Friday, 28 July 2017

51Talk Interview — July 26, 2017

  1. Ian, please tell us about your education background.
My educational background reflects my interests and work history. I have a Phd, Masters, and Honours degree in ancient history from the University of Western Australia. Ancient history has been an interest of mine since primary school. Secondly, reflecting my employment career, two graduate diplomas in Information Technology from Edith Cowan University. I put these to good use, having been a programmer for three decades in Australia. Both institutions are found in my home city of Perth, Australia.
  1. How long have you been teaching at 51Talk and how did you land the job?
I have been teaching with 51Talk for two years. The job was recommended to me by one of my education students in Bangkok. I will admit that at first I was reluctant, as I believed that online teaching would be too distant and too impersonal to be effective. Until two years ago all of my teaching had been face to face. Now, I am pleased to say that I have found online teaching to be a wonderful experience. It has a student to teacher intimacy, greater in some ways than face to face teaching.
  1. You recently went to China and met some of your students in person. Can you tell us about that experience and how did it change you?
First, as an experience is was truly moving to meet my students. To hear them speak directly to me, to hear them thank me for my lessons (blush), and to hear them discuss what they gained from their lessons was personally rewarding.

Visiting and taking to my students has made me fully realise the importance of English. Certainly for the adult students, who see English not merely as an aid to their job, but as an ability that can enhance their life. Chinese citizens wish to join the global community, English is the key means to achieve this.
  1. You stated the levels of English speakers varied throughout different places and occupations within the country. Can you tell us more about that experience?
English language proficiency is not widespread in China and varies widely by region and social class. By this I mean, in the big cities, yes, most middle-class people knew basic plus English or better, however, in these same cities talk to a taxi driver, a blue-collar worker, or older people, and you will find little or no English. Outside the big cities, close to zero for most people. 

About half my travels were in smaller cities and towns. I had to interact with local staff, which meant I had to rely on my mime skills and my downloaded google translate. So—there is lots of work in front of us!

English is viewed as important, and prestigious by a large majority of Chinese. Most Chinese, I perceived, want greater contact and knowledge of the world—they feel hemmed in by a somewhat closed state. English is key to this ambition, however, Chinese citizens are hampered largely by opportunity. There is a significant shortage of native English teachers in China. Even in the larger cities there are shortages. For the smaller cities finding staff is near impossible.

Another discouragement for many is time. Most Chinese work long hours, even unpredictable hours. Flexibility in lesson times is essential for adults.
  1. Now that you’ve returned from China, do you have a different outlook on how 51Talk can bring positive to change to the country? If so, how?
Yes. My suggestion to 51Talk is to provide more challenging, more difficult, and more profound lessons for our adult students. Many adults want a greater challenge, certainly higher level English, but many also want to learn of controversial and contentious subjects. Lets say politics, economics, and personal life (dating, friendships, and social problems). They want to go beyond work and travel, and learn about real and individual life in the west. Many wish to understand the realities of the western world so as to work, study, and live in the west.
I would also suggest 51Talk provide academic English courses. The high school aged students I met want to study in the west. For this they need academic English.
  1. How has your teaching changed since you’ve returned home?
Since I have returned I would not say my teaching has specifically changed, but I do now have a greater awareness and understanding of the significance of our teaching to our students. I now believe the majority of adult students see English as a way of enriching their lives.
  1. Given this new hands-on experience, please provide one new tip you would give to your co-teachers.
I would advise my fellow teachers that their students are indeed, real people, most of whom greatly appreciate the opportunity we and 51Talk provide.

  1. Finally, what’s your favorite part of teaching at 51Talk?

My favourite part is meeting new students. As much as I enjoy classes with my regular students, when I see a new student in my schedule I am always intrigued as to who it will be, what he or she will be interested in, and what I will learn from that student. By this, something about their hometown, their goals, or their background. Their story!

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Beijing ! July 2017

What can one say about Beijing? A city shrouded in history, pop-culture, and importance. All my life I have read about Beijing, and wanted to visit, now in July 2017 have finally achieved this!

Overall, I feel truely pleased and happy to be here. Both for the city and my ESL students who I have met, in particular Jeff, Kevin (and his parents), Lydia, Tom and Holly, and Silence (cool name).

Beijing, it is big, more than big, it seems huge and uniform over a large area. By this I mean travel a dozen stops on the subway, exit, and things look the same, tall buildings, shops and so forth. Big. It is also a little bland in design. The same style of buildings, condos, and the like all over the city. Not exciting architecture.

