Talking To Girls

By Zhe Ma


Hello what is your name?

Hello. My name is _____.

Oh ok, nice to meet you. My name is Zhe.

Nice to meet you.


This is how my conversations usually start with my students. I guess it’s not their fault that they don’t have much conversational English. They know a certain formula…their “go to” lines. They “know” certain conversations well because that’s what can be easily, and mostly, practiced. The short attention spans of middle-schoolers also make it difficult to move beyond “Hello, my name is”. Eventually, they stumble onto the border of their knowledge and try in another language, but immediately realize that it’s not good enough.


Kind of sounds like a guy talking to a girl and failing…hard. I don’t claim to be an expert with all my 21 years of experience, but I do see two large problems already. First, conversations need to be dynamic. It’s a lot to ask for at the middle school age, but it all starts with the teachers. Outside, and especially, inside the classroom, teachers must be having dynamic interactions with the students. Repetition is a student’s worst enemy. It is both static and killer of all attention spans. Second, students have to be taught to be fearless. Students should be afraid of regret, not fear, the most. Not being afraid to strike a conversation with little communicative skills is essential to building up experience for the future.


Again, in my grand 21 years of experience, I hold few keys to success. I have only little to offer because they have worked on myself, my peers, and students that I have taught.


Dynamic conversations come with the downfall of repetition. Real conversations are not scripted. Students must know what it feels like to (not to be overly corny) “go with the flow”. It’s hard to do with a weak language foundation. I have recently tried by getting them to synthesize phrases while competing (essentially a self-imposed timer). On a personal side, I’ve tried to “liao tian” (or to gossip) with my students in English. This harder task usually takes more effort on both the student and teacher’s part, but getting outside of the box is what makes conversations engaging.


I think the best way to for students to break through their fears is for the student teacher barrier to go down. Thinking about it now, I’m not even a teacher, at least not in the traditional way. I see myself more of a leader of activities, and more importantly, a friend to my students. The more comfortable they are around you, the more they are willing to take risks with their language skills. Even just a more youthful look or demeanor goes a long way. I think that’s the true benefit of us being at Zhuhai No. 9 and why the students teaching students model works so well.


I’ll leave you with a picture of a student that we’ve all come to love. His name is Lanch, not Lunch. Even with little English communicative skills, he does not fear to approach us and attempt interaction. Thus, conversations with him are always more dynamic because he steps outside the box and opens up those opportunities. I would bet that his English level will be higher than those of his peers come next year. You go Lanch.


Change Trumps Planning

By Rebecca Pham

Kids here use the strangest English names; I have to try hard to not be amused because they are actually quite fond of appellations such as Korn, Cloud, Lemon, and Baby Pencil. Additionally, I have a boy named Amber and a girl named Richard. When I gently told them that in America, these names were usually designated for members of the opposite gender, they still refused to change their names. So I’ve learned to let them be.  In other areas, I can’t be as lenient.

We teach three English classes Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday in addition to extracurricular classes after school. On Wednesdays and Fridays, we teach two English classes. The goal of the forty five minutes is to engage these seventh and eighth graders in conversation without using any Chinese. Sounds simple, right? Absolutely not. It is often times the most frustrating task in the world – when times get really tough, I have to remember myself as a middle schooler struggling in Spanish class. I definitely would not have been bold enough to carry a full-fledged conversation in only Spanish. Yet, that is what we want them to do with their English. We have to be stern and tough; even when the first thing I say is, “NO English. Okay?” Immediately, one student will translate for the other students in Chinese. So I’ve resorted to ten pushups or jumping jacks every time I hear Chinese. Or the traditional “boys v. girls” competition – each team gets a tally when they speak in Chinese. At the end of class, whichever team has the least tallies receives a small prize – usually cookies, stickers, or decorated pencils.

