China, Travel, University Teaching

The New Job

As usual, what was intended to be a brief explanation has turned into 800+ words of long, reflective, somewhat emotional blogging. For those of you with limited time, please feel free to read to your capacity. I would humbly recommend the summary and possibly the pros and cons. For those with lots of time wanting the full, delightfully wordy scoop–read on, dear reader!

Summary: For the 2013-2014 academic year I will be working for a respected Midwestern university* but on site with their partner university in China. Students enroll in our program at the Chinese university with the intention of transferring to the American university within one or two years. My “mission” is to get the students fully admitted to the university, prepare them for the transition, and give them the tools to succeed once they are there. (Whew!) My job title is “lecturer” which seems slightly misleading. No, I will not be dispassionately delivering lectures to long rows of seated students in echo-y auditoriums. Instead, I will need to be some combination of marketer, cheerleader, teacher, administrator, counselor, and coach to give the program vision, to keep up enrollment, to develop students and set them up for success in the USA. It’s a tall order.

I have helpfully prepared a list of the pros and cons as I currently see them to give you a peek into how I feel about this new job.

The Pros:
I am employed by an American university.
(I have BENEFITS! Dios mio! BENEFITS! Can you believe it!?! )
They provide a very nice 2 bedroom apartment in a good area (Visitors, puh-lease!!)
And roundtrip airfares.
They brought me to the campus for “orientation” and paid for everything. (I can submit receipts for reimbursement. Whoa.)
They gave me a work laptop. (A MacBook!)
Business cards (Squee!)
I still get to work overseas.

The Cons:
I am the ONLY foreigner onsite for our program in China.
I am one of TWO foreigners at the Chinese university.
Our entire program in China consists of me and a Chinese office manager.
There’s been a lot of transition in the program and nothing has been well documented.
I was told there was a curriculum but there’s really not.
I still work overseas. (Note inclusion on both pro/con lists. Placement depends on the day)
I still work in a country where I no comprendo the lingo. (Sí, dos años en china y todavía no hablo chines. Soy una persona horrible. Yo sé.)

If you’ve reached maximum capacity on hearing about Amy’s new job you may stop reading here. I think you’ve got the jist.

For those wanting more touchy-feely details, read on:

The Longer Version: This job was one of those jobs where you apply with little expectation of ever hearing back. I was surprised to be contacted. There was an initial Skype interview at 11 o’clock at night where I disagreed with one of the interviewers and thought I’d never hear from them again. (Funny story: I actually thought the interview was at midnight and only was in the apartment by chance.) But I heard from them again. A second interview and then a third.

The more I talked to the interviewers the more I was intrigued. They seemed like nice people, with an understanding of what it’s like to work in China, the challenges, the opportunities, etc. At that point I’d sort of pinned all my hopes on being accepted into a special fellowship program for TEFL. This was sort of a change of plans, but not necessarily a bad one. The more I thought about it and talked to people the more it seemed like a BETTER plan. So I signed that offer letter.

A few months later I don’t regret my decision. Of course there are wrinkles to every new job. (See “The Cons”) With a fuller understanding of what has been done and what they are hoping to see in the future I feel slightly overwhelmed.

This is a job with a lot of potential. I have a lot of freedom to create something cool. That’s great. It wouldn’t be that fun to be denied the opportunity to make changes and be creative. At the outset though I think I’d prefer a little less freedom as it’s a lot to try to create something while finding your feet.

I will probably need the year—one full cycle—to find those feet of mine. Which makes this job not really seem like a year position. If you put in all that work are you really going to want to walk away right at the point where you know enough to be able to improve it? But am I committed to staying in China longer? (I mean, REALLY, I’m already going on three years when I never expected to be in China at all.) And my feelings towards China are quite complex, emotional, and therefore messy.