The key reason I travelled to Beijing was to experience the historical sights of the city. It was a wonderful feeling to see these sights, the forbidden city, the museums, the ancient artefacts. After seeing them on tv! Also appreciating their longevity. I did feel great being there. So much too see. Many of these sights I have read about my entire life, to finally see them was a revelation. Having said that…

40 degrees north, surprisingly hot in summer, mid-30s. Also, darkness, in summer it is still bright at 20.00. Pollution, not that bad during my stay, but a little haze. I saw several times the amusing sight of skyscrapers invisible due to haze, but there lights visible, an outline in the sky.

The Bad
The entire ‘Forbidden City’ area is badly organised. If you join an expensive tour, not too bad, but I noticed the tour guides all spoke Chinese, even those few tours with foreign tourists. Also, the tour groups moved quickly, not enough time to appreciate what they were visiting. The guards (lots), and staff spoke bad English, no real clue. In essence, Beijing and China are poorly organised, and bureaucratic. Slow and slower. It is annoying.

I was surprised that most tourists were Chinese (or Asian). Hordes of students following their teacher and a guide, however, I was in Beijing at the start of the summer holidays, therefore crowds not unexpected.

The Good!
The Great Wall of China! Yes! Ever since I was a primary school student and read a book about China I have wanted to see the Great Wall, and I finally did.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

My Thoughts on China - 2017

My thoughts on China fall into two categories: good and bad. 

The good is the people, culture, historical sights, and most importantly my students. Seeing my students in Shanghai and Beijing was wonderful. I just wish that I had more time and opportunity to see more students. Next time! Other people—I found helpful people everywhere I went, from a Kunming bus station guard who spent half an hour showing me to a cheap charlie hotel for an unplanned overnight stay due to a transport screwup (my own fault), plus many other locals who helped me, even taxi drivers. The sights, were many, varied, and endlessly pleasing. I visited museums, art galleries, and a myriad of other tourist destinations. Simply seeing the Shanghai ‘Bund’—the pre-communist buildings along the foreshore, the Hong Kong nightlife, and of course the famous historical sights in Beijing. I want to go again!

The bad is subtle, essentially the Chinese government is fascist and dictatorial (to make a distinction where there is none). This is all too apparent everywhere in China. Public spaces, there are few public spaces and even fewer spaces where individuals can gather in groups. Something not immediately obvious, but public parks have seats, grassed areas, but no large open spaces. Bus and train stations have KFCs, ticket counters, lots of shopping, but no seated areas. No public spaces—No future Tiananmen Squares! When travelling long distances ID cards are required, and of course, the big problem, the blocking of foreign websites. Why indeed does instagram need to be blocked in China? It is a sign of a paranoid ruling class that is attempting to control the population by regulating access to information. Many Chinese, even senior Chinese government officials regularly circumvent ‘The Great Firewall of China’, but institutionally it is omnipresent. In 2017 the Chinese government is making further attempts to limit foreign access by preventing the usage of VPNs, ignoring the fact that VPNs are necessary for confidential (e.g. banking) transactions.

The humorous side of this, to the extent that it is humorous, is that the tech people, who work towards maintaining the firewall, are often the same people who sell the tech means to circumvent the firewall. Their customers, amongst others, are senior party officials who wish to sample the delights of the west. Hypocrisy, inefficiency, and a general short-sightedness stupidity rolled into one, with a large dash of ineffectualness.

The problems with this firewall are clear, to the extent that the Chinese business community are quietly muttering their complaints. Lack of access to Facebook does hinder business. Also the Chinese people do want to be part of the world, not locked away as obedient workers and quiescent citizens.

I will certainly state the the firewall makes travel just that more difficult. Google maps is blocked, the single most used app by travellers. Yes, it is possible to get around the firewall, but that is just one more hassle when you don't need hassles, and sometimes you just cannot access maps. Etc.

Education, Chinese students are up to scratch, to make a general statement, however, for all its success the Chinese education system suffers from several inherent failures. Essentially, it is a top-down, teacher focused system, that rests upon rote-learning and repetitiveness. This is of course one more generalisation, but as with at least some generalisations, it is generally true. Classroom study involves listening and writing, little discussion or debate. Homework, there is lots of homework. All the time, not merely school nights, but weekends and even holidays. The goal seems to be to fill every spare moment with homework. The flip side to this is that the homework is largely a rehash of the classroom work, no alternative required, and that teachers rarely check the homework—essentially, pointless and useless.

