Reports from Fellows

A key component of personal growth and cultural fluency is reflection; as such, all Yale-China Fellows are required to submit five teaching reports each year: two field reports, two teaching reports, and one Chinese report. These reports also provide colorful insight into the fellowship experience, and we are pleased to be able to periodically share new reports in this space.

China Through a Foreign Lens

Alex Milvae, Xiuning Middle School
Winter Field Report 2014

It’s hard to pick a single experience that encapsulates what it’s been like living in China. For a lot of reasons, China’s hard to pin down. The country itself is huge and diverse. I’ve had wildly different experiences in Chengdu and Beijing, and those sprawling cities are seemingly worlds away from the lustrous canola fields that stretch out behind XiuZhong. more >
In China I’ve been mercilessly overcharged and gifted, deferred to and laughed at. (I’ve been laughed at a lot.) I’ve been told America is doubtlessly better than China and doubtlessly a terrible bully, and I’ve been told that my country’s behavior applies – doubtlessly, of course – to me. I’ve been passed over by empty cabs and chauffeured for free by passersby. I’ve eaten the best food and drunk the worst alcohol. People have ignored simple questions, while, minutes later, others have gone above and beyond to help, escorting me to bus stops, cafes, ruinous towers that (apparently) permit climbing.

It’s hard to combine these experiences into a simple coherent picture, nearly as hard to single out one experience as, if not representative, at least providing particular insight. But all of my experiences in China do have something in common: they’re all viewed through the lens of a foreigner. My foreignness is intractably linked to everything I’ve experienced in this country. It clouds all of my judgments and colors all of my interactions. I can’t escape being different in China, but I can try to explain it.

It’s probably worth noting here that my foreignness, in this context, is largely related to appearance. Though I’ve been, on separate occasions, mistaken for Japanese, asked if my parents are Xiuning natives, and been told my features are “oriental,” I don’t really look like a local. With blond hair and blue eyes, I stand out pretty starkly in most parts of China.

Usually, this is a good thing. People want to talk to me, to find out where I’m from and what I’m doing. My foreignness excuses, at least partially, my inevitable social faux pas, cultural miscues, and linguistic incompetence. It’s the thing about me that generates the most interest, by far. People approach me to say hello or start conversations or vent about American support of Japan, just because of my foreignness. Being foreign gives me an in that might be otherwise hard to come by.

These differences, of course, are why we’re all here. We’ve come to China because we’re all from elsewhere. We’ve come to share our knowledge of English and America, to learn about a culture and country that’s different from where we grew up. We put a face to the nebulous concept of “the other,” something beyond the portraits of the West seen in Hollywood blockbusters and heard in Top 40 pop songs.

But being foreign in China presents its own challenges. There are the obvious challenges, of course. People make assumptions. People ask intrusive questions. People speak insultingly slowly or else impossibly fast. (Maybe, given this alternative, the slowed-down approach shouldn’t be so insulting.) But these are minor compared to the biggest challenge: I can never not be foreign in China. All of my experiences have been colored by the fact that everyone I interacted with knew I wasn’t Chinese.

A few examples, of many:

  • In between TEFL classes in Hefei in August of my first year, a younger, thirstier version of myself looked for a vending machine. After using my two months of Chinese to ask the building security guard if there was a give-me-things-to-drink machine nearby, the guard offered up his bicycle so I could go to a convenience store and make it back before the next session started. In me, a total stranger – and a highly inarticulate, inept stranger at that – he seemingly had complete trust. I was taken aback at the kindness. It’s when I really started to love China.
  • Outside of the Tunxi train station I bought a small noodle-stuffed pancake. The vendor and I chatted as I fished the three kuai out of my pocket.
    You’re a traveler? she asked.
    Actually, I’m a foreign teacher. At XiuZhong.
    Oh! You’re here to help our children! she smiled and handed one kuai back to me. Then it’s only two kuai for you. I thought you were a tourist.
    I smiled and walked away, happy at the significant discount, cognizant that it could also be interpreted as a rare instance of avoiding the laowai surcharge.
  • Last spring I traveled to Nanjing with one of my sitemates, Sabrina, for an impromptu weekend trip. After our couchsurfing host bailed on us at the last minute, we wandered around the center of the city, trying to find housing. All of the smaller hotels told us they were either full or unable to register foreigner guests, and we weren’t about to stay at one of the fancy Western hotels that, not coincidentally, charge fancy Western prices. Eventually, as the hours passed and our previous night of restless hard-seat train travel caught up with us, we got desperate. After another rejection from a booked-up hotel, Sabrina asked the receptionist if we could rest in the lobby for a while. The receptionist agreed, and Sabrina told me the plan: stay quiet, sink down low in the couch cushions, and hope they forget we’re there after we fall asleep. It worked. We slept on that couch until 3 am, when the lobby security guard shook us awake and told us he was going to sleep and we’d have to leave. We wandered out onto the chilly, dead-silent city streets and turned into the first hotel we saw. No rooms available, as expected, but again we were welcome to rest in the lobby. This time we were too tired for tact. We stretched out on the foyer’s two long benches. I took off my shoes, Sabrina put on an eye mask, and we both slept. Sometime in the middle of the night, the receptionist – a young woman who had to stay awake all night, manning a counter that had no customers – draped a jacket over each of us. It was cold, and neither of us had blankets. When we woke up we thanked her and returned the jackets. She smiled, and we headed out to get breakfast.

