organized outings. 

All of this is a plausible version of life for a foreign teacher in China, but it was not true for us in Guangzhou. We spent nearly every evening of our year with students or Chinese friends and had no restrictions on where we went in the city. At the time we left, faculty colleagues said they thought we had seen parts of the city they hadn’t. 

However, problems did arise with my classroom expectations. China and the United States approach educational theory from totally different perspectives. China is trying to solve an immense, fundamental illiteracy problem. In 1949 approximately nine out of every ten adults could not read or write. China is also trying to give its people a uniform spoken language, Mandarin Chinese. Once the language of the intelligentsia, it is now called Putungwah — People’s Speech. 

With such basic problems to overcome in educating its vast population, China’s first solution is the training of teachers. Our university prepared teachers in the “key” disciplines — physics, mathematics, politics, physical education and foreign languages, primarily English and Japanese. China believes that English will propel the nation into the twentieth century. What they are doing would probably make perfect sense to anyone; it is how theyare doing it that may be difficult for an American teacher to understand. China’s education needs demand an education assembly line. 

After getting out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to the sounds of marching music and a Beijing accent counting, “yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, chi, BA,” over the loudspeaker, providing a beat for morning esercises, students eat a simple breakfast of baozi (steamed bread) and tea. Then they go to their classroom where they share a backless bench with a comrade. Standing outside a classroom while a Chinese teacher conducts an English class, you hear sixty voices repeating in unison —a modern version of the eighteenth century “blab” schools where attentiveness was measured by the level of noise. This process is refined in the language labs which are beginning to appear throughout China as a technological relief for the ears.

Like their American counterparts, for most Chinese today college and university are routes to a decent job. In China jobs are assigned, usually for life. My students knew that most of them would probably become middle school teachers. Their response to this fate was often like that of a trained ballerina told that she would spend the rest of her life trampling grapes.

Students work for grades because their job assignments, good or bad, depend largely on their marks — and their Marx. Teaching is considered the crux of China’s moderniztion process and central to this is the education of the peasants in the interior regions of China. No one wants to live in rural China where living conditions are very hard, food is poor and scarce, fuel is hard to find and the pay is very bad. Good grades help insure a good assignment, as does a good reputation for correctness in behavior and attitude. All of the American literature and analysisof poetry I gave my students had little relevance to their futures. I knew it, too, but once in a while a student would tell me, “We don’t really need literature. The “Heads” make us study it. We won’t use it as middle school teachers.” The best assignments were positions as young teachers at the various colleges in the province, ideally in Guangzhou. Next best, a local middle school, next best, to return to one’s home town to teach; last, a job in the countryside.

When the time for final English assignments (called theses) came at the end of the year, the tension in the senior class was palpable. I let them off early because I expected to have many theses to mark, and I knew what work the students had left to do. Many were finding alternatives to the middle school job. Some were hoping to remain at South China Teacher’s University as “young teachers.” When it was all over and the students prepared to disperse to their various exiles, one girl came to our apartment for a talk. “There is the end of my wonderful literature,” she said. She had been assigned to our university as a young teacher, and she wanted to accept the assignment, but her mother insisted she return to her home town. She had found her daughter a job translating and the government had approved it. 

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Wow! I forgot how tiring it was to type from copy — but I only have one page of three columns left. More to follow!

11 thoughts on “Making the Grade in China, Part 1

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