Our alarm went off last Monday at 6:30AM and I reluctantly climbed out of the warmth of bed.  The sun comes up at ten-to-eight these days, although we rarely actually see it.  It’s in the forties here, but with the lack of heat and the damp, it feels colder. I hadn’t slept well, my head filled with thoughts of attempting something I haven’t previously done. I climbed into the heat of the shower, feeling excited to start teaching. I had a foolproof lesson plan put together by Lara and was ready to go.  At 8AM I would teach the first of seven English classes to a total of 150 students over the next three days.

The classrooms are not heated, so the first thing I did upon arriving was to close the windows.  Students start filling in, I say hello, acting casual, being friendly.  At 8AM I introduce myself, telling them Glavin is Irish, but that I come from the US.  I tell them about Chicago, and New York, and Portland.  I explain that I do Chinese medicine, but that their teacher’s father is sick, and he had to go back to the US to care for him.  So here I am, to help.  I tell them my father and mother and wife are all teachers, so I come from a family of teachers, as though that somehow qualifies me to also be a teacher. They smile and nod their heads.  Some of them giggle and whisper in each other’s ears.  Although graduate students, they seem very young.

I’ve only taught one class before in my life, and that was a Green Studies Seminar in college.  I’ve given my fair share of public talks and workshops, but teaching a University class is something new.  Like most people I’m not a big fan of public speaking, but here I am, in front of a group of eager and seemingly appreciative Chinese students.  It’s early in the morning, and cold.  I teach in my winter coat, with a scarf around my neck.

Teaching the same lesson seven times made things easier.  I could relax more after the first couple of times, knowing what comes next, interested to see how each new group responds. The lesson concerned asking questions of someone when you first meet them, and the two main categories of questions:  simple Yes and No questions, and WH questions, or those starting with Who, What, Where, etc.

I asked them to give examples of what one would ask someone when you first meet them.  Silence.  You know, you’ve just met someone, and you want to get to know them, so what do you ask?  More silence.  For example, you might ask, Where are you from?  I write it on the board.  Eventually they start offering possible questions in slightly broken English. Most of the questions they proposed where questions they really wanted answered about me:  Why did you come to China?  How old are you?  Are you married?  Do you have any children?  What do you think of China?  I tried to broaden the scope of questions by proposing various scenarios in which they might meet someone, and want to ask questions, but they stay fixated on me.  One class was somewhat nationalist, asking me How many Chinese words do you speak?  and Do you understand Chinese?

Next I had them tell me the names of famous people.  The reference to famous people seems particularly Chinese.  So and so is very famous.  One hears this all the time.  It’s something that remains unremarked upon in the States.  An American would never say, Oprah is very famous. But here, it’s always pointed out.  We made a list on the board.  Every list included Bill Gates.

I had them break into pairs, becoming famous people, and asking each other questions to get to know each other. Then they formed small groups to introduce their new famous friends to each other, and finally I called on several students to address the entire class.

Towards the end of class, I had them stand, and the only way they could sit down was to ask me an original question.  The most frequent were:  Do you like the Houston Rockets? and What will you be doing for Christmas?  I told them No, I’m from Chicago, and I’ll be here, teaching class, respectively.  One student asked me what I thought of the Iraq War, another wanted to know if I liked Metal, and a third wanted to know if I did Tai Ji Quan.  I started to wonder if they had been briefed.  It felt really energizing to be up in front of class, and pacing the aisles like Phil Donahue asking a reluctant audience questions.

Some of the students’ English was very good.  All they wanted to do was talk.  Others could barely understand me, and only speak the most rudimentary sentence fragments.  Some of them were very attentive, while others would spend the class text messaging, or talking to the person next to them.  The last class of the week was the worst in this regard.  I had to tell them to put their cell phones away, and to pay attention when other students were speaking.  One guy in the back actually had his earphones on, listening to music.  Hey, take the earphones off, I barked.  I hate when a class turns you into the type of person you don’t want to be.

This week they’ve begun their final exams, for which they have to get up in front of the class and deliver a three minute talk, followed by two questions asked by either myself, or someone in class.  This is the format decided by the teacher who I’m taking over for.  It’s not the best method of evaluation, but I’m trying to make the best of it by engaging the students in conversation.

Two weeks of finals, and then I’m done, in time for New Years.  This is a good introduction to teaching for me, as I prepare to have my own classes for a semester beginning in February.   It’s turning out to be a fun and energizing experience which is giving me more insights into what it means to be Chinese.