An American in Chengdu

More adventures in teaching | October 17, 2009

About a month ago I got a call from Laura, one of the university’s non-foreign English teachers. She explained there

The building where I teach spoken English

The building where I teach spoken English

was a workshop for doctors coming up in mid-October. The doctors hailed from all over China, and had been selected to attend a training program in Japan. First, though, they were coming to our campus for a workshop in reading and writing medical English, and speaking Japanese and English. Normally Laura would have taught the two spoken English sessions, but she had a new baby. She’d already found a teacher to fill in for one of the sessions, and would I be able to fill in for the other one?

Sure, I said. Giving a 90-minute seminar to a group of doctors didn’t sound too onerous, and it was weeks away. Laura and I exchanged a few emails about what time slot was best for me and what, exactly, she’d like me to talk about. She connected me with the teacher for the other spoken English session, Lucy, who came to see me on Thursday.

Lucy is 58. I know because she told me this on the phone when we were arranging a meeting place, and describing what we looked like. She took early retirement this year so that she could care for her father, but she’s happy to be teaching again, she told me at our meeting. She lived in Winston-Salem for a few years, studying English, and then decided to move to San Francisco for a while. Translating a chapter on homosexuality had peaked her curiosity about “home people,” as she calls them, so she took a job in a restaurant in the Castro in order to learn more about this mysterious breed of non-breeders.

But sometime before this delightful detour in the conversation, something Lucy said gave me a clue that I’d signed on for more than a single class session. I asked Lucy, and she confirmed that yes, I was expected to teach not just the next day, but every Friday for thirteen weeks. Why had I thought otherwise, I wondered. Laura’s English is excellent, so I can’t blame that.

Though shocked by my own obliviousness, I’m glad (so far) to have agreed to teach. Unlike the Medical English class, it won’t require that I spend hours each week teaching myself the meanings and pronunciations of words like “epididymovasostomy” and compiling PowerPoint presentations. Instead, I can do a little planning and spend the class hour chatting about American table manners or having the students act out scenes from ER.

For the first class, I asked the students to pair up with someone and pretend they’d just met them at an international meeting. After a 10-minute getting-to-know-you chat, they each introduced their partner to the class. Along with name, hometown, and medical specialty, most included which year they’d graduated from medical school in their introductions, as well as what they thought of the food and weather in Chengdu. Apparently “what do you think of the food?” isn’t just a question people ask Westerners here.

Next I asked each student to talk about what they hoped to gain from the class, and in what situations they expected English to be most useful to them. I thought this would help me figure out the best subject areas to build lessons around, but also, in general, I’ve had hard time wrapping my head around the exact utility of spoken English to the average Chinese professional. Many people are convinced it’s very important, but there are very few foreigners here to converse with, and few people I’ve talked to are interested in living abroad.

Most of the doctors offered generic responses along the lines of “I think English is very important because it is an international language,” but most also offered specific situations that ran the gamut from interacting with foreign colleagues in the same field to treating foreign patients to listening to the BBC to curiosity about American and British culture to wanting to make foreign friends.

With about 15 minutes left in the class, I donned my foreign expert cap and invited the doctors to ask me questions about America. The questions were almost invariably health care-related: Can you talk about Obama’s health care reform plan? Why do people oppose it? What if I’m in visiting the United States and need treatment–how do I pay for it? Should I go to a government-run hospital or a private one?

After being lavished with so much attention, I fear I might return to the States convinced, like Ron Burgundy, that I’m kind of a big deal. I’ll almost certainly have picked up his habit of over-enunciating everything.

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    About me

    I've come to Sichuan in search of adventure, fluency in Chinese, and awesome vegetarian food. I have to concede that the baby pandas are very cute.
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