TESOL Thoughts

Reflections on Teaching and Learning

A Mental Image Bound to Change (Think of as the “Before” Picture)

n a little over a month, I will be leaving Seattle to teach for 4 months in Hefei, China. This will be my first time in Asia and the first time I’ll be in a culture that is very different to anything I’ve experienced before. Or so I’ve been told. After working with so many students from China this past year and a half, I’ve become eager to learn about the ways in which people go about their daily life in China, how they participate in their communities, the role of women in their family and among coworkers, and well, just experience what China feels like! Most importantly though, I’m excited about learning firsthand what education may look at the secondary level. What an amazing opportunity I’ll have by being at a Chinese high school and getting to live what a regular school day is like.

The world of education in China is all very new and fascinating to me. When I first began my MA program in TESOL, I had several classmates participating from Asia (Korea, Vietnam, Japan), but I don’t recall anyone being in China. Still, one thing that caught my attention was how strikingly different my colleagues experiences sounded to my own. I have to admit that I was also a bit distrustful when reading about how students in Asia (big sweeping generalization) were quiet, passive, and prone to memorizing everything. Could it really be that everyone there acted that way? Sometimes some of the differences mentioned sounded downright racist to me, like ‘we’ had some sort of superior way of learning and teaching. I know most of my classmates did not mean this, but that’s how it felt to me at the time.

A year and a half ago, when I began working with international students at a community college, I started hearing more and more about the differences in teaching and learning styles between Asia and the US. I kept thinking, “Could it really be that we are all that different?”

While I would say that I relate to my Chinese students differently than to my former Colombian students, I’ve tried to avoid making too many generalizations or stereotyping any group. How much of these differences can be attributed to my own ways of interacting with people after all?

Sure, the students I worked with in Colombia would always interrupt, I mean, interject with their opinions in class and many tried to find creative ways to go about their work by always personalizing it. Something that does not always happen with my current students. However, the Asian students I met my first quarter at the community college also had their own strong opinions and different approaches to conducting a task. They were perhaps quieter, but if given the chance to talk in small groups, students had lots to say. Moreover, when talking informally with them after class, they didn’t seem that different to many domestic students I’ve met. 

So why is it that deep down these comparisons between domestic students and Asian students bothers me?

For one, the “othering” that goes along with being quick at pointing at our differences doesn’t seem constructive. At some point it’s like we forget we probably share many common personality traits. I’m also afraid that doing this also hurts our ability to feel empathy and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Deep down, it all comes down to my strong belief that we all share common behaviors as human beings and our differences aren’t that divisive anyways. 

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Why not focus instead on finding similarities and creating a smoother path for us to meet our needs at the middle of the road?

So, that is what I’ve set myself to do now. Instead of looking for differences between China and the US (or Italy, or Colombia –my other home countries), I will look for similarities. I will try to find ways in which I can relate much better to the people out there by sharing our commonalities. 

There is something beautiful and moving about discovering a new place and comparing our first impressions to that mental image we had created before getting there. Often, before setting out on any trip to a place I haven’t been to before, I try to envision what it will look like. How will the people be? How will the streets I will walk by every day look and smell? Will I make new friends? Will navigating through the city be challenging, or will I feel at ease? 

Thanks to all the helpful comments from coworkers who have already been to the school I am going to, and thanks also to my former students, I have a rich mental image of what life might be like in Hefei. Of course, I also expect it all to change, and to change me as I take it all in. This must be why I love teaching. Every day I get to design a plan, envision what it could be like, and go in a classroom to see it all change, changing me along the way. Teaching, like traveling, is often one big adventure with detours and new stops found along the way. Let’s see where these new few months take me!

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