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Beijing, MD

August 24, 2010 Leave a comment
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Rumour has it that BBC journalists are offered a single piece of advice when they arrive to cover a story in India – eat everything because you’ll get sick anyway.  The same advice can be applied to those traveling through China.

My health has taken a few knocks in China. From the usual travelers stomach to kidney stones to God knows what I’ve had mixed in my drinks in Sanlitun. For the last few months, my insistence that I cook at home following the poisoned chopsticks, poisoned napkins and oil swill horror stories that surfaced over the summer has meant that I’ve had a pretty good 8 months so far.

Then I met a child and went down with that most feared of afflictions – a summer cold. My policy on kids has always been that they’re messy, stinky, horrible little creations that only their mothers could love – there’s far too many of them, we could do with a lot less, and I’m always in the minority  when it comes to discussing this precise point.  . My experience with Chinese kids has been to steer clear of them. Few of them have heard the word “no” in their short lifetimes, and almost all of them have little or no idea of what constitutes basic hygiene. In a country where I’ve had to tell a fully grown 24 year old man to please stop picking his nose in my class, this shouldn’t be too much of a shocker.

I admit that I am somewhat biased in the negative when it comes to the Chinese attitude towards what good parenting means. I’m one of those old fashioned types who thinks that a child should not be left with grandparents or the aiyi for 16 hours a day while the mother goes off to study English. Come to think of it, I’m rather biased towards anything medically traditional in China. I think it comes from the time when I was suffering from what could only be described as “epic diarrhea” after eating chuanr of dubious origin and was subsequently given TCM that I was told would take three or four days to take effect.

Deciding that in three or four days I would be lucky to have any bones left, I went to a better pharmacy and bought some proper medicine – I asked for loperamide at the pharmacy, the chemist muttered that she didn’t know if they had it, checked and returned with handfuls of loperamide based medications – only in China can you find a pharmacist who doesn’t know what medicines they have in stock.

Those of us who have lived here for a while know the appalling state of public health.  Despite being illegal, spitting (of the FA Premier League variety) borders on becoming a Chinese custom.  Public toilets have little in the way of soap, and the hospital toilet that I went to today in order to provide a sample for the erstwhile medical professional in charge of the gastroenterology department at the Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital (which isn’t that friendly) had little in the way of running water.  On more than one occasion, I’ve seen people who in restaurants and coffeeshops enter a cubicle in a public convenience, and exit a few minutes later without washing their hands.  Grown men pick their noses, waitresses pick their feet in street restaurants and there is, what has been termed by the group of expats that I hang out with, a certain “brown smell” that lingers in the hutongs over the summer months.

It’s safe to say that public hygene is not a top priority for the Chinese.  People get sick with little regard as to why they get sick.  Public awareness of modern medicine is low, and people would rather spend money on cheaper traditional cures and folk remedies than go see a doctor.  That’s because most people don’t actually trust their doctors.  No one knows the difference between a viral and bacterial infection, and few people actually argue with their doctor when and if they think that their doctor is wrong.

It’s only when you get sick in China that the Twilight Zone sensation that you’ve learned to live with and sort of accept gets cranked up a notch. I was told during a particularly traumatic episode of diarrhea that I shouldn’t drink any water, I’m repeatedly told that drinking cold water during the summer (regularly pushing the mercury up to 35 degrees) is bad for my health – indeed, it’s even worse if you’re a woman for some unknown reason. Pregnant women shouldn’t drink icy drinks after giving birth (actually they shouldn’t shower, leave the bed or do anything that would raise their pulse about 60 beats a minute).  There’s no Casualty, or ER or even anything like The Flying Doctors on Chinese TV, and for expats the difference is palpable – no one knows anything.  If you don’t believe me, I’ll leave you with one final story –  to cure a bad hangover, I went into a pharmacy and asked for aspirin – I was  sold the morning after pill.

