Supporting Article

A Chinese Perspective on Expatriate Teachers

Interview and Commentary


An interview with Professor Wang Wanxin

How do Chinese university leaders feel about the role of expatriate teachers, and particularly about the part played by Christians? Professor Wang Wanxin, leader of an English department at a major university in China, herself a Christian, gave written answers to a series of questions exploring these issues.

Below, the questions and answers are given verbatim followed by the editor’s commentary on issues they highlight.

Interview

1. I know that over the years you have had many foreign teachers of English. What benefits do you feel they bring to your students, your colleagues and your university?

The benefits are many. They bring different perspectives and different cultures. Working with them, both the faculty and the students learn to respect differences. This is very important in China today. This difference also makes us look at our own ways of thinking and doing things in a new way—we understand ourselves better. We believe some courses are best taught by foreign teachers, such as courses in the culture and society of the English speaking countries.

The benefits to the university are mostly in their different services, such as polishing papers in English for publication in international peer reviewed journals, and polishing various promotional materials of the university. Now, some teachers also publish in international journals. This increases the visibility of the university in the world

2. I also know that some of the teachers you have hired have been Christians. Do you feel that they have brought any other benefits?

Yes, of course. The most prominent is what I call “Christian work ethics.” They’re very dedicated to their work, and they’re the role models their Chinese colleagues aspire to. Christian couples teach by example what an ideal marriage is like. All my Christian colleagues have been widely respected by both the faculty and students.

3. What mistakes do new foreign teachers tend to make when they first arrive?

I’m not sure. Maybe you should ask the foreign teachers themselves. From the teaching perspective, I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but I think they may over estimate or under estimate students’ English proficiency, so the lessons can be either too simple or too difficult.

4. Some Christian teachers see sharing their faith with students as a vital part of why they are there. How do you feel about this?

I think it’s fine. But now the Chinese government is very strict about “preaching religion on campus.” I think it’s fine to share your faith with people who are interested, but preaching on campus is a different matter.

5. Have you noticed any trends in what Chinese universities expect from English teachers?

I think the mere teaching of language skills is not enough today. Most universities expect their foreign teachers of English to be able to teach other courses as well, such as culture and society of the English-speaking countries, literature, or courses in the disciplines they’re trained in.

6. Have you noticed any trends in the kind of teachers who come to China or their approaches?

I see more and more teachers come to live and work in China for longer periods of time, usually several years.

7. What advice would you give Christian teachers coming to teach English in China?

I know some Christian teachers think they should share their faith with students. But you may not be aware that some of your Chinese colleagues also need it to “survive.” Blend with your colleagues and you may find the need. However, you don’t want to act bluntly and come to be regarded as “preaching your religion on campus.”

Commentary

Professor Wang’s concise answers highlight several significant issues.

First, expatriate colleagues can be welcomed not merely for the lessons they teach but for broader contributions they make to their colleagues and the life of the university. The open sharing of differences can be part of the ongoing process of educational development. Of course, this presupposes that expatriate teachers are as willing to learn as they are to teach, as willing to receive as to give. It also assumes an attitude of service adapted to local conditions rather than importing personal agendas.

Second, there is a growing expectation for teachers to offer more than basic, English courses. Indeed, in leading universities there is a trend towards requiring higher qualifications, expecting broader involvement as professional colleagues, and even being involved in research in some cases. This in turn may require teachers to stay longer at their universities in order for their contributions to become effective. It is a call for greater professionalism which in turn may lead to greater long-term impact.

Third, though being open to teachers sharing their faith, Professor Wang counsels against “preaching your religion on campus.” Clearly there is a difficult dividing line which will vary considerably from place to place, but a basic attitude of service, carried through with competence and professionalism, will guard against inappropriate striving and may open doors for natural and profitable discussion.

Fourth, she highlights that although many Christian expatriates seek to be a witness to their students, their colleagues are also in need of the gospel to “survive.” To serve in this way, however, implies a willingness to invest long-term in relationships with colleagues, to “blend,” rather than having a single focus on students. Indeed, this may be a much more effective approach to verbal witness, free of potential accusations of abusing power relationships.

Finally, she highlights the lives of the teachers. In a context in which individualism and materialism increasingly distort relationships, one’s marriage does not have to be “perfect” to make an impact. Many ex-students who later became Christians will testify that it was the life of a teacher, even without explicit gospel words, which first opened their eyes to the beauty of Christ.

One important caveat must be made to both Professor Wang’s words and this commentary: situations vary widely in Chinese universities. Not every university will welcome foreigners as valued colleagues; some departments will be looking only to fill basic, English classes; in some places minimal qualifications may still be acceptable; not every head of department is as positive or welcoming as Professor Wang; in some places there may be severe controls on what expatriate teachers can say, even informally.

Despite this caveat, Professor Wang’s answers serve as good indicators of where Christian expatriate teachers may profitably continue to serve Chinese universities, even as the political winds change.

Professor Wang Wanxin (pseudonym) is the leader of an English department in a major Chinese university.

Image credit: A university in China by Barbara Kindschi.

George King

George King (pseudonym) has taught in colleges and universities in both the UK and China for nearly 30 years. View Full Bio