By Amy Ritson, Summer Teacher in Xuzhou, 2011
Almost six years ago, I spent a summer teaching English in Xuzhou, at a summer camp and summer school there. This is an experience for which I am incredibly grateful, not only because it provided me with a wonderful summer, exploring a new culture and meeting fantastic people, but because it most definitely led me to where I am today; I’m currently in my fourth year of teaching English in Italy.
The two experiences have, of course, a lot in common: I have students the same age as those I taught in China, all of whom love the same games, songs and activities my Chinese pupils did. Children’s love of playing, singing and dancing is, I’m sure, universal. Older students have the same love of British and American pop culture – Justin Bieber was the main obsession while I was in China, while by the time I got to Italy, One Direction had taken over. Outside of teaching here in Italy, I can experience the culture as a local rather than a tourist, just like in China. But, as can be expected with two countries almost 5,000 miles apart, there are lots of differences, as well as some surprising similarities too.
Language is one aspect that has made a huge difference for me. I spoke no Mandarin before going to China (apart from the very few phrases I had unsuccessfully tried to memorise in the lead up to the trip) and over the six weeks there got no further than managing to say “hello”, “thank you”, “I am an English teacher” and ordering dumplings and drinks. Even then, the fact that Mandarin is a tonal language meant the phrases I thought I knew I was probably saying wrong; at one point I was told that when I thought I was saying “thank you”, I was actually saying “try this!”.
On the other hand, I came to Italy after studying Italian at school for four years, and while my Italian was far from perfect (and still isn’t!) I could at least hold a conversation with a non-English speaker. The Italian I didn’t know was also much easier to pick up than Mandarin; I already had a background in the language, there are some similarities to English, and the fact that I could read the alphabet certainly helped. This does make aspects of my life in Italy a lot easier – in China, my fellow summer teachers and I found ourselves relying a lot on the Chinese teachers and directors, who thankfully were always happy to help – but the language barrier in China did lead to some great and funny experiences. I will always treasure the memory of the first time I and some of the other British teachers went for dinner without any of our Chinese colleagues, and had to just point at random items on the menu and hope for the best!
This difference has also had a big impact in the classroom. On the surface, knowing the language should make it easier to explain tasks, discipline challenging behaviour and build up rapports with the students. In a certain way it does, but I must be careful here in Italy not to allow my understanding of the language impede my students’ learning. It would be too easy just to translate all instructions for them, but it won’t help them in the long run. This is a problem I never faced in China; although there were Chinese teachers there to translate when need be, my own teaching was only ever in English. In terms of building up relationships, students in China were just as eager to chat to me and the other mother-tongue English teachers, but with one difference: they had to speak English to do so. Once my students here in Italy discover I understand Italian, they’re often a lot more reluctant to speak to me in English, while my Chinese pupils didn’t even have the option of speaking to me in Mandarin. I do believe this helped them develop their English much more, and is why having a teacher who doesn’t speak your language can in fact be a very useful thing.
The content of these discussions also varies. Italian students don’t display a huge interest in my personal life; I rarely get asked about my family or relationships, for example. In fact, if I ever do happen to mention my family, my youngest students often seem unnerved; they seem to view me as just a teacher, and not a human with a life of my own. This can lead to some humorous moments – a three-year-old I teach, for example, was once shocked to discover I don’t live in the school. On the other hand, my Chinese students had so many questions; they wanted to know about my parents, my sisters, whether I had a boyfriend, and so much more.
I don’t necessarily think this means Chinese people in general are more intrusive or nosier than Italians – I’ve had my fair share of personal questions from non-students here in Italy, after all. I think it’s simply that the summer school I worked at in Xuzhou was more than just a chance for the students to learn English; it was also an opportunity for a cultural exchange, for everyone involved. Students were encouraged by me and the Chinese teachers to ask questions about my life in the UK and they were genuinely interested in the responses. On the other hand, my Italian students have plenty exposure to British people, and many have visited the UK themselves. They come to me for English lessons only, and I don’t think I’m much different to them than any of their other teachers.
This lack of interest only somewhat transfers to my life outside of work. The attention I get here as a foreigner certainly isn’t to the extreme that it was while I was in China, where I and my British colleagues were the subject of daily stares and comments. This was understandable; Xuzhou was not a touristy city at all, so we did stick out a lot, and it was something that I expected to face during my time there. It wasn’t something I expected in Italy, however, only a short flight away from the UK. Yet I do stand out as a foreigner – not as much as I did in China, but my way of dressing, for example, is one thing that gives me away – and while the attention isn’t as extreme as it was in China, it’s still there. It happened more when I lived in the Sicily, but also still occurs in Rome outside of the main tourist traps. There have been no requests for photographs here as there was occasionally in China and the staring doesn’t happen as often, but I often encounter people who want to know where I’m from and why I’m in Italy. People are often also very eager to practice their English with me. I once went to a hairdresser who, as soon as he found out I was English, was on the phone to his niece to tell her to come and talk to me. While not to the same extent as in China, I do often feel very foreign here, and feel like I’m treated differently because of it.
One difference that many people would expect to find between teaching in Italy and China is issues with discipline and behaviour. I think there are stereotypes about both cultures; that Chinese students are impeccably behaved and wonderful to teach, whereas Italians are loud and unruly. To a certain extent, it is true; there is a clear difference in the way they are both raised and disciplined. I don’t think I’ve ever had an Italian student who would raise their hand before speaking like my Chinese students would, for example; it is simply not in their culture to do so. But, while it is nice not to have a whole class of students shout an answer at you, and instead raise their hands and wait patiently to be asked, I don’t think the difference goes much deeper than that. Especially with younger students, good behaviour depends mostly on how well organised you are as a teacher, and how engaged the students are, rather than the culture in which they grew up.
In fact, I would say there are more similarities between the two cultures than people would expect. Both Italians and Chinese typically avoid the sun, whereas I in both places go out of my way to seek it. Their attitudes to hygiene similar, something that can, quite vulgarly, be summed up with the toilets. I went to China dreading the idea of using squat toilets, and came back to the UK wishing we had them there; you could use them without touching anything in the bathroom! Italians take a different approach – it’s very common to find public toilets without the toilet seats, to make it easier to “hover” over the toilet. While this is not something I will miss on my return to the UK, the concept behind it is the same; touch as little as possible while you’re in a public bathroom.
Both cultures also place a lot of importance on presenting yourself in a dignified way and on avoiding embarrassment in public, to the extent that they both even have names for this concept – in China, it’s called “face”, whereas in Italy it’s “la bella figura”. This can present challenges for visitors to either country, as they must learn the appropriate etiquette fast to not make a social blunder (or “fa la brutta figura”, as the Italians call it). In addition, food plays a huge part in both cultures, eating out being a huge social event rather than a quick convenience. The fact that food is so important (and delicious!) in Italy and China is one of the many reasons I’ve enjoyed my times in both countries so much.
The major similarity between the two countries for me, however, is quite a personal one; that I’ve fallen in love with both places and leaving them is incredibly hard. While writing this, I’m in the process of preparing to leave Italy to return to the UK to complete a PGCE and I know it’s going to be a traumatic departure. Similarly, although I’d only taught in China for six weeks (compared to four years here in Italy), I left a piece of my heart back there. Both places have affected me in ways I couldn’t have imagined, have guided me to the career path I’m currently on, and have introduced me to some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. The two countries have given me the most wonderful memories I’ll treasure forever, and for this I will be forever grateful.