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A Teacher’s Life for Me

August 12, 2010 1 comment

I kinda like being a teacher. I didn’t really like it when I first started out, but then no one really does. I really like language learning, the science behind it and the various methodologies. I’ve studied 3 languages seriously and I pretty much know what works and what doesn’t. I’m moving in e-learning and I’m working with a great pool of talented Chinese programmers to create my own personal blend of language learning software.

When I first washed ashore here in 2006, my first couple of jobs were pretty patchy. I worked for a bit at a high school teaching 40 students per class, then I moved onto the rather pleasant surrounding of the Badaling Beijing Police Academy, where I chatted with the trainee police officers for a few hours a week to prepare them for meeting and greeting foreigners in 2008. Coming to China has been the best thing that I did after getting my gig at the BBC, it’s awoken a whole new passion in me for linguistics and modern learning methods.

Everything all changed when I met Wall Street – my connections with them have long since withered and died. Wall Street, are, and this is my opinion of teaching in two different countries in four years, the best English training center to work for. I’m not getting paid for any of this, it’s just the way things are. WSI give nothing but results and their material is top-notch.

I worked for Dell – now Longman Pearson – and they were awful. Awful to the point of withholding pay to make sure that I finished a course teaching business English in Shun Yi. I thought I’d hit rock bottom with Dell English, but then I started to work for my current employer.

In 2008 I worked for them, essentially because I’d met the brains behind the curriculum sometime in 2006 when I was living in a 12 bed dorm in Dazhalan desperate for work. I took the job because I needed cash and was leaving for Japan in a few months, so it didn’t really matter if I was good or bad.

I’ve been told twice by a two different managers that English teaching comes 3rd at my school. First is keeping the students happy. Of course, this can only really happen when the management are giving the teachers the material that they need to keep the students happy. A teacher can’t just launch into a lesson, and think up new and interesting “fun” things to do on the spur of the moment. The scheduling is fourth-rate. A beginner student will be booked into a advanced class, and, as happened last week, an advanced student will quite happily book himself into a Beginner One class. Beginner one classes typically consist of games of hangman, Countdown and charades.

The school essentially models itself on the WSI method. Computer studies are “backed-up” by Grammar Salons – where we teach grammar heavy lessons – material is scarce, so we mostly download lesson plans from onestopenglish.com. Social Clubs are next, which give the students a chance to talk freely on an interesting subject, the zodiac, going shopping, fashion, etc. The educational value of the social clubs is almost zero, but because there’s a lot of new vocabulary, they’re packed out by students who think that they’re going to learn English by attending them. These classes are routinely overbooked by the staff because they keep the students happy, and it’s not uncommon for a social club that’s supposed to have a 12 student limit to have to accommodate 15 students.

Student progress is monitored through “encounter” classes. The idea of the encounter is for students to jump through grammar and fluency hoops in order to prove that they have been studying. Often the classes are booked out of order, often backwards (for example, today I had a unit 9 class with one student who couldn’t speak English because the last class he took and subsequently failed was unit 1). In these classes, students are supposed to be limited to a maximum of 5. In the last 2 weeks, I’ve had at least 2 classes with 6 students in them. Why is this allowed? Because the Chinese boss says so.

Complaints about English Corners – general free-for-all English classes that anyone is free to join in – are rife, complaints about the teacher not speaking enough in Social Clubs are common. The two classes that offer the least in educational nourishment are the ones that are most complained about. Male students won’t take a downgrade to a lower level because they’ll lose face, so we’re stuck trying to educate per-intermediate students who can’t cope with intermediate subject matter.

This is the sad state of English education in the 21st century in the world’s most populous nation. A country that has taken greed, corruption and bribery and turned them into virtues. The sad fact of all of this is that there are people at this school who are going to study abroad, and these people are woefully under-equipped to get through customs. They’ve traded their life savings for an education that they believe will be life changing, but, in actual fact, will get them no further than the door.