Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Culture Corner: First Culture Corner

This is the very first culture corner post I made.  Prior to moving to Wuxi and beginning a job at Jiangnan University, I cut my teeth in the Spartan conditions of Nanjing Normal University.  Without further ado, here it is:

Many of you have asked what exactly I do. I am an employee of Nanjing Normal University.  (Don't ask what "Normal" means.  I just know there is a plain Nanjing University.  Does that insinuate mine is abnormal?  You figure it out.)  My official title is "Foreign Expert" - at least according to my Chinese visa, though I am just a teacher.  I teach at the university's central campus - it has several throughout Nanjing - and it is beautiful.  If you want to see photos, go to:  All of its buildings are old and have roofs with the architectural style I  associated with China prior to arrival: curved green tile with eaves upturned at the corners like the prows of ships. 

The inside of the buildings are far less ornate, however, entirely opposite, in fact.  My classroom is a concrete shoebox with white-washed walls that echo, and is entirely bare except for desks and a chalkboard.  (Yes, I teach using a chalkboard.)  It's a bit drafty, and as the heating system is… non-existent, we've had class this winter in our jackets and gloves.  The plus side of my building’s interior is that on the floor above are the fine arts for music rooms.  All class long, the tinkle of classical piano and strains of violins can be heard in the background, which does something to ease the chill.

I teach almost 20 hours per week, Monday through Friday, needing only a few more hours outside of class for preparation - I am an "expert" after all, and all of this at the fantastic rate of $6/hr.  (By the end of my ten months here I will have grossed about $4,000 USD.  $400/month, not bad!!)  

My class is composed of seven, sometimes eight, sometimes nine, sometimes two students who want to study in an English speaking country next year, but first need to pass an English entrance exam.  This is where I come in. I'm responsible for their English, with my main goal being to improve their speaking and listening skills.  I do this by speaking and listening.  Aside from this, four of the twenty hours per week are used for "English Culture", which pretty much gives me free reign.  As I am always trying to get them to speak, I use this time to satisfy my curiosity by asking them questions about their own culture and then compare their replies to Western culture. I have learned a lot this way.  (Ground tiger bones are apparently a good aphrodisiac.)  Thankfully they have a Chinese teacher to teach them grammar and vocabulary, otherwise they'd be teaching me.

My students speak fairly good English, some are better, some are slightly worse, and as I see them almost every day, they have become my family.  It remains to be seen if they'll pass the entrance exam, but all of them could feed and shelter themselves in the Western world if thrust into it; we are always able to - at the very least – communicate something, anything, a word, a sound, a grunt.  At first they were shy, but now they are a fun group who are discovering their freedom in much the same way we did when we were first out of high school and starting university.  And as they love to laugh, it works out well, because as you know, I tell bad jokes.
Their English names are Yoyo (she knew it was a toy), Kevin (a girl who wanted to keep the name even after I told her it was a boy's name; I now think nothing of calling her Kevin), Cherry, Fred, Peter, Stephy, and Waylen (he was the only one who didn't have an English name, so I gave him a list of choices, the singer of the Dukes of Hazzard theme being the inspiration for my/his choice).  If he feels like coming and is not ultra-confident he'll pass the exam (he won't), C.S. will also join us.  And, if his father breathes down his neck, Hank will also make a once per month appearance.

Their Chinese names are even better, believe it or not.  Like Native American names, they actually mean something, unlike, for example, John Anderson.  (Son of Ander, whose Ander?)  When translated, I have a Yellow Happy-Continent, Leaf Favor, Post Very-Happy, Display Quiet, Circumference Meteor-Shower, King Clever, and Line Snow-Beautiful as students.

So that's it, the basics of my life as a teacher.  Any questions?  (See, that was one of those bad teacher jokes.)

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