An Interview with Ben Robson, Who Spent 5 Months Teaching in China
Hi there Ben, so have you always wanted to visit China? What was it that drew you to the country?
To be honest, it had never crossed my mind before considering my options for what to do once I had left college. I had been considering a gap year and after some internet research, I decided on a place that would offer something different to western tradition, but that wasn't so completely different as to throw me into the 'deep end' as it was my first real experience of being away from home for such a long period of time. China also appealed to me because of its size and how you can travel all of two hours across the country on a plane and seem to be in a different country, with different lifestyles, dialogue and scenery.
China offers western styles in some areas, and then traditional historic architecture and artefacts in others. This can be seen especially well in Beijing where you have Italian restaurants and Maccy Ds on one street, and on the next there are temples and old Forbidden City walls and towers.
What have you been doing in China?
I’ve been volunteering, teaching English for around five months and will be so sad to leave. Sob.
China can be a difficult country to visit, what with visas and other paperwork, the language barrier, and the very different culture. Did the volunteering organisation help you deal with these things?
Yeah, they handled pretty much everything. They sorted out my visa and relayed everything the embassies needed, to the people who needed them, without me having to lift a finger really. You need to have your medical filled in by your GP and fill out a few other forms, which take a matter of minutes and are spelled out for you in the easiest way possible. I can't remember exactly how many there were, but I remember the visa form, medical, ‘free of AIDS’ certificate and a criminal records form, all of which took no time and were pretty much hassle-free.
You’ve been working in Sichuan Province: what is this area of China like?
Beautiful. There are sacred mountains, national parks, huge cities and acres of pasture everywhere. And huge: the size of France, but without the French.
The food here is literally on fire with the provincial delicacies of hot pot and fire beef, a regular on everyone's daily diet. Apparently it helps adjust locals to hot summers, but I reckon it’s more of an 'at least you know your bowels are in your body... for the time being' sort of thing.
A teacher here once told me that 'The food is hot here, and the women are too!' She wasn't far wrong.
Tell us about the school you’ve been teaching in...
It's big. 3,000 students covering three grades, 1,000 in each. It looks like a classy affair when you first arrive, with huge gates at the entrance and a main path running up to it lined with trees and lanterns. The classrooms aren't much to talk about, though: small, stuffy, cold in winter, boiling in summer with no air con and constantly failing electricity!
Our school recently celebrated its 80th anniversary which saw streamers, air cannons, lanterns, a huge stage and monster balloons flying everywhere. Around 8,000 people all gathered on the full-sized astro pitch (the sports facilities are pretty impressive) to listen to teachers and visiting government officials give speeches on how good the school is, and how its reputation is unshakable and the like. All a very grand affair with past students coming back to take a look and stare at us two foreign teachers, the first the school has ever had...
What are the kids like?
A mixed bunch. Unbelievably clever, waking up at 6:30am, lessons beginning at 7:40am and finishing at 6:30pm, or 8:30pm for senior grades two and three.
I teach students from 11 to 16 years old. The younger ones love to scream and shout as most have only been learning English for two weeks and don't understand a word I'm saying (a hurdle I clear by playing games for every 40-minute lesson I have with them). The older ones like to listen to your stories from England and learn about western culture, oohing and aahing as you confirm for the 50th time that yes, you have seen David Beckham in real life.
As there are 60 in a class, it's hard to keep them quiet all the time, but as 25 in a class in England are just as noisy, you have to expect it really, and with some of them not following you all the time, it’s even more impressive that they stay attentive for most of the lesson.
I think it's a case of me running on the novelty value that I'm western. Most of them will help you with anything that you might need. I play basketball with them, sing songs to them, go out for meals with them and get them a little tipsy from time to time, and it's great that I can do this, then go into the classroom the next day and be 'Mr Ben'.
What is your accommodation like?
Incredible. It must be amongst the best offered to gap year volunteers in China. We have pretty much everything we need: air con, internet, phone, double beds, sofas, TV, microwave, rice cooker, washing machine, hot water, water dispenser, granite work surfaces, fridge-freezer, study, comfy seats, book cases, brand spanking new glass coffee table and dining table... the list is endless. It's like one of those pages in the Ikea mag where you're like... 'mmm, I want that house'.
(Having said that, I just got to the last question on this interview and the damn bloody leccie went off! It happens from time to time and is pretty bad in the winter when it's biting, but even worse when you are in the middle of an email.)
So, have you enjoyed being an English teacher? What has been the best part of the experience?
I have definitely enjoyed it. I'd say the best part has been how the whole thing has given me a lot more self-confidence. I'd have hated standing up in front of 10 people to speak five months ago, and now I have to give a lesson to 60 at least twice a day. I’ve even had to sing to a good five classes. Jesus, we'll keep that one quiet, shall we?!
I also love how the students don't seem to categorise you as a teacher or a friend. Like I said, you can enjoy a great social life with them, then have their attention the next day in class without them pushing their luck. Likewise, you aren’t seen as a stern, inhumane teacher who the students don’t want to talk to outside of the classroom.
And the worst part?
Finding out that 11-year-olds have better grammar than me...
Tell us about a particularly memorable lesson...
Ah, the girlfriend / boyfriend lesson. Let us not forget that China is a place that sees open signs of affection very rarely and that for the younger generation, it is mostly frowned upon. So here you are, standing at the front of class showing pictures of your girlfriend, all hell breaking loose. Eyeballs lost, pulling of hair and broken limbs, all to get a look at the 'girl with yellow hair' who you kiss and hug (tee hee hee)! Then asking students to name five qualities that they would look for in a girlfriend or boyfriend and having to keep a straight face as they list 'good househusband, feisty, obeying, sexy and silent'. One girl coming out with 'tall, long hair, good at basketball, funny, honest' managed to get the whole class making more noise than a Status Quo gig and screaming "Teacher! She means you!"
