Veronica Colgrove '12: Waigs, Taigs and Teacher V
Veronica Colgrove was one of the 2012-2014 Shansi Fellows at Shanxi Agricultural University. This is her second year narrative.
waigs* (n.) – an abbreviation of waiguoren (外国人) or “foreigner,” “person from outside the country.”
Taigs* (n.) – an abbreviation of Taigu (太谷), the small town setting for my China experience.
Teacher V (n.) – the persona that I adopt when teaching my classes. She dresses distinctly better than Staying-in-the-House V.
*Particular to the speech of Taigu waigs; not used by other expats.
Teacher V is a curious person. She is a mix of qualities from opposite sides: the admirable teacherly qualities that I try to remember and those bad habits that I just can't get rid of. For example, I pace in front of the grad students and if I'm not careful, it becomes a continuous dance of back and forth across the classroom. Bad habit.
One teacher habit for which I congratulate myself is playing music for the undergrads before class, and also at the breaks. The undergrad classroom has a computer for me and a monitor for every student, although these monitors come with three little walls around its desk space, putting every student in a neat little box. I play music as my freshman enter the classroom. It's fun, energizing, and when the music ends—silence and rapt attention!
I love being a teacher. I love making jokes with my students. I love when they react to something I say. I love working out new ways to explain ideas. In my second year, already having a feel for the words my students know (“insect” yes, “bug” no), the grammar they do and don't understand, the activities they do and don't like, I've improved as a teacher. I love that I get instant feedback from my students regarding the quality of a lesson; it's so obvious to see what material and activities are and aren't meaningful to them. My favorite lessons start off with confused or disgruntled looks—the students don't believe my topic or instructions for the activity will be useful or fun—and then eventually progress to intense conversation, focus, or laughter as the students find something in the topic that is important to them. When students have something they feel strongly about, worries about appearing knowledgeable melt away and often their speech becomes easier to understand. Each class has a different personality, and I love crafting different approaches for each class.
Teacher V is a little strict. She dresses up for class. She will take your cell phone. If you don't know a question, she requires you to say “I don't know” instead of waiting in silence. (She will however, always follows your vocalization with “That's okay! Let's find someone to help us.”) Unless it is a subjective question, in which case, you don't get off so easily. My rules are a little confusing at first because the things I do and don't accept are different, in some cases completely opposite, from the other Chinese teachers. I don't require you to stand up when you answer a question, and I certainly don't mind if you are confused. One apology does not excuse copying and I'm very good at recognizing plagiarism. One student turned in a poem with several lines from a treasured Disney movie. Oh student, my memory for Disney lyrics is unparalleled.
I require you to be on time, unless you have a good reason. One student wrote that being on time was the number one thing she learned in my class. I require you to inform me before you are absent, unless you have a good reason. I require that you do not translate in your friend's ear while I talk with him or her. This drives me crazy. You may not clip your nails in class. This also drives me crazy and I have taken away three pairs of nail clippers to date. (Like seriously, who thinks that's okay??)
Teacher V, I'll flatter myself, is humorous. She draws horrendously bad pictures and sings out “How beautiful!” She drops the chalk (#accident) and gives ridiculous examples. She makes the students stretch on rainy days. She mimes things—all the things. She's got that “English Teacher” voice—slow, precise enunciation, even pitch, simple words and grammar.
Giving instructions on improving student writing is tricky because there are some English details, stylistic and grammatical, that are taught by other Chinese teachers or textbooks that are odd, unnatural and sometimes just plain wrong. I don't want to undermine these other teachers and often the single essay pattern my students learn is the only accepted pattern they can use on their mandatory English exams. In fact, students get points when they use key phrases: On the one hand...on the other, On the contrary, Until now, In a word, As is known to all, Generally speaking, Every coin has two sides, etc. Points are awarded based on frequency, not correctness of usage. Every essay sounds a group call for improving moral fiber. The point of the essay is to fold every story, every event into the larger pattern of bettering and fitting into society.
My freshmen showed me their grammar exam recently:
10. Choose the correct answer.
I ________________________ improving my moral quality for the better.
A. was and always will be C. had been and always have to be
B. am and always have been D. am and always were
13. Choose the correct answer.
Although concerned about the world, China __________ the first to use nuclear weapon*.
A. will never be C. will never been
B. can never be D. will not be
*I am not missing an 's'; along with many others, this typo is directly from the test.
