On Education – Learning to Love and Hate while teaching ESL in the Middle Kingdom

April 2, 2012

In 1949, China’s peasantry, more than 85% of the population, was still largely individualistic, illiterate, superstitious and lived in extreme poverty. Fast forward to the early 21st century and we may understand how much China has changed in the sixty-three years since then.  Today, more than 90% are literate and learning English is mandatory in China’s public schools.

“Yes China” by Clark Nielsen is an honest memoir written by a young American going to China to teach English in an alien and foreign culture. Nielsen pulls no punches in describing himself and his experiences teaching ESL in China, and is not shy when it comes to scorching himself and his former religion in the process.

In fact, his vivid descriptions of teaching in China reminded me of my three decades as an English and Journalism teacher in US public schools.

In the late 1970s, I worked as a substitute teacher and the descriptions of the first classes Nielsen taught reminded me too much of the American grade school, then middle school and eventually high school students I taught 1975 – 2005.

Songs that help teach English as a second language.

For example, in 1977, I was a substitute teacher in Southern California and as the fifth-grade students I taught one day—and never to see again—flooded into the classroom at the beginning of school, one boy saw me, squealed “Sub!” and then started to chase and pummel other students while knocking over desks as if having a substitute teacher was a ticket to mayhem.

I suspect that the young Chinese students Nielsen first taught may have had similar thoughts when they saw his foreign face.

Like Nielsen, I had classes I loved to teach and others I hated to face each day, and this went on for the thirty years I was a classroom teacher.

I hate to say this but the old phrase, “kids will be kids” has a ring of truth to it even though I hate hearing it since many parents seem to use it as an excuse to do nothing to correct unacceptable behavior.

From Nielsen’s vivid descriptions of the behavior of Chinese grade-school students, I discovered that there is little difference between America’s children and China’s — it seems that “kids will be kids” in any country/culture  if the parents allow them to behave as if they were wild animals and/or barbarians.

However, similar to my experience as a teacher, Nielsen also found gold in some of his students. In fact, the last semester he taught in China, he fought back tears as he said goodbye to one of his good classes.

There are also vivid scenes, from his foreign perspective, of what it must be like to live and work in a developing country where more than a billion people still live in poverty.  Before 1949, the average life span in China was age thirty-five. When Nielsen arrived to teach ESL, that number had changed drastically. Today, the average lifespan is 73, and less than 3% live in severe poverty.

China is a developing country on steroids and Nielsen’s experiences in China reflect that. For this reason, when wanting to discover what it is like to move from a Western culture such as America’s to an alien and foreign land, it is best to read more than one memoir on that subject for a better perspective.

For example, I found “Yes China” an interesting contrast to Janet Elaine Smith’s memoir, “Rebel With a Cause”. While Nielson rejected and abandons his Mormon religion, Smith went abroad to spend nine years as an evangelical missionary in Venezuela. She was not a Mormon and her motives were almost the exact opposite of Nielsen’s.

Before becoming an expatriate, Smith worked with Native Americans and Latinos in the US, so the culture shock was not as great, and Nielsen did not work with people living in extreme poverty as Smith did.

However, Smith was not prepared for the extreme poverty of most of the people the mission she was with were serving, and, unlike Nielsen, she used teaching English to become more of a part of the culture.

Smith was “warned” by her superiors not to minister to the wealthy class, as they would never accept the gospel. Nielsen probably worked mostly with children of middle class and wealth parents in urban China.

When Smith was approached by a bank president, a physician, a teacher and a government officer to teach them English, she took the open door as a “sign” from God and defied the orders and held free English classes out of her home.

For a richer experience and to understand the culture she was living in, she exchanged the English lessons for Spanish classes to help her learn the local vernacular of Spanish and the customs of the Venezuelan people—something Nielsen and most Western/American ESL teachers in China do not do. Instead, they arrive in China ready to criticize anything different that does not fit the Western lifestyle they are used to.

For Smith, this different attitude paid off. Later, when Smith needed help for paper work, cashing checks, medical care, etc. Venezuelans were available to help her, while her American Evangelical overseers struggled trying to find such help.

Although Nielsen meets his future wife in China—a Chinese citizen—and they both live in Utah today, I doubt that he truly understood or embraced the Chinese culture as Smith did in Venezuela due to the differences in how they approached their experiences as expatriates teaching English in a foreign land—a developing and/or third world country, which is very different from being a citizen in North America.  In Smith’s memoir, I do not sense the love-hate relationship that Nielsen had with China. He seems to have no purpose for going there to teach English other than some need to rebel and escape Mormon Utah where he grew up.

In fact, Nielsen’s passages that paint an unflattering picture of Mormonism reveal his true motive for going to China. I felt as if Nielsen fled to China to escape the reaction of his Mormon friends and peers after he let them know he wasn’t going to go out as a missionary, which is expected of all Mormons, and in spite of himself, once he arrived in China, he found more acceptance from the Chinese than he did in Utah. After all, he came home with a Chinese wife and that was not the reason he went to China.

I enjoyed reading Nielsen’s memoir and found myself laughing at his misadventures while teaching ESL in China.  In addition, on his days off from teaching, he traveled about the country as more than a tourist but less than someone like Janet Elaine Smith who found a way to reach across the culture gap and accept and understand the differences that exist.

Another book I recommend is Tom Carter’s “China: Portrait of a People”, which shows his experiences in China in mostly pictures with some text.  Carter, like Nielsen, taught ESL in China and then married a Chinese citizen, but Carter is still working in China. In addition, he visited, often on foot, every province of China and took thousands of photos of his two year epic journey.

“Eating Smoke” by Chris Thrall is another recommended expatriate memoir taking place in China.

Four books/memoirs of expatriates in developing countries with four very different stories, motives and perspectives.

Discover Tom Carter and Chris Thrall through book reviews of their work.


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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