What I Learned Teaching at NIM

I read Suki Kim’s article with great interest. Her teaching experience in North Korea brought back memories of my first ESL experience in China. Her photos brought back memories of standing behind a lectern in front of a black board in a plaster white classroom. But it is her experience in teaching writing classes that I’d like to address because teaching students who have never been exposed to western ideas and who have not been taught to formulate their own ideas or opinions is another thing we have in common.

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After completing my first year of Chinese language I decided it was time for a life long dream to come true. It was time for me to live in a foreign country on my own terms.

I got a job teaching English at Nanjing Institute of Meteorology(NIM), now Nanjing University of Information Science Technology. One of my jobs was to teach English majors who already had jobs lined up to teach at various middle schools in Jiangsu. My first question I posed to my students was why they chose English as their major.

“We don’t get to choose,” one student said. “The school chooses.”

They failed to tell me which school did the choosing. But this did beg another question. As a former university student in Hawaii I got to choose my major. How is it that students have to study something they may not enjoy doing? I asked this of my colleague Kristen, a fellow American teacher.

“I had a graduate student who wanted to be a doctor and who loved kids,” she said. “He would have made an excellent pediatrician. But he got sent to serve as a meteorologist in Tibet.”

One student who clearly did not enjoy studying was a young man named George. He was one of those students who would be miserable at his future job. He was very shy. I had him in my oral and writing classes. He would sit in the back and keep to himself. He hardly said anything. When I asked him a question he would just stand there and look at his desk. He ended up repeating a year because he failed all of his classes.

I had another student named Carson who was also slated to be an English teacher but his true passion was law. He told me during one English Corner session that at the end of each day he would read law books.

“Carson,” I said, “you’re English is pretty good. You might study international law because a lot of foreigners want to do business in China. They need people like you.”

I have no idea what became of my students. I can only hope that they were able to survive and thrive in China’s changing economy. This was my first glimpse at planned economy.

Another thing the article reminded me of is the lack of critical thinking and creativity in China.

Like Kim I taught writing at NIM my second semester. I had twenty hours of classes a week. Half of those classes were writing classes and the other half were oral speaking classes. Some of my students had me twice a week, once for writing and once for speaking. In each group of students I had at the most sixty bodies in a room. I had anywhere from 100 to 200 journals to grade on any given week.

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I love writing. I love to teach creative writing. But this experience forever turned me off to teaching writing at least in China. I was reading sentences that had every writing error imaginable from punctuation to spelling mistakes to run-on sentences.

Then there is the use of Chinglish in their essays. I would get in-class writing assignments with sentences like I look look at toothbrush or my favorite hobby is listen to music. Imagine reading 200 essays full of run-ons and Chinglish expressions. I could not get beyond their grammar and spelling and the Chinglish. They were a huge barrier for me.

There is also the huge problem of plagiarism. In addition to giving them in-class writing prompts I also required them to keep weekly journals. They could write about whatever they wanted.

Bad idea.

I got such flowing and beautifully written essays about the NBA and wine etiquette. These essays looked as if they were written by a native English speaker. At first I ignored it but later I had my suspicions. I compared their in-class assignments with their journals and thought to myself how is it that this student wrote this crappy essay in class but in her journal she writes beautifully about wine?

Obviously there is a disconnect. But I could not prove it. They don’t give me any source because they are trying to pass this essay off as their own. The only way I could prove my point is it another student wrote the same wine essay verbatim.

Despite these setbacks my first year at NIM was one of my best experiences. I would sometimes surprise my students by visiting them in their dormitories. Many of them would tell be that I am their first foreigner they have ever met. They’d invite me to their dormitory parties where I learned how to make jiaozi(see Where’s the Cu article). My graduate students would invite me to have lunch with them after class. We’d drink beer and bai jiu until we’d get drunk even at 12 noon. They’d shower me with Christmas gifts and cards and one of them even invited me to their hometown of Xi’an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors.

I do miss that experience. Back in those days China was not as developed as it is now. Back then NIM was surrounded by farmland and it was an hour bus ride over the Yangtze River to Nanjing’s city center. I miss the almost god-like treatment given to foreign teachers like me. Nowadays there are a lot of English teachers that schools have become more demanding; they want blonde hair blue eyed westerners because they increase the school’s profits.

Still I am grateful that I’ve had the experience. After all, not too many Asian Americans like me have had the experience Ms. Kim and I have had; to teach English in our ancestral homeland.

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