Our previous DukeEngagers advised us on having planned lessons; students listen and are more engaged when the teacher appears to be in control and seems to have a set agenda. So the twelve of us would come in every Sunday and discuss games/activities/lessons for the week. By the end of an hour we would all have tailored our own unique lessons. Yet we soon discovered that no matter how much we planned, we always had to change our plans. Shariza jokingly said, “I always experiment with my first Monday class.” And we really do. Depending on how well our activities work with our first class of the week determines the amount we need to alter. Yet, even if our first class is a success, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the following class will be a success. Each class has an assortment of levels so we don’t know what to expect. Having 13 different classes a week means quite a large range for success and failure; it’s frustrating because we see the students a total of 4 times this summer once a week – how much can we actually accomplish? Yet we persevere.

Although it is difficult, and at times I feel like I’m not having any kind of impact – there are the classes who are silent no matter what I do, the classes who misbehave and obviously do not care one bit about my presence, the classes who won’t respond to the pushups punishment, the students I find texting in class and then I cause them to sob when I attempt to take their phone away and threaten to report them to their Chinese teacher, and the classes who are rebellious and speak in Chinese just to spite me even though they understand me perfectly – despite all these challenges, there are the moments that make it worthwhile and the times I know that I am helping. Times when I walk into a class of thirty to take my personal ten with me and they scream, “Miss Bahka! (they are really bad at saying Rebecca” excitedly and rush to me eager for the lesson, the times when students tell me they’ve missed me because our class was a week ago, the times students ask me for my email and number and then call or message me asking to be friends and wanting to know about my life, the times when the kids want to hang out with me outside of class, the times when I can get students to act out a scene from Finding Nemo with just as much spunk as the original actors, the times when I get students to ask questions and I am able to see the burning curiosity in their eyes, the times when I hear, “My favorite movie is Day After Tomorrow because it teaches the people to love the earth” or “I want to visit Russia because of the beautiful architecture”.

So Pictionary doesn’t work for every class, showing clips from Finding Nemo or Kung Fu Panda may not necessarily be a hit with all of my students, trying to get them to talk about the simplest things such as their breakfast or hobbies can end up being the biggest struggle, and 99% of the time, I find myself completely trashing my original plan and winging it as the class proceeds. Yet when I do find success, it feels so great.

Former DukeEngager, Luou Zhang visited me for lunch one day (he’s currently teaching at Zhuhai No. 2 High School), and told me about a Chinese proverb I feel reflects this experience perfectly; the saying translates loosely to “Change trumps planning.” Essentially, nothing is ever concrete. And rather than being disappointed or kicking myself when my plans fail or when I can’t reach every student, I must be optimistic and flexible. This proverb, I found, applies to much more than just teaching my English classes.

The first week at the school, we were given two days to create a performance for the entire middle school (last year’s program was given 24 hours so at least we had a bit more notice); we had to change almost our entire program for a children’s television show broadcast about a day before we would be filmed; and with my first extracurricular dance class, and the school calendar for our teaching and volunteer activities has changed about three times already since we arrived in Zhuhai. Perhaps the worst experience I’ve had with last minute information was discovering my location for teaching dance twenty minutes before class began. I had planned for a dance room facility, but instead found myself in an overheated public gym on the outskirts of the school’s campus with badminton courts and angry adults. Matters only worsened when we realized the room had been double booked with the social dancers. Cedric and I struggled to figure out which students were our own and even after Hsiao-Mei announced in Chinese that all the social dancers must leave, not a single student moved. So for our first class, we ended up with about 200 kids it seemed. One of the Chinese teachers came to help us and to our dismay, told us to audition and cut people – we realized that a feasible class for each of us would be roughly 30 girls for me and 30 boys for him – meaning quite a lot of cuts. It was the toughest experience trying to weed out the students with two left feet as each middle schooler was trying desperately. It broke my heart to have to turn anyone away.

After a grueling 2 hours, we had our select dancers finalized. One would think that the auditions would have been the toughest ordeal we would have to encounter with the dance classes and that things would run smoothly from then on. Yet, the next day of dance class, I found that about 10 girls who I’d cut and girls who I don’t even remember auditioning showed up to class. I decided to look past this and deal with an overcrowded class. However, having an overcrowded class and having to move around is quite a difficult feat. It seems that I never have a set location; in fact, today, I was told five minutes before class that the gym was unavailable so we ended up dancing outside. No matter where I go, I don’t have mirrors so I am forced to teach by running around the room and instructing at 4 different angles.

