Teaching English started out as just some shitty job I was doing to pay the bills back in 2008. I was living in Rome, Italy, I had just graduated from university, had no plans prospects or much a of a give a damn, and I wanted something that I could do that would get me out of the poor house I was in. I never thought I would stay in the field.
Frankly, I sucked at it, but back then they were desperate enough to hire, I was desperate enough to stay on board, and they were desperate enough to keep calling me back week after week to teach, or try to teach, classes.
Maybe two or three years later I finished and equally useless and employment-less master’s degree, and looking for something to do that, once again, would pay the bills, I took on another teaching job once again in the fabulous city of Rome, Italy. I only lasted a few months but this was largely because the school I was working it embezzled or mismanaged all of their money and thus decided not to pay any of the teachers. They apparently had a chocolate fountain at their Christmas party that year. But in those two years between the two teaching jobs something changed, because I started to get rave reviews. The students loved me, for reasons that I still cannot wrap my head around. It was slightly demystififed at a social party the school threw where a student mentioned how she enjoyed coming to my discussion class (and just like the discussion classes I have today, I hated doing them even back then) where I read some poems to the class and had them discuss it, or books, movies, whatever the hell. She enjoyed the way I pushed the class to discuss something difficult, specifically something that would have been difficult in their native Italian, much less in English. She was grateful that I had done it, and my optimistic take away was to not be afraid to challenge the students to discuss difficult subjects.
And then I moved to China.
I have repeatedly tried to challenge the students here and suffer a great disappointment at every attempt. Why this occurs has been explained to me as being a negative consequence of China’s education system, which actively tries to punish thinking in its pupils. After all, people who don’t think don’t rage against the machine either. If you ask the students in my class a question they don’t know they will stare at the TV screen in front of the class and pretend to be focusing on some problem until the answer is fed to them. They don’t want to think a problem through, they want the movie spoiled for them.
But I forget this. Every night I go to bed and I wake up with the same bushy-tailed optimism I had when given that complement in Rome. And I try to get the students to talk about things that may enrich them.
I made a class called ‘Talking about your favorite novels’ or something to that effect. One damn students showed up: Catherine. She’s unique in a two ways; she isn’t Han (the ethnic majority in China) and I actually find her to be pretty. She is not unique in the fact that her English is significantly worse than her assigned level would suggest. She comes to class and we begin talking. I open with “What kind of books do you like to read.”
“I don’t enjoy reading.”
Bear in mind that she signed up for this class. She, in theory, looked at the topic and said to herself ‘Yes this is what I would like to learn today’. Again, the class was titled ‘Talking about your favorite novels’ and she knew this coming in. So I tried a different approach.
“What was the last book you read?”
“Great! Which one? All seven?”
She looked about the empty room before answering “Harry Potter!”
So I asked her to describe the book to me. Now, it has been a while since I have read any of the Harry Potter books, but I have no idea what book she described. Apparently Harry Potter turned into some kind of Sam Spade, forgoing Hogwarts altogether. Frankly, knowing what I do about Harry’s future with Umbridge, maybe this is for the best.
In this student’s defense this is not the first time that something like this has happened. Often, students recount the story of some movie we have both seen in such a way to make me suspect that Chinese translators either have an extremely liberal philosophy of translation, a terrifying time crunch, or a complete indifference to the source material. Still, I cannot help but entertain the suspicion that this girl didn’t really read the Harry Potter books at all.
Years before moving to China I met a person while doing my Master’s who had spent some time here as a study aborad student. He said something that I will keep with me for my whole life. “Anyone who thinks China will one day become a super power has never been to that country. Live there a while and you will see that they will never do any such thing”
That man was dead right.