Recently, I returned from a month-long teaching experience in Changsha, China. The professors in my class were participants in the University of Alberta’s Teaching in English program, a Faculty of Extension citation designed for higher education instructors to enhance their ability to teach their subjects in English.
My seat mate on the 11 hour flight from Vancouver to Beijing was returning to China from visiting her daughter in Edmonton. She loved the time she spent in my home city. “I feel very comfortable there. The air so fresh, and I can see a long way.” Her daughter earned a degree in chemistry at the University of Alberta, found a well-paying job, and just bought a house. Her mother was thrilled. “My daughter have a good life in Canada. She is very happy.”
It became clear during the flight that my seat mate was keen to learn more about Canadian culture and to practise her English. I was more than happy to help her out with both. I listened hard to her questions, and tried to give easily understandable answers. When she struggled to tell me about her experiences, I supplied her with the words I thought she needed. When our first meal was served, I watched her peering closely at the all-English label on the container of blueberry yogurt. I was trying to think of a way to explain to her what she was looking at when she ripped off the foil lid and dumped the yogurt on her salad. It must have tasted all right, because she finished it off and scraped the inside of the empty container with her spoon to enjoy the last bits.
On the flight to China, I wasn’t the only one providing language and cultural assistance. My seatmate helped me as I tried to figure out how to operate the inflight entertainment system: she explained the movie selections, laughing loudly to indicate the comedies, and imitating kung-fu moves to show me where I could find the action movies. When she judged that the flight attendant was not relieving me quickly enough of my proffered empty tray, she took it out of my hands and held it for me. Later, when the refreshment cart came by, the flight attendant didn’t offer coffee as a choice. My seat mate followed her down the aisle, and reappeared with cups of coffee for each of us. She replied with a sleepy smile when I had to push past her during the flight, and even asked if I needed help accessing my bag in the overhead bin.
We didn’t interact during the entire flight, though. I had lots of time to begin exploring Chinese culture and expression on my own. The movie choices were a bit surprising, including more golden oldies than I expected: John Wayne and Shirley Temple flicks, The Sound of Music, and Heidi. I also read a copy of the China Daily newspaper. My favorite section was the “Around China” capsule news reports, where I found these culturally divergent stories.
In Longshou County, “a young woman ran naked …to get a free iPhone 6…[after] she made a deal with a WeChat friend….Images of the streaking young woman went viral on the Internet that night, spurring debates about young people’s morals and values.” In Hunan province, where I’m headed, “two men who forced monkeys to perform tricks were expelled from downtown Changsha….A resident called the city’s forestry department after witnessing the two men force four monkeys to perform difficult movements by whipping and intimidating them.”
When the announcement finally came that we were descending into Beijing, my seatmate and I started to pack up our belongings. She reminded me that I had put my coat in a different compartment from my flight bag. I told her to keep on practising her English, and thanked her for her help and conversation.
My official teaching duties don’t begin for several more days, but, as a learner, my education has already started. If I keep my eyes and ears open, I expect I’ll find many more “classrooms” in Changsha in the coming weeks.