Regardless of all the changes we are forced to make due to the surprises administration and students throw at us, I’ve learned to accept this aspect of my trip as part of Chinese culture. As I discussed with Luou, this isn’t necessarily a reflection of poor planning – it’s just how the culture works. People here assume that everything is adaptable and that even as foreigners we are flexible also. Thus, we have to be.

Cultural Collisions

By Jonathan Lee

A half smile. A nod or an emphatic shake of the hand. Maybe a finger or two. A swift gesture with the hands. Shrugs of the shoulders. Drawing symbols in my palms. A fuller smile as progress is made. Sometimes a laugh. This is the language I have come to speak in Zhuhai. When I step into a shop, when I wander the streets, or when explore an alleyway I can no longer rely on my English to guide me. I find my way with images, sounds, odors, and textures. Street signs are nearly non-existent, and in my rare encounters with one, it is nearly impossible to divulge its contents. Maps can even be more disconcerting. Oriented in different manners with varying levels of accuracy, they are often a step behind a world that is constantly adding to itself, reorganizing itself and reevaluating itself.

I must rely on my own senses to orient myself – use what I observe directly to triangulate in this city. Every day I expand and revise a mental map of this community we live in through brute force. Every day there is a new block to explore, a new shop to entertain, or a new alleyway to investigate. In these spaces I encounter a different China from the dinners and banner exchanging ceremonies that I have become conditioned to. Here are people working day in and day out to support their family who may live just upstairs, or hundreds of miles away.

While making my mental maps, I’ve come into contact with many of these people. There are the middle-aged men playing Chinese chess on the sidewalk, or the older ones playing mahjong in the shade. Oftentimes stares are exchanged. Sometimes we exchange nods – a courteous acknowledgement of each other’s existence. But the funny thing is even a nod can be ambiguous here.

I remember one of the first times I dined at a restaurant here. It was breakfast, and I was nearly finished. One of the waitresses came up to me and beckoned towards my empty dishes, motioning that she wanted to take them. I nodded, but my affirmation was lost in translation. Rather than taking my dishes, she a bewildered look crossed her face as she slowly backed into the kitchen. After a moment, she returned and watched from a distance – possibly waiting until I got up to take my plates. However, I had plenty of time that morning to relax and had no intention of getting up any time soon. Eventually she just waited until I was turned away in conversation to dash up, nimbly collect all my discarded dishes, and whisk them away into the kitchen. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself at how we had misunderstood each other. I suppose body language – something I had taken to be generally universal – could actually cause confusion if used in without the proper social cue.

I’ve had other occasions to laugh. The night I moved in with my host family, they took me out to dinner with their business partner and her son. Since I was the guest of honor, they had me choose the food. I had no idea what was offered at the restaurant or what was good, so I requested “hot food” – just something like soup to warm my belly. However, my family interpreted the “hot food” as spicy food. In an effort to be hospitable, they ordered the four spiciest dishes on the menu. Before long we were all downing the water, tea, and wine in an effort to quench the fire in our throats, and passing around napkins to stem our noses, which were running from the spicy food.

After we had recovered, my host father ordered a final dish as part of my orientation to Chinese culture – bean curd with odor – an old favorite of Chairman Mao. When I first saw the name on the menu, I had felt a sense of foreboding, which was compounded by the odor that accompanied the dish. I took a piece, as did my host father, but we were alone in tasting this dish. Everyone else thought it better to sit this round out. As I fumbled with the chopsticks and raised the bean curd to my lips, I could feel everyone at the table watching me. I put the bean curd into my mouth and something happened to my taste buds that I can’t really describe in words. In shock, I laughed, and found the whole table laughing with me, during which we agreed that it was an acquired taste. The laughter was cathartic, and what we needed to break the ice that formed part of the cultural barrier between us.

The next Monday was my first time walking back to my host family’s apartment from school. Leo, my host brother, was still at school doing after school classes, and my host parents were both still at work. After climbing four flights of stairs, I came to our apartment and experienced my first test as a member of my host family – getting into our home. I managed to unlock and open the exterior security door, but I couldn’t open the interior door – the key refused to move. I tried calling my host father to figure out what I was doing wrong, but my phone kept shutting off – perfect timing for low battery.

