Culture and idiomatic English

This is a piece that I wrote for my memoir and I am sharing it with you today, timely as the Chinese Lunar New Year is just past.  It is sort of long and somewhat humorous.  I taught in Beijing in 2001 and 2002.  I am currently working on writing a book about the experiences.

 

Many of the students in China who wanted to perfect their conversations skills in various languages went to a place called English Corner, or French Corner, etc.  This was a street corner where, on certain days, all sorts of people met to speak the language of their choice.

My husband attended a couple of these and since he was a native English speaker, he became the focus of these sessions.  No longer were the attendees speaking in conversation to one another, but all were vying for Bob’s attention in order to practice with a real English speaking person. It was tedious and very tiring.

What could we do with our students that would help them improve their English speaking skills?  I used several methods, including debate, tour guides, plays, but the most popular by far was the soap opera.  I have to explain that in Beijing, soap operas are very popular, taking up a good percentage of broadcast time on many of the local television stations.  They are maudlin, with a good deal of intrigue to carry your interest to the next episode.

I used the soap opera was used in my classes for both semesters.  These performances were at the beginning of each class session; especially the ones after lunch, as it excited them and brought them fully awake from their postprandial stupor. I had noticed students in other classrooms sleeping after lunch.

When arriving in class, five students were told they were the stars for the day.  These five would go out in the hall to prepare for their performance.  They had ten minutes to work on their episode. Sometimes I would give a topic and sometimes I would allow them to carry on in their own way continuing the story from the day before.

I wish I had recorded these scenes as they continued to unfold over the term.  It was interesting to see what they would use for their own ideas, but also fun to see what they would do with the ones I presented them. Many had preconceived ideas of “the American Way” and it was interesting to see these ideas in play form.

One class originally started with a Chinese family that lived in the United States.  When I asked them to describe this family, they told me that they lived in a big house, had a red convertible.  This comes from watching too many American movies.  “Well what kind of family do they have?” I asked.  “Oh, Miss Deon, they will have twelve children,” they replied. My response to this was how do we fit them in the little red convertible when it is time to take them to the movies or school?  They hadn’t thought this through.  So in one episode, we went on to find an appropriate vehicle for this family, shopping for a vehicle for a large family.  (The large family is the Chinese couples dream as they have been so limited to one child for so long.)

After we had fashioned the U.S. family, we created a Chinese couple with a child who were coming to the U.S. to visit our newly created family. One episode included piling into the new fifteen passenger van the family had purchased (financing was never figured out) to meet the Chinese family at the airport.

We had engagement of oldest daughter, guys night at the bar watching football (read soccer), one child who wasn’t doing well enough at school, a neighbor whose daughter was pregnant out of wedlock, sightseeing to Yellowstone Park, Grandmother who gambled too much at mahjong, and many more.

After a while they became very talented in creating scenarios for these vignettes.  They were so comfortable doing this that I decided to occasionally throw in a monkey wrench to scenes.  During the one were the guys were in the bar watching football, I had arranged for one of the women in the class to enter the play and go up to her “husband” and say “Where have you been?  It is our anniversary and you promised to take me to dinner and here I find you playing with your friends at the tavern!”  You should have seen the actor’s faces.  They were mortified. The students in the audience already knew this was going to happen as I had arranged it while the actors were in the hallway working on the plot.  We all laughed hysterically.  If course, the carefully arranged plot needed to be modified and the rest of their play changed to an impromptu, extemporaneous skit.  They really had to think on their feet to finish their ten minutes of fame on stage.  I must say they managed to pull it off well.

Toward the end of the term, one group of actors, who now knew that I might throw in something anytime, arrange for a surprise of their own.  The pulled me into their plot from the audience.  I’m not sure they got the responses they wanted, because I made it more difficult for them to hold to the plot by playing around with their addition of me to the game.

Needless to say, this whole exercise really pushed them to learn casual conversation.  After the skit was over, we would talk about the cultural inaccuracies they had portrayed, like fitting fourteen people into a red convertible.  Since I was teaching Western Culture as well as idiomatic conversation, it was a learning curve all around.

My husband’s class decided to put on a play.  They chose, of all things, Snow White. Well, this seemed pretty straightforward and probably not too difficult.  They would practice their parts in class as well as in their dorms.  However, in China, all the important parts should be played by men.  Snow White is an important part; therefore, it should be played by a man.  Chinese men normally do not have much facial hair, if any, but the gentleman chosen to play Miss White had a full beard.

Well, if a man could play the main woman then women could play the men.  The whole play was done with cross dressing! All the dwarves were women dressed as men.  The wicked queen was a man, the prince (another important part) was the only part played without cross dressing.

So here is Snow White in a dress he borrowed from one of his classmates.  He is wearing Bermuda shorts underneath, thankfully, as he sits with his legs splayed in front of his audience,  the dress being hiked up to a level as to be too revealing. Well the whole play was a riot.  Though they practiced a great deal, the glitches, such as the queen tripping over the hem of his gown, and the dwarves singing “hi ho, hi ho” off-key, it was wonderful.  They invited all my students to come for the audience as his students all had parts and they needed an audience.

My students chose an abbreviated version of The Merchant of Venice, so abbreviated that it was a little hard to follow and the audience, Bob’s students, got a little bored with the whole thing. They had a good time doing it and developed elaborate costuming from their limited wardrobes, but they did get a chance to practice their English Conversation.

Needless to say, this was just a couple of more examples of my quirky way of teaching conversational English and Western Culture.