There's always one Romeo in the class who comes out with 'Someone who loves me as much as I love them' and has all the girls falling at his feet. And then there's finding out the secret lovers in the class...
What qualities do you think people need if they want to teach in China?
A sense of humour, a lack of paranoia, and a good singing voice (or at least the confidence to sing).
The humour will come in handy when you have to sit in a bank for two hours when all you wanted the cashier to do was tear a void transaction slip in front of your face so they couldn’t take any more money from you. It will also come in handy when you have to sit on a bus for 12 hours with less leg-room than, I don't know, a bus for midgets.
A lack of paranoia will definitely serve you well when everyone in the city stares at you for five months straight and talks about you in Chinese with odd words that you can pick up here and there. It will also come in handy, again, when you are in a bank and they refuse to tear said transaction slip, thus giving them the power to take another 400 quid from you at any given moment.
As for the singing, China is a nation of song. They love to sing. I had to sing the Backstreet Boys in class once (shush!) and having to do that for a good five months will certainly fling you into the qualifying stages of The X-Factor on your return to England. Then, just when you thought it had finished, you are invited out by your fellow teachers to a KTV (karaoke bar) to sing for them. Oh joy. They love it either way and will return the compliment by singing a good 50 songs each.
Have you got any tips for people thinking of teaching in China? For example, how to make lessons fun and effective?
Plan your lessons so that nobody is left out. The high-flyers will not want to review ABCs, and likewise, the less able students will not be overly impressed by your attempts at teaching them Darwinism or using words with more than eight letters. As hard as it may sound to get everyone in a class of 60 involved, it is possible, by offering different levels of difficulty to a particular task.
Also, don't stick too heavily to a lesson plan. If something is starting to float off down the proverbial creek, then don’t be ashamed to grab a paddle, sweep the plan from the desk and play a game or two. That way you keep the kids entertained and can convince yourself that you have taught them 'valuable listening skills'.
Making lessons more fun can be easily done by making reference to yourself, for example in the boyfriend / girlfriend lesson, or telling stories about your past, or explaining the difference between 'American and British English' which mystifies them so much. You can also make reference to popular figures who the students know, for example David Beckham, Yao Ming, Harry Potter and Jackie Chan. If you can get these names in anywhere, you'll get a buzz of excitement from the students.
How were you treated by the local community? Did they welcome you? Did you make many friends?
The city where I live and teach, Zigong, sees very few foreigners. There are about five in the city with a population of over three million, so everywhere you go you are stared at and whispered about. Your face is plastered across newspapers and TV and people are generally excited by you being here.
People jump at the chance to practice their English with you, whether it be on the way to the supermarket or mid-pee in a Chinese toilet. They mean no harm by anything that they do, they are just curious about you.
Our friends are mainly teachers and students, although there are a few randoms that we meet out and about, like at the English Corner (a gathering of 15 or so people who basically speak English with each other for a couple of hours) that we go out with now and again, or bump into around the city.
Have you had much chance to travel around in China?
We had three weeks off, rather than the two weeks that the volunteer company had outlined. We visited beauty spots within Sichuan for mid-week breaks, then I flew to Fujian Province on the East Coast to see my girlfriend for just over a week over Christmas and New Year.
After you finish teaching, or before, you have as much time to travel as your bank balance will allow, and in China, that's quite a bit of travelling. The return flight to Fujian was just a few hundred pounds, not bad when you consider you've flown over the whole of China. This is the most expensive way to travel, of course: a 14-hour bus journey from Chengdu to Jiuzhaigou cost me less than a tenner. I say I haven't done much travelling, but actually I've been to Emei Sha, Jiuzhaigou, Chendgu, Fuzhou, Xiamen and Beijing so far, which is pretty good going in such a short time.
What was your favourite place that you visited?
Jiuzhaigou National Park in Northern Sichuan Province: the most beautiful place I've been in my entire life. It has crystal-clear, blue, green and turquoise lakes - the most amazing colours you're ever likely to see - mountains capped by snow and colourful Tibetan prayer flags everywhere with little villages dotted about the mountain, home to Tibetan minorities and traditional Tibetan-style guestrooms.
You say you got used to the five Ss - spitting, shouting, staring, smoking and surprises! How different did you find Chinese culture from Western culture?
That's a good question. With China adapting more to western culture (there is now a Maccy D's in our city... there wasn't one here when we got here) the differences are becoming slimmer. In the east, places such as Shanghai, Hong Kong and Fuzhou are pretty westernised, with big department stores, KFC, Toyota showrooms and the ever-present tourists. Teenagers dye their hair red and live music venues blare out western music all night. The further west you go, the more traditional things become with more arable land and fewer western retail stores.
With reference to the people, their culture is very different, as shown with the whole boyfriend / girlfriend thing. The younger generation is generally encouraged to do well in school: so much so that they are almost forced to study as hard as physically possible. This means homework until the early hours, and very little social time. Parents tend to take very good care of their children by doing pretty much everything for them. Many people under the age of 20 have never even been out of the city, never mind the country, as pressure to do well is so great. The competitiveness of everything is seen almost everywhere: students aiming for top uni places, teachers wanting to get to higher positions in their jobs, millions of adverts on TV to make each company richer and better than the next. That's just one of the problems with having such a huge population: everyone wants to be the best, but they're competing against so many others, making it difficult.
Chinese culture is also modelled very much on a family lifestyle, with parents, children and grandparents all being very close, eating together, shopping together, living together and holidaying together. Western culture is much more independent: people tend to do more things by themselves and hang out with friends, or go to bars, have part-time jobs, go on holiday with college or uni friends, etc. In China people don’t really have as much opportunity to do this: they stay around their homes and families much more.