THERE AND BACK AGAIN: AN AMERICAN’S CHINESE TALE

Jack Carlson

How did I go from a Minneapolis job-hunting hopeful to a foreigner casually eating dumplings contemplating whether I should teach American football or tongue twisters on Monday?

February, 2014—In the midst of a pounding blizzard, the University of Minnesota makes the decision to resume holding the annual College of Liberal Arts career fair despite the weather ensuring low attendance.

A week leading up to this job-hunt circus, I research every single one of the 150+ businesses to be in attendance, jotting down notes and marking their locations on the mini map we were provided.  Although I glance at the Ameson Year of China, I put it in the back of my mind since I was determined to begin working in Minneapolis, MN after I returned from backpacking through Europe after graduation.

Although both of my parents are teachers, I didn’t find myself following in their footsteps as I plan on having a career in project management, the public relations, and the advertising industry.

I tirelessly work my way through countless booths, passing off my resume and scribbling down answers from the set of questions I prepared.  When all is said and done, I begin eyeing the exit but notice my path took me right by the Ameson Year in China booth; I decide I can stomach one more informational interview before heading home to contemplate my future.  Although I left the AYC booth feeling positive (I found it was the only job I was excited to apply for), I couldn’t have told you that a year later, I would be living, working, and developing myself in the vast, foreign land that is China.

That’s cool and all, but why would you move to the other side of the world?

Growing up, my parents always made it a point to travel.  On holidays (when I wasn’t playing hockey), my family would either pack up the car for a road trip or collect our bags for a flight.  Whether it was to Glacier National Park, Montana or down to Key West, Florida, I was familiar with traveling and experiencing new places.  I believe that traveling is a necessary influence in becoming a well-rounded person.

After evaluating my post-graduate opportunities, I decided to challenge myself further and work in China for a year.  Maybe I would find more opportunities in a growing country after my first year teaching.  Maybe I would enjoy living there more than America. Maybe I was just delaying the real world back home.  I really didn’t know.  The only thing I understood was that making a big jump like this, sticking with it, and learning from it was a big risk that would make for a worthy investment in my future whether I decided to stay longer than a year or not.

After a successful application process, I was happy to know that the next year of my life was planned for Nanjing; a city that I’d never heard of, living in a culture that I’d never experienced, communicating in a language that I’d no knowledge of, and teaching English in a capacity that I’d never worked.  Challenge accepted.

                                                                                   My 2nd home: Nanjing, Jiangsu, China.

                                                                                   My 2nd home: Nanjing, Jiangsu, China.

After the longest flight of my life, one information-packed week in Shanghai, and a 2-hour train ride, there I was, in a city 12 times the size of where I call home, placed with 2 AYCers (each of us at different schools) that I had come to know at orientation, $1000 that I brought with me, and my class schedule given to me by my school.  The rest of my time here depended upon my open-mindedness, interests, willpower, and patience.

So you have a little optimism, a passion for new experiences, and the ability to just leave all of your family and friends that you have come to know and love the past 22 years of your life. Well aren’t you special.  How did it go?

The first month or two was quite a trial.  I had to establish some type of routine, explore my surrounding neighborhood locating my favorite supermarkets and restaurants, and really put myself out there to meet new people. I eventually found a group, both Chinese and expat/foreigner, who I am extremely proud to call friends and many of whom I will for a lifetime. I’m constantly meeting new people every weekend as well. It was just really difficult understanding how patient you have to be.  Going out and trying to force myself into friendships wasn’t a worthwhile effort.  I had to accept that the friendships and networking come casually and with a little patience, my friends group became apparent and I began meeting more and more people over time.

                                                                                               A very foreigner Christmas

                                                                                               A very foreigner Christmas

                                                                                       New Year’s Eve in the Gulou Tower

                                                                                       New Year’s Eve in the Gulou Tower

Teaching was difficult at first, but with a little experimentation and more time, it became easier.  I started getting acclimated to standing in front of my different classes consisting of 45 13-year-old 7th graders and 45 16 year-year-old seniors.  In total, this year I taught five different 7th grade classes, two 8th grade classes, and seven different senior classes.  I took into full account what my students wanted to learn (US culture, sports, video games, improving their speaking, etc.) because there is absolutely no hope attempting to teach them a language and a disinteresting topic at the same time.  I even surprised myself too.  At the beginning, I would just grind through my classes to get to the weekend.  Eventually, I found myself enjoying this whole teaching thing.

I became close with my coworkers who gave advice on my lessons and would help me with every single problem I ran into including finding the printer room, telling my students what to bring for next class, or even getting my laptop fixed (that was a dark week).  A few even took me out to dinner with their families and the English department presented me with high-quality scarf and gloves for Christmas.  (Side note: They don’t understand how I wear just a light sweater in 50° without a jacket and hat. I’ve tried to explain to them that I’ve lived in the cold my whole life and for 4 years, I braved Minnesota winters just to get to class in the morning, but they still think I am crazy for not dressing “warm enough.”)

                                     Christmas week. They thought I was going to catch a cold in the 30' weather. I humored them. 

                                     Christmas week. They thought I was going to catch a cold in the 30' weather. I humored them. 