It’s hard to form any judgments from a few individual events. I can’t say for certain how these scenarios would have gone if I hadn’t been foreign, or even if I hadn’t been so obviously foreign. Maybe I would’ve had to run to get a bottle of juice. Maybe I’d have a few more kuai in my pocket or a few more bing in my belly. Maybe I would’ve spent a night on the unforgiving streets of Nanjing, or in a hotel room. But I don’t know for sure, and I can’t know, because these experiences – and every single experience I’ve had in China – is inseparable from my foreignness. I can’t say how many of those experiences would have been different. Maybe not that many. Maybe I really have experienced the fundamental nature of Chinese society, in spite of my foreignness. But I can’t say for sure. And I think that’s important for us to remember.

BLUE: A Cartoon Report

Hana Omiya, Yali Middle School
Winter Field Report 2014 | Comic inspired by Allie Brosh

Life in the Sha presents fantastic features. These features include but are not limited to: the Ferris wheel, la comida caliente, the new art district, Chinese friends named after fruits, and the boast-worthy community of site-mates who love and support each other. This leaves just one outlying piece about the Sha that kills me, literally. That outlier is the air. more >
Prior to flipping my residency to the opposite side of the azure atlas, I had acquired some knowledge that China was a “dirty” place. Not in the way, on my first day, we found feces all over the kitchen. Forgivably, it is the nature of rats to be a little gross with their table manners. Nothing unavoidable with good cleaning. No. I learned after settling that China is direly and unavoidably “dirty” because we live to face consequences of a largely unconstrained industrial revolution.
Living in Changsha means living in a polluted fishbowl. In this fishbowl, accessible oxygen and water are acutely limited. And regardless of big fish, little fish, native fish, or foreign invasive species, everyone has to drink the dirty oxygen to stay alive. This explains my recent wardrobe of mildly fashionable turtleneck shirts as a semi-effective air filter.
The quality of the air also daily and dramatically affects how I feel.
If I detect fog hanging in the air that day without a hint of rain clouds or condensation, my attitude towards work and life turns sour. Likewise, if I could see the blue sky, well, BANZAI!
But the truth about the blue sky in China is it only lasts a matter of days. Without the government and its people making drastic effort to stop pollution from its source, it only takes the continual traffic emissions, construction debris, and factory chimneys to work their magic on the city’s notorious Air Quality Index (AQI).

Our friend from Yali thought it would be good for us to go on outdoor expeditions, get a fresh perspective of Changsha from the countryside. If it meant flapping my hand farewell at the smog for one weekend, I couldn’t have obliged more enthusiastically.

But, the smog still followed us.
Months passed, and even without nature trips, I was getting better and better at changing my perspective on the air. Those AQI standards are merely relative!
Between “slightly congested” and “irritating to smile,” these symptoms from the day’s forecast became considered normal for Changsha. If the symptoms grew heavier, such as “headaches” and “car sick even though I’m not in a car” I would simply stay indoors and produce mucus from the holes in my face like an inside-out slug. This past Lunar New Year, the AQI soared and soared and kept soaring until I couldn’t be bothered to think it was real.
It was imperative for me to recognize that these conditional spells of optimism and forced ignorance would wax and wane like the moon.

The quality of air affected me and the people around me in ways beyond our vascular health. The air changed our outlook on life itself: our energy level would rise and fall, optimism come and go, and ability to want to go out and explore the city became highly dependent on smog. I didn’t learn to like Changsha as a place until my friends began forcing me out into the streets, ignoring the air. It played with my very willingness to assimilate in China.

Eventually, not only would I turn hypercritical of anything that I felt irrational about China, but the entire vein of my existence would seem to spiral down to just waiting, waiting for rain to bring a clear day again.
It took some time before I realized this situation of living in cyclical depression and denial was NOT OKAY. To be followed everywhere I went by a gray horizon, to be very conscious about the act of breathing, to be emotionally and intellectually wary of the disgusting air that I live in – this was the reality of living in Changsha.
But what about your friends! These are people’s homes. Bill Peng lives here. Papaya lives here. Your students live here. Certainly, they would have a greater say regarding why we should endure this air? In hopes of finding reason with myself, I started asking locals how they perceived the state of pollution and the government’s industrial intentions.
The investigation turned on itself.

Didn’t the United States also undergo the Industrial Revolution? Didn’t our democratic plans also allow toxic levels of emissions and deforestation? The American Dust Bowl is, to date, the largest human made ecological catastrophe in U.S. history – a direct result of the over-ambitious and irresponsible economic and agricultural plans by the government.

So what does it matter that I care?

What matters is that China is changing. This conceivably reflects the willingness of China to change its course of pollution as well.

The fright of Harbin’s AQI last winter and the shortage of drinkable water in Beijing have snagged a corner of the government’s attention. Recently, too, they’ve made efforts to invest in cleaner natural gas and electric cars for citizens who can afford them. These are baby steps, small but significant.

I hope by the time Chinh and I welcome the new fellows to the Sha, blue skies will have become a little less of a novelty.

