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Reflections on Teaching English in China


Reflections on Teaching English to Young Learners in China

Georgina Ma
17 May 2010

This article is the second in a series of four articles on our experiences of living and teaching abroad. In this article I will reflect on my experience of living and working in two cities in China – Lanzhou and Shenzhen.

  Map of China

Living and working in Lanzhou

In 2003, after a year back in South Africa following my teaching experience in Taiwan, I was keen to find a position teaching English in China and so began applying for posts. I was offered three positions in China - one in Dalian, a coastal city to the north of China, another in Beijing and one at EF English First in Lanzhou in north-west China. Although I had enjoyed my time in Taiwan, I did not feel that living in a big cosmopolitan city had given me the real cultural experience that I was after.

I was intrigued by the Lonely Planet’s introduction to Gansu Province as a rugged, barren province, through which the ancient Silk Road had threaded its way and camel caravans had carried goods in and out of China. Lanzhou didn’t sound that interesting itself. Described on many websites as one of the most polluted cities in the world, Lanzhou functioned mostly as a transport hub for travellers who were on route to interesting sights in the surrounding areas. Nevertheless, I was drawn to an adventure off the beaten track and jumped at the opportunity to teach English in Lanzhou.

Lanzhou City

Neither my two-year stint in Taiwan nor pouring over the Lonely Planet guide to China from cover to cover could prepare me for life in Lanzhou. I arrived in the dusty, polluted city in January 2003 and hated my first three weeks there. My initial desire to immerse myself in Chinese culture and learn Mandarin by living in a remote city in the middle of China seemed a very bad idea on arrival!

Lanzhou is situated in a narrow valley on the southern banks of the Yellow River. Like most cities in China, Lanzhou is modern and well developed, with large department stores, cinemas and a few western fast food franchises. However, possibly due to its remote location, the city has maintained much of its cultural charm. It is not uncommon to see old men playing Chinese card games on the banks of the Yellow River, dressed in their Chinese tunics or ‘Mao suits’ (a common form of dress since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949), or to spend an hour watching a performance of a traditional opera put on by local residents in a park. While Lanzhou didn’t offer the same western comforts I had been used to in Taiwan, there were always many things to see and do. Some of the highlights from my time spent in Lanzhou include - climbing Wuchan Mountain and drinking ‘three times tea’ in one of the tea houses overlooking Lanzhou, sailing down the Yellow river on a barge to visit the Buddhist relics carved into caves in 520 AD at Bingling cave temple and visiting the rural village homes of my Chinese colleagues and friends.

Lanzou on a good day

One of the greatest things about Lanzhou was the people, who were incredibly friendly and hospitable. I would often be invited to share a meal or drink tea with strangers or people I had just met. Due to the fact that there were not many westerners in Lanzhou, my colleagues and I were quite a novelty in the city and the local people were keen to meet us so that they could practice their English and learn more about our countries and cultures. 

Despite the initial culture shock I experienced when I first arrived in Lanzhou, I quickly became accustomed to life there and grew to love it. I will forever be linked to this wonderful place and people, as it is where my husband and his family come from and so is now my second home.

English First

EF Education specialises in language training, educational tours and cultural exchanges. It is the world’s largest private education company. It was founded in 1965 by Bertil Hult, a young Swedish entrepreneur. The company started out taking Swedish high school students to study English in England. The company has grown significantly over the last four decades and now has offices and schools in more than 51 countries around the world and employs more than 26,000 people.

EF Lanzhou was situated on the 15th floor of huge office building opposite the main square in the city. The school occupied the whole 15th floor and the facilities were fantastic. My only gripe was having to climb 15 double flights of stairs when the electricity was out, which happened quite frequently. I worked with a great team of teachers and administrators from all over China, Scotland, America, New Zealand, Canada and France.

I taught general English to young learners from 6 to 15 years old. The children were great to teach as they were full of energy and were enthusiastic about learning English.

Young learner class at EF Lanzhou

I really enjoyed teaching general, exam and business English to adult learners. The adult learners ranged from high school and university students to government and corporate employees who were learning English to pursue studies or work abroad or to improve their English for work purposes. Not only did I help my adult students to improve their English skills and teach them more about Western culture and beliefs, but I learnt a great deal about China from them. I established some wonderful friendships with my adult students, many of whom I am still in contact with today. 

Sharing a meal with EF Lanzhou students

The year I spent in Lanzhou went by incredibly quickly and before I knew it my contract at EF Lanzhou was coming to an end. An American colleague who I had worked with at EF Lanzhou had moved to Shenzhen to work at Tsinghua Experimental School and offered me a position teaching English there. Although I had enjoyed my time in Lanzhou, I was keen to live and work in a city in the south of China, and so I jumped at the opportunity.  

Living and working in Shenzhen

When the taxi driver stopped outside the complex which housed my apartment and Tsinghua Experimental School in Shenzhen, I insisted that he had taken me to the wrong address. The manicured gardens, fountains, huge palm trees and very ornate facades at the entrance to the grand complex where I was to spend my next year in China were overwhelming and I felt like a country mouse arriving in the city after a year living in Lanzhou. I was back on beaten track!

Shenzhen City

Shenzhen was a simple fishing village until it was awarded Special Economic Zone (SEZ) status in 1980 and was developed into economic hub. With its new status and proximity to Hong Kong, Shenzhen has become a commercial success with glittering hotels and high rise office blocks. People are drawn to Shenzhen from all over China by the prospect of making money in the many factories and companies in the SEZ. Unfortunately this rapid modernisation and development has resulted in the loss of cultural heritage and charm that many smaller Chinese cities, like Lanzhou still manage to maintain. Although I enjoyed the good weather, lush scenery and the fact that I could pop over to Hong Kong for a day or weekend, I did not particularly enjoy my time in Shenzhen. 

Tsinghua Experimental School

Experimental? An unfortunate name, I know! I assure you there was no non-academic related testing of children on site!

Tsinghua Experimental School, established by Tsinghua University, offers primary and secondary education to Chinese and international students in the Boa’an district of Shenzhen. The school was set up in 2001 and currently has more than 6000 students and 600 staff members. It was very different to any of the private language schools that I had worked at before, but was very similar to our equivalent of a primary to secondary school in South Africa. Once again, I was fortunate to work with an interesting and diverse group of teachers from China, New Zealand, England, America, Australia and the Philippines. 

I taught English at primary and secondary school level in both the main stream and international sections of the school using English First course materials. In the international section, I taught students from Hong Kong, South Korea, Canada, Australia and Malaysia. These students had either accompanied their parents who were working in China or had been sent to the school as boarders. I loved the challenge of teaching English to multilingual primary and secondary students.

Tsinghua Experimental School (Source: tsinghua.coachdevelop.com)

China is an amazing country full of contrasts – picturesque rural landscapes and high-rise cityscapes; rich cultural heritage and cutting edge technology and development. It is a fascinating place for anyone keen on a bit of adventure! There’s no better way to experience China and Chinese culture than by living there and teaching English at one of the many schools and universities across the country.

Our next article will cover Haydn’s experiences of living and working in Poland. Look out for this article on the Wits Language School website or in the next LTE newsletter.

Useful resources and links:
Lanzhou general information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanzhou
EF English First: http://www.englishfirst.com/index.html
Shenzhen general information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shenzhen
Tsinghua Experimental School: http://www.tsinghuaschool-sz.com/

River Town: Two years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler
Meanwhile don’t push and squeeze: A year of life in China by Robert Berold
The Little Red Book: Teaching ESL in China by Susan and Frank Black