And this all seems like way too heavy of thinking for a job that has only just—and I mean JUST—begun. I haven’t even started classes yet. So think of this as a mental and emotional snapshot of me on this date and at this time: August 31, 2013 at 2:38 PM. It will be interesting to return to this post in a few months of so to reflect on my changing thoughts and emotions. I will endeavor to keep you updated.

*For various reasons, I don’t really feel comfortable connecting my blog with the name of the university as I consider this a personal rather than a professional place of reflection. And I don’t want to get sued by anyone. Or fired.

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Campus Life, China, Travel, University Teaching

End of an Era

June was a time of good-byes. Goodbye to another semester, but more importantly to my students, friends, and colleagues in Zhuhai. At that point I knew I would not be returning in the fall. So not only was there the usual end-of-the-semester madness of marking papers and final exams, but there was also a great deal of paperwork for the new job (to be explained), packing up of my apartment, and all those aforementioned goodbyes.

I came to Zhuhai in September of 2011. It was my first time to even visit China, much less to live there. I remember how the entire flight to China (San Francisco –> Vancouver –> Beijing –> Zhuhai) I was a mess, truly a ball of nerves. Even after arriving, there was quite a long nervous period of adjustment. It took time to get comfortable, to make friends, and to understand the ropes at the university. My relative comfort at the end of my first year was hard-won. I would never have expected that I would return for a second year. But I did. And I had a great year.

The best part of Zhuhai was definitely the people. It would not have been the same without my wonderful friend Sarah, with whom I took innumerable long walks and drank enough Nescafe to float a boat or two. And Stephen, the Kiwi I met on my first day, who introduced me to so much of China and took me along on many an adventure. The three of us had so many great trips and many a comfortable day around campus and town. Sniff, sniff. I’ll miss them!

Then there was the wider circle of other foreign teachers, some positively kooky, others lots of fun, with whom I shared many a conversation and meal or just guzzled cheap Tsingtaos with.

Then there were my local colleagues in the department, English teachers who reached out to me at the very beginning and became good friends. Vivid personalities all around who gave me better understanding of local culture and just how things worked (or didn’t work) in China. I owe them big time for all their many kindnesses to me and all those meals that they insisted on paying for! (I must discuss the “hosting” issue in China sometime.)

And the students. Ah! The students. With their wonderful English names, Chinese sense of style and genius for asking questions deemed inappropriate from an American standpoint. In my mere four semesters at BNUZ I estimate I taught somewhere around 2500 students. Of those only a few became good friends, but many remained kind, familiar faces around campus that always said hello. Those that became friends will hopefully remain friends for a long time.

Let’s not forget Zhuhai herself, who was not without her own charm. I remember looking up Zhuhai on a map and being pleased that it was a coastal city. It also lived up to its reputation of being a green, comfortably small city by Chinese standards, with lovely landscaping everywhere and year-round greenery due to its semi-tropical climate. I think I might regret leaving Zhuhai in the near future. I’m understanding now why students would go on and on about the “great environment.”

I’ll certainly miss our beautiful university campus—I didn’t know how good I had it! We may have not been the best university academically speaking, but I think our campus must make at least some most-beautiful lists.

And I’ll certainly miss Cantonese food, especially all those lovely perfectly prepared vegetable. Sigh. And morning tea. And washing my dishes at restaurants. And listening to them talk on their cellphones in public places.

Yes, it was a great two years. And it was hard to leave. But—as they say—it was time. If I stayed longer in Zhuhai I think it would’ve been because I was afraid to move on. Just because something is good does not mean that the next thing will not also be good—or maybe even better! So here’s to the also-good or even better!

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Campus Life, China, Educational System, University Teaching

Teaching Files: Houston, we have a problem

One of the worst, but also paradoxically best, parts of my job is marking student essays.

Why worst? Because classes range from 70-90 students. This times however many classes you have. This semester I have only one class of this type. Last spring I had six. Tears of agony. It’s also a challenge because the students often make so many mistakes that catching their meaning is like peering through a glass darkly. Maybe a glass with bullet holes.

