The Last Word

An Infant in China
Reveling in the risks of a job overseas
by Kate Hamilton '02

While we Oberlin graduates like to think of ourselves as a special breed, somehow immune from the sticky, money-grubbing, corporate race to the top, we, too, are ridden with post-graduation anxiety. The College's over-ambitious slogan rings through my head as I wonder if I really do have the tools to Change the World. As Oberlin grads, we can write eloquent essays about the capitalist patriarchy, expound postmodernist artistic theory, wield micro-pipeters, and run gel-electrofluoresis, but can we land that perfect, fulfilling job? In our current, flailing economy, can we even pay the electricity bill?

For most of us, the path is rockier than our Commencement speakers suggest. I graduated from Oberlin last May. My current job, teaching English at Yunnan University in China, pays about 200 U.S. dollars a month. Although my title is "foreign expert" and I teach oral and written English to scholars twice my age, I don't feel like an expert in anything. Even my simplest daily routines--ordering breakfast, finding a public bathroom, and doing laundry--pose huge challenges. I've been in China for several months, yet I still clench my fists when a cab driver chuckles and shakes his head at my poor pronunciation. Each day I squint my eyes at the Chinese characters on the bus route sign, hoping, usually futilely, that my most recent language tutorial session has endowed me with the gift of literacy.

The students who first entered my classroom last August encountered a young, inexperienced, babbling idiot of an instructor who was hired by their normally reliable institution of learning. Now, a few months later, some of their stares have turned to smiles. I am an expert at speaking English but know little about living in China. They are experts on China, but know little about speaking English. In fact, after years and years of English classes, many of these PhD and graduate students can't string together five words. Fortunately, without their usual distant, exam- and grammar-oriented Chinese professor at the helm, the students' fear of mistakes has lessened. Unfortunately, such mutually beneficial teaching and learning arrangements are rare at Chinese universities.

In learning a new language--any language--one struggles with an unfathomably large body of knowledge; it's rather like a return to infancy. I explain this to my students one day as I share my ordeal with dinner the night before. I had walked bravely into a restaurant to order a famous local dish recommended by my Chinese tutor. I had come prepared: I'd written the name of the dish on a small slip of paper. I ordered my meal, but my words were met with a quizzical look. A few other waitresses came by to help. I tried a different intonation and knit my brows together even further. I tried speaking faster, which only incited giggling. Finally, an assemblage of at least 10 gawking employees led me by hand into the kitchen. With their encouragement, I gave up trying to speak, and instead pointed to the foods that I wanted to eat. Everyone nodded their heads in relief.

I am never at a loss for stories like this: telling my barber (in broken Chinese) at my first haircut in China that I didn't want to look like a Hong Kong pop star. Bargaining for tomatoes at a Chinese market ("no, I don't want the live turtles, too, even if I can get both for just eight yuan"). I find that my tales of toddling through language and cultural learning have freed my students to toss their own crumbled pride to the wayside. Without their accustomed fear and intimidation, their knowledge of English increases rapidly.

"Karen," a small student with short, wispy hair, was given her English name from her last foreign teacher. She sits in the front row, elbows on the table and neck craned, to take in my every utterance. I lecture on the weather, relating my recent trip to the Tibetan villages in chilly northern Yunnan. Karen nods vigorously in excitement. I explain the difference between the words sunny and shining. The new information clicks, and she claps her hands in delight. "Oh yes! I understand."

Karen, like all of my doctoral-candidate students, is wading through the research and writing of her doctoral thesis. Her topic is cultural anthropology, specifically Yunnan minority rituals, and as she gathers her books after class, she says, "You know Miss Kate, I've always dreamed of going to Tibet." She then stops, searching for the right words. "The people there are so romantic." (I should explain that my students have a close relationship with their electronic dictionaries and often use new words in bizarre contexts. So rather than assume that I know what Karen means by "romantic," I wait for her to explain.)

"Men in Tibet are not shy like the Han men in Kunming," she says. "Tibetans are brave in love. They write poems to their lovers and bring them gifts. They hold hands and walk under the moon."

Now, people where I come from might also admit to dreams of going to Tibet--but for entirely different reasons: the spectacular scenery, the largest mountains in the world, or simply "because it is there." Karen's intriguing perspective reminded me of all I have yet to learn. Each day as I look out into my classroom, I'm actually peering through 40 vastly different windows into a marvelous new country and culture.

So here's the news from this recent graduate: Out here in the "real" world I am humbled by my lack of knowledge each and every day. I don't expect to be changing the world any time soon. I am not saving lives, providing prosperity, recording history, or preventing disease. I am paying my electricity bills. I've found myself an adventurous job and I'm reveling in the risks. I'm an educational infant once again.

Kate Hamilton began teaching English at Yunnan University last August on a two-year Shansi fellowship.


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