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Language Barriers
A St. Lawrence alumnus discovers that teaching English in a rural Chinese school has its own set of challenges.

By Nathan Hall ’00

All morning, I was falling asleep in the saddle. The sun’s glare on the snow-covered valley floor forced my eyes shut. There was no wind, and the heavy Tibetan parka I had borrowed kept me warm and sedate. The horse knew the trail much better than I, so the only reason to stay alert was to dodge the lower branches that would dump snow down my neck when my head ran into them.

The horse, I am sure, was aware of this, and seemed devoted to my discomfort. She no doubt resented an ignorant rider getting cozy while she was trucking up and down steep, icy terrain. Since she was the one who had spent the night standing in a blizzard/lightning storm, I don’t blame her. I had never before seen snow fall with lightning. It was a wonderful thing to behold from the doorway of my host’s lodge. It was a wonderful thing to be sheltered.

I was on a horseback trek during a spring semester holiday from my teaching in China (more on that in a moment). I had met up with a remarkable young Brit named Seb who was only 19 and traveling alone in western China before starting his first year at Oxford. There were a few others as well, but they had decided to turn back after the lightning storm.

The couple we were staying with, our guides, had four children in spite of China’s one-child policy, about as many horses, a motorcycle, a television and a DVD player. This ethnically Tibetan family was prosperous in comparison with their fellow villagers in northwestern Sichuan, near the Tibetan frontier. The mother’s name sounded like Cuomon, but I was never really sure. I do not know how Tibetan phonetics work, and she was illiterate and so could not write it down. Cuomon did the cooking and child-rearing, which to an extent also seemed to be a communal endeavor in the village. People walked into each other’s homes without ceremony; ostensibly, responsibility and space were both more or less collective.

Despite the relative material comfort they could afford, the combination of their government, culture and land impoverished them in terms of opportunity. They were remote enough that authorities would probably not bother them, but because of China’s one-child policy they faced a heavy fine if they reported any but the first-born child. Only one of their children could enroll in school. There are few jobs for a person without formal education and without proficiency in English, or even standard Mandarin, for that matter. Because many of China’s indigenous ethnic minorities resent the majority Han, they are wary of school, which may assimilate minority students at the cost of cultural identity. If they want to do anything besides “unskilled labor” though, school is the only path.

And “school” was what I was doing in China in the first place. I was teaching in a private school just outside of Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, in my third year of teaching in Asia. During my senior year at

St. Lawrence I had applied to the J.E.T. Programme, which sends college graduates to Japan for various municipal and prefectural jobs, mostly in English as a second language (ESL). Applicants do not need to be certified teachers; the program tends to look more for the kind of well-rounded individual produced by St. Lawrence’s liberal arts curriculum. I returned to America after two years in Japan, but took the job offered in China shortly thereafter.

While the demand for English teachers in China is high, the salary reflects the difference in the Chinese and Western economies. Despite the press on China’s wealth and urban growth, it is still very much a poor, agrarian society with stark differences in income. After all the efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to eliminate class division, it now resembles the setting for a novel by Dickens or Hardy. The classes I taught awakened me to how challenging life is for even the most fortunate and talented Tibetans.

China’s communist government notwithstanding, many institutions like education are largely privatized, though a program similar to Affirmative Action brought several Tibetans students into the school at government expense. Most of them were segregated into separate classrooms, yet they used the same textbooks as their Han schoolmates. All texts were written in Mandarin, a second language for many Tibetans, so they faced a greater challenge learning English (their third language) than the Han.

The task was already an arduous one, but the classes were crowded, with 40 students each. I had six classes. Two hundred and forty students would have been far more than I could competently teach, but in addition to that, they were on separate learning curves. Whenever a student dropped out for any reason, a small dark corner of my mind guiltily held a private celebration in anticipation of the marginally easier days ahead.

Non-native speakers of English face a similar problem in American schools, especially in performance on standardized tests that do not measure certain skills such as creative problem-solving or essay-writing. In China, all tests are standardized, and they count for everything. Participation and attendance, term papers, group projects and final portfolios have no bearing on whether children progress to the next grade. Of course, ethnic minority students in Chinese schools all have to take their tests in Mandarin. Even with the government paying the tuition for many students, the challenge posed by the language difference is such that most minority students do not excel on the standardized tests, or learn much English.

Cuomon and her husband and children would probably pick up a certain amount of conversational English from dealing with travelers like me, but since they are illiterate in even their own language, all learning is oral and without the aid of a dictionary.

Few people work as hard as Cuomon. She had the four children, one of whom was ill. She tended the horses. She performed the cooking and cleaning. Then of course there were two foreign guests in her house with little in the way of a common language—guests who were subject to periodic fits of hyperventilation since they were not accustomed to the thin air at such a high altitude.

Some people might wince at such a prospect. Cuomon just smiled. The lines in her sunburned face, and the bright rosy cheeks typical of Tibetans, gave her a certain grace; her quiet fortitude was implicit yet obvious. Her brown, calloused, chapped hands performed with confidence in every chore. No doubt she started laboring when she was very young. I saw knee-high urchins waddling about the villages with scythes and cleavers, sometimes peeling potatoes or chestnuts as they walked. In urban areas, I saw children carting loads of coal. I am sure Cuomon grew up fast and hard, but her ample spirit showed no signs of wear.

I had enough Mandarin to get by in certain parts, but dialects vary widely, and this was a particularly far-flung and remote hamlet. Of course, not all communication is verbal. At one halt at the top of a hill I made a small snowman out of a couple of twigs and three snowballs. Just as I was putting the finishing touches on the face, it toppled backwards onto a pile of horse dung. It was an ice-breaker of sorts, and laughter, being infectious, is an easy language to learn.

Back now in the States, Nathan Hall is a graduate student in library and information science at the University of North Texas , majoring in digital image management.

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