A Flexible Understanding of Flexibility

Hayley Johnson, Yali Middle School
Fall Teaching Report 2013

The summer I did CET [the Chinese language program attended by Fellows], one of the things I wrote about in response to a prompt we received was that flexibility in teaching is what separates an okay teacher from a truly excellent one. Having the presence of mind to perceive the situation and your students is essential for knowing when and how you should deviate from your plan. more >
If your students are struggling, you need to understand how to stop and re-present what you are teaching them. Rigidly pushing forward with your class objectives is meaningless if your students fail to grasp the concepts.

There is, however, more to the idea of flexibility in teaching than just knowing whether or not your students understand. When I first started teaching last year, I think that my brain was processing so much new information that I wasn’t very flexible beyond the bare minimum. I was usually happy if I got through the material in the timeframe I had planned and with reasonable certainty that most of my students had understood what was happening. What I was not good at was dealing with the unexpected. When situations or opportunities arose that I was not comfortable with or ready for, I would just gloss over them and move on. I planned my classes incredibly rigidly down to every sentence I would say and every example I would give. If I found myself derailed I would sometimes have a blank moment where I wasn’t sure how to respond or what to do next.

One of the things I started to realize at the end of last year and have been perfecting this year is a deeper understanding of the idea of flexibility. Flexibility is not just knowing when to stop and start again. It’s also about knowing how to use any and every opportunity presented to you as a teaching moment, either for the material at hand or for bigger goals in your class. When the unexpected arises, it is tempting to try to hurry back to the comfort of a ridged plan. However, this often wastes extremely powerful or interesting opportunities to connect to your students and excite them about their experience in your classroom. As we have talked about as a group on many occasions, student engagement is the essential ingredient for learning. Refusing to take opportunities to heighten student interest is a waste.

One of the things I have started to do this year is build room for spontaneity into my lesson plans. If I have an exciting idea in the middle of class, I use it. Period. Even though I usually prepare some examples before hand, I have discovered that the best comprehension checks and illustrations always come to me completely spontaneously in the middle of class. Last year, if I asked my students, “What is an advertisement?” and heard only cricket chirps in response, I would probably just write the definition out on the board or ask the students to look at a picture and tell me if it was an advertisement or not. I would have had something planned that was solid, but probably not particularly interesting. This year, when I asked my students “What is an advertisement?” and heard only crickets, I asked a second question, “Is this an advertisement?” I held up my phone and said, “This phone is terrible. You shouldn’t buy it,” throwing it onto the ground. I immediately had everyone’s attention. Some students gasped in shock. I asked again, “Is this an advertisement?” This time, many students shouted “NO!” Then I asked them, “Is this an advertisement?” I leaned over, picked up my phone, and peeled of its phone case. I held up the case, smiling and nodding, and looked at my phone saying, “It’s perfectly fine! This phone case is amazing!” You can guess how the rest of this vignette proceeded.

While the above is not the most dignified example I can think of, it was something that occurred to me in the moment when my class was particularly unresponsive to a question we had talked about before. When my lesson plans have rigid expectations for how my students will respond and they don’t, I used to have those aforementioned blank moments – I was rarely able to think flexibly and come at the question from a different angle. Now, because I expect that things won’t always go exactly as planned, I am able to come up with responses that are significantly more useful in teaching situations.

Comprehension checks and illustrations are one side of learning to be flexible and spontaneous as a teacher. A more rare and perhaps more serious side is how to read the broader situation that your students are experiencing and respond to it. Last year, we had to decide how to respond to the Diaoyu islands controversy – should we talk about it in class? Should we just field any discussion that came up? It was an issue I felt uncomfortable with, and when my students would mention it, I would mostly gloss over it.

This year, one of my classes came in completely fired up about the idea that the US might bomb Syria. I could have tried to manhandle their attention to the topic we were studying, but instead, I gave them a choice – would they like to proceed with class as normal or have a short discussion about this issue? They unanimously decided to talk about the US and Syria, and we proceeded to have a very lively discussion about American and Chinese foreign politics. Ultimately, I think they felt like they had learned some important ideas and had been able to express their concerns and thoughts. It was a class that left me with a spring in my step, even though we didn’t finish everything we’d planned that day.

Learning to use the situation in which you find yourself as a concept has literally infinite implications. When I observed one of Yali’s English teachers, Anthony, he demonstrated an extremely simple form of flexibility – he used me in his class. Normally, when I observe other teachers, I am treated like an honored guest who is there just to watch. Before class, however, Anthony called me over to his desk. They were doing a unit on different kinds of signs – road signs, business signs, advertisements, etc – and he had one particularly difficult one as his final example. It was a sign that referred to the Grateful Dead and had other obscure cultural references. It became clear that he wasn’t 100% sure how to interpret this sign, and he asked me if I would be willing to explain it to the class. I found this request extremely powerful. Not only was Anthony not nervous to be observed, he was not too proud to use whatever resources were at his disposal to teach his students.