You may well ask therefore why Chinese students succeed, well, in fact, many don’t. There are schools and colleges, and universities which issue spurious results, results that give students a higher score than their level of attainment deserves. I have been told stories of teachers who teach superficially during the day, but at night run their own special classes and tutor the same students, for extra payment of course—sadly. However, how do Chinese students reach the high level of accomplishment mentioned previously? This is produced because, first the system as it is does work, albeit mediocrely. Second, many students, certainly the better students study in their own time and in their own fashion.—the saving grace of Chinese education is not the education system, but the students themselves. The third point, Chinese culture that values education and holds getting the job done, success (hard work) in high regard.

This leads to the conclusion of my thoughts on China. Over the past generation it is undoubtedly true that China has made great strides forward. Strides, developments, and progress that the Chinese people can be proud of—and foreigners can admire—however, to put all this into perspective, the progress has been to copy and implement 20th century technology. The building of roads, dams, and aqueducts, is all well and good, but little is of a revolutionary nature. With this China has developed all of the all too familiar trappings of fascism, of an oppressive state, albeit more efficient than most. What it has not done is move forward into the 21st century, it has not embraced human rights or democracy, its progress has been economic not social. This must change. The idea of a 19th century ruling class is obsolete in the 21st century, and will only hurt China and the world. A lesson we should all learn in all countries.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Hong Kong to Shanghai, by Train! — July 2017

Always preferring the more civilised form of travel, train over plane, I decided to make the 1,300 kilometre journey between Hong Kong and Shanghai by train. Overall, a pleasant and easy experience.

I booked a ticket at one of the three train offices at the Hung Hom Rail Station. This station is near the city centre, and is also a subway (MTR) stop, so easy to get to. The cost for a second class ticket was $467 Hong Kong dollars (us$60). A fair price. Apparently, there is no online booking service offered by these offices. Limited English spoken, but enough to communicate my simple needs.

The day of departure arrived. With my two bags I took a taxi from my hostel to the station (hk$40 and 15 minutes). Then, wait, and then follow the crowd into a waiting area, with a duty free shop (I thought all of HK was duty free?). Then, more waiting, then into immigration. The HK office only checks you out. The inward China immigration is at Shanghai. 

The trip, comfortable. I had a cabin with 6 beds, 3 high. The top bunk was a bit of a climb, but it actually had more space. I would recommend the top for future travel. I shared my cabin with two Chinese ladies, who had 0 English and chattered continually during the trip. Outside the cabin was a tiny seated area where one could sit and gaze out of the windows at the passing scenery. On this trip mostly green farm land interspaced with passing towns and cities. A direct trip, we did not stop.

I had a second class sleep, speed about 120kph. A fine choice. I bought the ticket at the station a few days before, though there are several online services—not the office itself, who told me that they have no online service—but private dealers.

Arriving in Shanghai, immigration was fairly fast and polite. The search was less intrusive than in Kunming and GZ. No idea why, but there were drug sniffing dogs. 

Anyway, the greatest delay was getting a taxi from the Shanghai Train Station to my hostel! I waited half and hour or so for a taxi. As always I had the Chinese name of the hostel written into my notebook. The taxi driver looked, muttered, and then off we went!

Great fun.

* cannot post photos while in China, will post later.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Hong Kong !

I only spent 5 days in HK, but I loved it. A different culture from mainland China, and I want to return, maybe for a month.

The city has a rich culture, a myriad of small shops and businesses, and an active outdoor social life. HK is an interesting city to explore. A mix of west and east, impressive architecture, tiny shops, and it is a tourist town.

The subway (MTR) is a great to get around. As usual, I believe making it free and removing the obstacle course of turnstiles etc would greatly increase its efficiency. There is such a thing as an “Octopus” card. This is a prepaid swipe card that can be used on the subway, and in many other retail outlets. Interestingly, it is anonymous. No id needed to buy. You can get one on arrival at the tourist office.

Coincidentally, today, my last day in HK is the 20th anniversary celebration of the reunification of HK with the PRC. I spent the day wandering the city. There is a lot of not entirely happy about the decision. There were in fact lots of protestors in the streets around the Chinese President hotel. The cops were out in force, but they looked sympathetic. From the local HK people in my hostel, few outbursts of happiness. HK has a distinctive culture to mainland China. One which I prefer.

I stayed at the YESinn in Kowloon. I saw many of the local attractions, and found a great veggie restaurant nearby! Kowloon is fun, however, I am contemplating living in HK itself next time. I will check the details and prospects for accommodation.

I have been using for booking. My first time to use this service, and have found it useful. I will use it again.

One other good aspect of HK, no vpn needed to access essential services such as google and Facebook. yippee!

As I said before, the culture between mainland and HK differs. The latter is a freer society. As a sign of this, women wore sexier clothes, and a noticeable number of sex shops. Great fun. I hope that HK retains its distinctive character.

On to Shanghai. I hope to meet several students and explore this new city.