Last updated: 03:00 PM ET, Wed November 11 2015

I’m Not Beyonce: Teaching English in China

Features & Advice | Carson Poplin | November 11, 2015

I’m Not Beyonce: Teaching English in China

PHOTO: Students at a basketball tournament. (Photos by Carson Poplin)

The first thing most people ask when I say I spent a year in China teaching English is, “So do you speak Mandarin?”

I don’t speak a bit of Mandarin. Or Cantonese. I barely picked up enough words and phrases to get by. I can say “hello,” “thank you,” “I don’t understand,” and also throw around a few phrases about food. Of course, I also know the ever-useful Chinese phrase for “Did you just fart?” taught to me by my Chinese students, but that’s about it.

Surprisingly enough, when I was considering moving to China for a year, the language barrier was not what scared me. Packing up my whole life in two suitcases was my biggest fear.

Being prepared for any clothing eventuality that might occur in a 10-month period seemed a much more daunting task than having to communicate with taxi drivers, waiters or a random person on the street. Plus, I notoriously always pack impractical shoes for trips and I was determined to bring as many pairs of heels with me as possible. (Woe is me, I only packed five.)

If it sounds like I don’t have my priorities straight, you’re right. But in some ways, my focus on the impractical instead of the practical probably helped me. I wasn’t put off by the unknown. It didn’t occur to me to be scared of China due to my lack of Chinese, so I just wasn’t.

The great thing about China is that nobody really expects you to speak Chinese. They’re just so happy you’re there. It’s not like traveling to other places, where you might feel guilty about not being able to communicate better, i.e. “If I’d just tried a little harder in Spanish class in high school, I wouldn’t be such an American cliche!”

I taught in a city called Handan, which sees very few foreigners. In fact, my coworkers and I didn’t meet any other native English speakers until about four months into our time there. My friend Alison just happened to see another foreigner on the street, and just like that we were invited to dinner with the other expats in the city ... all six of them. Some of them spoke Mandarin because they had been there for so long, or because it was necessary for their jobs, but others were like us and completely Chinese-illiterate.

PHOTO: My co-workers.

Just walking down the street, Chinese people would stop me as if I were famous. At first, I was worried that they really thought I was, and wished I could explain to them that I am not, in fact, Beyonce, the queen of everything. But then I realized they just wanted to take pictures with me because my presence was such a novelty. If they spoke any English, they would try it out on me. If they didn’t, they would try for a bit and then give up, insisting only on taking a few pictures to send to their friends with the caption, “Look what I saw in real life! A foreigner just like in the movies!”

Sometimes they didn’t ask to take my picture but instead sneak-attacked me in the middle of slurping down a bowl of noodles or sweating my way through a workout. These irritating instances inevitably led me to wonder what kind of life decisions I’d made that led to being stopped, mid-run, and asked to join a family photo shoot in the park.

I taught ninth and 10th grade Chinese students, and even though I would sometimes get frustrated about the difficulties of teaching children in their second language, they would always disarm me with their excitement. I’m sure my presence was appreciated more in China than if I had been teaching in America. Prime example: One of my students emailed me after I had returned home to the States and said, “Love you as you love Beyonce!”

With a compliment like that, who cares about some silly language barrier?

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