I’m thrilled to feature another guest blog post by Ali Swanson. Although she and I were friends in middle and high school, we drifted apart after we went away to college. Unbeknownst to either of us, we ended up in Southeast Asia in the early 1990s and in China in the mid-90s. Funny how fate works sometimes.
Here Ali writes about her year out in the middle of Shandong province:
In the fall of 1995, I embarked on a year-long English teaching stint at the Teacher’s University of Qufu (Qufu Shifan Daxue) in the middle of Shandong province.
I got this gig through Skidmore College in upstate New York. The College would send a handful of Engligh teachers to two universities in China and those two universities would send Chinese classical art and music teachers to Skidmore.
Qufu is a tiny dot on the map, 10 hours southeast of Beijing, in the middle of nowhere. Qufu’s claim to fame, however, is that it’s the birthplace of Confucius (in Chinese “Kong Zi“).
I arrived in Beijing alone, but met up with five other instructors–all from the US. We boarded a train and traveled “hard sleeper” (literally lightly cushioned hard wood slabs stacked three to a wall upon which one person sat or slept) from Beijing to the provincial capital of Jinan. From there we traveled “hard seat” (no cushioning here) for two hours to Qufu.
We were all housed at the back of an “international” hotel. The Chinese government back then wasn’t pleased with the idea of foreigners mingling with Chinese nationals. I was quite okay with that as our apartments were furnished and spacious (2 bedrooms each!). We were each allotted a propane cook stove, boombox-style radio, TV, a small washing machine, and two hot water thermoses. There was running water, but you couldn’t drink it. The hot water thermoses were put out each morning and afternoon, and were filled by the young girls who acted as maids, bellhops, etc. at the hotel.
The English Department was a shock compared to the relative luxury of our apartments. The buildings were old, maybe 30-40 years old, with dim lighting and numerous windows missing panes. I had five classes of about 26-40 students per class–all freshman English majors, all preparing to be English teachers.
Chinese schooling in that part of the country divided up languages into their component parts: reading comprehension, listening skills, speaking, and writing. I technically taught reading comprehension and listening skills, but there is, in my opinion, no way to teach one without the other.
My listening classes were held in an outdated, but spacious, language lab with individual booths for each student. The Department owned a rather battered (and pirated!) copy of an Australian English as a Foreign Language program. I was obligated, at least in the beginning, to use the recordings to instruct the students. As you can imagine, after hundreds of playbacks, cassette tapes develop drops, and the words on them become incomprehensible. Ours had become a slur of twangy Australian English that even I couldn’t decipher.
It wasn’t until midway through the year that I got creative and borrowed a tape recorder from the Department. I decided to make my own tapes. There was an extensive English language library filled with the left-behinds of every English instructor who came before me. I borrowed poetry books, prose, and plays, and recorded as much as I could, trying to give an even sampling of the British and American works available.
In my zeal for exposing the students to as much as possible, I also read the “breaking news” blurbits out of the front section of The Economist (I had begged my mother for a subscription. It was the only Western magazine allowed in besides Newsweek). My students loved it; they would come with their own cassette tapes and record my recordings!