Thoroughly confused, I walked back downstairs, extended the building, and went to the guard house at the front gate of our apartment complex. A bit of pantomiming and pointing at my dead cell phone was enough to get the guards to let me use their phone. I called my host father, who said he was on his way and told me to meet him at the front gate.

While I was idling at the front gate, the one guards decided to be hospitable and strike up a conversation with me. However a friendly gesture soon turned problematic. The guard said something, a series of syllables and tones that flowed past me into the night. I could only shake my head and answer “I don’t understand.” He repeated the sentence, slower this time, but that made no difference. Again I shook my head and answered “I don’t understand.” This occurred about a dozen more times before he pointed to himself and said something, and then pointed to me and repeated the first sentence again – my name; he was asking for my name. I answered “Jonathan” as I pointed to myself, but he seemed not to understand. In no time I had pulled out my sketchbook so that he could see my name. He wrote his name first – a series of strokes that coalesced into two hasty characters. I then wrote mine – a series of haphazard capital letters: J-O-N-A-T-H-A-N. We both stared at what the other had written – apparent chicken scratch – and shared a laugh at how hopeless we were. We not only spoke different languages; neither of us could discern the other’s written language. Until my host family arrived, we amused ourselves my communicating through a series of gestures, pictures, and the occasional empathetic laugh. Now all the guards recognize me when I enter the complex and greet me with a friendly “Nǐ hǎo! Hallo!”

As someone who cannot speak the language, who is an obvious outsider, I am brought into to continuous cultural collisions with the community around me. When these collisions occur, it is the people who inhabit this community that help me through. Like two wanderers, we support each other as we wade through a hazy landscape, drawing a map to some unknown mutual understanding. And with each hesitant footstep – with each mark – there is a laugh.

Oh, and about the door I couldn’t open. Turns out I was using the wrong key. That, too, was a reason to laugh.


1) Chinese driving is hectic → I thought New York City driving was crazy…and then I came to China.  It’s normal for cars to be a mere inch or two away from each other.  The ease at which car drivers weave in and out of lanes is incredible.  But because of such intense driving, crossing streets becomes a struggle.  You must be fearless and agile like many of the native Chinese when they cross the busy roads of Zhuhai.

2) Bikes are in → Bikes are as common as cars in China (okay, so I’m overexaggerating to make a point…).  Wherever you go in Zhuhai, you will always see someone biking.  Many Chinese bikers compete with the cars, taking as much road space as possible. 

3) White and black are the new yellow → From what I’ve noticed, Chinese people are interested (if not obsessed) with white/black people.  Many advertisments use white models.  Many Chinese people love to take pictures with black people.  It’s not everyday that the people of Zhuhai see someone who is not Chinese (or Asian looking).

4) Cooties? → There is a wide division between the genders, especially in the middle school setting.  When sitting in class, boys refuse to sit next to girls and girls refuse to sit next to boys.  PDA doesn’t exist between opposite genders at the middle school, but it is prevalent between the same gender.  Walking around the school, it’s not uncommon or even weird to see two girls holding hands or two boys linking arms.

– Jeremy

Language Barrier? *Failmonster*

For personal DukeEngage blog posts, environmental science/ecology posts, and more about me, please visit my blog:

Wenjia Xu, Musician ‘93

After a day of surprises (I had classrooms today, kids are amazing at Ultimate Frisbee, Vegetarian dishes can totally taste like meat, and I actually managed to score during a basketball game), I return home. Home being, of course, my host family’s wonderful apartment, where I can comfortably sit down and write this blog post. I call this place “home,” because home is where I can speak Chinese comfortably.

From the first time I left China, it’s always been the same: Chinese at home and some foreign language at school. In Germany it was German, and in the States and here in Zhuhai it’s English.

Being able to speak some Chinese can actually be a disadvantage when teaching students here. The biggest concern is that once students find out that I speak Chinese, many will stop trying to communicate in English altogether. This happened last Wednesday: some of my students refused to speak English after overhearing me talk (yell) Chinese to my Frisbee class (all 200 something of them) the day before.

