A few weeks ago I finished my first academic year of teaching Oral English at a university in the Middle Kingdom. There’ve been ups and downs, yadda, yadda, but it’s been, overall, good. Even the work has been okay. Here’s a short piece I wrote back in March about my favourite lesson.

This week, in the often frustrating battle to make my students speak English, I’ve been doing a speed dating exercise with my classes. After a bit of context setting, vocab work and guided discussion in the first hour, I sit them down and tell them to write 5 questions for a first date. Once I’ve run around and corrected the most painful mistakes (“How about you character?”), I split the class in two along gender lines. Because men are underrepresented in most of my classes, I have to even up the numbers and some of the women end up pretending to be male for the rest of the lesson. They don’t mind as soon as they realise that they won’t have to work with any icky boys.

Then the ‘men’ all sit down, spread around the classroom, and the women choose their partners. They talk for 3 minutes or so, using the questions they’ve written, then the women get up, find someone different and repeat the process. This tends to go on until I’ve had a chance to listen to everyone talk, or at least until I realise they’re not bothering to use English anymore. It’s not always the most productive of activities but it is among the most student-led ones. It seems to work well and students who barely say a word most of the time have surprised me, talking almost non-stop. A few even seem to have fun. I think that, for a lot of them, it’s as close to a date as they’ve ever been on.

As soon as you walk into a classroom here you start to notice a few things. One of the most obvious is that boys and girls sit apart. This is university remember, not school. Their ages range from 18 to the mid-20s. Part of my start-of-the-semester spiel is about how I expect them to be adults, to talk to me if there’s a problem, to be responsible for their work, to borrow a pen if they’ve forgotten one instead of just sitting there. But I still find myself referring to them as ‘boys’ and ‘girls’. And it’s not just because a lot of them look so young.

They seem to lack a huge amount of experience which their Western counterparts might take for granted. On the whole they don’t go to parties, certainly not the type of parties I went to in my teens. Most of them don’t seem to have had the time to just hang around and do stupid stuff, they’ve been too busy at school and then kept at home with Mum and Dad. And they just don’t seem to mix with members of the opposite sex. It’s most obvious when the rooms aren’t packed to capacity. The boys will sit together, all clumped up in one corner at the back, while the girls will usually sit at the front, often with a row of empty desks separating the two groups.

I’ve had problems in the past with some activities. Quick class surveys can be a real issue. If they need to ask 10 people a set of questions and there are only 7 or 8 boys, getting some of them to walk up and speak to a girl can be painful. I had one guy, usually a cheeky so-and-so who cracks jokes at my expense all lesson, nearly burst into tears when I tried to put him into a group with 3 young ladies for some homework. And I thought I was doing him a favour.

When the girls had to find someone to sit with during the speed dating, they all raced to sit with another female, barging each other out of the way, rather than sit with a lad. Quite often there were a couple who would sit down together, hoping I wouldn’t notice. If there was one girl who was a bit slower than the rest, I’d usually have to chivvy her towards the last free boy or she’d just stand around, too embarrassed to do anything herself.

Maybe it’s normal. Maybe I only think it’s all a bit weird because I come from middle-class, suburban England. But it seems to be symptomatic of cultural gender roles that I’ve been brought up (or dragged up, as my parents prefer to say) to feel uncomfortable with. I’m not sure if I’d cause offence calling the female students in a UK university ‘girls’, but one of my students seemed quite put out when I called her a woman.

It’s the kind of thing I’ve heard referred to as ‘traditional’ attitudes, usually by men who want a girlfriend that’ll clean their apartment without complaining. I always feel a bit uneasy talking about this kind of thing. I’m white, middle-class and male and I’ve never really had to deal with prejudice or negative stereotyping. They taught us about the Suffragettes at school and some of it stuck. I know who Germaine Greer is, not that I’ve ever read any of her work. (I did read Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman at Christmas, and still can’t decide if I want to know that much about a female mind or not. Good book though.)

It’s just that the unreconstructed, young-innocent-female and superior-provider-male world view seems to be completely prevalent here. In one lesson I had someone tell me, in all seriousness, that a woman who drinks and smokes is of low moral character.

I’ll let my students speak for themselves. One of the most common questions that the boys came up with was ‘have you had a boyfriend before?’ This was often the first thing they wanted to ask, and I was told by more than a few that if the answer was yes, that was the end of that.

The girls, on the other hand, wanted slightly more information. One wrote down the following 5 questions:

  1. Have you got a good job?
  2. Have you got a lot of money?
  3. Have you got a house?
  4. Have you got a car?
  5. Do you like children?

She certainly knows her priorities.


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  2. Tom, you are writing about a small town in Henan, not “China” which is a huge and diverse place. OK, I taught in Zhengzhou (Henan’s capital) 2007-2010, as well as Wuhan(Hubei’s capital) 1998-2000. And yes, I’ve seen everything you describe, especially in the earlier period. It is true that boy’s are usually the shyest, and in 1998 boys and girls would sit on opposite sides of the room even in a KTV parlour. However, by the time I left Zhengzhou, which is by no means as hip as Shanghai, it was perfectly normal to see boys and girls walking around the campus hand in hand, or sitting together in class. It wasn’t a peer group norm yet, but the change from a decade earlier was obvious. The materialism of many girls (not all) though, that hasn’t changed a bit. No money, no honey. Of course, there is no reason that Chinese should follow British or American gender norms.

