This summer I whined about how no one measures up to Middlebury Chinese teachers. I’ve been spoiled my a department that manages to teach language in an engaging and exciting way. Summer school was an epic academic marathon that lived up to its reputation. And I lived through the nine weeks to tell the tale.
Here at CET in Beijing, I am again running into the mindlessly rigid style of teaching that made me loathe summer school. In the words of a friend, “You’re in China, you should be amazed!” But I’m not. I sit in class from 8:25AM to 11:30AM and then off-and-on from 12:30PM-4PM. I’m not learning anything about China from the inside of a cramped dorm room on the fourth floor of a building in West Beijing. I could just as well be reading essays about traditional Chinese customs in America. In fact, the supposed study-abroad “payoff” of going to China is resulting in more of the same.
I believe whole-heartedly in very intense language learning. It’s great. It can be very rewarding. But to do that intense study in Beijing is, at least for now, a waste. Beijing teachers are certainly not imparting anything earth-shattering upon us. The city’s tourist sites impart nothing more than what a English-speaker would get out of the same experience. I get more out of the five minutes I spend at breakfast on the street each morning than I do from the hours spent in class. Yes, we do “language practicum” where we venture out onto the streets to interact with real Chinese people but that is alas one afternoon a week. There is a reason why students here often say that it hasn’t hit them that they’re in China yet. It’s because we’re not dealing with real China. We have the training wheels on as we comfortably study the language (and supposedly the culture) from essays in our textbook next to American students who we’ve known already for three years. When you’re at home, textbooks will suffice. When you’re abroad, why pretend when you can experience the real thing?
But maybe in some way, we are experiencing the real thing. Chinese education is all about memorizing and regurgitating and we certainly do that here. I absolutely love how when someone in class gives an answer to a question that uses correct grammar and vocabulary but is not exactly the regurgitation of what the Chinese essay reads, the teachers look stunned to find that alas, there might be more than the one right answer found in the textbook. So, if nothing else, are we experiencing authentic Chinese education? Perhaps.
But I certainly would like to see a revival of some sort of spark of creativity here in China. In short, I need my amazement back.