The other problem is that I overhear Chinese in class easily. This becomes an issue when my students are whispering about myself, other students, or anything totally unrelated to my teaching. I’m guessing that for people who are unfamiliar with the language, it is easier to ignore those comments and continue teaching. But for me, it is an indication that they’re not paying attention, and I often need to pause in my lesson.

It’s sort of ironic that I come back to the country I was born in and haven’t been back for 8 years, and am not allowed to speak its language. I feel restricted, limited, and constrained, as if being suffocated. Some of my kids hardly know any English at all and do not speak in class at all. I know that just a few words of Chinese could clear up many things, save time, and encourage the quiet ones to speak. The risk is high; my cover would be blown, and that class for the rest of school would either be ruined or very strict on my part.

But yesterday, I decided to use a class to test this out. This class was a quiet one anyways, and maybe this will at least make everyone participate. I had been trying to explain a word in English, and I wasn’t getting anywhere except ten confused staring at me and each other and trying to figure out what it meant. I quietly translated the word in Chinese, and instead of the surprised looks on people I expected, I saw instead relief and even some smiles and nods. We moved on quickly from there with no questions about my speaking Chinese.

After that class I’ve used tiny bits of Chinese to clarify instructions and explanations, particularly to individuals, always spoken quietly. Sometimes I get curious students who come to me after class to ask about my language background. And I always tell them that like them, I shouldn’t speak much Chinese. For me it’s because of the reasons stated above, and for them it’s for their own learning experience and practice. They seemed to understand and nodded.

I didn’t feel as constricted teaching today. I feel that I found the right balance of Chinese and English. I found out that sometimes a little bit of Chinese can help relax the students a bit, even establish a little familiarity. Of course I cannot say this for everyone; there will still be those who will refuse to speak English and turn to Chinese more often. But I believe that the majority of my students are benefiting from this. Well, I still have three more days to go this week, and tomorrow (Wednesday) is that troublesome class again. We’ll see what happens. Wish me luck!


Conditioning Champions

Once I was an invisible man; a young guy who shies away from the limelight to give other people the opportunity of expression, an opportunity I’ve seen taken for granted far too much in American youth. Even the most prolific of talents sometimes fall because they lie dormant in a vessel that never takes the opportunity to capitalize on what they have been blessed with. Dormant vessels are something that I have sought and am seeking to alleviate from all of the youth that I come in contact with. I suppose that would make me a hypocrite.

I was a dormant vessel, an invisible man, because it was easy. To express my talents would require me to put myself in a position of vulnerability, a position that I’ve always feared. To be subject to others’ criticism is a place where I prefer not to be, but in recent years I have discovered that it is in that vulnerable state that conditions champions. We as Americans, Europeans, and immigrants raised within a Western society are fortunate enough to have those opportunities for us to be conditioned as champions. What I have seen within the Chinese education system is a lack of equal opportunities for students to be groomed to be people of valor. Here, economic status marks a massive rift between the opportunities between students.

In America, despite economic differences, students are all given the opportunity to be raised up to be champions. This is the fortune that we, as Americans, take for granted far too often. Lackadaisical mentalities, or in my case, fear of the stage permeating through the very structure of American youth halts so many students from reaching the pinnacles of their potential. In a high school classroom in Guangzhou, I saw a pile of books easily three-feet high on a single student’s desk. That image is sketched in my mind; it is a symbol of diligence that students here have to create the opportunities for them to be conditioned into champions. This opportunity, Duke Engage, has given me yet another opportunity for my own conditioning; however, this time I’m taking full advantage of it. It may be the air of this country, but I’m conquering my once horrific stage fright.

Once upon a time, I was an invisible man who refused to show the world what he can do. Seeing the students that want the “Western Dream” work so intently toward their goals has instilled in me a newly ignited drive. Now, I am a champion in the making. Phillipians 4:13 says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” Whenever I would reference that scripture it would be toward my success in a class; however, I’d rather use it for the success of my transformation into a champion. And hopefully in time, I can be the one conditioning champions.


De’Shaun King

Not in Kansas anymore

By Rebecca Pham

It’s a strange feeling being in my own little world of Oz. I am constantly aware that this is not my home and I am a foreigner. Of course, it helps being Asian – people constantly mistake me for a Chinese citizen and I’ve often fooled myself into believing that I can understand the many tones of Mandarin and Cantonese flowing in rapidity from the mouths of those around me.

