Interview with Otess Gordon, teacher on our State School Programme in Chongqing, 2017-present
What made you decide you wanted to teach English in China?
As a recent graduate (2 years ago) and someone who is halfway through a master’s degree (I have taken a 2-year hiatus) I became disillusioned with the modern English workplace. Not much is on offer for young people in England at the moment, and after spending a year in a job that was in no way inclined to any of my interests, passions or experience, I decided that leaving England to experience something new was the only viable option in the short term. Of course, I also had no idea what experience and lessons I would learn living and working in China. As I discuss later, China is a rewarding experience that has helped shape my worldly view. It has also help me understand my potential long-term goals regarding education and work.
Of course, this is not a decision to be taken likely, but the opportunity to be able to understand a culture far different to mine is one that I have always aspired to. Teaching English in China allows me to do this with utter ease and with big social and economic payouts; something that I was aware about when I applied.
What grade(s) are you teaching and what are the pros and cons of teaching this age group?
1: A’s – these students generally have not had a foreign teacher before.
2: B’s – these students have had a foreign teacher.
3: C’s – these are the students that are expected to go to high standing universities.
Students in china are on average far more respectful of their teachers as there is high pressure on them to complete school with high grades.
A’s: these students are the most respectful and this is mostly down to the fact that they’ve never had a foreign teacher before and often come from slightly lower economic backgrounds. These students always buy me gifts and message me on WeChat. However, their spoken English generally tends to be lower than that of the other classes and although they are kind and accommodating, I often find they struggle to understand me when I set group tasks. Although, as the year has progressed, I have seen a huge improvement and am very proud of them.
B’s: these students have had a foreign teacher before and therefore the novelty has worn off. They’re better at spoken English than A’s but they can, at times, be much naughtier. Over the last few months I have had to put my foot down many times and they have now learnt boundaries. This doesn’t mean that they don’t push it sometimes, however! They can be rewarding classes though as their English is of a much higher ability and many of them can make the class incredibly funny with their bad English jokes! As I have stated before, many of them were in fact taught by my friend: Ed, who taught them two years prior. They like asking me questions about our friendship and learning about our time at university together.
C’s: for the first 3 months I found that these students would not utter a word of English and take an incessant amount of notes. I believed them to be the worst at English but after discussing this with my head of English. It turned out that these students are the ones that are the best at English and are destined for the best universities around the world. They’re respectful and clever and although it took 3-4 months for them to ease up they can be an incredibly rewarding set of students to teach.
It is important to note that all of these students have their good and bad days too, of which you can never guess when they will be. It is also important to note that China doesn’t have the same regulations and rules about teacher and students when it comes to socialising and adding your students on social media. I often have conversations with my students on social media and have dinner with them, as well as go to the cinema with them and I find it interesting because you get to know them much better. Obviously, and it goes without saying, this does not mean that China is ok with teacher-student relationships and this should be duly noted.
In general, teaching in China can have its ups and downs and this is dependent on what age range you teach and where. I have found teaching senior one to be a very pleasant experience but not one without any defects.
How have you found adjusting to life in your city?
Chongqing is considered a first-tier city, alongside Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu and many others. The area of Chongqing I live in is an area that has been generally untouched since the 1980’s. At first glance, this gives a sense of China untouched by western influence that is found in post 00’s developed China. It is filled with local Chongqing people that have become accustomed to the foreigners that frequent the streets each year due to the school at the top of the hill. In many ways, it does show a sense of Chinese community, but as time has gone on, it has become evident that this is expressed solely to us, and not so much the Chinese that congregate in this area. This does, however, make you feel welcome. The first evening I arrived in Chongqing, the local shop (owned by a local family) gave me an umbrella to borrow so I could walk home in the rain. I see this family every day; I’ve watched them eat dinner, I’ve watched their grandchild learn to walk and they’ve also watched my Chinese improve so that I can now talk with them. There are also a number of authentic family run restaurants that are scattered around the back gate of my school. Each of which, has been nicknamed by myself and the other foreign teachers from my school and has a Laoban that knows every single one of us.
I have found that ‘adjusting’ hasn’t really been an issue. China is heavily globalised and at any time you feel like you’re out of your depth, you can avoid the cultural fatigue by entering the more modern areas that are dotted around Chongqing: Shiyoulu, Shapingba, Guanyinqiao, Jiefiangbei etc. All of which house every western shop you can think of: Zara, H&M, Nike, Starbucks, McDonald’s etc.
It is a massive myth that China is a hugely homophobic country. Both Chongqing and Chengdu are known as the two main ‘gay’ cities in China as attitudes to homosexuality are rapidly changing within younger generations. Homophobia does exist within the older generations of Chinese people, but I have lots of openly gay and lesbian Chinese friends. Being gay is certainly not a problem in China. Chongqing and Chengdu frequently hold gay events that aren’t just showboated by extroverted westerners; young Chinese people are heavily influenced by the Wests accepting gay culture and are often outnumbering foreigners. I once had an hour-long conversation with a Chinese person about the benefits of RuPaul’s Drag Race on China. He kept on calling me ‘hun’; I loved it.
