Teaching in China

Adjusting to the stares, attention, and the endless fascination with exotic Western Women

By Charlotte Turner

charlotte in china
Charlotte Turner with her students in Beijing

If you are looking for a unique way to live and breathe an alternative culture, let me tell you now; teaching English as a second language is one way to do it. I taught six hundred Chinese students under the age of eleven every week, and it provided me with a truly unparalleled insight into an often misunderstood culture.

The tourist’s view of Beijing is generally limited to four-star hotels, restaurant prices typically set at ten times more than the average local restaurant, and carefully orchestrated tours by tour guides with strict instructions as to what they can and cannot show their tour group.

As a resident of the country’s capital city for one academic year, I saw a side of Beijing and its residents that has only recently become available to a growing number of University graduates, as China opens its doors and welcomes the arrival of foreigners in their bid to improve their world-wide reputation in time for the 2008 Olympic games.

During my year in Beijing, I came across cultural differences every day, some of them funny, most of them frustrating, all of them perplexing at first. But throughout the year, I gradually learnt that I needed to change the way in which I dealt with Chinese people and the situations that I faced, and by doing this, I would also enjoy my time in Beijing a whole lot more.

Forty Chinese Students

The first day that I walked into a classroom, I was confronted with forty Chinese students, most of whom looked considerably younger than their seven years, and all of whom looked amazed to be in the presence of a real, live Westerner.

As the classroom door opened their jaws dropped, and in walked a young slim Western woman with dyed blond hair, who is slightly below average height by Western standards, (which translates to tall by Asian standards). They sat there aghast.

Given the age of my students, I was not wholly surprised by this initial reaction, but was somewhat surprised that this interest did not abate as the year continued, and was not merely confined to the students. Every action I did was greeted with surprise, from blowing my nose to taking off my coat. From students and colleagues to passers-by in the street, everyone in that small district of suburban Beijing took what I felt to be an unprecedented interest in my every move.

Source of Baffling Amusement

I also proved to be a source of baffling amusement to the other teachers when they witnessed my teaching style, or when I reported any concerns I had regarding individual students after class. At first, their descriptions of me as such a gentle and caring teacher astounded me, as I could not see how I was acting in an exceptional manner.

But after observing the way in which the Chinese teachers dealt with their students, it became apparent to me why this was, and why this resulted in my lessons being noticeably more rowdy than my Chinese colleagues’ classes.

My lessons, guided by the course-book provided by the school as well as my own desire to have fun with my students, involved active student-participation, songs, games, drawing pictures, and discipline only when a student was behaving badly and not when they had made a mistake.

In contrast to Western methods, the Chinese method of education consisted of repetition, harsh discipline and punishment, and questioning the teacher’s authority was simply unacceptable. The Chinese teachers were like drill-sergeants; their subdued students lived in fear of stepping out of line, and the teachers concentrated on getting the lesson administered, as quickly, effectively and painlessly as possible.

The idea that the students may actually enjoy their lessons was preposterous.

No Tact or Diplomacy

One of the other cultural difficulties that I had particular trouble coming to terms with was the Chinese habit of openly stating their opinion without the need for tact or diplomacy, which can quite often come across to a Westerner as, at best amusing, or at worst, very rude.

I soon discovered that this cultural difference worked well in my favor. Western characteristics are considered to be exotic and different to Asian features, for example, blond, red or curly hair, large breasts, big colorful eyes, and pale skin. In China, I conformed to their idea of physical beauty, and this certainly helped me gain people’s immediate attention and subsequent respect.

The looks of amazement and joy that I received every day from my students’ families as I left the Primary School every lunchtime were testament to this, and were largely prompted by the fact that I “looked the part” (blond hair, pale skin, young woman – must speak English well). Not one of my student’s families could speak English, and so it would have been impossible for them to judge my teaching ability, or their child’s progress, effectively.

Through numerous experiences such as these, I gradually became aware of just how important appearances are to the Chinese, and how unashamed they are of this. In retrospect, the Chinese absence of tact and diplomacy came as a refreshing change to the West, where sometimes the continuous social need for tact often results in lies and deceit instead.

SARS Effect

The day that I left the school, (unfortunately brought forward by the SARS epidemic,) my Chinese colleagues could not understand why I was crying. I tried to explain that this was because I had enjoyed the job, liked my students and made many friends, and that I did not want to leave under these conditions. They stood there in baffled silence. They could not comprehend why I would be so sad to leave, when the decision was my choice.

The Chinese are not accustomed to the idea of choice and questioning situations or authority, and when confronted by a Westerner who had made her own decision independently of anyone else, they could not understand how this could make me sad and happy at the same time.

As the first foreigner that had ever taught at the Primary school, my presence at the school for a year exposed them to a way of thinking that they had never encountered before. I left feeling sad but honored to have enjoyed such an opportunity, and privileged to gain such a perspective into China.

Charlotte Turner
Charlotte Turner is a part-time travel writer and primary school teacher from London. She has previously taught in China and travelled throughout Asia.

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