There are five of us foreign teachers here in Chifeng ("Red Peaks"), a small Han outpost with 4.5 million people, and 200 miles north of Beijing in Inner Mongolia. We have around 20 students per class. The students are all junior high school English teachers and come from the Chifeng area. The program is an oral English program in which we try to get the students to speak English as much as they can. It means coming up with some interesting topics of conversation for each class, and breaking the students up into small groups, one-on-ones, etc. We are also telling them a little about American culture and society. There are opportunities to talk to students outside the classroom, either by chatting with them in their dorm rooms, or going downtown with them to shop.
We are living and teaching at a large vocational high school on the outskirts of town. We can take a bus, or taxi downtown to sightsee and do shopping. We attended a Catholic mass last Sunday, and this Sunday we will have our own service here. Two of the volunteer teachers are retired clergy. We noticed two of our students at the mass. The church had a large crucifix on the altar surrounded by the three Marys. There was a large poster of Pope Benedict on the side. The liturgy seemed a standard one: readings, creeds, hymns and a ten-minute sermon on Mark 6:30-34. Catholicism (Tianzhu Jiao, or "Heavenly Master") is considered a separate religion from Protestantism (Jidu Jiao, "Christ"). We met with the priest after the service and he said, "You are all Catholics, yes?" and we had to confess that we were Protestants. When I said that in America, Catholicism and Protestantism are very close, they said, "no, no, no!" Our group leader said that three of us were clergy, trying to smooth things over.
Chifeng is an amazing city. In the past three years they have built an entirely new city of government, commercial, and apartment buildings, and broad avenues. The "old city" looks new enough, probably built in the last 25 years. We live in the outskirts, what Chifeng no doubt looked like 50 years ago! I haven't asked why all the new construction, however, if I had to guess, it would be the government's desire to have a modern Chinese presence in what is an autonomous region. It reminds me a little of (old?) Montreal with all the signs in two languages, although Mongolians only make up 17 percent of the city's population. We have two Mongolian students and although shy they are not at all reserved about telling the rest of the class about their culture. In one childhood reminiscence, one of the students recalled riding on the grasslands on her horse and the summer days spent with her family there cutting grass. A lovely image, no? There is some affirmative action here, Mongolians get an automatic ten points added to all there entrance examinations to the different school levels: junior high school, senior high, and college.
Another lovely childhood memory I would like to relate was by another student who recalled when she was very young, and sent on her first errand to a store to buy salt. On the way home, she fell and broke the plastic bag. She swept up what she could and put it back into the bag. When she got home, she tried to clean the salt by rinsing it under running water. Alas, you know what happened, no more salt!
Our teacher-students are wonderful. They are hardworking and dedicated. They are also a lot of fun. It is a joy to teach them. At home they work under difficult conditions, teaching more than 50 students in a class. In Shandong, a far more populated region and where I taught last year, it was not uncommon for teachers to have more than 100 students in a classroom. How do you teach oral English under such conditions, especially when all the examinations are geared towards reading and writing? Teachers are also given a set curriculum they have to cover each day. However, apparently there a new breeze is blowing. The English teachers of the vocational school here went to an interesting meeting last week for all teachers in the city. Apparently, there is going to be a shift in teaching goals and methods to one emphasizing spoken English, allowing the students to talk in class, and also teaching them how to learn on their own.
We have only one week left in the program. The time has gone quickly. Much faster than I remember last year when I was doing the same program. For my son James, it is going more slowly, because it is his first time both in China, and teaching. Although young, he is working hard. He received a compliment from one of the students the other day saying how much she preferred his class to the others because he was more open, and let the students talk more! Another teacher wrote in her journal, "I like James, he is so young!"
James is getting a lot of attention. I have been enjoying watching him enjoying it all. Every afternoon during our break he studies Chinese with two, or three of the female college-age teachers' helpers. He says he is not ready to leave China. I wonder why?
Ian Skoggard served as a Short-term Volunteer who attended Amity Foundation's Summer Teaching Project in Chifeng, Mongolia, China.