I think that Anthony and I have different styles. Obviously my class is inherently less rigid than his because they are strapped to their English textbook and the Gaokao, but his effortless confidence and ability to react to any situation that presents itself calmly and coolly is extremely instructive. My students certainly perceive Anthony as more serious and intimidating than they perceive me. I think they find me a little crazy and ridiculous at times. However, the level of crazy and ridiculous I bring to the classroom is calculated. While Anthony’s flexibility expresses itself in calmly appraising situations, mine often expresses itself in spontaneously generating ideas. His fearlessness in using whatever resources at his disposal is definitely inspiring, and I think this is something towards which I am making progress. The key for myself is to continue learning how best to take advantage of my own personal brand of flexibility.

Like Folding Paper

Trinh Nguyen, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Fall Teaching Report 2012

Last month, Angel and I had the chance to host three friends in GB for a crafts session. After searching for “easy origami instructions,” we decided to tackle an inflatable bird, but soon realized that we actually needed previous mastery of inflatable rabbits, which was only possible with a waterbomb base. more >
(Fortunately, our resident origami expert knew exactly what all the terms meant.) In some ways, my first months teaching at CUHK have been like attempting intermediate origami – there are some folds I have little trouble with and will be able to use in more difficult projects, and others, when sloppily done, only become apparent when evaluating the completed form.

Though I did not inherit my family’s advanced artistic abilities and still rely on stick figures, I generally enjoy crafts because of the opportunity to be both creative and personal. Teaching has been rewarding because I am constantly pushed to think about how to design lessons that will be both informative and engaging. Certain aspects, like simple valley or mountain folds, feel second-nature to me. Though there is always the potential for confused silence and unexpected responses, I am usually confident about facilitating discussions and making explicit links between what students have shared, what I have presented, and learning objectives. I also enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to explain more difficult concepts with examples that I know students will connect with after getting to know them. On the other hand, I have had my share of “inflatable bird” moments, where I realize belatedly that I should have first checked that students had a good understanding of basic folds -- whether it is related to writing skills or my expectations – before moving onto more difficult tasks. For example, I had to clarify thesis statements after reading journal prompts where students were confusing them with characteristics of persuasive essays, and had to assuage fears after learning that students felt pressured to “make up” long journal entries, even if they did not have much to say. (As one student phrased during individual conferences, “Even though you told us that we could just write ‘I don’t know much about MLA citations,’ we can’t just write that! We have to create a story about what we don’t know and guess at what it is!”)

While I have been progressing onto more difficult units, I am still shy of reaching certain goals, such as modular origami. My greatest challenge continues to be engaging 2330 students since it is difficult to find a happy medium with them. Since this is their third semester of CENG, they also like to compare me to their previous tutors. Though we joke around, some of my decisions earlier in the semester, like barely crisp or uneven folds, have had unintended consequences. Based on survey results about learning styles from our first class, I had believed I would best be able to accommodate the majority of students by having a clearly defined lecture portion with slides to introduce new units, and then focusing on independent pair/group work for the rest of long class sessions. Unfortunately, my execution has made some students feel that they do not have enough production opportunities, and others wishing I spent more time talking. I have been working on minimizing distance; gamifying speaking opportunities (I use a suit of playing cards during icebreakers since I have 13 students, and create incentives for groups to quickly complete Mind Maps); and reaffirming responses after they present, but it is clear that their first impression of me is the one that has stuck. In the future, I do not think I will administer surveys as early, and will try to better integrate opportunities for student production during the “lecture” portions of new units.

Part II: Chinese Colleague Observation

I recently sat in on Prof. T’s Introduction to Children’s Literature course, where he lectured to about 50 students. The class consisted of three parts: (1) a continuation of the previous week’s Romanticism lecture, (2) a Q&A session to discuss term paper expectations, and (3) a close reading of a Wordsworth poem.

Even though the class started at 8:30am on Monday morning, the students seemed engaged and comfortable with Prof. T. Before lecture began, he walked around to ask individual students to recap the last class. During the lecture, Prof. T used a clip-on microphone and only used the whiteboard once to draw a diagram. He frequently asked students to identify how their various readings illustrated his points, and emphasized that they needed to reference specific moments in the texts. Prof. T would solicit responses from multiple volunteers before amending them if their interpretation did not quite fit. Though he covered a great deal of material (Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution, Romanticism, etc.), he frequently contextualized the eras through examples from the readings/contemporary HK life. In contrast, during the last part of the lesson, Prof. T lectured without calling on students. In terms of adapting the lesson in my own seminars, for next semester’s poetry unit, since I am working with younger students, I would be more likely to require students to have a copy of the poem in front of them, and frequently use comprehension checks when discussing passages.

What stood out most to me was Prof. T’s use of the term paper Q&A session to begin a larger discussion about the writing process. He emphasized that writing was a craft, and that through doing it, you could demonstrate your own knowledge. While students mainly asked about the definition of particular prompt terms, Prof. T pushed them to think about their writing style and why they asked him to look over outlines. Was it because they wanted a seal of approval (and therefore a guarantee of a B), or because they were struggling with an ambitious idea? One highlight was when he mentioned that students get “hung up” on certain words every year, and explained that “’treatment’ is a word that can mean anything you want it to be.” I do have the sense that students often look for very specific guidance on assignments to fit their papers to a formula, and hope to have a similar discussion about writing in my own classes.

