ESL students meet Dickens’ Christmas, yearn for travel 2

[Cross-posted at The Daily Kos.]

JISHOU, HUNAN — The fall term is coming to a close here. I gave my exams this week, and will spend the next two weeks reading and marking them, so I can return home to see my offspring with a clear conscience.

Before exams, I decided to give my students — and me — a break, and show them a movie. Of course, it had to have some educational value.

Believe it or not, Christmas, at least among our students, is a big thing here in China. They learn about the holiday as part of their English lessons in middle school, but still have only a hazy idea of what it is all about. Chinese textbook authors condense Christmas traditions from the USA, Europe and the UK into a mishmosh of ideas that serve only to confuse, not inform.

Students ask me about how we celebrate Christmas in the USA, and I give them a pretty generic description, based on my own memories of 50-odd previous Christmases. But descriptions, particularly for ESL students, do not really convey the spirit of the holiday. So, I chose A Christmas Carol as the movie I would show all my classes.

Though I did not tell my students, reading or watching A Christmas Carol is one of my own personal Christmas traditions. Frankly, I am a sap for this story. No matter how many times I read the novella or see a movie version, I never tire of it.

There are a bazillion versions of Dickens’ classic, but the one I screened was the TNT TV movie from 1999, starring Patrick Stewart. Of all the versions I have seen, this one is my second favorite, after the 1951 version starring Alistair Sim. I have not seen the Jim Carrey version recently shown in the US theaters, but I suspect it has no chance of dislodging the ones I have just mentioned from the top of my list.

One of my students told me he had seen as a middle school student a cartoon version produced in China. Instead of the three Spirits and Marley’s ghost, a Father Christmas figure appears in Scrooge’s home to show him the meaning of Christmas. Lame. Anyway, John (his English name is John Connor) told me he much preferred the version I showed.

Although the story is set in London of the 1840s, Dickens’ story captures the spirit of Christmas better than any textbook explanation, without being overtly religious. Since it also omits Christmas trees and Santa Claus, I could also use to show how Christmas traditions have changed in the 166 years since Dickens published it.

One concern I had, which was corroborated by some students’ remarks afterward, was how much of the movie the students could actually understand. The longer dialogues are pretty hard to follow for a non-native speaker, but I hoped that the visual aspects would help in their comprehension.

It turned out I was right. They got the gist of the story, and perhaps most of them got a better idea of why Christmas is such a Big Thing in the West.

One of my freshman composition students, Gloria Zhu, wrote these comments in her diary. She definitely got it.

… In fact, [Scrooge] was influenced by the people who were kind, open-hearted, optimistic and hardworking around him.

From this film, I was deeply moved by the true meaning of love. Love is not a kind of occupation. Love means giving. Give love, for in giving it you will find the power in life along with joy, happiness, patience and understanding. Anger and depression can be countered by love and hope.

I will note that she wrote this entry before we discussed the movie the week after I showed it.

After a week of screening A Christmas Carol — as much as I love it — I was ready to get back to work. I had two weeks remaining to wrap things up, so would have enough time to read my written exams before I leave for visit to the USA.

My oral English students, as part of their final examinations, had to meet with me two at a time for a 15-minute conversation. Although I told them they did not have to prepare for our sessions, they of course did. Chinese students hate surprises. Years of fairly traditional (aka rigid) schooling have given them no experience in impromptu speaking. To alleviate some of their panic, I gave them some idea of what I might ask them. Since one of the units we had covered this fall was about visiting places, I told them one possible topic of conversation would be the place they would most like to visit.

Now, my students know I am originally from the New York metro area. They also know I lived in South Africa for a year, and that my daughter has lived in France. Guess which places my students said they would most like to visit.

Not only that, many of them used the same phrases, like “New York is a shopping heaven,” which tells me they either compared notes or spent hours memorizing the textbook. Whatever. Mostly, I wanted to engage them, if only briefly, in a short conversation to gauge their vocabulary, comprehension, pronunciation and fluency. It’s easy to pull the over-prepared student out of his or her “comfort zone” by changing the subject.

[I did throw some students a curve ball, by asking them to describe their favorite movie or TV show, topics that are in the textbook but in later chapters. I am happy to say most handled it pretty well. For the most part, their spoken English skills are pretty good, but they have little confidence in them.]

I discovered in our conversations that they all want to travel. No, they yearn to travel. They ache to travel. TV, movies and the Internet have brought the wider world to even the smallest village of Hunan. But many of these college students have never been anywhere outside their own village before coming to Jishou — an admittedly podunk city — to attend university. Think about that fact for a while. It explains a lot of the acute homesickness and naivete the freshmen have during their first term.

Yet, many of these village kids want to see the ocean, Beijing, Shanghai, Tibet, Australia, the UK, the USA, Singapore, Korea, Japan, even Taiwan. They have seen the photos and videos, talked to people who have gone there, but circumstances (money for most of them, and necessary visas for all of them) largely make it almost impossible to them to travel very far from home.

Two students asked me if I could bring any students with me when I visit the USA later this month. I said I really wanted to, but getting the necessary paperwork requires a lot of time and money. I can come and go from China as my budget and time permit. Most Chinese can’t.

Sigh. Field trips in the USA are a hell of a lot simpler.

If I had a magic wand (or a portkey, or some flue powder), I would love to whisk all 330 of our college’s students (plus the faculty, of course) away to see the USA firsthand. Unfortunately, it would take magic, or a very generous educational foundation grant, to bring my students anywhere abroad. The costs of traveling are too high for their families to fund. But my fertile imagination is toying with the idea of organizing a summer trip to Beijing for them. A fair number have never been to their nation’s capital city, while I have been there twice already. It hardly seems fair. I don’t know whether I can pull it off, or how many could actually go, but bringing some of my students into part of the wider world would be the best education I could give them.

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2 thoughts on “ESL students meet Dickens’ Christmas, yearn for travel

  1. Reply Karen DeSpain Jan 3,2010 1:48 am

    Do you think it would be possible to do a an American type fund raiser there, John? If so, you could raise some money for the trip to Beijing. Maybe you could rent some busses and just take a day trip there. Even better,would be two days with one night and have them bunk together in the least amount of rooms at a reasonable hotel.

  2. Reply John Wheaton Jan 3,2010 11:34 pm

    Hehe. A day trip to Changsha is feasible — just 4-5 hours by bus. The quickest way, other than flying, to Beijing is a 13-hour non-stop train ride from Changsha. A sleeper berth is about 500 yuan, about half a farm family's monthly income. The hotel issue by comparison is a minor problem. There are youth hostels around Beijing that rent dorm-style rooms for about 20 yuan ($3) a night.But nothing is impossible. Once I think of a good fundraiser (or creative grant proposal), I'm on it!

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