Full Title: Yes China! An English Teacher’s Love-Hate Relationship with a Foreign Country
Author: Clark Nielsen
Publisher: Self (2011)
Number of Pages: 264
How long it took me to read: 7 days
Where I got this book: Uncustomary Book Submission
Like a Moth to a Flame
I taught English for a year in Turkey several years ago, so when I saw this book available at The Free Bookstore, I really wanted to read it…see if the author’s experience was similar to mine. I’ve also known many people who’ve taught abroad. Teacher’s abroad can be a weird bunch—they’re an odd mix of people just looking for short-term adventure, traveling hippies looking to make money to go to their next destination, and those you suspect left their home country ’cause they were running from something (the law, perhaps). Thrust those people together in a place where they don’t speak the language but have to teach (often with little or no experience) and it makes for an interesting time.
I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:
5. “Now that the quiet corner had been dismantled, the other kids went wild. They crawled on the floor, wrestled, punched each other, and tried to pull Jason’s pants down again.” (p.26)
4. “It’s easy to rag on Chinese citizens, but the people who really pissed me off were the other foreigners. China could be a very ‘dog eat dog’ world, and many foreigners relished in the chance to finally be the slobs they couldn’t be back home.” (p.183)
3. “The number one rule in describing a country is that it’s never as good as the citizens think and never as bad as the foreigners think.” (p.262)
2. “In China, I was constantly complaining about people’s manners and the incessant smoking and the terrible traffic, and I painted the US to be this beautiful, friendly place where none of those things every happened. But now that I was back, I grew more and more surprised by just how wrong I was.” (p.262)
…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…
1. “It wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t a random game that, by the will of Buddha, had magically kept their attention. I knew what I was doing this time. I had tamed the wild beast. I had taught these kids some English.” (p.190)
Conversation with the Reader
While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:
“Almost from the get-go, I don’t know if I should be offended by or slightly uncomfortable with Nielsen’s cultural generalities, or pleasantly surprised by the honesty of his thoughts. I decide to give him the benefit of the doubt and then I get it. Nielsen writes as if he’s telling his best friend a story, so of course some of the stuff he says is going to be a bit jarring, from a strictly ‘politically correct’ perspective. Of course you’re not going to like everything about a culture, especially one that’s far from home, and that’s okay. And it’s okay to talk about it. I’m constantly comparing Nielsen’s thoughts about Chinese culture to my own experience teaching English in Turkey. Nielsen’s musing about the Chinese people’s love of fresh air is the opposite of the Turks’ despair over it. In Istanbul, any open window would be promptly closed for fear of getting exposed to too much wind. Tough, when the temperatures soared to 45 degrees Celsius. Reading Nielsen’s cultural commentary is interesting, funny and real. Like sitting down for a beer with a friend.”
“Anyone who speaks English has won the lottery, in many respects. Something as second nature to many as being fluent in English (or, in my case, learning the language upon immigrating to Canada as a young child) opens up tremendous doors and job opportunities all over the world.
“A fantastic way to see a part of the world, become immersed in a culture and learn a lot about yourself while making money—that’s how I saw teaching English abroad and that’s why I chose to take a year off from my job to teach in Turkey. I made new friends, developed a greater appreciation for my home country, and solidified my relationship with my husband (while getting a bit of the travel bug out of our systems before we ‘became adults,’ got a mortgage and had a baby.
“But I’ll admit, it’s nerve-racking to find yourself in a foreign country, in a classroom full of expectant students, trying to teach a language that’s supposedly your mother tongue. It’s more complicated than you’d think. It was my first time in front of a class. It was the first time I’d ever thought about what a gerund or an infinitive was (or the first time in a long time anyway). And the people who set the curriculum didn’t have much of an idea how an actual classroom worked, so I was left without a safety net.
“I got what I needed from Turkey. The experience of living in a different place for a year made me realize many things—that I like travelling and settling into a place as opposed to seeing fleeting parts of a city before moving on; that English has twelve verb tenses but often defies logic; that the act of taking a twenty-minute ferry ride to work from Europe to Asia while sipping a tea cannot be matched in Canada.
“The lengths people will go to learn English are impressive. My adult students commuted to work for, often, two hours. They worked for eight or ten hours, then came to the private language school where our lessons took place. After class, they’d go home, often getting there at 10 or 11 p.m., only to do it again the next day. Some did it during Ramadan, when they were fasting for the holy month. They were tired, and they weren’t always on-the-ball after a particularly tough day, but they were there, and ready to learn. I learned that if you have any self-respect and empathy at all as a teacher, you must give your best to these students. Teaching is hard—it’s on-your-feet, brain-engaged, non-stop work, and you owe it to the students to give it your all. They don’t care if you’re having a rough day; they’ve paid good money to learn, and that’s what they want. I can only imagine what it would be like to teach English to children—like herding kittens, likely.”
“Mormons fascinate me (so do the Amish, but that’s a whole different story). To get an insider’s view of the Mormon’s in Utah is a rare treat and here it is, a wonderfully surprising side-story in Yes China! The author is a young man struggling with his faith, leaving home for a place across the world where he hopes to make sense of the Mormon religion that he’s been immersed in. The trials and tribulations of being a teenaged Mormon, told from the perspective of a former Mormon, is a pretty rare find. Nielsen is brutally honest about the religion he was raised in, about both the people he grew apart from and about his own troubles with the belief system. He doesn’t pull punches, but he remains open-minded about the religion—it’s like he’s a former smoker that didn’t become a crazy anti-smoking crusader when he quit (but don’t get him started on smoking).”
“It’s heartwarming to watch Nielsen’s journey as a teacher, even though (or because, actually) it isn’t a linear one. He stumbles, loses his temper, succeeds, gets lost, gets a glimpse of hope and stumbles again. By the time he kind of gets it right, it’s time to go home. That’s how life goes. It’s nice to hear someone not sugar-coating things for a change.”
“I’m giggling in bed, I haven’t laughed with an author in a long time. Dozens of screaming Chinese kids versus one Mormon kid who sorta-kinda knows what he’s doing. The way he—sparingly and tastefully—writes in accents makes parts of the book hilarious. I feel like I’m listening to a rollicking, self-deprecating story. Take those little devils you know—the kid who’s constantly asking nonsensical questions; the five-year-old pulling his pants down; the one who refuses to listen, no matter how much bribing, cajoling, pleading or punishing you do. Multiply those three kids by 10, add cultural and language barriers, and you’ve got yourself a primary ESL class in China. The best teacher with the most pedagogically sound curriculum would have a hard time keeping control, but we have in our classroom a Mormon kid who’s never been outside of Utah and just barely out of school himself. Teaching English as a Second language is always fraught with misunderstandings and miscues, but Nielsen somehow survived contending with all the insanity of children, too. Hats off to him for sticking it out—and for having a sense of humour about the result.”