I have to admit that after my experience teaching English at a foreign language school in Shaoxing (about 4 hours south of Shanghai) I wasn’t so sure that the Chinese really understood communicative teaching, and if they did I’d decided that they had rejected the concept. While the students’ needs and goals are the center of this teaching method, it surprises me how few teachers at these so called “communicative language immersion” schools worldwide actually sit down with me and discuss what it is that I want to learn and accomplish during my time at their school. I’ve been known to force this conversation in one-on-one instruction if the teacher skips this step and starts teaching something I have absolutely no interest in. I therefore had high hopes but low expectations for my experience in Kunming.
Arriving on a Friday afternoon, I wasn’t planning on meeting with my teacher at all. I planned to arrive on the weekend before school started on Monday to ease into the time difference and get used to being in China again. But instead of being taken to my host family, I was taken directly to the school to meet my teacher, MW, a quiet and thoughtful young woman with amazing patience. She asked all the right questions in slow Chinese about what I wanted to study and how, repeating and rewording as many times as necessary until I finally understood. She listened carefully to everything I said, giving me enough time to complete my thoughts and gently correcting me as needed. My biggest complaint concerning language teachers in general is that they talk way too much, making themselves the center of the learning process. Not MW, a fabulous listener who knows just how much to talk to keep the conversation going without dominating it. If this is how my classes are going to be all is forgiven for the slight-of-hand with the homestay accommodations.
After our chat I was briefly shown my room on a different floor of the same building as the classrooms. Small but comfortable it has a queen-sized bed, with the typical rock-hard mattress (you know they used to sleep on brick beds. To the Chinese this is probably considered soft and comfy), a TV, refrigerator, water cooler (you have to pay extra for the actual water), private bathroom (no toilet paper) and enough storage space for my minimal things. In the hallway outside my door is the communal microwave and washing machine. There is a rack in my room to dry the clothes.
MW then took me to a restaurant just outside of the school that serves guo qiao mi xian (over the bridge noodles), a local specialty. The various components of the soup are served in separate dishes. A kind of build-your-own soup concept with a bowl of steaming broth, a small plate of chicken -hacked with the bones remaining of course – a bowl of thick rice noodles, and a small plate of Chinese leeks and tofu skins. As we eat we chat about easy topics that I can produce in Chinese: where she is from, is it cold, what do they eat there and so forth.
A Chinese woman about my age overhears our conversation and comes over near our table, sitting in a chair next to me but just a little bit behind such that I can’t really see her without turning around (but I can feel her watching me). She sits there a while listening and watching before she starts peppering me with questions. She speaks Chinese more quickly and with an accent that is harder to follow than MW’s carefully enunciated speech. Several times MW has to repeat what the woman is saying or change the words so that I can understand. She is a happy, curious woman that likes foreigners. This isn’t the first time I’ve been stared at. The Chinese watch whatever or whomever they find interesting. It’s a cultural pastime. You get used to it after a while, a long while. One of her first questions was whether Americans are rich. I’m not sure how to respond to this. We talked about Chinese being difficult to learn and where I taught English in China. The conversation slows with long breaks of silence while MW and I eat our noodles and the woman just keeps watching.