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JISHOU, HUNAN — The trade-off for a week-long National Holiday break this year was seven days straight of teaching, including my first meetings with the 109 freshmen who have enroled in our college.

Unlike American colleges, universities usually bring in their freshmen after everyone else has arrived. At our uni, they arrive during the second week of classes, then have two weeks of military training — mostly formation drills, physical training, and practice with mercifully unloaded rifles. Then we all take off for the National Holiday.

Originally, I was not scheduled to teach the freshmen, but we didn’t start the year with two foreign teachers. My dean rather timidly asked me if I would consider taking on additional classes to help the college out. I agreed to take on oral English for the frosh, which added six classes to my load. If Chinese students need any instruction, it’s in spoken English. I figured missing even a few weeks of class with a foreign teacher would hold them back even further.

Besides, taking on the freshmen means, at least for this term, I will have taught every student in our college at least once.

So, what is this crop of first-years like? Enthusiastic, to say the least. They all seemed to be on pins and needles waiting to meet me, since for most I am the first foreigner they have ever met. The last group I taught (an all-girl class of 43) whipped out their cellphones during the break and took turns photographing each other with me. Others asked me to sign their textbooks. Amazing. Now if I could just get that movie deal …

Their first assignment was for each to come to the front of the room to give a brief self-introduction: name, hometown and what they want to learn, and anything else they want to offer. I had the class rosters, and had earlier painstakingly transcribed the hanzi (characters) into pinyin so I could call them up randomly by name. At least that was the process for the first two classes I met. The third, the all-girl class of English education majors, came up on their own one by one after one student told me she was ready and wanted to go first.

Predictably, their confidence and speaking skills are all over the map. Most Chinese students are petrified to speak to foreigners, not because they are naturally shy, but because they fear making a grammar or pronunciation mistake, or being unintelligible. [If you are a tourist in China, and a young person is peering at you with a look of expectancy, they are probably trying to work up the courage to greet you. If they succeed, compliment them for their courage, and if suitable, their speaking skills.] English majors are no exception, especially those who have never had a foreign teacher or contact with tourists.

To lessen their anxiety, I gave them 10 minutes to prepare their remarks. Some chose to write down their self-introduction, others quietly rehearsed what they would say, a few went up and gave impromptu remarks. The results were better than I expected. Maybe it’s me, but the freshmen’s speaking skills seem to improve each year. Or maybe this group is exceptional.

Most of them hail from Hunan, but one student is from Sichuan, the province to the west, and another from Inner Mongolia, which is a “fur piece” from here. I have two groups of Business English students (four-year bachelor candidates) and one of education majors (three-year certificate candidates). They are overwhelmingly female, which has been the trend in our college since I’ve been here. (For that matter, it was also true of the Comparative Lit department at Princeton 35 years ago. Probably still is.) There are all sorts of reasons for the gender disparity, ranging from cultural to developmental, but it does make for rather pleasant working conditions. (Though it makes it really hard to field an intramural men’s basketball or football team …)

Meanwhile, the seniors, whom I do not teach this term to my great disappointment, are anxious about several potentially life-changing events. One is the post-graduate exam, China’s equivalent to the GRE, which will be offered in January. Others are scouting for internships for the spring term, and/or employment after graduation. There is a national Japanese exam coming up in December, and they all have to face the Test for English Majors – band 8 (TEM8) in the spring. None of these exams are walks in the park, so most of the seniors would just as soon skip all their classes (12 a week) to hit the books in the library or surf the ‘Net for jobs. The exams are only offered once a year, and English majors may take the TEM8 only twice, so there is little room for failure.

As I’ve written before, American students have no idea of the intense pressure Chinese students live with. There are about 200 million Chinese attending university each year. That’s two-thirds the population of the USA. These millions are competing for jobs, spots in master’s and doctoral programs, and the future of their families. The exams are the gatekeepers, so it’s SOP for seniors to spend all day in the library preparing for the tests.

When failure does happen, the feeling is catastrophic. As an example, I will relate the story of G., a senior who has failed TEM4 twice. The TEM4 scores came out four weeks ago on a Wednesday. As with the TEM8, English majors just have two cracks at this exam. G.’s score was four points below passing, and she disappeared from view for five days. Mortified by her second failure, G. retreated to her home, all but convinced that her dream of going to postgraduate study was gone forever.

To be frank, G. is not a strong student, but she has a lot of potential. Her English grammar is atrocious, but her writing and speaking skills have made several quantum jumps since freshman year. She works hard, conscious of her weaknesses, and has set her sights on studying linguistics at Zhongnan University, one of the best schools in China. Perhaps the goal is little too high, like a C-student hoping for admission to Princeton, but not impossible in her case. As long as she doesn’t blow the postgrad exam.

I met G. for dinner on a Friday, two days after the TEM4 results came out. She put on a brave face at first, but after an hour was in tears. It seems she has failed nearly every major examination in her academic career. She was convinced after taking the TEM4 the second time that she had passed it, but in fact she didn’t. There was some kind of equipment trouble during the listening portion of the test, so G. was not able to hear all the passages clearly. Through her tears, she confessed she was convinced she would probably also fail the postgrad exam and the TEM8, the possibility of which would leave her completely adrift. She has made no other plans other than to go on for further study.

I encouraged her as best I could, and offered whatever help I can. And the next day, G. sent me a text saying she had re-dedicated herself to prepare for the postgrad exam, no matter what the final result may be.

Over that dinner date, we touched on an interesting cultural difference. One of her teachers, Prof W. had expressed surprise that G. had chosen Zhongnan University, and had bluntly told G. her chances of admission were next to zero. (G. apparently had no idea Zhongnan was so hard to get into, which I can fully understand. I was as ignorant of Princeton’s reputation when I was a junior in high school as G. was of Zhongnan’s.) On the one hand, G., who already has self-confidence issues, was absolutely crushed by Prof. W.’s frank assessment. On the other hand, she appreciated the advice.

G. then noted than both I and David, another foreign teacher at JiDa, both invariably encouraged our students, no matter what their abilities, and seldom told students they could not do anything. She asked why. To be honest, I didn’t have a ready response, since the question had never come to mind. After a couple of minutes, I told G. that I always encourage students to do their best and to accept challenges. I told her I knew she is not a strong student, but she works very hard and has made huge strides in the last three years. Further, I see no reason to point out her shortcomings, since she already knows them quite well, but saw every reason to tell her to try to overcome those shortcomings and seek her dream. Perhaps, I said, Americans and Englishmen are more optimistic about the future than Chinese; past failures do not always mean future ones.

We discussed another student, well known as one of the laziest in the senior class, who nonetheless plans to study abroad next year. Neither G. nor I could understand how this student, who studies very little and seems indifferent to receiving low marks, expected to succeed. In this student’s case, I told G., I would not be so encouraging and optimistic. But, people do change. Many students find China’s universities stifling. Studying in a Western university might inspire them to be better students. No one can predict the future.

So, there’s my teaching experience this month in a nutshell. Boundless enthusiasm among the freshmen; oppressing anxiety among the seniors. Every day a new challenge.