I've explained the changes I want them to make by blaming it on my foreign weirdness. I tell them to follow the books and examples they receive...except for the homework they give me and anything else they address to another foreigner. I've never figured out exactly how to fix the lack of specificity that bothers me in the homework I receive. I do however have a list that targets some of the slightly smaller but still prevalent, general problems. This list includes:
Do not use “In a word” for your conclusion. It's weird, and grammatically incorrect to use many words after it.
Take out phrases like “As is known to all/As we all know” because if everyone knows this, you don't need to repeat it to me.
“And, But, So” should not begin a sentence. This one is nearest and dearest to my heart. Most of my students think And, But and So are meant to begin a sentence and their textbooks echo this. While I break this rule myself sometimes, I do so for emphasis with a clear(er) understanding of the tone and effect my sentences have on another English speaker.
“Every coin has two sides/Everything has good and bad” should never appear in their writing to a foreigner. Stock phrases and proverbs should be taken out. Be original; foreigners like original writing.
I often write on homework “Do not include morals.” Students will write a movie review, a happy memory or a random story about a spaceship, but the conclusion is always the same. “We must always persist to do our best.” “We can never give up on our dream. Come on!” “Do not give up on your dream and insist to do better.” I never have, however, found a way to explain to the class exactly what I object to in the generic moralizing vagaries they've had to memorize and repeat to every other teacher, test and proctor.
Teacher V is also Taiguren V (Taigu Local), who is also Waiguoren V (Foreigner). Crafting Teacher V has been so much fun. Discovering Local and Waiguoren V has been a confusing process. Often I feel I am an observer of this process; something happens, my stomach jerks with an unpleasant scrunchy feeling, and I think “Where is that coming from?” It's been a struggle to draw the line between what I am and am not willing to change, let go of, adapt to. Local and Waiguoren V are both comfortable in Taigu. They both love being in Taigu and the friends, the job that comes with it. But often they want to be treated in different ways.
Example: Local V does not like being addressed in English except by her English students. She throws up her hands after having a Chinese conversation that is followed by the question “Do you speak Chinese?” Waiguoren V however, throws up her hands when people address her in Taigu Language. When natives from the next town over don't understand Taigu Language, she thinks, how on earth can people think I might? Especially when the question (eventually expressed in more standard Mandarin) turns out to be “Can you handle our food?” I'm the largest person in the store; what other food would I eat?
It is a wrenching process to figure out what aspects of my culture, background, opinions etc I can and cannot give up. My conception of courtesy and manners has expanded and in some ways become more formal. I find it much easier to ask for help, something that my American sensibilities often found too embarrassing. Appropriate restaurant behavior has been thrown completely out the window because when your fish comes with tiny bones, not swallowing those tiny bones is the only priority. In many ways I have become more patient and tolerant.
But in other ways, my personality has hardened, and not just because you have to shout and push for any service. Age and gender are weighted more significantly in Taigu, a rural town with a college that collects students mostly from other rural towns. As a young woman, it is assumed my primary concern is getting married before I turn 28 and “expire.” It is assumed that I will follow where my husband's career takes us. It also means that some male students, especially the older ones, find it difficult to follow directions or accept rules, even when they are in the wrong. To be corrected by a female who is younger is an embarrassing loss of face, particularly in a disciplinary matter. I find it difficult to answer when my students ask if I want to marry a Chinese man (they ask this every time I let them ask me questions) because all I can think of is my female Chinese friends who don't travel, don't go shopping, or even leave the dorm because their boyfriend who lives in another city said it isn't safe and he doesn't like it.
People assume things about me because I'm female (that I'm too scared to do anything by myself), because I'm a foreigner (that I don't know how to do anything by myself), because I'm an American (that I'm rich, eat only hamburgers and pizza, and have a constant string of boyfriends). These assumptions can be funny, irritating or just plain weird. One woman tried to keep me from buying shampoo because “Foreigners don't use shampoo.” Turns out I'd previously bought conditioner there and she assumed I only used conditioner. One of the hardest things to keep in mind is that all these assumptions don't actually matter. I don't have to let them affect my mood or my anything. I don't have to assume that everyone giggling or talking is doing so because of me...but I usually do. When I go back to America, I won't be this special face, this fascinating creature. I'm excited; it's the number two thing I anticipate (number one is burritos.)
