Or, Why I’m going to be 300% nicer to international students and faculty for the Rest of my Life
So, yesterday was the first day of teaching at Shanghai International Studies University.
I teach only on Wednesdays, which is something of a blessing, in that the campus where I teach is an hour away (they provide a shuttle bus). I had received my faculty ID (on the campus which is near to the faculty housing) the day before along with my spandy new name! I can only imagine what they must have gone through seeing the four rather sizeable names on my passport, but they chose the first and last (I usually go by first and third, but they couldn’t have known that) and went at it. The result: 孟玛塔 (Pinyin: Mèng Mǎtǎ) The surname 孟 (Mèng) is well-known as the surname of the philosopher westerners know as Mencius （孟子）and the first name means (so my Chinese teacher tells me) agate tower. So, ultimately, I am well-satisfied with my new name. It is the most disorienting feeling, though, not knowing how to write my own name with ease. I have it written down in my notebook with each stroke numbered and the direction indicated, but I cannot write it from memory, and I am still a little hesitant even with keyboarding it. (For reasons that I suspect are obvious, though I still feel uncomfortable about, I am focusing on speaking, listening, reading, and keyboarding, and leaving writing lagging a little behind.) My Chinese is coming along well, though predictably slowly, but somehow even the idea of learning a new name for myself is unreasonably disorienting.
SISU has been wonderfully supportive. The university sent someone to meet me at a known landmark and show me where and how to get on the bus. She showed me where my classrooms were, and my office, and handed me my key. The university even bought lunch the first day! I’ve adjuncted at a lot of places, and frankly have never had it so good. Because it is the school of International Studies, most of the students speak reasonably good English, and I could have been sent on my way with only room numbers, but it was so wonderful to have a guide, who could point out the water boiler, where potable water can be found, and to point out that there are washrooms in the building with both Chinese and western-style toilets. Things I didn’t anticipate include the fact that while my office has heat, my classrooms do not, and yesterday was about 45F/8C. Next week, should the weather be the same, I will certainly be in shirt, sweater, and suit coat, but this week it was just a button-down shirt and my fingers were numb by the end of class!
The classes themselves were great. The students seem good humored and interested in the material. The only element of my planning that I will probably redo is my graduate course: Race, Class, and Power. I had thought that they were going to be graduate students in English literature. As it turns out, about half the class is in American and British studies, the other half in intercultural communication, and a few in translation, oral and written. So, the were expecting (and indeed, I will deliver) much more of an American Studies class, and less of an American Literature class. It’s not a problem at all, just a little scurry to rearrange things. Ultimately, I think it will be more fun! I asked what they were interested in and politics, history, and the American South and legacy of slavery were main topics–alrighty! I think it will be a great group! Both writing classes were more as expected. I will have to wait until next week to see how they do on the reading to know if the level I’ve pitched it at is too high, or too low. I’m excited for both kinds of classes.
I am not an ESOL teacher. I have a little training in teaching foreign languages, but not much, and all of it was as an undergraduate teaching assistant in Russian! Of course, I wasn’t hired to be an ESOL teacher. But neither can I and my classes just politely ignore the fact that I’m the only one in the room who speaks English as a first language. I’ll be interested to see how that goes. Their proficiency so far seems great, and they have a will to speak and write well which goes far. Some are very nervous to speak out loud–I have warned them that I will keep speaking Chinese to them until they are convinced that their English is in fact better than my Chinese–fortunately, this is not a hard piece of convincing! I’m still very bad. But I’m getting better!
So, the first week of teaching in China draws to a close. I am still beyond glad I came on this deviation–off the road, indeed. And so many roads yet to explore here!