This Moment in Yunnan

Talk to almost any foreigner that has spent any time here in the Chinese city of Kunming and the very special nature of this moment in the province of Yunnan will be clear. Nearly every foreigner that I know here has, is, or has considered teaching English as a part or even full time job here. Even people for whom English is not their mother tongue – French, Colombians, etc. – have very little trouble finding employment as a teacher, whatever their qualifications or experience. There is a certain alignment of very unsustainable circumstances that make this particular moment unique. First of all, supply and demand is such that even the most unqualified of foreign teacher can make a decent salary, by USA standards. This, considered with the fact that the US dollar still goes a very long way in Kunming, means that one can live very comfortably with a relatively low level of work.

My experience with this phenomenon has been mixed. There are, of course, many people who put a lot of energy into their teaching and take it very seriously. However, there are also those who I see as taking advantage of the fact that they happened to find themselves in this particular place at this particular time.

Yesterday was a very interesting experience for a few of my classmates and myself. We were invited by our Chinese language teacher here at Yunnan University to go out to a middle school in a small town and spend some time with the students in their English language class.

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Three of us, an English friend, a German friend and myself, were picked up after class by couple of Chinese English teachers from the school who shyly stumbled their way through a few of the key English phrases that the textbooks taught them were essential upon the occasion of a formal meeting. Everyone did a lot of smiling and head nodding, and no-one really knew what to expect out of the situation.

And, indeed, arriving in the tiny village an hour’s drive North of the city, we arrived at a large, privately funded Middle school, where children whose families could afford the abnormally high tuition came to live and learn in the beautiful, natural, and very isolated environment.

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All the normal formalities that I have come to expect from the Yunnan Chinese certainly applied, and we were obliged to “xiu xi yi xia,” “he dianr cha,” have a rest and drink some tea with them, before we were allowed to do any sort of work. And, of course, at the end of the day, the prospect of us going back to Kunming without being taken out to the area’s nicest restaurant for a huge banquet of all the local delicacies was unthinkable. I shan’t complain.

I wound up standing in the middle of a gymnasium floor, surrounded by about a hundred elementary and middle students, each one with a list of questionsm they had prepared in anticipation of the foreigner. While the degree of enthusiasm varied, there were very few students that did not seem eager to stand up and have their shot. The first question, of course, was “can you sing us an American song,” and the second was “can you dance an American dance?” I would have liked to indulge them, I really would have, but it was probably better for everyone that that uncomfortable situation be avoided…

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Most of the dialogue during the exhausting two hour session betrayed the limited comfort of the students with the English language, although there were a few surprising exceptions. One student wanted to talk about jazz music, and about how he could get more experience playing his jazz guitar. Another boy was very curious about my opinion on the American presence in the country of Iraq.

Almost every single child in China that has received a degree of public or private primary education (and that is a lot of people) can understand at least a little bit of English. This policy, which has been implemented with a great degree of seriousness by the Chinese government and people, will, I believe be a significant factor in the emergence of our new global culture and economy. But that’s a whole other essay…

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