The Teacher is Present

PortraitMy first job out of college, more or less, was teaching English at a University in Beijing. Even though I had galloped into town astride the great horse that is Princeton in Asia, I was way off course.

My students were great, but I was alternately mesmerized by deep Chinese political machinations or in some state of heartache over an irreplaceable banker. Classes started at 7 am. No 22 year old with a broken heart and vague ideas about forced labor camps should be in front of anyone at that hour, much less a roomful of brilliant, soon-to-rule-the-worldsters.

It was disorienting. I never got fully oriented. I recall throwing up exactly once due to the combined facts that my heart had been devastated the night before by the local banker, it was insanely early and the details of the 1989 massacre may never fully emerge to anyone’s satisfaction. That whole mess right there made me really nauseous. Still does.

PiA continues apace with a roaring program full of sharp and prepared young people who are not only teaching but taking up posts in business, media and the public sector across Asia. Many stay in the region for years. China to this day remains awash with the wonderful ghosts of this program, graduates of the 1980s, 90s and beyond. I only wish I had been as with it as current applicants and participants clearly are.

Every three to six months, fellows write back to Princeton with their updates, observations, amusing asides and points for personal improvement. I recently read through a number of the Beijing reports (all publicly available). This is by no means representative of anything more than the passages that made me smile, either in recognition, bafflement or admiration. And no one seems to be throwing up over bankers.

(Several responses are clustered to the same question.)

Is your salary sufficient? Do you take any extra work to supplement it?

My salary is only enough to survive—and not enough to ever go out to eat or to save money or buy anything, at all. So instead of taking on extra teaching gigs, which is what many other teachers do, I’m focusing on writing to make the big bucks!

YES. I’m trying! With my extra work I’ll have saved up about USD500 per month to travel, plus about USD200 per month for my savings account in the US.

Living on the west side of town is nice in that it is cheaper than the “east siders” have it; but then again, you’re not going to get rich working at this university. Fortunately, finding side jobs is as easy in China as finding a Starbucks is in the U.S. so we don’t worry.

I also teach at the kindergarten one day a week.  I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to ever feel sad or homesick when surrounded by such an adorable bunch of Chinese five year olds.

Has there been anything that you wanted but haven’t been able to find?

I had a lot of trouble finding note cards and deodorant.  With a bit of effort, though, it was possible to find both.


Cranberries. I nearly had a heart attack at Thanksgiving. Note bene – there are NO fresh cranberries in Beijing. Perhaps frozen, perhaps in a can,­ but not fresh. One of my students asked me if I was looking for the band “The Cranberries.”

What are your impressions of the local language(s) and culture?

This question is so vague (perhaps purposely so) that I am not quite sure what to write here. I will do my best to write something relatively meaningful.

We did a “Family Feud” style activity a few weeks ago during which students faced off in a challenge to be the first to answer a question. Since I did not have any type of bell or buzzer, I put a hat in the middle of the table, and the first student to put the hat on his or her head would have the first opportunity to respond. The hat I brought to class was green. I couldn’t understand why the students all laughed at me when I introduced the game. After a few rounds, I got a little frustrated that no one was actually putting the hat on his head; they were only picking it up, then shouting out answers. They finally told me what a green hat symbolizes (a man “wears a green hat” if he is unaware that his wife is having an affair). It is so taboo that a Chinese man will never wear a green hat, and in fact, green hats are generally not even sold in China.

Students’ chosen English names are also quite surprising at times. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Forrest Gump debate Soup and Late.

I know that without a doubt, not even if you paid me to do it, I would never have raised my hand in the middle of class and asked a teacher “Excuse me, what does doggy-style mean?” This is especially true when the lesson was about the Electoral College.

What have you learned about your own values and worldview through living abroad? Were you hoping to ‘find yourself’?  Have you?

I cannot say that I have found myself. If anything I have more questions now than answers. However, I am more sure of who I am.

My experience here has reaffirmed to me the strengths of the American education system and especially the emphasis it places on liberal arts education and critical thinking.

What do you wear to work?

Button-up shirts and nice sweaters with a skirt, nice slacks, and occasionally a pear of jeans, if they’re not dirty. It’s not a very formal environment—other Chinese teachers don’t dress up or anything—but I feel it’s more about looking clean and prepared, and not wearing anything revealing or distracting.

I usually wear a collared shirt and khaki pants, sometimes with a wool sweater and a stylish coat.  I also wear either brown or black dress shoes.  I think that’s probably more than enough information, so I’ll stop there.