Letter from China: Island teacher a world away

GRETEL FRENCH PHOTO | A sculpture in stone of Confucius educating a disciple, on the grounds of Yixing High School in Jiangsu Province, China.

Three weeks have passed since I began my long trek to China, leaving Shelter Island to begin a new job teaching English.

So what has this teacher learned so far on this life-altering journey?

In no particular order: I’ve found that Chinese food isn’t the same as “Western” (American) Chinese food. When you order chicken, you get the whole chicken, inside and out, eventually learning to pick around the bits that are of no interest. I’m becoming a professional when it comes to eating with chopsticks and found I haven’t missed using a fork. But then when it is presented to me at a “Western” restaurant, I find myself truly thankful.

And then there is the “squatty potty.” Plumbing is a bit different from the way we know it. I will spare you the gory details as the term “squatty potty” is quite telling on its own. I’ve found learning Chinese to be very difficult, but not as difficult as learning the thousands of characters the language uses. I hope to pick up a good deal of the language while I’m here, but I don’t expect to be able to read fluently in a year’s time. In formal Chinese education, students spend their first six years learning the characters for reading and writing. Besides that, they are also learning English.

The excitement in a Chinese child’s eyes when they say “hello” to me in the market, and I reply in turn — what a great feeling!

Getting here took a long time, and then, when I think of it, it happened very quickly. My goal has always been to be a teacher, and after graduating from Shelter Island High School (Class of 1997) I went on to eventually get a masters in teaching at the University of Southern California, Rossier School of Education.

I worked many jobs in order to pay for my education. You may remember me as “the girl on the tractor” up at the Shelter Island Country Club and Gardiner’s Bay Country Club, or the writer of the ladies bowling column for the Reporter last season.
I had the pleasure of working with the staff of the Shelter Island School District for the last two years, which was an experience that I can learn from and take with me wherever I go.

While working all of my jobs – the golf courses, waiting tables, watching houses, cutting lawns, substitute teaching – I completed my graduate degree, but for the past two years I spent many evenings searching for my first full-time teaching position. I made an effort every night to apply to a minimum of five available positions. One night I checked my email and found that an institution I had not applied for a position had contacted me. It was from the

looking to fill a post of English teacher.

Ameson is an educational foundation that fosters an American High School Program (AHSP) for Chinese students who wish to travel abroad to the United States and pursue higher education at top universities. A prerequisite for application to the Ameson program is that students have achieved a moderate to high level of English fluency. All of the courses are designated as Advanced Placement, and students have the opportunity to receive college credit.

It’s an understatement to say that since I opened the email and read it, things have happened quickly. Two interviews and four months later I was on a plane heading for Beijing, and then to the Ameson headquarters in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. One week later, I was on a bus heading to Yixing (famous for their pottery, especially teapots).

The school population is a whopping 1,700 and growing, with the International Department, where I am, in a separate building. Classes are held on the second floor and the teaching staff lives on the two floors above it. My apartment is much more than I had expected, and very welcome after my initial culture shock.

One of the most pleasant and rewarding things I’ve learned is that teachers are treated like gold here.

While in China I hope to visit many places. I mean, you really don’t go to China without seeing the Great Wall or the Terracotta Warriors, but I also hope to travel to other countries once I get a residence permit in order. I will be the one who has no clue where certain places are, but at least I know not to cut the ferry line.

I will be writing to you from time to time, and from a bowling perspective too.

It took quite a long time, but I know now that I am in the job for which I prepared — teacher.