by Jennifer Cochran
As an online ESL instructor living in the United States while teaching students in China, one fundamental challenge is cultivating a warm and personalized learning experience online. This is particularly a huge challenge when the teacher and his/her students are citizens of countries that are disagreeing with economic changes, such as President Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods.
This was made abundantly clear during a warm-up exercise with a Beijing middle school age student. After our initial greeting and quick English vocabulary game, I asked this student, “Would you like to visit the United States one day?” While some students reply yes and express why, this student gave an emphatic NO! “People can have guns in America. There is many deaths and violence in America. I would not want to go there because it could very dangerous.”
Danger. Violence. Guns.
What should have been a friendly exchange to learn more about his goals in English education, had now turned toward the possibility that he may not want to learn English at all or at least not from an American. Did he think all Americans were violent? To ease any concerns, I assured him that although The United States provides citizens with many freedoms, such as the right to own guns, that gun violence is not as common place as the news on television or images in movies would suggest.
I wanted this student and all my students to feel safe, comfortable and respected for their culture and country of origin. I want him to feel that we are kindred spirits in learning an often confusing language with a complicated history.
But was this possible?
In another instance, this time in a discussion with a student who wanted to do a future internship, a Chinese student remarked, “If I went to America, I would work to know their knowledge, secrets and then I would return to China with the secrets to show piety to my family and to help China succeed because it’s going to be the biggest economy in the world.” From this and many of other statements made by students, it was easy to see that a sort of distrust about Chinese/American relations had developed.
But hadn’t I been a friendly, non-threatening and hopefully kind teacher? What was making students so apprehensive toward the idea of America as a friend to China? If it was not my teaching, I had to make the assumption that many students are forming opinions about the United States from various media sources. I worried that most of these sources might include comments from President Trump about China, comments I had heard, read and felt startled by.
Some statements about China from our current president:
“There are people who wish I wouldn’t refer to China as our enemy. But that’s exactly what they are.”
– from his book “Crippled America” 2015
“Because it’s an economic enemy, because they have taken advantage of us like nobody in history. They have; it is the greatest theft in the history of the world what they’ve done to the United States. They’ve taken our jobs.”
– from an excerpt from Good Morning America, November 3, 2015.
With just a short browsing of the internet or televised news, we find that our current leader has classified a whole nation of people as thieves and enemies, the worst enemies who took our jobs. Did this type of speech and attitude shape the student’s understanding of how The United States and how China may view The United States? Was our relationship simplified to the realm of competing economies and industries? What was my role or job in helping them to learn English, a language they seemed to reluctantly be learning?
“Keep practicing his conversational English,” one mother advised. “Make him repeat your sentences so his speech is much clearer. His English speech is not good,” she added. This was true; this student, who chose the name Henry, had a great sense of English comprehension for his age and his written English was not perfect but improving. Meanwhile, his speaking aloud in English was a struggle, his biggest difficulty.
“I will not live in America. I do not have to sound too good,” Henry didn’t agree with his mother’s suggestions and had his own reasons for not caring if he was understood when he spoke English. “I only need to know English for business,” he concluded. These were all good aspects to take in consideration when learning a second language and I commend any person who even tries to learn a language that is not native to him/her.
In trying to address Henry’s mothers wishes while keeping Henry’s goals in mind, I tried a different approach. For our next reading and writing assignment, I posed the question: What would happen if the entire world spoke the same language? Humorously, Henry, probably knowing my intention to soften his thinking, said, “you and all other English teachers would be out of a job.”
Jobs. Economy. Enemies. Thieves.
We were back to square one, the idea often shown in mass media that China and America are rivals. Meanwhile with each session, his written English improved a bit more each time, remembering small but important aspects of grammar like to add “s” to plural nouns or to make sure verbs are in past tense if events already happened. If his attitude toward the study of English could improve, I felt he be more relaxed when speaking English and as a result would be easier to understand. It seemed he rushed saying words… maybe because he didn’t want to be saying them in the first place. Maybe I wasn’t doing enough to make him comfortable? I wondered what would make him feel that China and The United States are not only competitors and enemies?
But, then, who was I to challenge Henry’s thinking? I am an American teacher who is privileged enough to have been born in a country where our language is the language of business, the language of dominance, a language spoken not by more people, because Mandarin Chinese is spoken by more people, but spoken in more places than any other language. Who was I to tell him how to feel about America, a country that owns many factories in China that may or may not treat workers fairly? Maybe jobs were at the center of any national tensions. But I still had a job to do… To teach English to Henry and other Chinese students in a friendly, warm way. What could we, two potential rivals, learn from our hours online?
“What is your real name? How do you say it? How do you write it? Can you show me?”
Though some online teaching companies discourage too much personal chatting, this simple interest in a Chinese student’s name seemed to make a huge difference in how students perceived my role as an American teacher. Being humbled as I struggled with the pronunciation of each student’s name, I noticed students laughed, smiled, and corrected me in each attempt. “Thank you,” I would say each time then add, “see we are both learning.” In remembering students’ names in Chinese, I hoped that I was making it clear that we are both equal and could be friends. Sometimes this gesture would result in a short chat about names and how hard it is to learn a new language, particularly as one gets older.
In instances where I could tell students were still apprehensive, I might play a game where we brainstorm what Chinese citizens and Americans have in common, what they both want from life. Inevitably, students will answer that we all want love, comfort, family, health, safety, etc. And though it does take a few minutes from class time, I think these personal warm-up activities actually make language learning easier in the long run and more meaningful.