Aside from the language barrier, there are the little differences in culture that I’ve noticed. I’m quite a touchy feely person and hugging my peers has never crossed my mind as being taboo, but the principal of the school has already asked us to reduce our public displays of affection for each other. I didn’t even realize that our behaviors were anything out of the norm, but the huggy nature of our DukeEngage family has caused students to ask questions and remark about our behaviors – apparently they think our group of teachers are all couples. At this age, these types of ideas about dating and such are out of the question. In fact, I’ve had several girls ask me if I had a boyfriend. When I reply that I do and then ask what about them, they all shake their heads and gasp in astonishment: “Absolutely not! No way! Impossible! Not until maybe 24!”

They all still think that the opposite sex is a different species. Some students won’t even talk to members of the opposite sex, let alone touch them. I see girls holding hands and skipping down hallways; even boys hold hands with each other. Yet the moment, a boy and a girl come in contact with, it’s just like the days of kindergarten and cooties. I’ve tried in my classes to force kids to sit boy, girl, boy, girl to decrease some of this dislike of the other gender. I also try and make them partners during games. They eventually obey with apparent resentment.

Outside of school life, daily life has also been moderately challenging. I’m not used to the food here – it’s delicious, but since last week my stomach has been perpetually uncomfortable. I never get sick, but there is an ever present pain that pierces my abdomen from time to time. I miss the comforts of a regular working internet – trying to skype my boyfriend and family has been the biggest headache as it takes 30 minutes to load and then I will have maybe 5 minutes of patchy conversation before the call drops. I’m scared for my life when I cross streets – traffic regulations are basically nonexistent here; I can’t imagine that people actually passed a test to acquire a license because driving in China makes my hair stand on end as both a passenger and a pedestrian. It’s not such a great thing for a person who is a total klutz (can we talk about how many times I’ve tripped or gotten stuck in elevators?) and is usually not that great at paying attention to her surroundings. I have to learn to be on my toes walking around Zhuhai streets; bikes and mopeds will come out of nowhere honking at you. In fact, the other day, I was walking and suddenly a huge van just drove up on the sidewalk and I had to rush aside to let it pass. Lastly, the heat is stifling already and it’s not even really hot; the weather is actually wonderful, but I already find myself out of breath and dying after a dance class in a gym without A/C. I can’t imagine what I’m going to do when the temperature kicks it up a notch. My asthma from middle school is acting up again also and I’ve already had a few coughing attacks; I guess they were right to give me an inhaler with my prescribed medicines at my DukeEngage appointment.

Despite these struggles and constant reminders that I am in a world 12 hours ahead and completely backwards from my normal life, I am easily able to overlook these differences. In the long run, they don’t affect me that much, and I actually feel very at home. The love and excitement of the students in my dance classes, the conversations I have with kids at lunch, the bonding I have with my host family, the hours I spend in a little café learning the intricacies of Chinese Uno and Mafia with middle schoolers, the freestyle dance parties the breakers invite me to, the cheers I get for attempting to do the simplest breaking pose as I’m surrounded by experts, the requests I receive to stay after school and dance until 6:30 or 7pm with students who can’t normally be in my class, the amusing moments my fellow DukeEngagers and I share in our office between classes, the trips to get bubble tea, the Saturday mornings spent failing miserably at badminton while Melody and her mother tell me I’m excellent – every moment is so rewarding. I find so much to appreciate here in Zhuhai that any complaint I have, I quickly reprimand myself for even letting such negative thoughts cross my mind. I usually average 12 hours a day at the middle school, yet the hours go by smoothly and though they are taxing in some ways and exhausting, it doesn’t feel like I’ve actually spent 12 hours in an educational facility. At Duke, my four hour school days are dreary and tiresome. Here, I find that I can easily get to school at 7am, lesson plan, teach from 9-3:30, dance for 2 hours, and then still hang out with the kids afterwards.

Even if getting home to what is normal and comfortable were as easy as clicking my heels, I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world. I am in a new kind of home and I want to soak up every minute.