Blame it on The Far East

From Ireland, Mary Cawley writes about her decision to teach English in China after seeing an advertisement for AITECE’s (Association for International Teaching, Educational and Curriculum Exchange) exchange programme in The Far East magazine.

Photo: Mary Cawley Photo: Mary Cawley

My mother was a subscriber to The Far East magazine through the local national school and following her death I kept up the subscription. Being newly retired, I now had time to read these publications. It was in The Far East that I read about an invitation to teach in China issued by AITECE.

I ticked all the boxes except the under 65 requirement. Incensed at this notion of life ending at 65, I put myself forward to teach in China! I was interviewed by Columban Fr Hugh MacMahon and soon after an opportunity to go to China presented itself.

I was offered a job in Chongqing teaching conversational skills to university students. I flew to Hong Kong where I was met by Columban Fr Joseph Houston and I spent a week preparing physically, mentally and spiritually for Chongqing. But I don't suppose any amount of training prepares you for the culture shock of China.

Terminal Three in Chongqing was brand new and finished even down to newly planted flowers and trees and spruce road markings. A student with very good English, Snow, met me and we took a taxi to CTBU (Chongqing Technology and Business University.) Snow is not this girl's name, but Chinese names are so difficult for foreign teachers, the students all take English names. Snow liked the story of Snow White.

Administration staff from the Foreign Office met us on arrival at the apartment which was well supplied with all I needed, and the bed was freshly made with new linen. They took me out to dinner and I encountered the rolling circular centre in the table where a variety of food is placed, and you capture whatever you fancy with chopsticks! I learned my first Chinese phrase that night. Bu Ia which means no spice! Chongqing has a reputation for hot chili type Sichuan pepper and it numbed my mouth the first time I encountered it.

September found me beginning a semester unlike any in Ireland or New York. Forty-four Accounting Majors and my Chinese co-teacher waited to see what this foreign teacher was like in a classroom with a temperature of 30 degrees plus. It took some time to assess their level of English and I found their reading and writing very good, but they had never been encouraged to speak out, so their conversational skills were lacking. Their education definitely was one-way, teachers imparting knowledge in all subjects, and testing it in written exams, with very little oral interaction.

The students are very well behaved and respectful. They are usually only children because of the one-child policy, now abandoned by the Government. They lead a very sheltered existence, and many go home every weekend. Campus life where there are four students to a bedroom dictates that doors are locked at eleven every night. Security is a constant presence everywhere. All students live on campus even if home is only ten minutes away.

They see the foreign teacher as a very welcome addition to their university. I was welcomed with shy smiles and silence and the challenge is to draw English phrases and comments from them. The students love to walk to and from the classroom with the foreign teacher, and living on campus we meet in the dining halls and around the playing fields. These are very valuable interactions because the students who hope to go overseas to study need occasions to chat casually outside of the classroom. With two other teachers I started a Tuesday night English Corner where students come, and we play games and chat while we play.

Having been invited back for a second semester, I got the same classes again and this semester I see the gradual opening up and thawing of the students. It is very rewarding work and I am constantly looking for ways to encourage and develop their oral language.

Any teacher reading this short account and needing a challenge should consider teaching with AITECE in China. It is a daily challenge well within your capability in a very safe environment and the pleasure of teaching beautifully behaved students brings back the joy of teaching.

To apply to AITECE exchange programme email Columban Fr Joe Houston: aitece@biznetvigator.com

Mary Cawley is a subscriber to The Far East magazine.

Listen to "Blame it on The Far East"

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