In general, I feel that I am perceived as a tutor that tries to maintain a relaxed atmosphere, has high expectations, and is accommodating but very firm once deadlines are set. It has been exciting to see more 1310 students openly dissenting with their peers since they initially felt afraid to, and to learn that quieter 2330 students feel comfortable speaking in class. Because Minh and I regularly discuss topics we are interested in, I believe that the General Education students view us as instructors that wish to share our perspectives while genuinely encouraging them to develop their own opinions.

Fellows were prompted to devise a metaphor that illustrates their experience of teaching in China, and then to observe a Chinese colleague and reflect on that teacher's technique and interactions with students.


Sabrina Karim, Xiuning Middle School
Spring Chinese Report 2013

请你们闭上眼睛想象一下: 你们跟五百个人一起玩。那里有一个乐队在舞台上,所有的灯在闪烁,鼓和电吉他的声音冲击着你的耳朵,火花和气泡包围着你。你猜一下,你在哪里啊? 可能你会以为这是Lady Gaga的演唱会。 more >
我上个星期在这样的情况下,参加了一个婚礼。其实,我也在舞台上,表演了节目。我来中国之前没想到我可以有如此独特的经历。这个事特别有趣,因为新郎和新娘我都不认识。也一个客人都不认识。我只是和主持人的同事有一面之交,而这个同事曾经主持过我的邻居的女儿的婚礼。哎呀! 可想而知这个关系太复杂了。此外, 他们直到婚礼的前三天才问我能否表演。 那为什么我会去参加? 有人问我,为何你不收钱? 首先,因为对我来说,这样的活动是一种享受。我喜欢表演,但是现在这样的机会不常有。 其次,这是一个可以体现中国的人际关系的例子。平时也有很多中国人帮助我们,所以呢,可以用一个美国说法来表达,”Pay it forward.” 用中文可以说 “爱心传递”。

另外,这个机会让我发现了,在中国有时候外国人也可以担任一些独特的角色。 除了外教老师和学中文的学生以外,我也当一种娱乐活动。 可能我们外国人的中文不够流利,但是我们可以用其他的有效的办法来帮忙。好像我们噱头真多!因为是这样,经常有人邀请我们做一些意想不到的事,比方说:“你们可以在这个圣诞节当大堂经理吗?”或者“你们能不能来黄山在CCTV上包汤圆?”上个星期是,“柯瑞娜,你可以来帮忙做婚礼上的客串歌手吗?”

每次参加这样的活动,我都觉得挺有意思。 这样的经历也让我们了解了中国的传统和中国人的热情好客。 然而有时候也让我们觉得自己相当于大熊猫! 很多人看到大熊猫的时候,都很好奇,都很喜欢,会拍很多照片和录像。这个情况和我们的很像。在舞台上,我们外国人总能吸引住观众的眼球。在我们的对面有好多照相机和手机,可以让客人记下外国人怎么这么能说中文, 怎么这么能唱中文歌, 怎么还会包汤圆。

Fellows were prompted to share a story about their time in China: 你已经住在中国一两年了,经历了很多有意思的事情。请考虑你在中国的生活并选择一个故事给我们讲。

TXTing @ CUHK (?) :-)

Abigail Cheung, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Winter Field Report 2013

Before I arrived at Yale, I was a technological dinosaur. I’d never owned a cell phone, I listened to the radio instead of an Apple product, and I was glad Yale had tech support, because I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to resuscitate my laptop’s dying hard drive during exam period if I needed to myself. more >
Luckily, my time at Yale was highly educational. I purchased my first cell phone, mastered the art of T-9 (predictive texting) without too many mishaps and adapted to having my stream of consciousness regularly disrupted by Gmail notifications. I became (somewhat) technologically savvy.

Despite making technological advances during university, I remained unprepared for what Hong Kong had in store for me. Hong Kong is wired like no other city I’ve been to. There are televisions on the subway, cell phone service underwater and QR codes on the trees (Seriously! You should check them out at CU!) Electronic enthusiasts regularly visit Wan Chai’s “Computer City” while bargain hunters search the stalls in Sham Shui Po. During my first 19 months here, Hong Kong opened its first, then second, then third Apple store. And still, Hong Kong’s technological landscape continues to evolve.

At first, I was amazed. I could Skype with my friends in an underwater tunnel? Once the amazement settled, I began to feel a bit intimidated. Once I upgraded a couple of my gadgets, I felt substantially cooler. It’s strange though. Although I just graduated and know I’m relatively young, in some ways, especially when it comes to technology, I’ve begun to feel old.

On the first day of class this semester, I administered a survey. Part of me wanted to know how I could make my course more useful to students, and part of me was nosy. Who were my students? What made them tick? So I asked my students some questions to get to know them better. What did they enjoy thinking about and what did they like to do in their free time? I got a variety of answers—“Why do people grow apart and drift away so easily without even trying?” “How can I make more friends?” “Why do I exist in this world?” “How can I give my family a better quality of life?” “Watching YouTube clips.” “Food.” “Badminton.” “Seamus Heaney (I like his “Requiem for the Croppies).”

But when I thought about the prompt for this report, one answer stood out:

At CUHK, the line between being a teacher rather than a friend is often blurred. Maggie’s response surprised me because it had managed to cross that line. At Yale, I would never have written an assignment in electronic shorthand, no matter how casual the assignment seemed; in my mind LOLs, (?)s and =Ps were words and symbols reserved for friends only. Maggie’s response proved to me that this isn’t the case at CU.

