Chipotle Didn't Hire Me So I Taught In China: 5 Realities
In China, speaking English is seen as a tool that will help kids grow up to be rich and successful. But demand so ridiculously exceeds supply that anyone can get a job teaching English, regardless of their ability to teach or speak Chinese or their willingness to spend one single second of the trip sober. We spoke with Trevor Paul, who taught English at a private school in Tianjin, about the whole sordid experience.
You Don't Usually Need Credentials To Teach English In China, But If You Do, They'll Forge Them For You
I didn't need to learn a lick of Chinese to teach Chinese students. The ad I responded to even made a point of emphasizing that. In theory, this was because my students would already have basic English skills. In practice, this was because their parents owned money and the school wanted to own it instead.
See, to teach English in America, you need a degree to prove that you're more valuable than an iPad translation app. In China, being white and knowing enough English to Tweet at a seventh-grade level pretty much guarantees you the job. Even if you apply for a school that has the audacity to ask for qualifications, the third-party company hiring you out will helpfully forge them. I have an education degree, but some of my esteemed colleagues needed quick credentials mocked up from the University of Real City, North Louisiana.
They'll also help you dance around the visa process. Short-term Chinese visas are valid for only 90 days, and long-term visas are difficult to obtain. Because of my degree, I was lucky to get the long term visa. But other teachers (our math teacher for example) weren't. So every three months they'd get a free round-trip flight to Hong Kong's airport to reset the time they'd been in the country. Meanwhile, American teachers in the U.S. are frowned at for taking too many round-trip walks to the complimentary-coffee machine.
What followed was less "valuable educational experience where I teach English and my Chinese students teach me something about life" and more "Netflix original comedy that gets canceled after one season due to lack of interest." We had "translators," but they often knew about as much English as I knew Chinese. So I employed the time-honored teaching tradition of winging it. If no one knew a word, I just used a mediocre translation app, which essentially means that I was flown across the planet to operate a smartphone. To accomplish anything, I had to go off-book and talk about what the kids were interested in, like movies and sports. Then they became eager to learn more, but being able to rant about the plot holes in Captain America: Civil War wasn't going to help them hit it big unless their parents wanted them to become high-profile comment-section trolls.
Which, come to think of it, might be an actual career path in China.
They Paint American English Teachers As Rock Stars
So here's a picture of me in front of a billboard of me:
We all had photo shoots done while we posed in suits, trying to look academic or, in my case, like I just farted but am fully committed to denying it. Those images were plastered all over billboards and bus ads. We became mini-celebrities, no obscenely rich parents, grueling career in pop culture, or blurry sex tape required.
Some ads promised that children who learned English would become Harvard graduates. That's really why we were there -- as living, breathing testaments to the fact that Harvard is a place that people can theoretically attend.
My school's principal would often tell parents, "If comes here, they will be an Ivy League graduate." He was essentially a used-car salesman, and we were his run-down Geos.
Our presence as Americans made that dream believable for desperate parents. But even putting aside the fact that Ivy League admission is a crapshoot for many homegrown American valedictorians, we did not represent our country's best and brightest. Some of us barely had GEDs and weren't fit to mow Harvard's lawns, but we were the subject of awe for parents far more educated than we were. We worked 20 hours a week, were paid for 40, and were given free furnished apartments. That's a pretty sweet gig for someone who got rejected by the downtown Kansas City Chipotle.
Attending An Elite American College Is Their Whole World
Many Chinese parents want nothing more than an Ivy League education for their kids. Thirty-one percent of all international students in America are Chinese. Some American schools have actually started putting caps on how many Chinese students can attend, which backfired by pissing off Chinese-Americans.
Most Chinese parents know of only a few American schools -- Harvard, Yale, maybe Stanford. Chinese businesses care only about those big names too, so if you show up with a degree from a state college you might as well show up with a clowning degree from the University Of Phoenix. It's all about branding. It's like American Psycho got lost in translation and became an inspirational life story.
Case in point: One year, I was in charge of hiring a Chinese-born, English-speaking liaison. We got it down to two candidates. One spoke English perfectly, but I was pressured to hire the other guy. Why? Because he had gone to an Ivy League school and his mere presence would bring us prestige. But he knew only one English sentence: "I speak English."
