JISHOU, HUNAN — I spent all afternoon yesterday talking.
As I have mentioned before, a standard feature of any Chinese university (or high school, too, I reckon) is the English Corner, an extracurricular, student-led activity to practice spoken English. My responsibilities here include participation in the English Corner, for obvious reasons.
I live and work at the new campus. Our English Corner is held (weather permitting) every Sunday at 5 pm on a green across from the athletic facilities. I have already chronicled my first visit to English Corner lo! these many months ago. After that initial mob of visitors, attendance settled down in the following weeks to a more manageable number of regulars and the occasional newcomer.
Jishou University (JiDa in local parlance) has, at my last count, four distinct campuses: new campus, old campus, the medical campus in Shijiachong, and the affiliated teacher’s college across the river, where Princeton-in-Jishou fellows Juliann and Stephanie teach. A few students from the old campus have come to the new campus corner, but only those dedicated enough to travel the 3 km to do it.
Last weekend, my fellow foreign expert, David, and I were invited to an English Corner at the old campus. Many students attended, but the crowd was not a mob as it was during my first experience last fall. Once the initial novelty of seeing Westerners in the flesh faded, we all settled down to relatively calm chatting on the green.
Old campus is home to the Preparatory College, a transition year for students who scored poorly on the college entrance examination, but who want to attend university. Most of the prep students are 18 to 20 years old, come from Jishou or nearby areas, and for the most part have never spoken English with a foreigner. Through the intra-campus student word-of-mouth network, the prep students invited David and me to a special English Corner at the medical campus yesterday.
David instead accompanied a group of frosh to Dehang, so I was the sole foreign expert on this excursion. Julie and Layla, two of the officers, met me at the north gate at 1:30 pm for the taxi ride to Shijiachong. On arrival, about an hour ahead of schedule, there were few students present. We met a small group of class representatives so busy practicing some recitations that they did not spend much time talking to us. I realized later that they were rehearsing the short remarks they would later say during the Corner’s opening ceremonies. [No, I am not kidding.]
New campus has an English Corner of long-standing, and thus has a well-worn casual feel to it. Despite our officers’ attempts to structure it with games and pre-selected topics, it usually devolves into a few clusters of 8 to 12 students who chat in English with each other, or with me and David. It’s a great time to exchange QQ and phone numbers, and meet English speakers from other colleges on campus.
By contrast, the activity yesterday was a well-publicized extravaganza. The prep college has several classes of 30 or so students each; each class has one or two officers, and one or two representatives to the English Corner. Using a portable public-address system, each of these officers said a few remarks before the activity started. [Introductory remarks by officials are part of the standard operating procedure before any Chinese program begins, even before concerts. Fortunately, these students were not as long-winded as their elders.]
After these introductions, the classes were given the topic, “How can we become confident?”, to discuss among themselves. I was asked to visit each class group in turn, to give them a chance to talk to me. Afterwards, there was a show, as each class had picked one or two members to sing an English song. That was the official program, anyway.
The unofficial program was organized mayhem, like my first English Corner experience in the fall. Excited students wanted to know where I was from, what cities had I visited, did I speak Chinese, did I like Chinese food, did I like Chinese girls (a subject that could fill a book!), did I like the NBA, who was my favorite player/team — questions I got to answer not once each, but many times. Then, there were the obligatory photo ops. I shook a lot of hands, like a politician on a campaign stump, and willingly agreed to hug two female students. [Ah! The perks of celebrity status!]
While I was answering questions from one class, a small boy in his school uniform walked over to me, stuck out his hand, and said, “Hello, how are you?” He came later to repeat the process, this time with his more bashful buddy in tow, who also shook my hand.
It turned out that the boys were faculty children, a group of whom just happened to be passing by our noisy activity. At some point in the middle of the singers’ performances, these kids got the idea to ask me for my autograph while I was trying to politely listen to the singers. Then, someone allowed them to have some of the balloons the college students had put up as decorations. The first boy brought a balloon to me to autograph. On the spur of the moment, I drew a cartoon face on the balloon with a mustache and a beard to accompany my name.
You can predict what happened. I got to repeat this exercise easily 20 times more, as one child after another brought another handful of balloons to be signed. And of course we posed for photos.
An hour and a half later, this English Corner ended, and my own students, Angela and Sunny, accompanied me to our English Corner at new campus. As new organizers, they had devised a (fortunately simpler) program for our activity, with a word game and a topic, but we eventually just settled into our usual sit-on-the-grass-and-chat behavior.
Describing a few of the members in my circle will give you an idea of the diversity of students at our English Corner. Three, Corinna, Janet and Mary, were my spoken English students. Ailsa, a sophomore politics major, is my new neighbor. Another girl, a junior marketing student, reported proudly she had just passed her business English certification exam. A newcomer, to whom we gave the English name Janina, is a sophomore in the Resource and Environmental Science College. Another newcomer, a junior in the physics department, also asked me for an English name. She proposed two, “Simple” and “Easy.” I demurred, explaining that “simple” implied she was stupid and “easy” implied something even less complimentary (I whispered the meaning in her ear, to avoid her embarrassment). Instead, we settled on “Jasmine,” one of her favorite flowers. There was also Nick, a medical student from the old campus, and his girlfriend, Nina, both newcomers.
All of these students speak English quite well, though Janina and Jasmine said they had never spoken to a foreigner before. Jasmine, in particular, said she regretted not meeting me sooner, as she wants to be an interpreter and has to pass the TEM8 exam next year to make that goal a possibility. I pointed out that she has a nearly a year to prepare, so the few months of lost time talking to me was not tragic.
These experiences were yet more demonstrations of the hunger some Chinese students have for learning English, which for better or for worse has become the benchmark for success in education and the job market. Some hope to work in international business, others to study abroad. Some just want to be able to understand English-language entertainment media better. All recognize that doing well on their English proficiency exams, no matter what level, will enable them to pursue whatever goal they have.
As a foreign expert, the native English speaker is at once a celebrity (and a novelty, especially in this province), a teacher and a stepping stone to success. If you can patiently withstand the repetitive questions about your origins and the like, you will grow to appreciate the important role you play in the lives of a significant number of students. Sure, it’s cool to pose for photos with pretty girls and handsome boys, to get small gifts of their appreciation, and to wallow in their palpable excitement at your presence, but even cooler to know you are opening a door to a new world for the few students to whom you become a friend and/or mentor.
I was drained by the end of the afternoon, even after a (quiet) dinner with three of the students in my circle, but the effort was worth it. I suppose only a lifelong teacher would have found the afternoon fun, but I’m crazy like that.