How could I adapt though? Should I? The more I listened, the more I learned. One tutor told me he favoured scheduling one-on-one conferences with his students over Skype to meeting them in person because their extracurricular lives were so busy. Another told me that one CENG student had gained fame for drawing her notes, rather than writing them. Her sketches, Joe informed me, were now available to most English students over email.

Although the advancement and globalization of technology have not diluted my fellowship experience on the whole, sometimes I have the urge to purge technology from my classroom. This semester, my English students seem particularly attached to their cell phones. Occasionally, they use them as dictionaries, but it seems like more often, they are on WhatsApp or Facebook. I have considered banning them, but also wonder if it’s me who needs to continue to adapt.

Fellows were prompted to respond to the statement "The advancement and globalization of technology have diluted the fellowship experience."

On Rediscovering Effort

Alex Milvae, Xiuning Middle School
Spring Teaching Report 2013

Dear ----------,

I’m writing to update you on my first year in China. A lot has happened – more than I can describe in any reasonably-lengthed letter – and there are a lot of things I could say about my time here. more >
I could write about adjusting to a new culture, and the insidious lie that is the Culture Shock Curve. I could write about living somewhere new and different, and how in the end, it’s still the little things, the personal and interpersonal, that make us happy or sad. Or I could write about my plans for the future, and just leave the rest of this page blank. But you’re a professor who always valued hard work, so I’ll share a lesson I’ve learned here that I think you’ll appreciate. Here goes.

With time and effort, the vast majority of people can become pretty good at the vast majority of things.

If I’m being completely honest with myself (and at this point I don’t see why I wouldn’t be) I’ve spent the majority of my life not really challenging myself. I’m not sure if I’ve been afraid of failure so much as I’ve enjoyed moderate, leisurely success. As you certainly know, I didn’t spend my college years taking the most rigorous academic offerings. I enjoyed what I studied, and I learned things, but I rarely strayed from safe, secure offerings. Doing things I was bad at wasn’t fun, so I didn’t do them.

But in China, I’ve adjusted. I’ve been working on things (teaching, learning Chinese, guitar playing, etc.) that I’m not particularly good at. And I’ve learned, above all, the impact that sustained effort can have, even on the most difficult problems.

Let me tell you a story.

I have a friend who once told me she could not possibly learn to play the guitar. I was skeptical, but she insisted. She’d tried, she said. Twice. As in, two occasions. Two days, two brief periods of time. And she still couldn’t play the guitar, so she threw in the towel. She told me her fingers just didn’t work that way, that she couldn’t learn to play the guitar. At the time, I shrugged, accepted her story, and we talked about something else. But now, given nearly a year in China, I’ve learned.

The real reason she couldn’t play the guitar wasn’t that her fingers had some deficiency. It’s that she never learned to play the guitar. It’s a skill! Of course she wasn’t good at it. No one is born knowing how to play the guitar. You have to practice.

When I came to China, I could not play the guitar. Now, I can play somewhere between 2 and 4 songs semi-competently, plus a bunch more very poorly. (If you thought this guitar riff was all a metaphor, you’ve vastly overestimated my creative abilities.) I was born with little to no innate musical talent. In my childhood, I started and quickly dropped enough musical instruments to form a small, idiosyncratic indie rock band. (I had, for example, an emotional, month-long tryst with a set of bagpipes that ended in tears.) I wasn’t bad at those instruments because I wasn’t talented (though that’s also true); I was bad because I never practiced.

In a similar vein, when I arrived in China, I was literally the worst Chinese speaker in the world. (Alright, I was tied for being the worst Chinese speaker, along with many, many others.) I’m not as bad now. Why? Well, because Yale-China gave me summer language training, and because I meet with a tutor every day, but also because of time and effort. Sometimes studying the language can be overwhelming: there’s just so much that I don’t know. But it’s encouraging to have a conversation with a friend, or a street vendor, or to listen to a pop song or Youku commercial, and to hear and understand a word that I just studied. It’s gratification for the effort, and it’s proof of the secret. It’s not about specialized flash card systems or mnemonics or stories about how certain characters look like aliens stealing Christmas trees (though those do help, at least in surviving 一百班); the secret is sustained effort. Chinese isn’t trying to trick you or con you. That’s crazy – it’s a language. You get out what you put in.

In a way, it’s heartening. There’s a sense of liberation, knowing that effort can bring you the results you want. It gives us back agency, and it forces us to take responsibility.

If I were to take nothing else away from my time in China, the experience would still be of value if only for the wisdom that time and effort can conquer most challenges. Spending my days surrounded by students who are told again and again that success depends mostly upon their effort has rubbed off on me. I think that most people really can achieve a good amount with enough concentrated effort. There are limits, of course. I’m not Carlos Santana or Eric Clapton. But in a few years, if I keep at it, I could probably be in a Social Distortion cover band. Or I could make cogent arguments about Chinese foreign policy. Or I could be a pretty solid teacher.

