Our life in Urumqi

For all that’s on the blog now, we still haven’t said anything much about what we do in Xinjiang.

Maybe it’s just something that is so much a part of our daily lives now that it’s in the background and therefore not worth commenting upon. Well, we’re ‘foreign experts’ (true, our visas say so) and are here teaching oral (snigger) English. Basically, we get paid 3-4 times local wages to make noises (see Logic post) at kids and confuse them with our incomprehensible use of articles (a, an, the). We teach kids from the ages of 3 (pointless) to 12 (annoying) at a language training school which, as we have discovered, doesn’t actually have a license to do what it’s doing. In other countries this might prove a major operational problem, but, fortunately, we’re in China – land of the bribe – which makes these things easier. We’re just asked to disappear whenever official-types are coming over. (At least, this was the case six months ago, I hope things have moved along a little now)

A typical working week involves stressful weekends and chilled weekdays. Now that I’ve installed the VPN onto our work computers, it also means we can play on Facebook and Youtube all day. In that respect, it’s a sweet deal.

For the first few months we had to attend weekly staff meetings, but after repeated instances of the foreign staff blatantly sleeping through them, we don’t have to do this anymore. That’s great for us. Watching motivational video clips of soaring eagles to the ubiquitously cutesy music they prefer here begins to grate after a couple of weeks. Although, it was interesting to postulate as to why Chinese companies go in for weekly classes in ritual humiliation. Every week some poor schmuck has to get up and do a song and dance routine. Weird. (Some of the dances better belonged on certain stages in King’s Cross; it is profoundly strange to watch the quiet girl behind the reception desk grind her arse in the marketing guy’s face two hours before the kids start showing up for evening classes: Ange)

Anyway, back to what we do. Essentially, despite being called away to do class, my real job is lesson planning. This is much more intellectually draining than it sounds. For example, I’ve had the same class of three olds since I got here and each week it takes just that little bit longer to work out what to do with the wee … darlings. Exhibit A refuses to sit down for anything longer than 11 seconds. Exhibit B doesn’t like playing with the other kids. Exhibit C is moderately retarded. And the other five are basically ok. Latest epiphany? Don’t plan lessons for this class, the agents of chaos won’t notice in any case. What I have now is a list of games that may or may not work. Quite how you spin out 90 minutes on the word ‘dog’ still gets to me…

What makes lesson planning more problematic is twofold: games and phonics. The foreigner in China is expected to be cool, fun. This means that we play games. New games. More games. EVERY WEEK. Management fails to see that while games may be fun they must be integrated into a suitable teaching pattern or nothing is absorbed and retained. That they occasionally go slightly mad and inexplicably ban good games (like those the kids really enjoy and use lots of language in) messes with our heads no end. As such, coming up with new games occupies a fair percentage of our thinking time.

As things are, it is down to our co-tutors (local staff) to help in game development. Thus far, this has meant that Angela’s games are repackaged and given to me and mine are repackaged and given to her. Like we’ve said elsewhere, imagination, creativity and independent thought are not cherished ideals in the Middle Kingdom. Here’s a typical example:

Co-tutor: ‘Angela, I have a new game to try’.

Angela: ‘Cool, what is it?’

CT: explains.

A: ‘Oh, you mean the game that Ian plays?’

CT: ‘Hmm, yes’.

(Then: “Ian, I know she tried to explain it but it didn’t make much sense, bless her. What exactly is it that you do with them???” Ange)

Obviously, this has something to do with all that harmony stuff. In the six months we’ve been working at this centre, maybe 3 (at best) original new games have been suggested to us. Two have been variations on ‘how can we get the kids to say their names so that it takes up 15 minutes and they don’t learn anything new today’ and one has been really good, i.e., knots and crosses on the whiteboard with a sticky ball.

The other thing, phonics, is terrible. The Chinese are taught using rote learning. This means that they’re very good at retaining lots of words but have absolutely no idea whatsoever as to how to put them together and make a cogent sentence. ‘Dog, cow, finger, cake, football, tree,’ while all valid, useful words, do not a sentence make. This is where phonics come in. Forget phonetics, that’s the useful flipside of phonics. Phonics are ineffectual noises. The kids learn the noises. No context is given and no thought extended to concept checking or understanding. Nice English noises. Very important, we’re constantly told. FRIGGING USELESS!!! It’s frustrating. But hey, when in Rome and all that jazz. Quite often, the learning of English is considered more of a prestige thing, something that denotes affluence and affirms ‘face’. Therefore, being able to make noises in English, if convincing enough to sound like linguistic ability, is good enough for most people. And it’s true, parents complain if their kids don’t learn new noises every week. That the child can actually put a sentence together doesn’t interest them. No, ‘Cat, uncle, triangle, coin, yellow, coconut, doctor, kitchen’ is of much more interest. This isn’t true of all the parents, of course, but enough to make teaching some kids futile.

The kids themselves are like kids anywhere. Some are entertaining, some will end up in jail, some are plain old stupid and others fall into a general category of ‘yeah, that’s a kid’. At the younger ages our classes are much more exercises in socialization as many kids don’t get to play with their contemporaries until hitting primary school. It’s one of the problems the one child policy has created. Kids are spoilt to such an extent that their little egos can’t cope with other kids getting attention as they’ve never had to compete for it before. If there’s one thing foreign teachers can do in China it’s in helping kids develop skills in teamwork and empathy – things otherwise severely lacking in education here.

On the empathy side, one of the strangest aspects of teaching to get used to is the lack of interest most kids show in their crafts and artwork. Very often, they will simply show their creations to teacher and then leave them behind. Their parents never get to see them. Sadly, even when the parents do see their offspring’s mess they don’t give any expression of praise. Sometimes you see the kids visibly soak up this rejection and store it away inside themselves. Quite why this is the case, I cannot even begin to fathom. It’s rather sad.

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