One can experience, assimilate and understand different cultures to one’s own on a variety of levels, for example, through travelling in a particular country, living there and staying with a friend who is of that culture and lives there.
Although I have sampled all three, among experiences I will never forget is teaching Chinese students in Shanghai when I lived there and a day trip to Halong Bay in Vietnam.
I lived in Shanghai from 2011 to 2013. I went to set up a secondary department in the international section of a school that had both International and Chinese streams. I thought that was my only role. However, on arrival, I was told I would also be teaching conversational English to four Chinese classes.
Let the fun begin! I was given two Year 7 classes, one Year 8 and one Year 9. The class sizes ranged from 28 to 39, much larger than I’d experienced before! Here is a description of my cultural experience. When you look into a Chinese classroom you see pupil desks piled with books. The lessons are didactic and there is little or no exchange of opinions between pupils and teacher. There is a lot of note-taking. The teacher talks and the pupil writes. Success in tests and exams is taken very seriously and high grades are very important. Parental pressure to do well can be great. Conversational English, however, is not examined, not taught in the same way because it involves practical work and interchange with the teacher and other pupils and is often seen as a release from other subjects. That is not to say that the pupils don’t enjoy it but they’re not used to working in such a less controlled structure and take advantage of the situation!
Because of the large class sizes, I decided to make a seating plan of where the pupils were sitting so I could call them by name and learn their names. Imagine my surprise when in a second lesson I called a pupil who had been sitting on the left only to receive an answer from her from the right! Having asked her why she had changed seats, she told me that every week pupils change seats to exercise their eyes! In every lesson suddenly music would start playing and the pupils stopped what they were doing and began their eye exercises – opening, closing, looking left, looking right etc!
Teaching in the UK, when a bell goes to end a lesson pupils continue studying until the teacher indicates the lesson is over. In China, as soon as the bell goes the pupils pack up, start shouting and running about the classroom! I had to establish a new end of lesson rule. The same is true before a lesson starts. Chaos rules! Pupils are running around, shouting, playing with each other and that is when there is a Chinese teacher in the room. Apparently, between lessons pupils did not have many breaks where they could go outside and let off steam so this was a means of doing so. On one occasion when I was teaching directions, I decided to take the class outside so they could direct each other to different areas of the school using the language they had learnt.
One pupil volunteered to line the class up for me before we left the room. I was delighted. She barked her orders and everyone was silent. However, the minute I opened the door chaos reigned! Everyone, pushed, sprinted out and ran about the playground. It took me 10 minutes to get them together again! I soon realised that when under strict control such as during the Chinese flag raising ceremony every morning, pupils were serious and orderly but the minute there was flexibility they ran riot. They were not acquainted with self-discipline. I am not complaining. The pupils had great personalities and were helpful and friendly. When I met my pupils around the school they would say, “Good morning, Miss Carole Ann” and they often turned up at the office door to offer to carry homework books to the classroom. I found the whole experience fascinating and wouldn’t have missed it for anything. My class discipline was stretched to its limits and I did worry that I’d lost it and I was being taken advantage of because I was not Chinese. I was, however, relieved when my successor, a male expat teacher said he’d had the same problems.
Outside the teaching experience, two other incidents took place which epitomised for me the culture I experienced people saying directly what they thought. A receptionist asked me if I was learning Chinese. When I said I wasn’t but had enough basic vocabulary to get me by she replied, “Well at your age you would forget it anyway.” That was probably true. On another occasion, I was looking at some moisturising cream. Unfortunately, it had anti-wrinkle cream written on the package and I was asked if I was looking for “Old lady cream!” I was !!
Another experience I will always treasure happened when a few years ago I booked a trip to Halong Bay in Vietnam. In booking a ferry to tour the bay I assumed I’d booked an international boat but as it turned out I’d booked a local Vietnamese one! Very few people spoke English but when the boat docked at our first stop a lovely Vietnamese lady approached me and said, “I know you won’t understand what was said but you must be back to the boat by 9am” I thanked her and having made a note of the number of the boat and a short description of its colours and features (there were many boats docked) I went to explore the cave. Having reached its exit, I decided to head back to the boat via the beach. To my horror, the sea came right up to the cliff face and there was no way you could walk back to the boat via the shoreline. The only way seemed to be back through the cave and time was running short.
A fisherman in charge of another boat saw me hesitating and came over to speak to me. He spoke a little English. I explained the problem and, to my surprise, he told me the boat would no longer be there. It would have left the harbour to allow other boats to dock and would be among the other 40 plus boats bobbing in the sea!! Asking him how I was to find it he told me that I had to walk from deck to deck of the other boats until I found mine! By this time 9am had arrived and the boat would presumably have left anyway. Having explained this to him he invited me to take his boat. Having established where it was going, I agreed. It was the best decision I could have made and it led me to the most wonderful experience I will always treasure and never forget.
I was greeted by three young, very friendly male teachers who spoke English and who welcomed me to join a day’s outing for the teachers and their families of their school, organised by their headmaster. Everyone was so friendly and inclusive. Although I didn’t see much of Halong Bay, it didn’t matter one jot! They would not let me pay for anything, would not accept the shrimps I’d bought for them at our shrimp farm stop and asked me to join in all their meals and activities. I was given schnapps like drinks and asked to go from table to table to give a toast in Vietnamese. I had no idea what I was saying but everyone toasted me in return!
To this day, I still wonder if my original boat had remained where it had docked or whether it was one of those many boats bobbing about in the sea. I will never know! All I do know is that these two experiences, one in China and one in Vietnam will always stay with me and help me to celebrate cultural differences.