By Annie Ly

22 December 2015 - 10:12

'Before I went to China, I was encouraged, by some people, to pretend that I was Korean.' Photo (c) Annie Ly
'Before I went to China, I was encouraged, by some people, to pretend that I was Korean.' Photo ©

Annie Ly

Annie Ly is an English language assistant in Tianjin, China. Find out about her experience of living and working there for the first time as someone who looks Chinese, but doesn't speak fluent Mandarin (yet).

As a British Chinese person, what was it like going to China for the first time?

I never considered that I might experience culture shock. I'm used to Chinese food, and being around Chinese people a lot back in the UK because my family is from China – but some things have come as a slight surprise. I've been living in Tianjin for four months, and have gradually realised that my mum is not as strange as I once thought, she’s just very Chinese. For example, at home I used to get a little embarrassed when she’d introduce herself to my friends, insist on giving them lots of food to take home with them, talk a little too loudly and wear multi-coloured clashing patterns all at the same time. One day, I was in the car in Tianjin with my mentor and looked into a bus and saw that all of the old women were dressed like my mum, but with even more vibrant patterns and hats on. What I once saw as odd was actually my mum just being a typical Chinese woman, so coming to China has made me appreciate my family more.

Before I went to China, I was encouraged, by some people, to pretend that I was Korean. It was suggested as a way to avoid strange reactions to me not being able to speak Mandarin. However, I'm proud of my Chinese heritage and wouldn't want to dismiss it, and even if I tried, there would always be a chance that I might meet a Korean speaker. If I got busted, it would be so embarrassing.

How are you finding learning Mandarin? Do you feel that looking Chinese has had an impact on your experience so far?

I do think that I get treated differently because of how I look. Sometimes I have to speak broken Mandarin in order to get what I need, and it makes me nervous because I know how people might react. I've been in taxis before when the driver has asked me something that I don’t know how to respond to in Mandarin, so replied in English. It’s so strange for them, and they can rarely comprehend that someone in the back of their taxi, who looks Chinese, doesn't know what to do. Thankfully, now, my Mandarin is good enough to get by in situations like that. Most people are puzzled to begin with, and then they move on.

There are also some other differences that I've noticed between how I get treated compared with the other language assistants. For example, if another language assistant says anything in Mandarin, they get praised, and if I say anything with the pronunciation even slightly off, I just get corrected. I can’t get away with anything, because I look like I should be able to speak Mandarin, and people expect me to at least get the tones right. My new colleagues, friends and students are persistent in getting me to speak correctly, which although it can be a struggle, is something I'm grateful for. One of the main reasons I came here was to learn the language, and I'm making the most out of being here by taking lessons and practising as much as I can.

'The first time I saw you I think you are a Chinese. The feeling is homey.'
'The first time I saw you I think you are a Chinese. The feeling is homey.' Image ©

Annie Ly

What has it been like at school? How have the pupils responded to you?

The school where I'm working is really international, and the pupils learn Spanish, French, Italian and Japanese as well as English. Despite this, they are used to the idea of a foreign language teacher looking foreign and expected me to be blonde, with blue eyes. The first time I spoke in class they were really surprised, but very quickly I was accepted as an English speaker, probably because of my very British accent.

In my experience, Chinese people are quite affectionate with each other – girls hold hands and boys often play-fight in the corridor. In one of my first lessons, where I was observing another teacher, one girl slipped me a note that said, ‘Annie, like my older sister. Good luck in Tianjin.’ The children at school instantly felt comfortable with me, as they feel like that I am one of them, so it’s been really easy to engage with them. I have found that the pupils often lack confidence when speaking out loud, and fear that their accent might be too strong, but because many of them see me like a big sister, they were less nervous than they might have been if I didn't look Chinese.

Styles of teaching in the UK and China can differ quite dramatically. How do you approach teaching, and how have the Chinese teachers at your school responded to this?

I try my best to make my lessons quite interactive. Many of the teachers have been very complimentary and given me positive feedback about my lessons. Recently, some other teachers have also been asking to observe some of my lessons for new ideas, or at least to see what it’s like, and how pupils react to such active lessons.

One of my favourite things to teach is idioms. Chinese people tend to understand things in a very literal way, and I’ve found that if you talk about ‘letting the cat out of the bag’, pupils might actually think that you have a cat in your bag – I really enjoy explaining to them what it actually means. Animal idioms are possibly the best, as there are so many of them in English, and the pupils love them. In a recent lesson, I introduced the pupils to the topic by getting them into teams to act out different animals. Then, when they had guessed them right (or given up and been told the answer), they acted out the whole idiom – they like using new vocabulary that they have learnt. ‘Ants in your pants’ was possibly the funniest one, as it was the most difficult to act out. The pupils were not allowed to make any noise, and as they were human-sized, it was hard to convey that they were supposed to be tiny, so hilarious actions followed. It took a while for most of them to get it, but when they did, it was like a eureka moment – everyone was buzzing.

Apply to become an English language assistant.

You can also read Annie's blog.

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