Cultural Sensitivity when Working With Chinese Students
In 2010, I was on a cultural fact-finding mission. While living as an ex-pat in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, China, I decided I would like to teach English to Chinese students. I thought it would be a fun, constructive way to spend my extra time while my husband was working. So, I took the challenge! I call this a challenge because I had no prior ESL experience at the time. I soon found that understanding the Chinese culture was going to become a priority. Is sensitivity to the Chinese cultural norms significant in teaching ESL in China? A very important puzzle piece in successful teaching in China is defined by their culture. Learning about it and implementing it in my teaching classes smoothed many a misconception, both ways. Culture matters. But, how?
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Rene E. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
To understand the present, we need to start with the past. I discovered the Chinese Teacher or Laoshi has been held in deferential, high reverence for centuries. Such deference might be compared today to a highly-skilled doctor in the U.S. The translation of ‘teacher’ in China is Laoshi (old teacher) and is a term of significant respect based on a hierarchical system that states respect is measured by age, therefore, the term Laoshi, or old teacher, is given to show high regard in age and occupation. Government leaders/leaders are at the top of the pyramid, followed by teachers, parents and other authoritative positions. This garners instant respect for teachers that is lived out in many ways. For example, students daily bowing to their teacher, all the while leaving a personal distance between the student/teacher relationship to show respect. Familiarity is looked down upon. Being knowledgeable about the high reverence of teachers may explain to ESL teachers why the students may seem distant and not willing to participate.
Under this umbrella of cultural respect, Chinese students rarely ask questions or challenge the instructor for fear of losing face.
“Loss of face refers to the confidence of society in the integrity of the ego’s moral character, the loss of which makes it impossible for him/her to function properly within the community. Confrontation is seen as a potential threat to the face of either party in and so, could invite chaos or imbalance to the class. Students are afraid to ask questions for fear of shaming themselves or the teacher if the teacher doesn’t know the answer, which would cause a disturbance in the balance of roles.” (Gao et al 1996, p289)
Detrimental effects for students may result from the Western instructor’s lack of understanding that they are violating social codes, of which they were not aware, all causing misconceptions and confusion.
To compound the situation, individual praise is deemed awkward since success is measured and celebrated as a team in the name of China. Chinese society is ruled to be one of collectivism. Giving individual praise to a student is rare, if ever. The one exception competes. While it is the individual that competes, it is the collective that receives the rewards. This might take the form, in the classroom, of displaying all students' grades daily on the wall for all to see. It is used to motivate the students by shame to excel, which will, in the end, benefit the group.
Consequently, by being sensitive to the cultural norms of teaching in China, a teacher can profit in ways that will make the student more comfortable in the classroom and give the teacher more control of the classroom’s success. A caveat does exist when a foreigner (Laowi) starts to teach in China. We, as foreigners, generate a certain curiosity that can allow us to soften the traditional rigidity of the student/teacher relationship. This is especially successful in one-on-one teaching. Taking advantage of their interest in a foreign country can be a great tool to open the conversation with a student.
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As a result, by gaining cultural knowledge and sensitivity we can honor the Chinese culture by letting it inform us of how to modify teaching techniques for success. After, utilizing that knowledge, we can then garner student respect, curiosity, and motivation in the classroom. The best of both worlds!
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