The students were not easy at first either.  They gibber-gabber and gossip loudly when they get bored.  They will ask you completely irrelevant questions ranging from if you have a girlfriend to when was the last time I ate at McDonalds.  It can be incredibly frustrating.  Somehow, my students began looking forward to my classes (this may be because I am the only foreigner English teacher at my school) and eventually started policing themselves.  It’s an amazing feeling when a student starts talking when yo are and a few students turn around and tell the interrupter to “shut up because teacher Jack is talking.”  Feels good man.

Thankfully, most of my students have a functional grasp over the English language so I’m not required to speak Mandarin.  I do take the opportunity to at least try because: 1) My students find it incredibly entertaining to hear my horrendous accent and futile attempts, and 2) why not take advantage of a two-way learning system where the students can help me learn?  It takes a lot of stress and frustration off of them when they see me go through the same embarrassment and frustrations learning their language as they experience when learning mine.  The more fun they are having, the more fun and rewarding my job is.

I do find it entertaining how incredibly physical my students’ friendships are with each other.  In class, boys and girls give each other a couple light jabs on the shoulder, pinch each other’s cheeks, or hang off of each other.  Some hold hands while they walk around the track at lunch and last week I witnessed 3 seniors hold one of their friends down and tickle him.  Not exactly the physicalness I grew up with or a component common in American student friendships, but it doesn’t even phase me any more.

                                                                          Christmas card making right before the holidays.

                                                                          Christmas card making right before the holidays.

It’s a huge advantage being an American English speaker here in China as it usually opens opportunities for you to teach others in your free time.  Usually, a coworker of yours knows someone who wants to improve their English or you have a friend of a friend who needs the lessons.  One of the families I tutor for has a daughter attending school in Delaware next year.  On New Year’s Day, they invited me to their daughter’s piano recital and on my birthday, they took me out for coffee and skating.  The father will even make me dinner after our weekly lessons and talk with me for hours. I’m already appreciative that I became close with the students and coworkers where I teach, but I would’ve never thought that I would become so personally close to a Chinese family; a family I feel invested in and who will keep in contact with me when they move to America.

Depending on your age, height, and skin color, you can find other less common opportunities…

                          Promotion dancing for a kitchen appliance company is apparently a thing for "white males who are 6' or taller."

                          Promotion dancing for a kitchen appliance company is apparently a thing for "white males who are 6' or taller."

That leads me into something I found to be the most profound learning experience here: self-awareness.  Growing up in a predominantly white suburb of Minnesota and attending a predominantly white high school and university doesn’t leave much for being conscientious about your race as a Caucasian.  I was more judged on where I was from, my hobbies, my accent, but my race was never brought up in casual conversation and before coming to China, I never really thought about a person’s race no matter who I was talking to.  The media I ingested, the people I interacted with everyday, and my hobbies had me surrounded by more English-speaking (apart from Spanish class) Caucasian males and females than any other race or ethnicity.  Coming to China was eye-opening.

You also have options for non-teaching opportunities just for being an English speaker here in which, some of these jobs are only given to you depending on your skin color.   No matter what, if you do not look Chinese, you will be stared at as people around you try to figure out where you are from and what you speak.  And I don’t mean a quick glance over; people here will stare you down as if you are the first extraterrestrial to ever touch down upon this Earth. They are curious about the laowai ordering Beijing Duck in Mandarin at a Chinese restaurant and look on as he struggles using chopsticks.

While I’d never say it was a negative or distressing experience (outside of a few people making fun of me for my accent or referencing me as a few disrespectful terms), here in China I’d experienced being a minority for the first time in my life.  It was just crazy to realize that.

So it sounds like you had a pretty good year learning about yourself, the culture, and finding enjoyment in your teaching.  What did you take away from it?

I honestly could give a 50 bullet-point rundown of all the differences and learning experiences in China, but you can find anything that I would’ve thought of in the bullet-points section here in a photo-essay written by one of last-year’s AYC participants, Linda Wang.

I’m incredibly comfortable and confident at my job and I couldn’t be happier about my placement here at the Nanjing No. 5 High School.  My students and coworkers respect me, my work is rewarding, and I received a generous amount of holiday time to travel China and SE Asia. Participating in the Ameson Year in China program gave me this great opportunity to further my capabilities while expanding my interests and knowledge; a unique opportunity on the international scale with a multi-cultural experience.

                                                                                     Sports day at Nanjing No. 5 High School

                                                                                     Sports day at Nanjing No. 5 High School

Initially, my plan coming to China was just to take a gap year to figure out my future while (hopefully) learning a few things along the way.  Almost a year later, I’ve learned more about myself than I could’ve hoped.  I proved to myself that I could live on the other side of the world, away from any sort of familiarity or comfort that I’d grown accustomed to, and fully benefit from the experience. I’ve met some amazing people that I would’ve never met otherwise. I like Chinese food more than any other type of food and it’s going to be difficult not having the option to go get chow fan at 3am in the morning.  I’ve continued to learn and push myself and China gave me this motivation.  I’ve assimilated into a completely different culture that, admit-tingly, still feels mysterious at times, but although I still may be a weiguoren, I don’t really feel like it anymore.

                                                                                        Nanjing along the Yangtze River.

                                                                                        Nanjing along the Yangtze River.