A St. Lawrence alumnus discovers that teaching
English in a rural Chinese school has its own set of challenges.
By Nathan Hall ’00
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
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
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
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
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.