September 29, 2008

Who “exactly” are we English teachers?

Filed under: blogs,China,language,teaching — Kim @ 12:45 pm

To kick off, here’s a nicely provocative comment from a Chinese lady on the Dalian Xpat forum…

most of foreigners in china are rubbish(except those who are assigned to work here),they cant support themselves in their own countries and that is why most of them are english teachers (or other languages),coz they can do nothing but teaching their own languages. china is just like a dump(but i love it),so welcome those rubbish from different countries.

and this was followed by a comment from a Russian

Nice comment, I totally agree
(At least I’m not an English teacher)

Well, as I have written before, I am used to comments like this and I suppose there is some justification for them. There’s no smoke without fire, as the old adage has it, and some of the English “teachers” I have met over the years have been unqualified, psychotic, alcoholic, incompetent etc etc. But but but…the majority are normal, likable, interesting and decent people who are capable of teaching English very well. (Just like me! Shucks.)

It should also be said that some “English teaching” does verge on the pointless, particularly when teachers are stuck in, and then stuck with, a class of students who don’t want to be there and indeed often have no good reason to be there other than that the lessons are a parental or governmental requirement. I am lucky enough to be able to avoid teaching classes like these. I teach motivated university students, businesspeople, and adorable little kids.

I am an English teacher. It is my job and it is part of my identity. When people ask me what I do, I say I am an English teacher. I suppose I could, if I was feeling poncy, reply instead that “I teach literature and applied linguistics at a University” but that would be, well, poncy.

Anyways, a couple of weeks ago, via the wonderful haohao report, I came across an interesting article that both analysed and criticised that bally rotter the Chinabounder. In case you know him not, Chinabounder is (was) a young English teacher from the UK who wrote what became an infamous blog about his womanising in Shanghai. He then became the victim of a storm of indignation and media curiosity when a certain Dr Zhang, a university psychology lecturer, demanded he be hunted down and kicked out of China for humiliating and mistreating Chinese.

The article was from a site called The Middle Kingdom Life which has the subheading Perspectives on Living and Teaching in China. It is run by a few people but there is a Dr Greg (Gregory Mavrides, Ph.D.)who does most of the writing and moderating. In his own words… Dr. Mavrides is an American psychoanalyst who has been working in China as a professor and mental health consultant since August 2003.

I left a comment saying, more or less, that while Chinabounder is a prat he does have some insightful points to make about China and Chinese society. But that’s by the by, what I want to focus on is the Doc’s response and the point he made about English teachers in China. He said…

If Chinabounder’s situation was a relatively rare one, there wouldn’t have been any reason to write an article about it. In fact, he is a very common type of male foreign English teacher in China and I just used him as an example, as he decided to go public with his adventures.

I think the claim that the bounder is “a very common type” of English teacher is unfair and way off the mark and I commented back

I have been in Dalian for two years now and have hung out with an awful lot of, mostly male, English teachers and have never met anyone who sleeps with lots of Chinese women and brags about it. I have some colleagues who are young, male, and horny and in some cases absolutely smitten by Chinese femininity, yes, but they don’t sleep around and “break hearts”. They mostly joke about how all the beautiful girls are out of their league! Most of them are after a serious girlfriend…just like everywhere else! Anyway, I think you have an unfairly poor opinion of male English teachers in China, you even use “English teacher” in scare quotes…I do not think Bounder is representative of anything but a tiny tiny minority of English teachers. That’s my experience anyway.

To which the Doc replied

From the situation you describe in Dalian, it sounds like a very special, even unique, city in regard to foreign English teachers. We’ll have to investigate that for future editions of the guide.

This sounded distinctly sarcy to me so I tried to post this comment in response…

I must beg to differ. I am assuming your comment is not intended to slyly point out that I am wrong in my judgment of English teachers in Dalian and am taking it at face value. So, it seems to me extremely unlikely that Dalian is somehow unique…I mean, why should it be? Also, I have talked to English teachers who have worked in Ningbo, Shanghai, Jinan, Beijing, Changchun, Chongqing etc, and they all say that Dalian is very nice, but none of their stories suggest that the “English teaching community” is significantly different than the one here. Could I therefore suggest the point that it is not that Dalian is unique, it is that your opinion of English teachers is unfairly low? Cheers for now.

but the Doc censored it. That is, he wouldn’t allow the comment to stay on his site. More about why not later.

