Monday, April 05, 2010

Anxiety before Moving to China

As I was sitting in front of a computer in Burkina Faso with an email saying, "Your application to transfer to China has been approved," my greatest anxiety about teaching English in China was I am Chinese American. Would my school accept me? Would they feel disappointed not receiving a stereotypical foreigner? Would they question my native oral English? Would they doubt my ability to teach English?

Arriving at my university in Gansu, I was accepted and welcomed with open arms. I was respected as a person who looks Chinese but who is American. Maybe I had an easy time because my university had paid teachers from the Philippines, so the school was used to the idea of Asian looking foreign teachers teaching English.

One thing that I had not considered was what it would feel like to be assumed to be Chinese and not American by fellow Peace Corps volunteers. I remember eating at a Chinese restaurant in Guinea and wrongly assumed that the African American volunteer was Guinean. I felt my shock at my inappropriate assumption.

While in Chengdu at PST, I was knitting in the lobby of the hotel. Sitting across from me was a white American Peace Corps volunteer.

He started a conversation in Chinese, "Hello. What are you knitting?"

I answered in my broken bad Chinese, "I am knitting a sweater."

Then because I knew he didn't know I was an American Peace Corps volunteer, I started speaking English.

He replied, "Wow your English is very good."

I replied, "Yeah I know."

He grinned and said, "You're a Peace Corps volunteer aren't you?"

Does it bother me that I am not a visible foreigner? Nah. I don't think I care, or do I?

After getting dehydrated from a 7 hour hike under clear sunny skies, I pedalled my bike to the first convenience store and bought a bottle of water. The woman said, "I feel that you are not Chinese. Where are you from?"

What about me caused her to think I wasn't from around these parts? Was it because I was wearing my poorly first ever knitted sweater that adult women rarely wear? In my Chinese city, I see children and men wearing hand knitted items. Students and women wear them a lot less. Was it my hiking gear, a waistpack rarely seen in my city? Actually, it probably was the bike helmet.

In Africa, I tried to blend in, wear African clothes, head wraps, cover my legs and arms. But I could never blend in because I was Chinese American.

In China, I do not try to blend in. I do not wear Chinese fashion. I do not wear my hair long. I do not try to lose weight to be skinny. Instead, I wear African clothes, hand knitted items, skirts that cover my ankles. I dress according to my own style instead of changing my style to fit into this culture. It doesn't matter though, my Asian features negate everything else, and most of the time I am assumed to be Chinese.

Maybe I'll write another blog How do I cope with people's assumptions that I am Chinese?


William said...

it seems it'd be almost easier to NOT blend in.

if you're white and you speak some chinese, they are very amused. but if you look chinese and yet you are not fluent in the language, that's a lot less amusing. am i right?

if so, do you think that impacts the way your students see you?

i'm guessing that chinese students think it's intriguing to have a white teacher living in china to teach them english, but i wonder if they are any less enthusiastic about having an american born chinese do the same thing.

in their eyes, are you any less legitimate as an english instructor and ambassador of american culture?

Dr. Jen said...

Actually Chinese people find me more intriguing than my white sitemate. They wonder why doesn't she speak Chinese? Why is her English so good? Where are her ancestors from?

They are super curious about me.

It is super frustrating for my sitemate though because Chinese people will close their ears to her Chinese, not believing that a white person can speak Chinese even though she is. They will automatically look at me to "translate," even though my pronunciation is as bad as hers. Most of the time Chinese people won't close their ears to my bad Chinese.

At my university, I am just as legitimate as a white teacher who explains American culture. Students realize very quickly that I am not like their Chinese teachers. My teaching style is very different.

Also, my sitemate and I have a theory that students believe they can understand my English better than hers because I look Chinese. Students therefore put forth more effort to try to understand my English instead of their typical response to my sitemate's English of closing their ears and just saying we don't understand her.

William said...

I think your experiences are fascinating.

I'm thinking of applying to the Peace Corps. It'd be awesome if I can be placed in China. I'm an "ABC," so it's great to know that your students respond so well to how you blend in.

I'm somewhat worried about how the Peace Corps is averse to placing volunteers where they have family. I'm sure I have some really distant relatives (that I don't even know about) living in China, but I wonder how strict the placement officers are about enforcing that rule. From what I gather, you're also an ABC? But you were placed in China anyway. I'm thinking it's because you are super well-qualified :P

Anyways, thank you for sharing your experiences and replying :)

Dr. Jen said...

Actually I was born in Taiwan but adopted by white Americans.

I have never heard of the policy that Peace Corps is averse to placing volunteers where they have family. Anyways how would PC know that you have distant family in China? I don't remember that being asked on the application.

Are you a teacher with a background in teaching English? That probably is most important in helping a placement officer recommend you for China.

William said...

The application notes that the Peace Corps does not place volunteers in countries where they may have family. But any family I may have there is probably so distant that I'm going to answer 'no' to the question.

I am about to finish my BA after having been on a "teacher track" for teaching secondary social science. I don't have a credential yet (that's going to take another 2 years), but I do have classroom experience and I've volunteered in a literacy program for adult English language learners.

From what you know, are most of the China PCVs already fully credentialed teachers or professors?

I'm quite eager to be placed in China if I'm deemed qualified for service, and I'm hoping that having taken 2 years of Mandarin Chinese makes me more competitive.

Dr. Jen said...

The Chinese language skill will definitely make you more competitive. Also many of the PC China volunteers do not have a teaching credential. For some of us this is our first time ever teaching English or teaching period. So it sounds like you are probably an ideal candidate for China.