Volume 19 Number 5
Rethinking Lazy Stereotypes
01 October 2006

Teaching English in China was an eye-opener for Rob Neal.

SOME DROOL OVER its economic growth. Others are more concerned with law and order or environmental issues. Everyone agrees it is in a state of flux, increasing in influence and impossible to ignore. China is hot news in the West. Intrigued, I have spent the last two and a half years teaching English at Beijing University. This is what I learnt.

As might be expected of high achievers, the overwhelming majority was highly focused and motivated. University was primarily a time for hard study, making friends and participating in new activities. As David commented in his self-introduction, 'We need to try more,experience more and give ourselves more things to look back on when we're older.'

It was a challenge to teach such gifted students but I need not have worried. Relishing the opportunity to practise their oral English, they threw themselves wholeheartedly into debates on all sorts of prickly issues; and they created highly original dramas, debunking the Western stereotype of Asian students as passive, group-oriented and lacking in critical thinking skills.

Another commonly held Western viewpoint is that the Chinese, without any religious belief to hold on to, are increasingly motivated by the gods of nationalism and materialism. As in the UK, I occasionally came across chauvinistic jingoism or crass displays of nouveau riche ostentation. However, this was always outside the language classroom.

Many of my students displayed a healthy patriotism and were keen to contribute to Chinese society. Every week, a number took part in a range of voluntary activities, from teaching blind children to visiting elderly people in nursing homes. A few months after a series of anti-Japan demonstrations had swept the country, the university held a festival to celebrate its cultural diversity. At the bustling Japanese stall, far away from newspaper headlines, lasting friendships were forged.

It was refreshing to work in surroundings where no one was concerned about which brand of clothing you were wearing or whether you had the latest mobile phone. Many felt a deep reverence for nature. One of my abiding memories was trekking in northern Sichuan Province with a small group of students. So outstanding was the natural beauty of the lakes, mountains and waterfalls that we were all reduced to a hushed silence.

Some were clearly engaged in an earnest search for a deeper truth. They were quite prepared to discuss their values and what had shaped them, often mentioning love, friendship, their family and country. A number took subsidiary courses in world religions and would ask thought-provoking questions about Christianity. Their spirit of humility and tolerance, in contrast to the fundamentalism or cynicism seen in some parts of today's world, was striking.

One reason for their lack of arrogance may lie in their respect for the elderly. Some had been brought up by their grandparents and often spoke about how deeply they had been influenced by their thinking. Life was a journey in which you learnt as your experiences and ideas unfurled. The older generation—having experienced the most—could teach you the most.

Under the weight of economic growth and urbanisation, traditional family life was coming under increasing strain, but remained exceptionally important. Parents were held in the utmost respect and most students enjoyed excellent relationships with them. Contrary to Western reservations about the one-child policy producing a nation of spoilt brats—the 'Little Emperor' syndrome—many were already looking to the future when it would be their turn to provide for their parents.

It would be wrong to ignore the pressure-cooker atmosphere in which many students spent their days. Exam results mattered and parental expectations could be over-burdening.

Nevertheless, most retained a sense of perspective. Life was ultimately something to be positive about as they carved out their own niches. One young woman, Sophia, reflected in her journal, 'Though I know one will be hurt in this complicated and out-of-order society, the world is always beautiful and full of wonder, isn't it?'

Back in the UK, I miss my students. No matter where we come from, we all have much in common. Face-to-face interaction is crucial as it helps banish sweeping generalisations and means that we are less likely to be manipulated by lazy journalism and facts taken out of context. As Rachel wrote in a recent email, 'The most important thing I learnt in your lesson had nothing to do with English, but that I could really make friends with a foreigner. The only thing we need is to be sincere when we communicate.'