A month from her departure for China this summer, Queen’s Grant High School teacher Jordan Frederick expected to begin her stint with the Chinese Culture and Education Center teaching content to high school students in Beijing. But less than two weeks from her trip, Frederick received news from the program director that plans had changed. Instead of teaching British Literature (a subject familiar to Frederick from her years teaching it at Queen’s Grant) in the capital city, Frederick would be teaching the same age group in an ESL setting in Shijiazhuang, the capital and largest city of China’s Hebei province.
“Am I ready to teach a class of 20-30 native Chinese speakers with some English familiarity but limited proficiency?” Frederick asked herself. “ESL is definitely outside of my comfort zone. I’ve been teaching English literature for six years, and with few exceptions, all of those students were fluent in English.”
It was the first in a month-long string of experiences that pushed Frederick out of her comfort zone as a teacher. Frederick’s teaching style, which relies on interactive projects like role playing, interviewing and dramatic presentations, was new to her Chinese teenagers. “At first it was really difficult to get them to participate,” said Frederick. “These kids are used to sitting in what we would think of as a lecture hall, and the teacher teaches to them and whenever they are called on to give an answer, they stand and they deliver their answer and sit back down . . . that kind of group blended learning that we try to do so much here – that we’re especially pushing at Queen’s Grant this year – is just beyond what they’re doing.”
Unlike American students who move from room to room for their classes, the Chinese students are assigned a classroom, and their teachers travel there to present their lessons. Their classes are very large (up to 70 students!), and they spend long days in school (until almost 5:00). At home, they shoulder a large workload, working mainly from workbooks and textbooks even over the summer.
“They were very interested to hear about American high school students, and they were just completely gobsmacked that the students went to different rooms, that the class sizes were so small, that they didn’t have homework over the summers that they had such short days,” says Frederick. “They couldn’t believe that our students use computers for their homework.”
Living in China also pushed Frederick out of her comfort zone as a traveller. “It was just so different than any other trip I’ve been on,” saysFrederick, “because of the work, because it was China, because of the length . . . We did so much in a short amount of time.” Frederick remembers being “weirded out” immediately by the toilets in China. “Squatting toilets are actually the norm,” she says. “Also, you can’t put your toilet paper in the toilet; you throw it in the trashcan.” Frederick was also shocked by the traffic and congestion in Shijiazhuang, describing it “like a mini- New York City.”
Living for a month in China and speaking virtually no Chinese was a humbling experience for Frederick. Frederick laughs as she recalls the first time she and her traveling companions ventured out on their own to a hotpot restaurant at the Wonder Mall. “Not a single server spoke English, which was both what we wanted and what we feared,” says Frederick. “Were we ordering lamb, chicken, or monkey?” After thirty minutes spent unsuccessfully trying to order food off the picture-less menu, a waitress took pity on them and attempted to translate using an app on her phone. “We ate!” said Frederick. “But it was humiliating. I’m sure they laughed at us.”
Despite a rocky first experience, the new and different foods she encountered were one of Frederick’s favorite parts of her time in China. Although she’d only eaten it once before journeying to China, Frederick developed a love of duck after being presented with a giant pot of duck heads in an area known for its Peking duck. “So we’re eating this duck head – none of us really knows how to eat a duck head – and there’s clearly an eyeball. So I turn to the guy next to me and say, “Hey, David, do you dare me to eat this duck eyeball?” says Frederick. Frederick calls the duck eyeball “surprisingly okay,” but not all her culinary adventures were met with such approval. “Fish eyeball? Not so much,” says Frederick. “Jellyfish was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was both soft and crunchy!”
Living in China for a month and speaking virtually no Chinese was also a challenge for Frederick. “It’s not normal for everyone to speak English,” notes Frederick, who has often traveled abroad for pleasure in the past. “There are some countries you go to and you know somebody’s going to speak English. That’s not necessarily the case [in China].”
Frederick quickly found that Chinese is not an easy language for a Westerner to interpret and learn. Frederick describes the language as “fast” and “hard,” noting that people speaking Chinese tended to sound “angry” to her, but “it’s just the language.” Moreover, the difficult-to-reproduce slight tonal shifts between words made Frederick skittish about using new words that she had learned.
CCEC provided Frederick and her colleagues with guides, but they often tried to explore the city on their own. “We made a point of going out and walking around whatever city we were staying in, but interacting was hard,” says Frederick. “You’re not experiencing the real China if they’re shepherding you around . . . but you also can’t experience the authentic places [on your own] because you can’t communicate.”
Before moving on to Handan to teach Chinese English teachers, Frederick and her traveling companions had the opportunity to visit Beijing for a whirlwind of fast-paced sightseeing. Frederick bartered for souvenirs at the Beijing Silk Market, visited Tiananment Square, walked through the Forbidden City, and made a brief stop at the Summer Palace.
One of the highlights of the trip for Frederick was visiting the Great Wall. “The Great Wall is truly amazing, and even though we only saw a very, very small piece of it, climbing that stretch of wall build six hundred years ago by people whose names are not even memories for most of us was absolutely awe-inspiring. It was also grueling!” says Frederick. “Never have I felt so out-of-shape as I did climbing the hundreds of steps to the top of the Mutiang Great Wall, sweating literally pouring down my face and back. It also didn’t help that some of the steps were as high as my knee-cap. But I made it to the top, and what an experience!”
Another highlight for Frederick was visiting the mining district of Feng Feng, where she explored a system of caverns that were home to monasteries before they became a cultural landmark. “We didn’t get a chance to see a whole lot of ancient culture because we were so entrenched in current culture, so that was really neat,” says Frederick.
Frederick spent the second half of her month in China in Handan, which was touted as a smaller city; in fact, many people she spoke to in China hadn’t heard of it. “We were expecting very rural,” says Frederick, “but it’s huge! Bigger than Charlotte. It was very much a city, so it was not at all what we expected. Her job in Handan was to facilitate professional development for 300 Chinese English teachers from across the region.
Frederick was surprised to find that the level of English proficiency varied greatly amongst the English language teachers, who often had a good technical grasp of the English language but struggled to hold conversations. “We kind of came to understand that had a lot to do with the way that they teach everything there,” says Frederick, “Especially in the secondary schools. They’re teaching toward that huge test at the end of high school.”
Although most of the teachers Frederick worked with in China were experienced teachers with vastly different styles from her own, they were very interested in Frederick’s techniques, particularly ones for increasing student engagement. “We have this stereotype in America that the Chinese work so hard in school,” says Frederick, “But English is not something the students necessarily think that they need, so it’s hard to get them excited about their work. Secondary school there is geared 100% towards preparing them for their college entrance exam, so things like conversational English take a backseat to grammar and writing since the goal is to make sure that they score high.”
Ultimately, Frederick’s experience living and teaching in China was both humbling and affirming. “I’ve never felt both ridiculously accomplished and ridiculously self-conscious at the same time,” says Frederick, thinking back on the time she spent in Handan. “These women in particular are so kind, so sweet, so grateful, so generous, and so happy to have an opportunity to learn from an American teacher. You simply don’t have that kind of energy and appreciation from American teachers, or students, for that matter. It’s enough to go to your head, but it’s also terrifying to try to live up to those expectations. Half of these women have twenty plus years of experience to my measly seven, and yet, you would think I was a visiting college lecturer from the way that they take notes and pictures while I teach.”
Frederick is grateful for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to China, but she’s also glad to be home. “I feel that I’ve grown as a traveler and a teacher, and I’m looking forward to seeing how what I learned in China will benefit me when I return to the classroom,” she says.