    • Point taken. I’ve heard plenty of other teachers say that our uni isn’t the norm for the country. The way they take the freshmen’s ‘militia training’ so seriously, marching them up and down all and every day for a month, is something I thought they did everywhere – until someone told me they were more relaxed about it at most places. They get the freshmen out twice a day throughout the year to sweep up the campus too, which, again I’m told, isn’t common. It’s part of the reason I travel as much as I can – living on campus, it’s easy to mistake our little corner of China as a microcosm of the whole.

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  4. *sigh* the joys of teaching University-level English in China. I could never get away with teaching speed dating at my primary school 😛

    • Thanks! I’ve got a few students who might be surprised to hear my classes described as interesting… I’ll have to refer them to you in the future!

  5. There is a huge difference depending on where you are in China. I am guessing that most of the people in your classes were from old time farmland China. I taught at Xiamen University and the class comprised of students from said ‘farmland china’ as well as from the developed cities. Their respective behavior is completely different like night and day. Some of them even seem open minded and sophisticated like they are almost human liek the rest of us.

    That is until you get some HongKongers and Taiwanese students in there with them. Then you see that the mainlanders really are a bunch of backwards farmers no matter how rich their daddies are.

    • There’s a difference even between the freshmen and the sophomores. I only do this class once we’re well into the semester and everyone is a bit more relaxed, but for some of them, I think, it’s the first time they’ve really interacted, one-on-one, with members of the opposite sex. The first year students have almost all been incredibly nervous, those from the countryside and those from the nearby cities alike. The sophomores are more relaxed, but not much. The juniors and seniors I’ve met though, after years of sharing a homeroom and every class, seem a lot more secure than I ever was as a student…

  6. I did a similar activity in my college oral class, but to take the potential strangeness out of it I made it a “speed talking” activity, not dating. They had 5 minutes and had to ask about the recent holiday. Then, after talking to 4 partners, I called on students at random and asked what their former partner had done (such as, “what did your second partner do on their holiday.” Then, I would check with the partner to see if what the student said was true.

    As for the shy thing, I am at a mid-level uni in a boonie city with students from all over and all social classes. For the most part the boys sit separate from the girls, but they are all “brothers and sisters” to each other and have no problem working together. But I certainly understand what you experienced, and have dealt with it myself many times.

    • Reporting back can be a nightmare with some of my bigger classes, but I like the idea of you checking up on what they say. I hope you don’t mind me borrowing that one. I can’t see it working with my 60 strong Accounting majors, but the English majors might get some good discussions going as they seek to defend themselves…

  7. I believe that the nonstop education and learning Chinese students go through has a lot to do with this. There is too much competition to get into good colleges to guarantee a stable future so parents push their children from an early age. Kids are sheltered like crazy, and are constantly focused on learning. This of course impacts their available time to be social but this is necessary if they want to succeed in the future.

    Of course, this isn’t always the case and there are a lot of social butterflies. Everything I said could be totally ignorant and wrong, but this is my understanding as a Chinese-American student and I apologize if I offend anyone.

    • From what I understand the competition for uni places is even more of an issue in Henan than other provinces – it’s got the biggest population and the lowest number of places per student. That said, the uni I’m at is a private one. None of my students managed to get into the state unis and ended up with me instead (I think of them as the lucky ones). A lot of the people in my classes were pushed and sheltered, and still push themselves incredibly hard, but there are plenty that weren’t and don’t now. Or, at least, not to as great an extent… I think the Tiger Mum thing is a big part of their inexperience and embarrassment, but there are a lot of other factors as well. The Confucian tradition, the state of feminism, views of gender roles, the specifics of what they’re taught as well as the quantity (sex ed class sounds like it consists of one word – “don’t”)… There’s a whole bunch of interacting and conflicting cultural norms and values, ancient and modern, running through anything like this that I will never get to the bottom of

  8. It’s funny how all across this huge country, so many people have the same experiences. I’ve been teaching in China for a few years now, and there seems to be little difference from about age 16 to early 20’s. There are unique cases, but taken on a whole, it’s similar to what you’ve experience.

    One thing I just can’t get over is why everyone thinks it’s so important to learn English, but everyone wants a teacher to FORCE you to speak English. It’s like pulling friggin teeth.

  9. Thanks for your comments. I had the same experience teaching in Beijing. What occurred to me was that the Chinese teens mature much more slowly than, say, the American teens. I noticed that grown women carry around Disney backpacks and purses. They’re really into the “handsome prince” thing. Perhaps it’s because they have no sliblings and are “only children” and also, of course, because of the heavy emphasis on education in China. Just from the questions that you listed at the bottom of your post, it’s clear that the girls are waiting for the guys who own cars and homes (a function of the boy’s father who presents these things to him at a certain age following college and the acquisition of a good job). I see things changing in China, but slowly.

  10. I’m not sure if it’s because I live in Shanghai. But I’m a teenage American-Swedish girl and I go to a local high-school. I was talking to one of my friends who admitted that she has had three boyfriends. I felt embarrassed because I have had none.

  11. I consider it wrong that Chinese students learn English without comparing it with their own language. And most Chinese English-learners do not practice speaking often enough. They have no good contexts for doing that. Said this, I thought of the present China, students have words dare not to say, only thing and scold teacher.

  12. Nice post, Tom. I’ve been teaching in the Shanghai area (and surrounding cities/provinces) for 12 years now. I’ve done the speed dating quite often. Usually when I’m doing teacher training. It is interesting to observe the differences in this activity over the years. It seems that every year, it’s a little different.

    I really appreciated the post, as I’m doing it again tomorrow and needed refreshing. Kudos on a great blog.

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