Anyway, this little to-and-fro then prompted another article by the Doc called What Exactly Is An English Teacher?. In this, Doc expanded on his previous comment

And, for the record, I have absolutely nothing against English teachers: they were certainly among my favorite in high school. It’s just that I don’t think it’s reasonable to refer to anyone who can speak English as an “English teacher” (even if they’re being paid as one in China), hence my use of quotation marks. I’m sorry that wasn’t clear to you.

and went on to talk about some of his experiences with “real” and “genuine” English teachers, who, in his opinion, are those who teach English as an academic subject rather than as a language.

This is one definition of “English teacher”, but there are quite clearly others and I found it amazing that the manager of a site purporting to help English teachers in China would be so blinkered and condescending. Accordingly, I attempted to post a reply stating my opinion about other definitions, but again the Doc wouldn’t allow it on his site.

Here it is for those of you interested…

Dear Dr,

Hello again. I came a bit late to this post, but to be honest I found it hard to believe what I was reading! As a manager of a website for English teachers in China, you do surely realise that “English teacher” has different meanings in different contexts? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that you consider a “real” English teacher to be an English literature/grammar teacher, and a trained and qualified one of course, and probably a native speaker of English. I am inferring this from the following parts of your article;

two genuine English teachers
Because he is a real English teacher
I thought again about how loosely the term “English teacher” is thrown around in China

But this is just one type of English teacher and no more “real” (or “professionally authentic” perhaps) than me or any of my Chinese friends who teach English at Chinese schools or universities. If you ask my Chinese colleagues at Dalian University of Foreign Languages what they do, many of them will simply say that they are “English teachers”…although at University level they might mention a specific focus.

So, what about me? I am not qualified to teach English literature/grammar in England, but I have been an English teacher for 12 years now. I have a TEFL certificate (a month long starter course) and I have an MSc in Applied Linguistics. I am an English teacher: I teach English to people whose native language is not English. I have worked (teaching English) in Universities in Hungary, Japan, Thailand, England, Scotland and China. I have both taken and given teacher training programs, and I have taught general English in Private schools, multinational companies, and kindergartens. And I am not that unusual, there are a lot of people with similar professional experience in the world these days because teaching English is big business! There is also a huge literature, including several academic journals, devoted to the field of teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL, TESOL etc) and to work for a university or for a quality institution like the British Council or a respected private school, you have to have a Masters degree or a Diploma in English Language Teaching to Adults (DELTA). Both of which take a year or more to get. To work as an English teacher in most universities in developed countries these days, you need a PhD.

What about those teaching English who have no other qualification than that English is their mother tongue? Are they the ones who are disqualifying me and others like me from being “real”? Well, they are there because there is a demand for them to be there. The desire to have a “native speaker” as a teacher is misguided in my opinion, but it is strong enough to mean that there are not enough qualified people to fill the posts. So, you get people teaching English who are not properly trained. Some of them turn out to be very effective teachers and some do not; some of them like the job enough to go and get certified, and most go on to other things.

But please, just because there are maybe more unqualified first-timers (as well as some chancers/sexpats etc) in China than in, say, Japan, please do not assume that there is not a body of well qualified and dedicated English teachers here, both Chinese and native speaker.

To repeat my main point, the term “English teacher” means different things in different contexts and to try to limit it to “English literature/grammar teacher”, presumably because that is what your “English” lessons consisted of at school, is misleading and unhelpful. Please use your site to welcome a broad church of English teachers to China and please give them more professional respect. Thank you!

End of comment.

Again, the Doc wouldn’t allow this on his site, but he did at least have the courtesy to tell me why not. He sent me an email explaining that…As I have spent upward of one year researching, writing, and revising this guide, I am going to use this website as my personal pulpit and not as a forum for open debate…I’m going to use it to proselytize my point of view…Of course there are exceptions, as pointed out in the guide, but I don’t feel the need to air them in a way that casts dispersions (sic) on or distracts readers from the main points that have been raised.

Well, there we have it. It’s not only the CCP that thinks that reasonable and rational discussion is “unhelpful”. If you don’t like the voice of the other side, silence it! (NB The only comments I have censored on my blog have been insulting or abusive ones…yes Dude, those ones.)

On the other hand, it’s his blog (his little domain) so he can do what he wants. Fair enough, I just think it paints a misleading, not to mention condescending, portrait of English teachers.

We’re not that bad, are we? Comments welcome.

September 9, 2008

Rich man’s club

Filed under: asia,culture,politics,Thailand — Kim @ 4:00 pm

Recently there have been some street scuffles in Bangkok between pro and anti-government protestors. The anti-government posse is called Pad and according to the Guardian:

The People’s Alliance for Democracy (Pad) is a collection of rightwing activists, business people and former army chiefs…The movement wants to replace the country’s electoral democracy with a system that would be dominated by appointees from the bureaucracy and the military. It claims the country’s rural majority is not sophisticated enough to choose good public servants.

