I've often wished it was, "Did your students gain confidence in their spoken English?" That would be easy to answer with a confident - "Yes, all of them!"
But "Would you do it again?" is harder to answer. Partly, it's related to my undeniably Western upbringing and how my body copes with the change of food - it doesn't adapt quickly to the quantity of oil used in Chinese cooking. I'm constantly on the verge of diarrhoea and have a complaining gut. I have trouble sleeping, and find the sweltering heat and extreme humidity draining. Others suffer with painful heat rash. The lack of easy contact with home is challenging. "Yes ... maybe" is met with "So you didn't enjoy the experience", which simply isn't true. Questions aren't always easy to answer.
Once you've gained the confidence of adult students, and respect and trust has been fostered, questions beyond your expectations may surface.
Stereotypes absorbed from films make for interesting discussions: Is everyone really that wealthy? Do you all have large homes? We might rarely stop to think about the skewed version of the "typical" western family life, particularly as depicted in TV shows and movies glorifying "the American Dream". We know it's a facade, and the reality for the bulk of US citizens and the western world in general, is very different. Westerners aren't a homogenous group and while students might implicitly understand this, it's important to also note differences within and between cultures. We don't all live in huge beautifully furnished homes. Not everyone is wealthy, many people are afraid of overseas travel particularly to a communist country where the main language isn't English.
My Chinese students were stunned to hear that, before I left home, I'd heard comments like: "Be careful, you never know if you'll be safe overseas, especially in China."
"What do you mean you don't know the name of the town and hotel you'll be staying in before you arrive, isn't that dangerous?" "How will your family know where you are?"
"Isn't China a scary place?"
My Chinese teacher-students looked at me with wide eyed disbelief, then looked at each other with genuine shock tinged with hurt. How could anyone think they, as individuals, could present a danger to anyone! "We thought all Westerners would be comfortable travelling to China." "We're just the same as you except we speak a different language."
And one thing leads to another. More questions emerge, and as trust builds, so does the confidence to ask them.
One day, I had the sense that something was going on between a group of the women. There was a general shuffling of feet, and pointed looking at each other.
"Do you want to ask me a question?"
Nod, nod, nod.
Okay, why aren't they asking? Why do they look so embarrassed? They haven't been backwards in coming forward the past few days.
"Is it something you'd prefer the men not to be here for?"
Nod, nod, nod.
Oh my goodness. What on earth could it be? What to do? How do I handle this? Nothing like this was mentioned in the pre training sessions! I checked with our interpreter and she encouraged me to let the women ask whatever it was they wanted, so I asked them to write the questions down with the understanding that I'd do my best to answer as well as possible.
And what followed probably only came about due to my age, and reinforced that we're all in this together. We all face similar problems and often feel the need to share and know we're not alone:
- How do I get on with my in-laws?
- How do I teach manners to children?
- How do I broach the topic of sex education with my child?
- How early do I begin the discussion?
- But they also were curious about our attitudes to abortion and single parenthood, about contraception, menopause, age and retirement.
At other times they asked questions specifically related to teaching:
- How do you inspire students?
- How do you help the student who is struggling - with school work, or with problems at home?
- How do you make your classroom interesting when there are tight time frames in which to deliver necessary material?
- How do you be a great role model?
And like so much in life, there's no single easy answer. Life is complex, answers will be different, depending on your country of origin, your age, experience and personal background.
More than anything I encouraged them to keep sharing between themselves, to find mutually supportive networks and to use this sharing experience as a great start.
As for "Would you go again?" I returned to Jiangsu in 2015 (to the city of Gaoyou) and found the experience just as rewarding the second time!