 

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Going the Distance

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It is just over six months since I started this project.  I am trying, on another venue, to work on my memoir AND to rewrite a seven hundred page journal into something that can be used as a book.  That journal was written when I lived in China and taught Western Culture and idiomatic English to scholars who were preparing to study overseas.  Both of these projects are a big and long row to hoe (a farm idiom).

I only started writing about two years ago.  I am an old woman and writing never came easily for me.  I can remember in high school English having to write a 200 word paragraph describing something.  I managed about two sentences and then I was lost. In college, the research paper on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a totally incomprehensible dialog.

I didn’t discover, cognitively, until I was a couple of years out of college, that I had a reading disability.  I couldn’t get it the first time I read it, or the second, and sometimes, not even on the third time through. I just couldn’t understand what the words on the page meant.

Maybe it was because my family moved many times in primary school.  I am unsure as I was really a good reader in first grade, but things went downhill from there and three moves in second and another in third didn’t help my reading skills.  It also wreaked havoc with math too.

By sixth grade, my teacher told my parents I was lazy.  I tested high but could not perform.  Didn’t anyone realize I had a problem?  Parents, be aware of your children’s progress in school.  Illness, hearing difficulties, eyesight problems, moving, and more can cause problems with learning.  If your child did well and then suddenly has problems, maybe there is an underlying cause.  Try to find out what it is.  Primary school children are building the formative basis for their studies throughout their lives.  I think if my parents had paid attention, they would have found I wasn’t lazy, but had lost the continuity of learning in so many moves from school to school and from teacher to teacher, all with different approaches to teaching.  Just the trauma of changing schools and being with new children so often, having to fit in, can interfere with learning.

When I was an adult and out on my own, I could little afford much in the way of entertainment.  Going to a library and getting books was not a high priority as I hated reading, but, having little money, I needed something to occupy my mind in the quiet times commuting on the bus, and in the evenings without television.  Books that were light and comic were my choice.  I soon discovered that my problem was being unable to read.  I worked very hard at remedying that problem.  After five years of reading as much as I could, I finally learned to read efficiently.  I went from droll humor like The Egg and I to reading texts such as Introduction to Geology and understanding it the FIRST time through.

Reading is a big part of my life now.  We do not have television and night comes at about 4:30 in the afternoon on a winter’s day in my part of the country.  Reading happens every day.  Sometimes just for a short while when I sit in the sun (if it decides to be present), or for several hours by the fireside on a cold, blustery winter’s night.

Now, here I am, a person who was almost illiterate, writing, writing about my life.  What a change from the sixth grader whom the teacher said was lazy, the college student who needed to read the collateral reading three times to get it.  Now I can enjoy the written word.  Too bad someone didn’t notice earlier.  School would have been a lot easier and more pleasurable.

 

Postscript:  As an undergraduate in college, my grades outside my major were mediocre.  When I went back to grad school, after I had learned to read, I was a straight A student. Too bad it came so late.

It is just over six months since I started this project.  I am trying, on another venue, to work on my memoir AND to rewrite a seven hundred page journal into something that can be used as a book.  The journal was written when I lived in China and taught Western Culture and idiomatic English to scholars who were preparing to study overseas.  Both of these projects are a big and long row to hoe (a farm idiom).

I only started writing about two years ago.  I am an old woman and writing never came easily for me.  I can remember in high school English having to write a 200 word paragraph describing something.  I managed about two sentences and then I was lost. In college, the research paper on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was a totally incomprehensible dialog.

I didn’t discover, cognitively, until I was a couple of years out of college, that I had a reading disability.  I couldn’t get it the first time I read it, or the second, and sometimes, not even on the third time through. I just couldn’t understand what the words on the page meant.

Maybe it was because my family moved many times in primary school.  I am unsure as I was really a good reader in first grade, but things went downhill from there and three moves in second and another in third didn’t help my reading skills.  It also wreaked havoc with math too.

By sixth grade, my teacher told my parents I was lazy.  I tested high but could not perform.  Didn’t anyone realize I had a problem?  Parents, be aware of your children’s progress in school.  Illness, hearing difficulties, eyesight problems, moving, and more can cause problems with learning.  If your child did well and then suddenly has problems, maybe there is an underlying cause.  Try to find out what it is.  Primary school children are building the formative basis for their studies throughout their lives.  I think if my parents had paid attention, they would have found I wasn’t lazy, but had lost the continuity of learning in so many moves from school to school and from teacher to teacher, all with different approaches to teaching.  Just the trauma of changing schools and being with new children so often, having to fit in, can interfere with learning.

When I was an adult and out on my own, I could little afford much in the way of entertainment.  Going to a library and getting books was not a high priority as I hated reading, but, having little money, I needed something to occupy my mind in the quiet times commuting on the bus, and in the evenings without television.  Books that were light and comic were my choice.  I soon discovered that my problem was being unable to read.  I worked very hard at remedying that problem.  After five years of reading as much as I could, I finally learned to read efficiently.  I went from droll humor like The Egg and I to reading texts such as Introduction to Geology and understanding it the FIRST time through.

Reading is a big part of my life now.  We do not have television and night comes at about 4:30 in the afternoon on a winter’s day in my part of the country.  Reading happens every day.  Sometimes just for a short while when I sit in the sun (if it decides to be present), or for several hours by the fireside on a cold, blustery winter’s night.

Now, here I am, a person who was almost illiterate, writing, writing about my life.  What a change from the sixth grader whom the teacher said was lazy, the college student who needed to read the collateral reading three times to get it.  Now I can enjoy the written word.  Too bad someone didn’t notice earlier.  School would have been a lot easier and more pleasurable.

 

Postscript:  As an undergraduate in college, my grades outside my major were mediocre.  When I went back to grad school, after I had learned to read, I was a straight A student. Too bad it came so late.