A friend of my son’s has just come back from an amazing time teaching english in Yangzhou, China. She very kindly offered to write about her experience and it is a fascinating read. Especially the cultural differences that she discovers when talking to her students. Most certainly confirms why we are slipping behind in the world of exam results when you read about their gruelling school regime and her photos are very evocative:-

I have a day off today while most of my Western counterparts are teaching at the school, so when I wake up I don my flip flops and raincoat and set off alone into some monsoon-style weather to get to know the small Chinese city of Yangzhou a bit better. When I say “small”, I mean by Chinese standards. With a population of over 4 million people, the city where I am spending seven weeks teaching English this summer is huge compared to the average UK city. After a morning of wandering around traditional temples and gardens, gaping at the biggest goldfish I’ve ever seen in my life and posing for awkward photographs as the token Westerner with just about every excited local I come across, I find myself at Dong Guan Street. This is the heart of Yangzhou’s ancient city and a vibrant centre that the other English teachers and I have become familiar with over the past few weeks.

dong guan street, Yangzhou

I’m immediately surrounded by a lively commotion. The streets are lined with red lanterns that will light up later on when darkness falls and vendors shout to passers-by, encouraging them to buy anything from fruit and vegetables to delicate shapes fashioned out of thin and brittle candy.

dong guan street2 Yangzhou

I stop and buy a mysterious barbecued meat on a skewer and continue walking down the ancient street, still not quite used to the wide stares and open mouths directed at me as the only Westerner in sight. I have no idea what I’m eating but it tastes pretty good. As I venture further into the blur of street stalls, shops and restaurants, I notice a pretty blue café called “The Rose Garden”, whose sign boasts a “traditional English High Tea”. I go inside, intrigued and enticed by the promise of a pot of Earl Grey with milk, a luxury I haven’t enjoyed since leaving England almost four weeks ago. And that’s where I am now, sipping from a large pink mug, listening to Blue’s “All Rise” and surrounded by more flowery crockery, colourful bunting and massive cushions than I ever have been back in good old Mother England. The table cloth resembles a Cath Kidston print and is fringed with lace, a teddy bear with a red and white scarf has been placed at the end of the table and on the wall above my head an impressive thimble collection is proudly displayed in a glass cabinet. The staff are extremely excited to have me here, most likely the first English person to have ever dropped in for a traditional English tea. So, it’s here, sitting in an over the top English enclave, surrounded by a sea of traditional Chinese culture, that I am first writing about the stark cultural differences that I have experienced since I arrived in China, noticed and commented on by all of us Westerners as we begin to integrate ourselves into life in the East.

english tea shop Yangzhou

Some of them are little things- the food, for instance. While I have personally been enjoying the exotic attacks on my taste buds and trying new things, some of my colleagues have been less lucky, feeling ill after too much oil and spice and desperately seeking out the city’s Western diners. The transport is different too. I’m still getting used to taking taxis everywhere I go for little more than 80p a journey. But I think the most interesting differences have been the cultural quirks, picked up from talking with the kids I teach, who are aged from 13 right up into adulthood and whose deadpan remarks on life in China have made me laugh out loud, gasp in surprise and brought a tear to my eye. Something we have all commented on is that these kids seem to have virtually nothing in their lives besides studying, mainly for the terrifying-sounding exams that determine which middle school they go to, then which high school and eventually which university, apparently of immense importance. Any attempt to make small talk at the beginning of a lesson with a friendly “so, what have you guys been up to?” is met with blank stares, or, if I’m lucky, a mumbled “nothing much”. Although it’s actually their summer holidays, lots of these kids come here for extra English lessons seven days a week before heading home to plough through a pile of homework.

In a lesson about “Hobbies” I ask them what they do in their free time. A sixteen year old laughs and replies: “We are Chinese students. We do not have free time.” In a lesson with a younger class we talk about aliens. One boy excitedly imagines meeting an alien who can make your dreams come true. “What dream would you ask for?” I say, expecting trips to the moon, vast amount of money or a career as a footballer. His reply is both comical and sad. “I dream I could have two days off a week!” The fact that this kid’s dream is something British kids take as a given really brings home how different the Chinese childhood is to our own. Why do they do it? A lot of the pressure seems to come from their parents. When talking about good and bad behaviour, one of my colleagues enquires if they ever tell lies. He is met with the answer that they must lie to their parents about exam results to avoid trouble. But a lot of it comes from the kids themselves. One girl describes her school day to me, which lasts from 7am to 9pm and includes just half an hour for lunch and dinner, daily tests and two hours of reading where they are made to stand to ensure that nobody falls asleep or tries to do their homework during this time. Shocked by this gruelling routine, I ask what she thinks of it. She tells me it’s both good and bad. She’s exhausted all the time, but it means she’s very close to her classmates and teachers and this way Chinese students are “the best they can be”. It seems as though exam results are the most important thing for everyone and becoming a well-rounded individual and general happiness come a long way behind.

In spite of all this the kids are sweet and good fun. They eagerly discuss the topics I suggest, classes are full of laughter and they even delight in playing the most mundane of games, like Hangman and Pictionary. Unlike a lot of English students, these ones are keen to learn, love their teachers and treat us with the utmost respect. My first three weeks of teaching in China have been a fascinating experience for me, and I hope for the kids too, as they listen intently to my descriptions of Western culture, from politics, to music and even to dating apps like Tinder… I’m looking forward to the next four weeks of this cultural exchange, sometimes tiring, sometimes bizarre and always enjoyable, and the many things I will continue to learn along the way.

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