There’s a lot to do in Chongqing City, and even more in the province as a whole. It really does depend on what you want; if partying is your thing, there’s a whole selection of modern bars and clubs that mimic that of Dalston’s high street all the way to Oceana; if scenery is your thing, Chongqing is built on mountains that you can readily climb, such as Nanshan; if food is your thing, Chongqing (and Sichuan) is known for its spicy and numbing cuisine, for example Chongqing hotpot Chongqing Xiao Mian and Chuan Chuan.
I chose Chongqing because I was interested in seeing, experiencing and learning from a less globally effected China (in comparison to Shanghai, for example) and this is certainly something that is attainable in Chongqing.
What are the main challenges you’ve encountered so far?
It’s hard to not be ethnocentric when in China, and this is because there are many things that happen in China that are not acceptable in the UK. This means that there are certain things that I have not and probably will never be able to get over: people barging past each other (Chinese people don’t let you get off the subway first before getting on), spitting literally everywhere, and the constant staring from Chinese grandparents and their grandchildren. This can become grating, and I have gone through absolute notions of being totally OK with it, to one day actually wanting to go home from the stress of not understanding it. It does put into question your whole understanding of your own cultural identity and often you have to remind yourself that although you cannot understand how China works, it works, and it works well for 1.4 billion people.
I often have to retell myself that my understanding of the world is built on my cultural experiences to date, all of which come from the UK, and that if I persevere to understand, I will learn more about China (as cliché and obvious as that may sound, you do forget). Culture difference (and with this, fatigue), however, isn’t something that slaps you on the face as soon as you get off the plane. It’s more insidious than that and is mostly found in the authentic interactions that you have with Chinese people. Unless you embrace the fact that the Chinese have very different ideas about the world and society than you, it can often become overbearing. In many ways you start to feel as if you can truly help the Chinese see and do things in a better way. You should try and flag this with yourself every time you feel it. Humans are naturally ethnocentric, and culturally, the west celebrates individualism (of thought, of feeling etc.). Combined, we often tend to subconsciously think of ourselves as superior. This is natural and hard to hide from, but something that can be severely detrimental to your time in China if you choose to dwell on the differences, don’t persevere to understand and continue to see only yourself as the beacon of truth. Although I cannot stop myself from having moments where I become frustrated by China, the more experiences I have in China, the rarer and less intense these moments become.
As far as language goes, everywhere you go in China you will find someone that speaks English, but the frequency of his depletes depending on where you are. Chinese students must learn English as part of their curriculum. However, the majority of the Chinese that learn English in school have no real reason to continue to use English unless they choose to study it or find an intrinsic connection with themselves and the west (this is evident in the subcultures found in China).
Chongqing is less international than cities like Beijing and Shanghai and has no real reason to have a good understanding of English, objectively. This does not mean I haven’t met lots of Chinese people with incredibly good English in Chongqing. I have plenty of very good Chinese friends that talk very good English and I often feel like it’s incredibly unfair on them that my Chinese is still at such a low level. What this does mean, however, is that simple tasks can very quickly snowball into incredibly dubious chores, such as ordering food, picking up a parcel, getting a taxi, going to the cinema, asking for a beer etc. When I first arrived in China, I barely even knew how to say hello. Chongqing absolutely threw me in at the deep end with absolutely no one understanding me and even when I did pick up bits of language, Chongqing has a dialect that is even harder to understand. It was a wonder that I managed to eat anything at first.
The language barrier is real and hard to adjust to, but it does get easier if you put some time into learning some Chinese. But again, this is dependent on what you want from China as I also have a lot of friends that eat in McDonald’s every day and have no need to learn Chinese.
What advice would you give to someone considering teaching English in China?
Forget anything anyone told you about China. No one knows what China is like unless they’ve lived there. The communication between Chinese people living in China and westerners living outside of China is low and therefore any real understanding of Chinese culture is only experienced through living there.
China is more globalised than you might think it is, so don’t think that you’re going to feel completely isolated but do make sure you get a VPN even to access things such as google to search for things to do because BAIDU is not helpful unless you can read some Chinese.
Chinese people are incredibly friendly and helpful and will often do things to help that you would never imagine your friends back home doing. This is due to their belief in guanxi (relationships); Chinese people expect that when they help or treat someone, that person should and will do the same and it’s the basis of most friendships. As foreigners, not so much is expected of you but if you want to make your friendships very worthwhile you should try and make sure that you are kind and helpful back.
Teaching isn’t for everyone, and many people use this as time to go and travel and learn about china. I have many days where I do not enjoy teaching but, once you get to know your students, it teaches you a lot more about Chinese culture and can be incredibly enjoyable and enriching.
Lastly, it’s possible to have a lot of fun. Our wages generally tend to be high and China is very cheap. This means that you can enjoy every part of china well. This also means you can travel a lot during the copious amount of time off foreign teachers are given.
China is an incredibly safe, kind and cultural country. I love it more than I ever thought I would.