To wrap up, let’s go back to the guitar analogy. Back in high school, a friend of mine tried to teach me a few chords. I distinctly remember him pointing to the guitar and telling me, ‘This isn’t easy. It’s something you’re going to have to suck at for a while.’ Back then, I wasn’t ready for that. I was bad, and after a few days trying, I quit. I didn’t like doing something I was so bad at. Now, thanks to China, I’m ready. I’ve spent a long while sucking. Over the past year, I’ve started sucking less, in the classroom, on the street, and on the guitar. I think I’ve even spent a little bit of time not sucking, and you know what? It feels so much better, knowing that I’ve gone from bad to competent. There’s a real sense of accomplishment, and a real sense of possibility. It’s exciting, and I’m looking forward to where the rest of this adventure takes me.

Fellows were prompted to write a letter to an advisor from their time at Yale in which they describe their growth so far during the teaching fellowship.

A Day in the Life of a Yali Fellow

Stephanie Cheng, Yali Middle School
Winter Field Report 2013

In the morning, I’m awoken by the music playing over the speakers at Yali signaling students to begin their morning exercises. My phone buzzes with emails from students sending me their homework assignments: their creative interpretations of favorite pieces of classical music. more >
I send a quick QQ message to Xiao Li in the copy office, asking her to print worksheets for class today.

On the way to class, I run into Luo Laoshi, the woman who controls the content on the brand-new Announcement Screen every student passes on his or her way to class. I thank her for putting up our advertisement for the Building Bridges trip, providing us with a more efficient method of reaching out to students than previous years’ tactics: putting up posters and running to each homeroom during breaks. Just before class, students talk excitedly about Yali students’ take of PSY’s popular Gangnam Style, or “Yali Style”, which quickly went viral throughout China. (Search it on if you haven’t seen it yet!)

After class, my fellow Fellow Liz and I head to our weekly calligraphy class, where Zhou Laoshi teaches us how to write a new heng stroke. I take a picture of my writing with my phone and post it on WeChat, a Chinese messaging and social networking app. My family, friends, and even students reply almost instantly with oohs and aahs, creating an interesting juxtaposition of traditional and modern Chinese culture. Maybe tomorrow’s Library Hour topic will center around students’ thoughts on calligraphy and whether it remains a relevant skill in today’s modern life!

Back at home, we’re having a Yali house meeting to discuss everything we need to take care of in the next week. We use AirDrop to send files to each other’s computers, and end the meeting by re-watching our favorite musical auditions of that day and posting it on YouTube for friends and family to enjoy.

The point is: technology touches every part of our lives in Changsha, and I’m often surprised by how little technological difference there is between my life in China and in the US. When people talk about moving to different cultures, the words “culture shock” are inevitably thrown into the mix. The advancement of technology has strengthened the positives of this “shock” (seeing new places and perspectives, learning a new language, and being able to share experiences with those at home) and decreased all the negatives (homesickness, loneliness). Moving your whole life to China ends up being less of a “shock” and more of a well-supported “learning experience”. Even before you actually move, there are a number of resources that can help ease your transition. And once you arrive, there are an amazing number of ways to seek thoughts and advice both from those around you and from loved ones at home.

Sometimes, I reflect on how Fellows in the past committed themselves to two years of no contact with other native English speakers, little access to Western products like butter, hot chocolate, and cheese, and communicating with family members only through the occasional letter. Though the landscape in China today is drastically different from the China of the past, it is just as real. In the 21st century, cell phones, YouTube, and QQ are inescapable. Part of the challenge and excitement of living in China during this unique time is discovering how to use technology in a way that enhances and supports, rather than detracts from, the Fellowship experience. If you were to ask Angel at CUHK or Sabrina at Xiuning, or even Marie at Yali, I’m sure they would all give you different answers of how technology has influenced their lives. In my case, technology has allowed me to bridge gaps between my life and my students’ lives, creating a sense of belonging in a foreign country.

Fellows were prompted to respond to the statement "The advancement and globalization of technology have diluted the fellowship experience."

Technology and Loved Ones

Marie Calvert-Kilbane, Yali Middle School
Winter Field Report 2013

On my way to China, I felt like I was saying goodbye for at least a year, if not two, to most of my world. I had (mostly) broken up with my boyfriend, forced everyone I knew out to “Marie’s Lower East Side Going Away Party,” and cried the entire 6-hour flight to San Francisco before boarding my flight to Beijing. more >
I had explained myself hoarse about how this was “my opportunity to try living abroad on my own, without my family, on my own.” I imagined wandering the streets in a random Chinese city, attempting in halting Chinese to buy fruit at a market, with nothing but my wits and Steph (and Gang and Chacey too of course, although they slipped my mind in the original daydreams) to help me through these two years.

A year and a half later, the reality of my move was very different. A couple of days after arriving in Beijing, I Skyped my boyfriend, and, without much fanfare, we proceeded to pick up from where we had left off. I practically spoke to my New York friends more often while in China (albeit through Gchat and Skype) than when I lived just uptown from them. My family talked to me at least weekly, and managed to make it all the way to China during my summer off, something that I’m sure was uncommon even 10 years ago for most Fellows’ families, with China slightly off the normal summer vacation circuit. I was able to hear about the experiences of other fellows on a regular basis, bounce teaching ideas of my school-teacher sister in NY when I was stuck on Sunday nights, and was almost guaranteed a response from a Yale-China staff member within an hour of an email (especially now with one in Hong Kong and another in New Haven!). Technology has made my world feel much more close than I ever expected.