While technically correct, that wasn't really what we were going for. I don't know if he had lied on his resume or had somehow managed to bumble through a year at Harvard with his own fish-out-of-water story, but with sufficient begging I was able to convince my boss to not hire him, thus tragically canceling the second season of his own Netflix original comedy.
They Learn The Most From Forbidden Western Pop Culture
The most popular topic among the students, by far, was American pop culture. America's entire Navy could be wiped out by a sea monster tomorrow and the influence we wield would barely change, thanks to television. Every student wanted to know what Americans watched. You know how, thanks to pop culture, we think of Russia as a snowy field full of drunks and picture the Middle East as one big desert full of terrorists? Well, their image of America is based entirely around Pretty Little Liars and The Big Bang Theory.
"Do we get to bazinga directly off the plane, or is there a form you have to fill out first?"
Personally, I used better shows that made lots of pop culture references, like Scrubs, as jumping-off points into discussions about some aspect of American life. In one episode, Dr. Kelso is unable to get treatment for an uninsured friend. My students were amazed that someone could be denied health coverage and started getting worried that it could happen to them when they went off to their Ivy League schools. Thus began a lesson about the American healthcare system. I explained emergency care, insurance, everything. And while at the end of the lesson they still couldn't understand why we made comedies about our terrible healthcare system, they did understand how it worked.
I would say that the thing most Chinese adolescents want to know about is relationships. They were very amused to learn I had several girlfriends in college and high school. In China, having more than one serious significant other is rare, as marriage and family are their parents' end goal. It leads to some very awkward mismatches, like when you don't have a serious boyfriend by 25, so mom and dad pick one for you from their friends' kids. I knew a lot of women who got married to their husbands like that.
It sounds goofy, but analyzing TV helped a lot. Instead of getting a skewed view of the country from the small number of shows their government lets them watch, they learn American values and customs, tons of new words, how to speak English naturally, and how to recognize our sarcasm and humor. I guess what I'm saying is that like 80 percent of my job could have been done by a DVD box set.
Chinese Students Are Taught A Completely Different View Of The World
Walk into any American classroom and you'll find that even the best students get snarky with their teachers from time to time. But a teacher in a Chinese classroom is in complete and unquestionable control. During one lesson, I had a student ask me how many ships were at the Battle of Trafalgar. I told him I didn't know, and he smugly informed me of the correct number (which I don't remember because I mean come on). I then asked him to explain why it was such a significant battle in history, to which he could only tell me Admiral Nelson was involved but not why he was remembered or what he had done that totally changed naval warfare. He knew the raw details (who, what, when) but not the real information (why it mattered).
His entire education revolved around just giving the right answer, so a question with critical thinking was just impossible.
There's a reason he was so obsessed with straightforward answers, and that's the Gaokao. It sounds like a Street Fighter character from one of the later games that nobody pays attention to, but Gaokao are actually China's college admission exams. They're serious business, and the pressure is so overwhelming that there are spikes in student suicides around test time.
The tests take nine hours, and in my province they were spread out over five days. One of my students had just begun his first day when his parents died in a car accident. He was sent to stay with family and told his parents had taken an abrupt vacation, presumably to a nice farm up-province. He learned the truth only after the test was done.
I prepped kids for the Gaokao, and they told me they were taking English as a back-up in case they bombed the test. They assumed their education in China would be over if they underperformed, so they'd head to the States instead. American students have safety schools -- Chinese students have safety countries.
The Gaokao focuses exclusively on facts, so that's what every class is geared toward. If I asked, for example, "What do you think Chinese-American relations will look like in 10 years?" my students would start work on a time machine, rather than venture a guess. They could rattle off facts like human encyclopedias but struggled to think critically. Western education, on the other hand, is all about critical thinking, so that's what we did. Some kids couldn't handle it, sure, but for others it was like Aladdin taking Jasmine on a flying carpet ride.
Evan V. Symon is the interview finder guy at Cracked. Have an awesome experience/job you would like to share? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org! To read more from T.H. Paul, visit his website www.thelegacychronicle.com or (Twitter @LegacyChronicle) or get his new book on Amazon.
For more insider perspectives, check out Kids Want to Finger Your Butt: Adventures In Teaching Abroad and 5 Tips For Fixing America's Schools (From A Former Teacher).
Also, follow us on Facebook, and let's be best buddies.