Bloody peasants keep on voting for the wrong party! Suggestion:Why not switch to the Chinese system?

Anyway, during the street fights one of the pro-government peasants, a 55 year old man, was killed. He was beaten to death with golf clubs. Apparently, golf clubs are “the weapon of choice” for the Pad and this speaks volumes. Golf encapsulates very aptly the gap between the prosperous, leisured, often right-wing urbanites, and the great unwashed of the countryside. What…those Lao bumpkins have the temerity to vote for a party we don’t like? Let’s batter them with golf clubs.

I’ve nothing against the game of golf of course, just what it has come to stand for. Most “golfers” are not really that interested in golf and are arrogant cocks, and the golf courses themselves gobble up water at an alarming rate.

I say ban it! Anyone who disagrees gets pummeled with a pool cue.

September 5, 2008

The Road to Lüshun

Filed under: China,Dalian,teaching — Kim @ 4:02 pm

Back to school! Back on the old school bus.

Twice a week for the last year I have been taking the school bus from Dalian City centre to the outskirts of Lüshun (aka Port Arthur), where the new campus for Dalian University of Foreign Languages is located. It’s a 40 kilometre trip and takes an hour. Come along for a ride and we can take in a fair amount of what makes Dalian an appealing and increasingly prosperous city.

Leaving at 7am, we first go round the back of Labor Park and pass a “scenic viewpoint” that always has a group of of old folk doing their morning stretches while looking at this picture postcard view…

dalbird

Actually, that photo is a bit old and there are a fair few more skyscrapers downtown now. A new one every month it feels like.

Then we stutter along the busy Dongbei Lu and about 10 minutes later the next landmark on our journey is the “world famous” Xinghai square. It’s a BIG square by the sea.

xinghai

But it’s a bit of a mystery just how big it is and where it really comes in the rankings of bigboy squares. Having been in Dalian almost 2 years now, I’ve heard tell on numerous occasions that Xinghai is the largest square in Asia, and have even read somewhere that it’s about four times bigger than Tiananmen. But at the back of my mind I thought I remembered that Tiananmen is the largest square in the world, and so I did what homo modernicus does and googled “largest square in the world”. The vast majority of sites agree that the answer is Tiananmen.

According to Wikipedia’s “Largest City Square” rankings page, for example, Tiananmen Square is first at 440,000 m² and Xinghai is 36th at 45,000 m². Moreover, googling “world’s largest square” will get you almost nothing but Tiananmen, yet put in “asia’s largest square” and you’ll get almost nothing but Xinghai. Hmmm… last time I checked Beijing was in Asia.

Something funny going on there. Can anyone shed some light on this?

Anyroad…we bear right at Xinghai and creep along the bloody busy commuter road leading to the Software Park and the Hi-Tech Zone. God only knows what this road will be like in 10 years time when the number of cars on Dalian roads will very likely have tripled.

This Software/Hi-Tech area is one of the reasons Dalian is on the up in the world and is even being touted as the next Bangalore. It’s an already impressive place with pleasant modern buildings and plenty of well planned and preserved green bits. See below.

softwarepark

But soon, just along the coast a bit, the “shock and awe” extension will open and many of Dalian’s IT workers will be manning the phones and clicking their mouses in a grandly corporate hilltop setting of mock castles and palaces and gleaming glass office blocks, with lakes and bridges and aquaducts dotted around. All with a nice seaview. I’ve watched that place being built over the last year and it is certainly the most impressive and über-modern business area I’ve seen. Makes Canary Wharf look a bit old and stuffy.

Then as the bus turns right past this Brave New World, we are out of Dalian and moving onto the road to Lushun proper…and the hills let out a sigh as the concrete clutter finally fades away. Dalian’s hills are occluded, crowded, or pockmarked by tower blocks, TV towers, observatories and the like. The hillsides seem burdened by the sheer number of people living in China, and it is rare indeed to get a glimpse of a clear green view around town.

But the first few kilometres of the road to Lushun verge on the image of the rural idyll. Grey slabs of stone give way to green slopes and trees and a few squat little peasant houses with their orange roofs nestle at the foot of the as yet untouched hills. And you have to wonder how much longer this will last. How much longer until Dalian and Lüshun melt into one big conurbation?

For a kilometre or two the road winds its way through valleys, but soon the land opens up to an undulating plain on the right with distantly looming hills/mountains where a huge and expensive housing complex will soon be built. At the moment the roadside is lined with the construction company’s billboards, adorned with optimistic representations of what the houses will look like and of course with slogans.