Yes, our fellowship is not the same it was over 30 years ago, when it reopened at Yali or anywhere else in the mainland. Yes, we are able, within minutes (and according to time zone rules) to call our loved ones. Yes, perhaps we aren’t throwing ourselves out there like we might have had to in the past. But the fact that we have the access we do to our families and friends makes us that much more prepared to succeed in all that we are attempting.

Hayley talked about how few Yale-China Fellows have mentioned feeling homesick. While I think that as a group we are pretty unique in that we have such a strong support system built in, I think this is at least partly true because of our new technology. I remember talking to Marcy Brooks, and her telling me that she had dated her future husband while on her fellowship in China – from what I understood, their interactions were pretty much limited to letters. While I have great faith in my generation, it seems pretty unlikely that someone today would be willing to rely on just letter-writing as a means for connection for two whole years. Of course, I admit freely that I am a victim of my own generation, someone brought up with this technology at hand, and, luckily for me, this access to modern technology is available both in the U.S. and in China.

Sometimes I think about the fact that only 20 short years ago, someone who signed up for this fellowship was actually promising to have no other native English speakers in the area, kept away from Western products like cheese, hot chocolate, or even (the all important) butter that Rachel mentioned has even made it to Xiuning, to perhaps even not talking on the phone with their family for the extent of their fellowship. But, as many others in our group today have put it (in far grander ways than me), as much as that was the real China, what we have today is another picture of the real China. Our students would be puzzled to hear that we hadn’t communicated with our parents in months, surprised we had missed the most recent iteration of a "Gangnam Style" video, and will normally revel in the fact that they (once again) beat me to the punch when it comes to a new Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber song. It’s still shocking to me how much they already know about American culture, but it’s equally shocking what they don’t know. Our fellowship thrives on these differences, but these connections, brought about by the globalization of our world, only serve to bring us closer to our students.

Dilution is too negative a word. While there are differences, technology has only served to make my fellowship experience stronger, more supported, and happier. And that seems pretty good to me.

Fellows were prompted to respond to the statement "The advancement and globalization of technology have diluted the fellowship experience."

Butter and Facebook

Rachel Corbin, Xiuning Middle School
Winter Field Report 2013

A few weeks ago, butter became available in the biggest, most international grocery store in Tunxi. Gone forever are the days of Xiuzhong fellows slinging butter-filled back-packs over our shoulders every time they head home from Changsha, Hangzhou, or Shanghai. The new fellows will never know how easy they have it. We can tell them tales, but they will never fully understand. more >
Butter availability may not be a “technology,” but by my interpretation of the statement “the advancement and globalization of technology have diluted the fellowship experience,” the ability to buy butter runs a perfect parallel with the ability to send email, make phone calls, and have relatively swift and comfortable travel experiences to, from, and within China. These things make life easy and can connect us with our old American lifestyle. Before them life was harder and fellows were more isolated.

Moving to China is a great adventure for any recent graduate, and what makes it an adventure is that it is challenging. There are three necessary challenges that every Yale-China Teaching Fellow must face: teaching English, learning Chinese, and becoming involved in the community. These three are featured prominently on page two of the current Yale-China Teaching Fellowship handbook. Page one, by the way, is just the table of contents. By my estimation as well as my clearly stated job description, those three elements are the crucial and unchanging parts of the fellowship; everything else is extra. Nowhere does the handbook say, “Thou shalt live a butterless existence in separation from thy family.” That certainly would be a challenge and thus, an adventure, but it is not what defines the fellowship.

China is changing, so my job is to be involved in a changing community. Although my experience is different from pre-Internet fellows, it is not less authentic, nor is it more dilute. 2013 Xiuning is a place where my 9-year old neighbor has a QQ account, illiterate grandmothers own cellular phones, and my students have heard the newest Taylor Swift song the day it comes out (and a good month before I have). To not take part in this technological advancement and globalization for the sake of an old-time adventure would be to miss out on the real and current Yale-China experience. My ownership of a QQ account and a YouKu account (which I use to watch both Chinese and foreign videos, just as my students and neighbors do) is one way that I experience present day China. Of course, excessive facebooking via VPN is not an effective use of fellows’ time, but I think that would be more relevant to the prompt “facebook dilutes life,” than to “technology dilutes the fellowship experience.” Furthermore, I think all fellows are aware of these dangers and make conscious efforts to avoid them, so I’ll leave it at just a mention.

The essence of the fellowship is about challenging ourselves with teaching and learning and with experiencing real, present-day China. This essence cannot be diluted by technology’s or China’s advancement. I will admit that the fellows one hundred, or sixty, or even fifteen years ago were more hardcore than I will ever be. They were braver than I am, and they stood strongly in the face of isolation, without a single stick of butter to comfort them. My successors will not know the struggles of pre-water-pump, pre-butter Xiuzhong. Their successors will meet even fewer of the challenges that globalization and technology are rapidly dispensing with. All the while, each set of fellows will be experiencing a very new, very real, and very exciting China.

Fellows were prompted to respond to the statement "The advancement and globalization of technology have diluted the fellowship experience."

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