Reflections on Teaching in Chongqing, 2007-2008
By Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
On August 31, 2007, I landed at Jiangbei airport outside Chongqing, China. Through the overhanging mist and pollution of the Yangzi River, I saw large, pulsating, neon advertising signs. As I got into the waiting car with my luggage, I found myself seeking consolation from past Passionist and Chinese history. First, I said a silent prayer to Passionist Fathers Cormac Shanahan (1899-1987) and Caspar Caulfield (1908-1993). I sought their wisdom since they both lived in Chongqing (Chungking) during the 1940s when it was the war-time capital of the Chinese Nationalist Government under Chiang Kai-shek. Next, the more I spoke Chinese, the more my confidence increased. I thanked myself for all those years of studying Chinese language and history. By 10 P.M. I was unpacking my luggage in my campus apartment at Sichuan International Studies University (SISU) in Chongqing. I was now an expert foreign teacher. My site placement had been coordinated by the AITECE (Association for International Teaching Educational and Curriculum Exchange) Teachers Program. AITECE places teachers in Chinese universities. I sent my resume and AITECE made contact with SISU, which concentrates on language studies.
The next day, September 1 at 10 A.M., a representative of the SISU English Department welcomed me with the news that two days later, Monday, September 3, from 8:30 to 10 P.M., I would commence teaching international relations "hot topics" to about 80 students. On Tuesday, September 4, from 12:30 to 2 P.M., I would begin lectures on U.S. history (with one class on modern Canadian, English, and Australian history) to about 150 students. Then, two weeks later, I was to start my Spoken English class for five sections of freshmen SISU students—about 25 students per class.
The spoken English classes for freshmen allowed me some fascinating moments. Almost 90 percent of my students were girls because modern Chinese culture supports the idea that girls will go into teaching, so English language skills would be useful. Others, of course, hope to use English for business and have a good job for themselves. At least 20 percent of my students have a brother or sister, but the rest are from single child families. Chinese students love their parents and extended family. They were always on time for class and polite. Steeped in Confucian tradition, teachers still command respect. Even today the Chinese education system, especially on the pre-university level, promotes memorization. Chinese students have to endure many tests. Generally, students do want to succeed in school and are excited to have a foreign English teacher. All students select a foreign name in the language they study. My students selected names such as Cloud, Number 26, YoYo, or Andrew. Honestly, while these freshmen students spoke English better than I expected, I still faced many individual challenges as a teacher.
The story of three students (I will not use their real names) will help you understand my experience. Fortune, a quiet boy, usually offered me a kind smile when I asked him to speak English. With calm consistency I told him I wanted to see him do more than smile, I wanted to hear him speak! Ever so slowly he gained confidence. By the time the semester came to an end, he still always smiled, but in class he had developed skills that let him offer personal opinions and speak with his classmates. Outside of class, he walked up to me and had an English conversation about what he will eat and the events of the day. Approximately 10 percent of my students were like him. Teaching them is very important and personal. Crystal is another student. She always offered her opinion. With ease, she spoke about the Internet, U.S. movies, and world wide news events. She used new vocabulary in group discussion. She was confident in role-playing as a businesswoman or news reporter. She was like 80 percent of my students they were like intellectual sponges. All these students were not shy in that they knew the best way to learn was to speak, listen, write, and use English whenever possible. They enjoyed English and worked hard. The last 10 percent of students were the smartest. They were like Kobe. I found them in my class, or I sometimes met them on the SISU campus or even in the city of Chongqing. They all had motivation to speak their mind or just walk up to me and ask for help with English. Their perseverance to learn and desire to take on special projects or debates actually challenged and inspired me. Students' questions made a walk around the SISU campus or a bus ride into downtown Chongqing a memorable experience. So many of these students had a passion to study and overcome any personal cross which prevented them from learning English. They saw language and learning as an adventure.