When foreign English teachers first started going to China in the 1980s, most received their salaries in RMB. Unlike the Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) available to tourists and some foreign experts, RMB could not be directly converted to foreign currency and thus needed to be spent in country. As a result, teachers would often use extra RMB to purchase souvenirs or gifts for friends back home. Lacquer ware, porcelain tea sets, silks and scrolls were among the popular items often found in teachers’ suitcases on the return journey to their home countries.
They came to give. But they ended up taking more of China with them than they had perhaps bargained for.
FEC are long gone, along with the assumption that English fluency and a pulse are sufficient qualifications to land a teaching job in China. The bar is much higher today. Yet, as many contributors to this issue of the Quarterly have pointed out, one thing hasn’t changed. Those who come not only to give, but also to take what China has to offer, are the ones who will likely excel both in and outside the classroom.
How to be a good receiver? Here are some suggestions drawn from the articles in this issue.
Learning the Language
While one’s main job is arguably to teach English, to thrive long-term in China requires fluency in Chinese. There is no substitute for being able to communicate in the heart language of those one has come to serve.
Exploring Chinese Culture and History
Communication in China is rooted in history. Idioms used in everyday conversation may refer to people or events thousands of years in the past. The more one knows about China’s history, the better one will be able to engage meaningfully in relationships with students, colleagues and friends.
Staying Longer in China
China takes time. While those on short-term teaching stints may come back feeling like they have learned much about China, it is only after living in China for a longer period of time that one begins to understand how much one doesn’t know. Then the deeper learning can take place. Furthermore, colleagues and students are likely to take one more seriously if they know he or she is not planning to leave at the end of the semester.
Some of the most meaningful times outside the classroom occur over meals or on outings with students who are usually more than happy to introduce a foreign teacher to local cuisine, customs, and pastimes. Being flexible enough to enjoy these times goes a long way toward deepening relationships.
Experiencing the Realities of Life in China
It is possible, at least for a time, to exist within an expat bubble that shields one from the harsh realities of China life. If one really wants to receive all that China has to offer however, it means accepting the inconveniences, the injustices, the invasions of privacy, and the rules that seem to make no sense. A foreigner can never really become “Chinese,” but by entering into these realities one will be able to journey more meaningfully with Chinese friends.
Most who have served in China would agree that they received much more than they contributed. As one long-time China worker put it, “They may have left China, but China has not left them.” They gained new friendships. They left with cherished memories and with new perspectives on themselves and what it means to be a follower of Christ in a land not their own. Through their lives they imparted a life-changing message, but in the process they were changed as well.
Image credit: Barbara Kindschi.
Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of... View Full Bio