China U

China’s Students Are Sharing Their Secrets … In English

Foreign-language teachers in China often become accidental confidants, even therapists.

Two students walk out together after sitting a university entrance exam in Beijing on June 7, 2016. 
Millions of children across China began sitting the annual two-day  "gaokao" university entrance exams on June 7. The exams are a national obsession which decides the fates of millions. / AFP / GREG BAKER        (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
Two students walk out together after sitting a university entrance exam in Beijing on June 7, 2016. Millions of children across China began sitting the annual two-day "gaokao" university entrance exams on June 7. The exams are a national obsession which decides the fates of millions. / AFP / GREG BAKER (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

Rosie*, a first-year student at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, entered the teacher’s lounge for her oral English exam. She wore black wide-frame glasses and seated herself in one of the room’s fluorescent orange armchairs. She slid her topic across the table. My Story, it read. I scribbled her name at the top of the final exam rubric.

“In middle school students teased me for having ‘idiot’ parents.” Perhaps conscious of being graded, she spoke softly with deliberate English. “So in high school I decided not to tell anybody. Here in Beijing, I still haven’t told anyone. None of my friends know.”

It’s widely considered taboo in China to discuss the details of an unhappy family life with anyone other than very close friends. But, in a pattern I noticed among many of my students, Rosie didn’t hesitate to share her story with me, a foreign English teacher at her school.

She was born to deaf-mute parents, she said, in a city far from Beijing. Facing social stigma and unable to hold down a job, her parents relied on their own parents for financial support. Rosie’s father struggled with drug addiction and was abusive towards her mother. Her mother was accused of theft and jailed. Rosie’s father forced her to help him buy needles.

The exam stretched from the allotted ten minutes to 40. The lunch bell rang. Students from other classes filed out of the building, across the quad and into the cafeteria. Sitting upright in the orange armchair, Rosie’s posture never wavered. My arm hovered over the grading rubric; I hadn’t touched it.

I had arrived in Beijing as one of a legion of foreign English teachers at Chinese universities. My fellowship organization, Princeton in Asia, had done its best to prepare me for the cultural discontinuities I would likely face: plagiarism, student reluctance to participate in class discussion, and a pedagogic preference for rote memorization. But they did not warn me of my students’ willingness to share personal details in English class.

Rosie was not atypical. Many Chinese students, when speaking with foreign teachers in a language different from their own, appear surprisingly comfortable discussing raw emotional moments from their lives. Some take advantage of private conversations — one-on-one exams, office hours, hushed after-class discussions. Others tell personal stories during class hours to their classmates.

Candor about personal and family life is not usually considered a defining Chinese characteristic. Peter Hessler, an award-winning American author who himself taught English in China as a Peace Corps Volunteer, wrote that in his experience Chinese people are generally “deeply modest, and they dislike being the center of attention.” He observed that “it often took months or even years to get a person to talk freely.” Trivial matters, like gossip or minor complaints, are shared with abandon. But serious issues are rarely broached with strangers. That makes Chinese students’ behavior in English class something of an anomaly.

“Speaking English,” one former student told me, “I feel like another person.” When speaking Chinese, he is deferential, bashful, and reserved. In English class, he is adventurous, open, and forthright. Speaking English he takes risks he wouldn’t dare in Chinese. English, to the Chinese speaker, may be like a mask, creating a buffer between speaking the truth and the listener’s reaction. Students focus on how to speak rather than the gravity of what is being said. If there’s a misunderstanding, English can take the blame.

For Rosie, English became an escape — from her parents, her hometown, and a life she wanted to leave behind. As I learned over time, Rosie had been admitted into a special high school for foreign languages, where she focused on English. She scored in the top of her class, gaining admission to China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing as a baosong student, meaning she was exempted from taking the gaokao, China’s dreaded, days-long college entrance exam. Now she lives in Beijing, many miles from her home. She studies English by watching CNN and the BBC every night for hours.

It may be that simply speaking in a foreign language — any foreign language — encourages openness. Research from the University of Chicago has found that making decisions about moral issues in a foreign language results in more utilitarian, or “rational,” outcomes. The authors suggest this phenomenon arises from the “reduced emotional response” of communicating in a non-native language. While empirical proof of reduced emotional engagement is of course difficult to obtain, the conclusion seems to jibe with the experience of many Chinese students. Edward*, a senior at China Foreign Affairs University, used his final English assignment — “create a TED talk” — to discuss his battle with depression. He said he speaks less emotionally in English. “Maybe in my mother tongue I would choke. Maybe I’d be too emotional to tell the story. In English, I think I can control my emotions better.”

Chinese students may also be more comfortable confiding during English class because of the foreign teachers often at their helm, who tend to lie outside their university’s administrative structure. At China Foreign Affairs University, I was invited to one meeting with administrators shortly before the first week of class; I didn’t speak with Chinese teachers again. Students need not fear that a stray word or misplaced phrase could find itself lodged in their permanent files or jeopardize their advancement within the school. Foreign teachers are also comparatively transient, often remaining at a university for only one year or two. Students know that their personal stories, should they be ill received, may not remain on campus long.

At the same time, foreign teachers bring a distinct approach to teaching. Chris Delacey, an American teaching at Shihezi University in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, says his classes were more discussion-based, interactive, and informal than those of his Chinese coworkers. “I always tried to come to each student, make eye contact, have a 20-second conversation, to check in to see how they were doing,” Delacey said. By contrast, classes at his university taught by Chinese instructors tended to be more hierarchical. Marina Powers, who also taught at Shihezi, agreed. “Many students said they had never been asked their opinion before.”

Chinese students’ openness toward their foreign English teachers may also arise from a lack of alternatives. Psychotherapy in China remains in its infancy. Under Communist ruler Mao Zedong, who died in 1976, psychology was banned as “bourgeois pseudo-science.” Experts estimate that one therapist is needed for every 1,000 to 1,500 people, but as of 2014 only 20,000 psychiatrists were practicing in China — about enough for 20 to 30 million people. Interest in therapy in China appears to be growing, but the stigma towards mental illness remains strong. Although as many as 13 percent of adults in China may suffer from a mental disorder, according to a survey by the World Health Organization, the issue is seldom discussed. Many students I spoke with had never used campus mental health resources. Several didn’t know whether their campus had mental health resources at all. On this and an array of other social issues, such as same-sex marriage and premarital sex, foreign teachers are often seen as more liberal, and English is the more comfortable language in which to discuss these topics. Both are largely exempted from Chinese social taboos.

For generations of Chinese speakers, the English language has provided a refuge from a country and language whose politics are always being policed. The Chinese-American author Ha Jin, who after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests chose not to return to China, has achieved fame through writing in English. “In English,” he says, “I speak with my own voice.” Yan Geling, an award-winning Chinese author, writes in both English and Chinese. In each, she told Reuters in a 2009 interview, she is a different person. “One self is Chinese and more delicate, more subtle, in terms of language. But the English self is young and audacious, and I say what I want to say.”

Rosie’s English vocabulary is now expansive, but she still can’t find the words to describe her feelings toward the English language. “English makes me feel I am different,” she told me. “English is beautiful.”

*Names have been changed at the request of interviewees.

Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Matthew DeButts is a 2016-2017 Yenching Scholar at Peking University in Beijing.

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