The slogans are in Chinese and in “English”, this being a high-class housing complex you understand… you gotta have your gobbledygook English to be really classy. But one of the more coherent slogans that sticks in my mind is “Texture of Nature. Life of Poetry!”. Ah, yes…poetry! Nature! Construction!

It must be said that when the winter sets in the Dongbei landscape becomes an almost uniform dusty brown, but right now it is gentle shades of late summer green. Autumn is beautiful too: “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” autumnal breezes and the changing colours of the leaves. And the spring is sublime…come springtime on the road to Lüshun and the hills are alive with bursts of Forsythia and Cherry blossom. “Loveliest of trees the cherry now, is hung with bloom along the bough”, and we have the Japanese occupation to thank for a lot of that. Only a non-Chinese could write that last sentence.

Actually, the Japanese originally got their national obsession with cherry blossom from the Chinese, but they have made it their own and it has assumed an importance in Japanese culture that far outstrips the Chinese concern with it. But as we pass the small town of Longwantan (we are two-thirds of our way to Lushun now) there is a park where, come the season, scenes of cherry blossom viewing very reminiscent of Japan take place. To the best of my knowledge, the trees here were mostly planted by the Japanese.

blossoms

Then it is only a few more kilometres past fruit trees and the occasional building until we reach the Lüshun coast. Turn right again and as you are driving along the remaining couple of kilometres to Dalian University of Foreign Languages you can view one of the calmest seas in the world. It is, as my Dad would say, “as flat as a millpond” almost all the time and that makes it ideal for “seafood farming.” I’m not sure exactly what marine creatures are being kept down there (crabs, abalone, sea cucumbers, for Dalian’s fancy seafood restaurants?) but I can see the sea is dotted with buoys to show the fisherfolk where to go for harvest-time. And huge lorries full of kelp are a common sight round here.

Lüshun is an “up and coming area” so the next feature on the coast road is a huge new housing complex with a couple of towering tower blocks and row upon row of European Villa-style houses. It’s called the “The Blue Beach Resort” and I guess it’s for those rich enough to want a second house by the sea. There wasn’t a beach there a year ago, but they’ve managed to ship one in somehow. They’ve also constructed a moat and a marina, and there is a mountain backdrop and a sea view, so all very nice…apart, that is, from the lingering piscine pong.

Almost there. Another minute’s drive and we turn right again (I’ve just realised the whole journey consists of right-turns) to get to my university…the resplendent Dalian University of Foreign Languages.

I’m not being tongue-in-cheek – it really is nice now – but about a year ago, for the first few months, it was pretty grim. To save money the students had been ordered in well before the place was ready. The roads weren’t even tarmacked, the students had no hot water – and sometimes no water at all – the paint was still drying, there were potholes everywhere (and my Mexican friend Emiliano fell into one and nearly broke his leg) trucks full of construction materials and migrant workers roared around everywhere and it’s amazing nobody died, the builders were in a great hurry to put down the paving and did a very sloppy job, and the 80% female student population felt a bit uneasy about being stared at by the hordes of male migrant workers who were living on campus with them. It was all fairly depressing and if that kind of crap had been attempted in any democratic country I guess there would have been a student uprising. I did hear a few students grumbling, but really not much, considering the circumstances and considering that this is a university that is considered “expensive” by Chinese standards. By and large they seemed stoical about it and I remember there appeared some graffiti on the gym wall scrawled in permanent marker pen…”It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness“. Well, indeed.

But anyway, anyway, I digress. And it’s nice now…really! Rose gardens, plenty of trees, restored paving, good restaurants, hot baths, nice roads, warm classrooms, a lovely big library with lots of computers and lots of censorship, a grand new concert hall, and lots of happy-looking students suffused with the soft afterglow of the Olympic spirit!

dawai

The actual town of Lushun is still a couple of kilometres away…over the hills and down the vales… and despite the fact that a lot of foreign teachers live on campus, and that the Medical University next door has about 500 foreign students attending, it’s still not entirely clear if foreigners are allowed to go there or not!

Lüshun/Port Arthur is a naval base you see, and was strictly off limits to foreigners for ages. Because they might see some secret ships or seduce some sailors or something. Or they might even wander into the city centre and buy a KFC, yes there is one. Can’t have that! But the rules have – reportedly – been relaxed, and I have indeed spent a pleasant day strolling around the town and viewed the battleships from Baiyu Tower (below) without being bothered, apart from by the photo tout at the top.

baiyu

But then I was told that I had been lucky and that actually it’s better not to go because foreigners do still occasionally get fined and arrested. Who knows? Welcome to the military mentality. Put me on the peacebus back to Dalian!