I'm going to miss the special privileges that come with my foreignness—being able to get around certain rules and prices because I stick out. Avoiding things I don't want to do by pretending I don't understand (I never have to check my bag at the supermarket and, ok, I really should, but I know I'm not going to steal anything and I thought at first I'd have to pay for the locker.) Getting special offers like being in a movie or our infamous wedding dress photo shoot that is currently trending on the university's version of Facebook. The reality is that I stick out, and dealing with it means building it into my life and working with the reactions I get.
Taigu is dirty and dusty. The buildings are stark, the best food comes from stalls that look like one good wind would finish them, and little babies pee on every sidewalk. I get jealous of my friends in other larger cities—Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. They can get Doritos. They can buy coffee that comes from coffee beans and not little milk-tea packets. They can walk down the street without the trail of gapes, giggles, pointing, “foreigner!” and half-whispered “Hallooooo”s. Yet I'm very proud of my experience in Taigu; I'm proud that I arrived with no friends and now have close Chinese friends. I'm proud that when Chinese people talk about me or point, I can put away the rage that arose last year and have moved on to exchanging a few words. When people, foreigners or Chinese, ask me what I'm doing in Taigu, I answer that “I'm teaching,” but the smile I save for myself is that really I'm just living. That's my favorite answer. Not visiting or traveling, not having some grand expatriate experience disconnected from my “real life” or “real world.” I'm very proud that I can say Taigu became my new normal.
I leave you, dear, dear reader, with questions from my grad students on our last day together, a free-discussion class. I can't speak to the quality of my responses, but they addressed the large points that I've been struggling to tackle as I move out of #13 Foreign Expert House and into the larger world.
You've been in China for many years. Do you have some sense of belonging to China?
I have a sense of comfort and familiarity living in China. I love that I've been able to carve out a life beyond a grand expatriate adventure that presumes this country is here just for the purpose of teaching me. I can recognize Taigu as a normal place with reasons behind even those aspects that I don't like. I do however know that no matter how long I stayed in China, no matter how good my Chinese became, no matter if I married a Chinese national (a question my students love to ask), even if I acquired citizenship through mystic wizardry (we're not sure this is possible for someone with no Chinese heritage, but I'd guess no), I would never be regarded as truly belonging. No matter my level of language, cultural and historical understanding, or even if I felt that I belonged in some small way to China, China would never return that feeling.
This is a complicated question for me. To make Taigu my home, even for the short time of two years, I've had to claim Taigu in a way I did not have to claim Cincinnati or Oberlin. I lived in those places so I belonged. In Taigu however, being more than the “foreign guest” requires a conscious choice to become active in and knowledgeable about the things that happen around you. It's easy to stay in the foreigner bubble. It's difficult to get involved when everyone expects you to stay in that bubble (you're a foreigner after all, and have different habits, hobbies and requirements.) It's necessary, when you walk down the street, to think “I know what I'm doing and I belong here.” Realizing that Taigu is also your space is, I think, necessary for a fulfilling experience. It means getting out of the game where you're behind, without the language, customs, or friends to have what you want. It means making your own set of rules and requirements for your life there and not holding yourself to the life that other people think you have. Taigu became my home because I had to work for it, choose it in spite of people on both sides of the ocean calling it a layover.
What's the most significant thing for you about your life in Taigu?
When a student produces something great in my class. Sometimes this is from an activity or lesson, sometimes it comes purely from a thought that a student brought in and spoke. The idea that my class and our time together either guided a student to something meaningful or at least provided him or her with a space in which to express what they already had...that idea is the best feeling in the world, worth a million trips up a beautiful mountain or to exotic beaches.
What do you think about Chinese students?
At first, I had no response—all my answers were unflattering. In my second year, I've been able to appreciate that Chinese students are much more forgiving of their teacher, particularly since in this case, their teacher is unexperienced and sometimes has bad lesson plans. They expend significant time and energy to show that they care about me. They're less jaded than American students (or at least less than their American teacher). They are very moved or affected by stories, poetry or beautiful sights. I started writing sad faces on lazy homework which has produced much more effort than simply writing 10%. Chinese students are always willing to sing a song for the class. They're gracious when I forget something or make a thousand mistakes, forgiving and gracious no matter what I do, in ways that I as an American was not.
Do you think you will come back to China?
Definitely. No question.