The Last Word
Reveling in the risks of a job overseas
by Kate Hamilton '02
While we Oberlin graduates like to think of ourselves
as a special breed, somehow immune from the sticky, money-grubbing,
corporate race to the top, we, too, are ridden with post-graduation
anxiety. The College's over-ambitious slogan rings through my
head as I wonder if I really do have the tools to Change the
World. As Oberlin grads, we can write eloquent essays about
the capitalist patriarchy, expound postmodernist artistic theory,
wield micro-pipeters, and run gel-electrofluoresis, but can
we land that perfect, fulfilling job? In our current, flailing
economy, can we even pay the electricity bill?
For most of us, the path is rockier than our Commencement
speakers suggest. I graduated from Oberlin last May. My current
job, teaching English at Yunnan University in China, pays about
200 U.S. dollars a month. Although my title is "foreign
expert" and I teach oral and written English to scholars
twice my age, I don't feel like an expert in anything. Even
my simplest daily routines--ordering breakfast, finding a public
bathroom, and doing laundry--pose huge challenges. I've been
in China for several months, yet I still clench my fists when
a cab driver chuckles and shakes his head at my poor pronunciation.
Each day I squint my eyes at the Chinese characters on the bus
route sign, hoping, usually futilely, that my most recent language
tutorial session has endowed me with the gift of literacy.
The students who first entered my classroom last
August encountered a young, inexperienced, babbling idiot of
an instructor who was hired by their normally reliable institution
of learning. Now, a few months later, some of their stares have
turned to smiles. I am an expert at speaking English but know
little about living in China. They are experts on China, but
know little about speaking English. In fact, after years and
years of English classes, many of these PhD and graduate students
can't string together five words. Fortunately, without their
usual distant, exam- and grammar-oriented Chinese professor
at the helm, the students' fear of mistakes has lessened. Unfortunately,
such mutually beneficial teaching and learning arrangements
are rare at Chinese universities.
In learning a new language--any language--one
struggles with an unfathomably large body of knowledge; it's
rather like a return to infancy. I explain this to my students
one day as I share my ordeal with dinner the night before. I
had walked bravely into a restaurant to order a famous local
dish recommended by my Chinese tutor. I had come prepared: I'd
written the name of the dish on a small slip of paper. I ordered
my meal, but my words were met with a quizzical look. A few
other waitresses came by to help. I tried a different intonation
and knit my brows together even further. I tried speaking faster,
which only incited giggling. Finally, an assemblage of at least
10 gawking employees led me by hand into the kitchen. With their
encouragement, I gave up trying to speak, and instead pointed
to the foods that I wanted to eat. Everyone nodded their heads
I am never at a loss for stories like this: telling
my barber (in broken Chinese) at my first haircut in China that
I didn't want to look like a Hong Kong pop star. Bargaining
for tomatoes at a Chinese market ("no, I don't want the
live turtles, too, even if I can get both for just eight yuan").
I find that my tales of toddling through language and cultural
learning have freed my students to toss their own crumbled pride
to the wayside. Without their accustomed fear and intimidation,
their knowledge of English increases rapidly.
"Karen," a small student with short,
wispy hair, was given her English name from her last foreign
teacher. She sits in the front row, elbows on the table and
neck craned, to take in my every utterance. I lecture on the
weather, relating my recent trip to the Tibetan villages in
chilly northern Yunnan. Karen nods vigorously in excitement.
I explain the difference between the words sunny and shining.
The new information clicks, and she claps her hands in delight.
"Oh yes! I understand."
Karen, like all of my doctoral-candidate students,
is wading through the research and writing of her doctoral thesis.
Her topic is cultural anthropology, specifically Yunnan minority
rituals, and as she gathers her books after class, she says,
"You know Miss Kate, I've always dreamed of going to Tibet."
She then stops, searching for the right words. "The people
there are so romantic." (I should explain that my students
have a close relationship with their electronic dictionaries
and often use new words in bizarre contexts. So rather than
assume that I know what Karen means by "romantic,"
I wait for her to explain.)
"Men in Tibet are not shy like the Han men
in Kunming," she says. "Tibetans are brave in love.
They write poems to their lovers and bring them gifts. They
hold hands and walk under the moon."
Now, people where I come from might also admit
to dreams of going to Tibet--but for entirely different reasons:
the spectacular scenery, the largest mountains in the world,
or simply "because it is there." Karen's intriguing
perspective reminded me of all I have yet to learn. Each day
as I look out into my classroom, I'm actually peering through
40 vastly different windows into a marvelous new country and
So here's the news from this recent graduate:
Out here in the "real" world I am humbled by my lack
of knowledge each and every day. I don't expect to be changing
the world any time soon. I am not saving lives, providing prosperity,
recording history, or preventing disease. I am paying my electricity
bills. I've found myself an adventurous job and I'm reveling
in the risks. I'm an educational infant once again.
Kate Hamilton began teaching English at Yunnan
University last August on a two-year Shansi fellowship.