Chinese Teacher Experiences Culture Shock…in Alabama

I saw this little item on a regional news website (first four paragraphs):

Chinese teacher has culture shock at Elberta school

ELBERTA, Ala. (AP) – A small school in south Baldwin County has become the only one in Alabama and the first Catholic elementary school in the country to be chosen for a guest teacher program designed to teach students Chinese.

The program at St. Benedict Catholic School brings in a guest Chinese teacher and is co-sponsored by the College Board and Hanban, China’s Office of Chinese Language Council International.

St. Benedict, which has 158 students in pre-kindergarten through eight grade, decided to add Chinese to its foreign language curriculum, augmenting a Spanish program that launched a few years ago.

The article goes on to describe the culture shock felt by the Chinese teacher, a Shanghai native.

While I feel for this fellow, who is indubitably confused as all hell, I have to appreciate the humor of this situation. There is nothing in this world that will fully prepare a Shanghai native for life in any village, town, or city in the United States. By the same token, there is nothing in this world that will fully prepare an American for life in most parts of Asia.

I wonder what, if any, sort of training the Chinese teacher had before he left for small town USA. I wonder what sort of training, if any, the school had in hosting a visiting Chinese teacher. Probably none.

What’s the problem, you may ask? What exactly are the differences between Chinese and American culture?

Start with this idea:


Nothing is the same. Food, style of dress, communication styles, value systems, religious beliefs, political environments…the list of differences is endless. Which is why, of course, I live in greater China. Still, even those of us who have sense of the differentness between the cultures of East and West are sometimes frustrated by the cultural differences we encounter.

My advice to both the teacher and the school: Patience, openness, and tolerance. Judgment and an overweening focus on cultural differences will make you miserable. Teacher Wang, think of your colleagues and students and their strange behavior as “ke ai (loveable),” and parents, teachers, and students at St. Benedict Catholic School, give Mr. Wang the gift of acceptance. Let him eat his fried fish and rice, drink his green tea, wear his slippers in the faculty lounge if he chooses to.

In closing, I quote the Principal of the school:

“We felt like children who have Chinese language are going to be able to write their own ticket when they get to college,” Principal Kendall McKee said.

I know that reporters typically aren’t able to communicate all of the thought and planning that precedes a decision to implement a Chinese language program in a school, but statements such as these concern me a bit.

Why? Because you’ve got to learn a language like Mandarin in the proper cultural context. You can’t just learn some vocabulary, tones, and sentence structure and expect to have any idea what is going on. Chinese is nothing like Spanish. Or French. Or German. There are huge cultural gaps here, and from a linguistic perspective, it would be easier for a native English speaker to learn all three of the aforementioned  languages than it will be to master Mandarin.

Is there a program in place to bring the students to China, or to make some effort to bring China to the students? What sorts of cultural activities are built into the language program? Does the principal himself know anything about Chinese culture? Does the Chinese teacher know how to communicate his own culture to the kids? I hope there’s more going on here than just a Chinese teacher spending a year teaching kids the difference between the tones and the first few hundred words in Mandarin. Otherwise, this project has the potential to turn out to be an exercise in waste and frustration for all involved.

I wish both sides well. I hope the news station reports on progress made on both sides in six months or so.


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Filed under Culture, Culture Shock, Language

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