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What Happened To Me?

It’s been about 18 months since I’ve slightly settled into ShenZhen and began work as an English teacher. I set out for the East with hopes of simply learning more about a culture that I’ve admired from a distance, broaden my experiences as a professional, improve my humanity, and learn another language. I think my baptism by culture-shock’s fire has set me on the correct course for accomplishing those goals by the time I leave. To celebrate the achievement of lasting 18 months abroad, I want to share a few things that I have undergone from working as an English Language Teacher in ShenZhen, China. 

It’s affected my speech. I am surrounded by more non-native English speakers than I am native. So, I have had to simplify my life, my culture, my personality, and my desires into the most basic sentence structures and words possible. Essentially, I am a living thesaurus and, at times, a translation app. But, I don’t mind it because its a helpful and very useful skill. It forces me to clarify, seek clear communication, and quickly identify when someone just doesn’t understand me. It’s not full-proof, yet. There are some kinks that still get lost in translation and stay lost no matter how hard I try. 

The downside to this skill is that I speak slower than when I first arrived in China. My cousin, Jeanine visited me in the Spring and she speaks a million words per minute. But when she turned to me and asked me why am I talking so slow, I was a bit shocked. At the time we were being lead on a tour of Dongmen by one of my student friends and his mere presence had put me into teacher mode. I spend so much time decreasing the amount of words per minute that I sometimes wonder how am I going to adjust to life back in Jersey or New York where words fly out of people’s mouths as fast as the cars zoom up and down the Garden State Parkway?

I’m even more insecure of my vocabulary and grammar. I really enjoy writing, I’ve been using my pen and paper, desktop computers, and laptops to untangle my thoughts for years. Which means I strive to choose my words carefully to convey various messages. But teaching English has turned my caution into an insecurity. Students have so many questions as to why they can say this in English but not that. Why do they need to conjugate verbs, use the right prepositions and use complex sentence structures to express something that might be simply structured in their native language. BECAUSE YOU JUST DO! Some grammar rules in English are just too inconsistent to have a complete answer. On top of that, some grammar rules and vocabulary are a matter of origin: is it American, British, Australian, South African, etc. Of course, that response only works in 10 percent of the situations that I encounter so, I devote time mulling over my memories for examples, researching the question on Bing (because Google is blocked) and then discussing it with seasoned teachers and trainers so I can prepare for the next group of students who want to interrogate me like I’m a suspect on a Law & Order episode. 

It’s like I’m a doctor. As soon as I tell other non-natives that I teach English, they instantly become aware of the way they’re using English. I wasn’t aware of their usage before because I was listening for gist or meaning not accuracy, but because they keep asking me if their wording is correct or not, I then put on my teacher hat and start coaching them along. When I was in Bangkok, I met a really nice guy from Brazil who was funny and generously doling out advice about where to go until I told him what I did and then I had to spend a good 15 minutes of the conversation reassuring him that his “English is fine.”

In summary, I’m now a slow talker who is confident in her ability to provide an answer to customers and who operates as an English coach outside of the office. 

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