Travel, Teach, Live in China

Evenings at a University in China - English Corners and More
By:Rajesh Kanoi

The first week of classes after the Spring Festival break have ended - eighteen classes of grade three, English majors. Next week I have twelve only! The schedule is strange. But, I'm not complaining for I have one class less than my contract states - sixteen a week. Though it's two up, one week it's also six down, the next. Plus, I have nothing in the evenings.

Evenings have always been a strange time -and sacrosanct for me - private, and for whatever I want to do. And, I have my evenigs to myself when I can write, drink, watch or just lose myself ion my thoughts.

Strange - I call evenings strange because I am sort of moody then, most times. Does that have something to do with the tides, the moon or whatever? I don't know and have never cared to discover. Perhaps, I will now.

Friday evening is English corner time at my university. It's the time when students gather around the fountain in the university campus and converse in English , or at least, try to. Many end up looking for their soul mates because this is one place where opporsites meet, attract or are attracted and boding begins.

The English corner is also a place where English is cornered. English is cornered in the hearts and minds of students who realize that it's an important tool to further their careers. Most times, students in China are too wary of using English. Some are shy and most are scared of losing face. Making a mistake that is noticed by others entail a loss of face for the speaker. Not undersdtanding what another has said and to be found to have not understood is another occasion for loss of face.

At the English corner, impressions are made, friendships begun and romance courted. It's also a place where the 'foreign teachers' are actually cornered. They, the foreign teachers, surrounded by dozens of students, and sometimes more, are occasionally bombarded with inane questions that are repeated dozens of times in the space of less than a dozen minutes.

Most foreign teachers smile and grin and bear. Sometimes, the questions shot, relate to politics of the foreign teacher's country, their social problems and the like - essentially, questions that may be embarrassing to answer, especially to those who have been fed on a limited diet of news and information. School text books often have pieces about other countries. Generally, the material tends to portray other countries in a poor light. Why, you might ask. The answer is - something innate in human nature and its politics.

Questions like why did you come here are par for the course. The tone, sometimes, suggests, 'Go back to where you came from'. 'What was your job at home' is passable but not when it's followed by a 'what was your salary there?'

'Do you like China?' is a question that expects just one answer -'yes'!

'What do you like about China?' is grilling, continued.

To be fair, there is really nothing wrong with some of those questions if the answers were not met with a nod that seems to agree but a tone and demeanour that seems to say 'I know more than you reveal. You are lying.'

Yet, foreign teachers, often troop to the English corners, especially if there is one at their own institution. Most schools and colleges/universities tend to have one of their own, in addition to sundry ones organized by eager-for-a-money-making-opportunity businessmen. Some resauranteurs and coffee-house owners organize such 'events' in their premises and lure foreigners with promises of regular income but deliver nothing when they find that clients are reluctant to drop in, except in larger cities where some denizens seem to have more money than they can spend.

Often, people befriend foreigners and invite them to dinners and lunches as a means of showing off a trophy, for that is what foreigners often are in China. The deep-rooted culture, distrust of foreigners and an unwilingness to share information ensure that foreigners remain aliens. It is nearly impossible for foreigners to actually integrate into the mainstream society, regardless of the number of years spent. Therefore, unbeknownst to them, they are invited, offered the best seats at a dinner table (the one facing the door) but treated with a subterranean contempt.

There is a growing belief (amongst the Chinese) that most foreigners who come to teach in China are those that have few skills or none and end up in China where all they can teach is their mother-tongue, English - and, sometimes, not even that. As a result, contempt for foreigners is growing.

For long, the foreign teachers have lorded over their less informed and apparently pea-brained wards and counterparts. But, things are beginning to even out and contempt is met with equal contempt.

It's a matter of time before the scales tilt the other way and the stream of foreigners that landed in China to sample its exotic culture and lifestyle will either run dry or come for purely economic reasons.

Until then, the English corner will continue to thrive, where foreigners will tend to feel progressively more cornered and less sure of themselves, where uneasy questions will continue to be flung and unbelieving interrogators nod while they neither believe nor tell that they don't believe.

It's Friday evening, nearing the English corner hour at my university and my sacrosanct private time is ready to be thrown to the toothless sharks!

Rajesh Kanoi
http://www.writingup.com/blog/oneinabillion
http://o3.indiatimes.com/kjack


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