Thursday, May 07, 2009

Who are my friends? students or teachers?

What is the role and friendship life of a foreign teacher in China like?

I believe the life and role of a Peace Corps volunteer teaching in China is unique and cannot really be compared to being a Chinese teacher or a teacher in the USA.

Many volunteers become very close to their students, inviting their students to dinner and to their homes, doing activities like sports, KTV (karaoke), hikes, watching movies, and some even go out and drink with their students. This is unique. One of our Peace Corps goals is to promote a better understanding of Americans while learning about another culture. What better way to do this than through students.

In America do you ever remember socializing with your teachers when you were an undergraduate student in college? Do you ever remember your teachers offering extra-curricular activities for you to join? Professors were busy and had their own lives. Their job was to teach in the classroom and offer office hours. Their life was not the campus.

One might argue that maybe China is different than America. Maybe in China, students socialize with their teachers. How many students actually socialize with their Chinese teachers? In my observations, very few.

In China, as a foreigner our lives revolve around the campus and the students. We offer extra-extracurricular activities. We participate in English corners. We run clubs and throw cultural learning parties. We show movies. We are not like American teachers nor are we like Chinese teachers. We are unique additions to a Chinese college campus.

In China, it is easy to make friends with students. They are eager to practice their English as well as eager to learn about another culture. They find foreigners easy going and available to do social activities with. Friendship with students makes sense. As a foreigner entering into a new community we have no friends and can't really speak Chinese well enough to make intellectually engaging friends with non English speakers. Therefore, the best people to make friends with are students and fellow teachers.

However, many volunteers find teachers not to be very friendly. Volunteers more often have students as friends than fellow teachers. Why is this? Are the teachers afraid of the foreigners? Shouldn't the teachers make an effort to become friends with a foreigner? In my opinion the reason, I haven't made many friends who are teachers is because well, teachers are busy. They teach 15-18 hours a week. They have families with whom they have to spend time with. They have lessons to plan. They have other responsibilities. They have their set of friends. Plus just because I am the foreigner doesn't mean we will get along. How do we know our personalities will match?

Anyways, it is not a requirement to be friends with fellow co-workers. But then one may wonder why isn't there more of an open dialogue or social friendliness between co-workers. Why do we rarely ever say hello or have a conversation with our co-workers when we meet in the hallway? It is like there is a foreigner group of teachers and a Chinese group of teachers and they don't mix. Well one reason we don't mix is because we don't go to the teacher meetings. Thank goodness. I would not enjoy sitting through hours of Chinese twice a month. And there isn't really a place for teachers to congregate and just chat. People go to their classrooms, to the office, and home again. We just don't cross paths.

Playing basketball with the women of the English department, I believe will open doors to become more social with teachers who have families. It is hard making friends with people who have families. Even in America, I knew very few people who were married with children. As a single woman, I make friends with other non-married people. Mothers make friends with mothers because they tend to have something in common to talk about, their children. In China where most people are married by the time they are 25, can you imagine the chasm that I have to cross to make friends with non-students?

In Africa, I learned the best way to start becoming friends with a community was to leave my hut. Go sit under a public tree for an hour. I believe this lesson is also good for China. Instead of just staying in the apartment, of doing errands, of having specific planned social outings, I need to go somewhere regularly within my community for an hour.

This advice has been proven true by the fact that by regularly exercising in the mornings on the playground, I run into people who I recognize but never had a conversation with. They recognize me as the foreigner basketball player and we start a conversation.

Being a teacher and a friend with students is not the only role of a volunteer. Another role is to try to make a connection with people of different generations. This is more challenging, but is possible. Sometimes instead of waiting for someone to make the first move, I have to do it. I have to invite teachers out for dinner or to play badminton. Maybe they will be able to fit me into their busy schedules of responsibilities and desire to spend time with their children.

Of course, I am quite happy and with the friendships I have formed with students; however, seeing the lifestyles of families and single teachers would also be quite interesting.

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