12 Apr

For the past 6 Monday nights, I’ve been tutoring a group of 7 primary school students. This study group was arranged by one of my coworkers, Julia, whose daughter is 9 years old, and we meet every week in Julia’s sister’s apartment.

Tonight, when the tutoring session was over, Julia stopped me on my way out and began telling me that I should feel free to run this study group however I want. I was instantly wary about what was coming next.

One thing I’ve noticed about my interactions here in China is that when someone starts telling me that I can do whatever I want regarding a specific situation, they invariably follow by giving me explicit orders. I’m not talking about people giving me advice on where to travel before I leave Asia or what to eat for lunch when I’m in the city–I’m referring specifically to authority figures, usually in work situations. Whenever someone says, “You should do what you want, but…,” they are always telling me that I shouldn’t do what I want. Instead, I should do what they’re about to tell me to do.

I’ve also noticed that there’s a correlation between the language used to reassure me of the value of my personal judgement and the level of compliance that is expected. Basically, the more expansive someone is about my freedom to choose how to handle a given situation, the bigger the change that they’re about to suggest and the less of a choice I actually have. A quick “do what you want, but…” usually means that the requested change is minor and there’s some room for negotiation. “Please always feel free to run your class by following your own inner compass” means that they’re about to tell me I must start teaching in a combination of Cantonese and German or they’re sending me home.

If you’re ever in China and a government official opens a conversation by spending more than 4 minutes describing the value of your personal will and how your freedom can never be taken away because it soars like an eagle, you should worry. They’re about to send you to prison.

I’m not honestly complaining, I’m just trying to be funny…this system of doing things actually works pretty well for me. Criticism and orders are handled very indirectly, but I feel like I still get the message–at least most of the time.

What Julia actually said, as it turned out, was, “One of the parents thinks it might be helpful if you use more real life situations in your lessons. But it’s just a suggestion. You should do what you’re comfortable with.”

My interpretation of this statement is that in a few weeks, if they notice that I’m not using more real life situations, I should be prepared to explain myself. And my explanation better be pretty sound.

I have no problem with this whatsoever–these people are paying me well, after all. And the reason I haven’t been using real life situations is because after my first lesson with these kids Julia said, “I want you to feel comfortable running the class your own way. But I think it might be better if you had less fun and more work. I am telling the parents to purchase a workbook for their children. You can look at it and decide if you would like to use it in this class…but it’s up to you.”

Clearly, the workbook wasn’t actually optional. She had already told the parents to go out and buy it. The book is horribly dry and dated, full of repetitive speaking and pronunciation drills. Tonight’s unit had the kids repeating cake recipes. I’m not kidding. 1lb flour, 2 tsp baking soda, etc. This isn’t really practical or interesting to a bunch of kids–it’s not practical or interesting to anyone I know in this day and age of So I’m happy to start discussing more real life situations–we can work on ordering in a restaurant or talking on the phone.

I just notice that the longer I live in China, the louder alarm bells ring in my mind whenever someone says, “in my opinion,” or “perhaps you’d better.”


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