And then there’s the plagiarizing. Marking my recent batch of essays I was amazed to find students using the SAME Internet essay as last spring. And also amazed that I could recognize it within a sentence.

HOWEVER! Marking essays in the company of other teachers can be a delight and a pleasure. A trouble shared is a trouble halved, yes? Hunched over our piles of essays there will be intermittent snorts and giggles as we encounter little unintentional gems from our students. Turns of phrase bungled. Accidental play on words. Charming misspellings. We read them out as we find them to the amusement and mirth of all.

My two favorite misspellings from the most recent batch of essays both derive from the word “problem.” Yes, my students were having problems with “problem.” Are you ready? Drumroll, please.

The runner up for the most charming accidental mashup ever!
Give it up for—promble!

And in first place!
For the most charming accidental mashup ever!
I give you—troblem!

(Crowd goes wild!)

Sort of makes you want to be a teacher for a minute there, yeah?

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Campus Life, China, Educational System, Teaching, University Teaching

End of Semester Madness

Immediately following my birthday was the last week of the semester. Everyone is frantically marking papers, final exams, and tabulating grades while still giving classes.

Fortunately it’s a universally understood thing that there won’t be much in the way of teaching in the final week. Movies or conversation are the norm. That’s if the students show up at all as final exams might be scheduled during class time.

I had thought that I was on top of everything and would finish in good time, but as the week went along I realized I was hopelessly behind and would really have to scramble. This culminated in an almost all-nighter on Thursday night. I went to bed around 4 AM, not having had to stay up that late for work since I was in graduate school. Friday was a mad dash and I just barely finished. It wouldn’t have been possible without that late night.

That night we went out to hot pot to celebrate, and then came back and slept the sleep of the well deserved.

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Campus Life, China, Cultural Differences, Travel, University Teaching

December Recap

Apologies! Apologies! It’s been far too long! In the interests of time (and not boring you to tears) I thought I’d provide a summary of what’s been going on for the last two months, as there have been some interesting events and excursions.

Christmas season

Though Christmas is not a Chinese holiday many Chinese students have embraced it as a fun holiday to celebrate with their friends, in contrast with traditional festivals, which are generally family festivals. Christmas observance is mostly observed through decorations, especially the large number of Christmas trees around. Even the little market on campus had a Christmas tree and all the employees were wearing Santa hats for most of December.

My apartment looked very cheerful with all the items I’d bought last year and other things my mom had sent me: pinecones, mini Christmas tree, Christmas dish towels, etc. I even found some Christmas lights, which I’ve been reluctant to take down since I put them up.

Some of my students surprised me with Christmas gifts and cards. Three of my English majors gave me a cute mug, some candles and several apples. Other student gifts included a Yakult, random pieces of chocolate, Mongolian snacks, and more apples.

What’s the deal with the apples? Apple in Chinese is ‘ping guo’ which shares a Chinese character with the word ‘peace’, so to give an apple has become representative of good wishes/peace for Christmas. Which I thought was super cool, once I understood what it meant.

Macau for ‘The Hobbit’

Also in December, a group of foreign teachers decided to venture to Macau to see ‘The Hobbit’. Though it likely would be arriving in China sometime in the future, many of us couldn’t wait that long. So we ventured across the border to Macau. Zhuhai borders Macau and whenever I go to there I think “Why don’t I go to Macau more often?” Then, when I’m waiting in long slow lines to exit “China” and enter “Macau” I remember why I don’t. Yeah. That.

‘The Hobbit’ would deserve a long post of its own. To be brief, I’d say that as a movie it was acceptably entertaining, but as the film version of a beloved childhood book I left disappointed. The Gollum and Bilbo scene was excellent, but that was the high point for me.

Christmas Party

Last year the foreign teachers of my school were extremely lacking in a sense of community. Though a friend and I tried to organize a Christmas potluck, it was essentially a no-go. We managed to scrape together 4 people for a modest evening. Fortunately many of the new teachers that arrived this fall are extremely community-minded. We had a FANTASTIC Christmas party, complete with lots of good food, drinks, conversation, games and really loud off-key caroling. Most excellent.

So December was a pretty good month all around, if not exactly an American December.

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Campus Life, China, Educational System, Teaching, University Teaching

The Other Chinese Student: The Opposite Extreme

Having reflected on some of the less charming behaviors of Chinese students, I would like to honor my promise to balance it out with telling you the best things about them.

The best thing about the other type of Chinese student—the opposite of the first Chinese student—is that they are motivated and ambitious. Our little BNUZ is just the first stepping stone in their journey. These kids are going places. Seriously.

I cannot tell you the number of students who are actively preparing for the GRE, the TOEFL, and IELTS in order to go abroad for graduate school. Those who are not going abroad are attending extra courses on the weekend, leading school-wide volunteer organizations, participating in Toast Masters, double majoring, and doing overseas volunteer trips. One student went to Serbia over the summer for an academic conference. Another went to Australia for a volunteer organization and will go to Kenya for the winter break. Though I despair over the behavior over the majority of the students, there are those other students who make it all worthwhile.

There are students who I would hope to meet in the future in the States, finishing their MA, their PhD, working, settling down, getting married etc. Others I would hope to hear about their progress by email. There’s that sense of potential about many of them. And it’s these students who make it worth it, especially when I have opportunities to develop more personal relationships outside the classroom. They’re great. Really and truly.

This is one thing that is such a contrast with Georgia. In Georgia I had little hope for even the brightest of my students. The furthest most of them might get was the capital, where they would hopefully finish university and be able to find some sort of job. Others you could just tell were bound to stay in the village for the rest of their life. Not that staying in the village is a bad thing, but I feel that more often than not it’s usually due to lack of other opportunities rather than true desire to stay.

So I’m happy for my Chinese students who are taking advantage of opportunities or making their own opportunities. I’m glad that they are working hard in university, preparing for their future. I’m especially glad that I got the opportunity to be their teacher, because otherwise I’m not sure I would’ve returned to China for a second year! A handful of excellent students can go a long way towards making up for an otherwise indifferent bunch.

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Campus Life, China, Cultural Differences, Educational System, Teaching, University Teaching

The Chinese Student: Final Behaviors of Note

Okay, let’s wrap this up. The final three behaviors of note:

#9 – Not taking notes

It’s very strange as a teacher to be explaining important vocabulary, cultural information, and grammar points for up to 90 minutes and not have a single student taking any of it down. My words just disappear into a void. Most discouraging. Especially if I teach the same class multiple times in week.

I should just record myself and play it back to the class while I put my feet up.

#1O – Cheating Creative Cheating

Chinese students are seemingly inveterate cheaters. I prowl the classroom constantly during any quiz and I am forever spotting those little finger movements that indicate looking something up or the head-on-chest syndrome for furtive under the desk cell phone usage. And there is always a slight background buzz of whispered conversations and consultations no matter how much I demand silence. And when I declare the quiz over and papers to be handed in the real cheating begins as students frantically copy from each other. All their efforts to deceive me and get a better grade makes me wonder why they don’t just pay attention and do a little studying. Gee.

Sleep without detection!

Sleep without detection!


#11 – Sleeping

Probably the first Chinese behavior that struck a nerve was the sleeping in class. This drove me nuts last year, but I’ve become more desensitized to it. Such that I almost forgot to mention it. Yes. Chinese students will sleep in class. Full on head-down-sound-asleep in class. Local Chinese teachers have told me that they don’t care if students sleep in class. I sputtered incredulously when I heard this. What? Impossible! A little nodding off is one thing, but full on sleeping is another. In the words of my students, “I cannot accept it.” Yes, I will wake them up with a knock or two on the desk and a cheerful “good morning.” If I have to be there teaching them, they have to at least pretend to be “learning.”

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