"Kewpie of the Month" for January 2004 - Lesley Sapp - Class of 1990
I’m in China. It’s been a really strange year, but I’m happy with how my life is playing out. After graduating from Indiana University in 1994, I went to live with my parents for six months in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and had the wonderful opportunity to travel in several countries in Southeast Asia. Upon my return, I decided to move to Chicago and see about making a home there. Based on the fact that I had an apartment and a car, but no job, that was my first order of business, and I ended up at a nice downtown hotel working at the front desk – not exactly a college graduate’s dream job, but it paid the bills (barely!).
After working there for nearly 2 years, I realized that what I loved doing was volunteering for various groups. So, I decided that my next career move was to find work with a nonprofit organization – getting paid for the “volunteer” work that I had always loved. The specific organization’s mission had not yet made itself clear to me, so I quit my job at the hotel and did temporary work for the next eight months while I researched and waited for that clarity. A job with an educational nonprofit became available at a time when I was in need of steady work, so I took the entry-level position with Chicago Communities In Schools (CCIS), where I spent my next five and a half years plus. During my tenure at CCIS, I made my way up through three positions and ended up as second in command as the Director of Operations.
During my last year at CCIS, a new executive director joined our team and slowly began to shift the organization in ways that did not seem sustainable to me, so we butted heads on several occasions and when it became clear after a year that her goal was to create a new staff based on her needs, I left in October of 2002. This was very painful for me – leaving an organization that I had loved for nearly six years and relying on unemployment insurance while I looked for another job, all in the midst of a tumultuous economic period.
Little did I know that the next nine months of unemployment and job hunting would prove to be amazingly healing (and, quite honestly, FUN). At the end of July 2003, per a casual suggestion from my mom, I quietly applied for a position teaching English in China. Within five days of submitting my application materials, I was offered a job for the next year – all expenses paid and a meager salary that didn’t even match what unemployment had provided. There was no decision to make – I was moving to China! The month of August was a whirlwind of activity as I made list upon list, began simplifying my life, told friends and family of my big news, and said many teary good-byes. Nearly everything I had amassed over the previous 8 years in Chicago was either sold or given to charity, and I made my way back to Columbia with a very small U-Haul trailer hitched to the back of my car. The contents were unloaded and are now housed in a small section of my parents’ house for the duration of my adventure.
Since my arrival in Changsha, Hunan Province, P.R. China on September 15th, I have learned how to teach English as a second language to Chinese high school students, purchased a bicycle for mobility in the city, made new friends that I can already tell will be special parts of my life for a long time to come, and learned from locals about cooking techniques and culture – and it’s only been less than three months! You might ask, “What about learning the language?” To which I would reply, “Have YOU ever tried to learn Mandarin Chinese??” I’m doing the best I can, but aside from some pretty important nouns for necessities, nothing I have learned would fall into the category of ‘conversational progress.’ However, I will keep plugging along with my Chinese character and pronunciation books in conjunction with my tutor and maybe, just maybe, by the end of one year, I will be able to successfully go to the bank by myself or book tickets at the train station.
Being a “waigouren” (foreigner) in China has its pluses and minuses. There is no possibility of me ever being inconspicuous here, and I am forever drawing attention to myself without any effort of my own. Most people here stare and laugh at me, but I am developing a thick skin for this and realizing that, for the most part, their laughter and staring is a result of their delight in being in the presence of a foreigner. Of course, the color of my skin also makes me the target for certain scams and rip-offs, but I try to be aware of this and educate myself on the cost of everyday items so I know what is a fair price and what is an attempt to rip me off because I look “rich.” The people of Hunan are amazingly hospitable and warm, and I feel very welcomed here in nearly every situation.
The administration at my school has been such a blessing, and the other American teacher and I have become accustomed to “Ask and ye shall receive.” Our apartments are extremely spacious and modern (while still being typical Chinese in structure), and I have more luxuries here than in Chicago – including a DVD player, a computer, printer and CD burner, two room air conditioners and a fully furnished dining room. The school has also taken care of any problems we have, which is of the utmost importance since everything breaks here on a fairly regular basis. If one of us ever needs to run an errand that is slightly unusual for us, there is always someone willing to give of their time to help us out. They treat us like family and want to ensure that we are taken care of – although, I just found out that the school guards have been charged with the task of logging our comings and goings to make sure they know where we are and that we are safe. That borders a little on prying in my opinion, but I suppose that it comes with the security and convenience of living “on campus.”
My teaching experience has been wonderful and stressful as a result of teaching twelve classes with 55-65 students per class, for a total of more than 700 students. My objective is to enhance their conversational English skills, including speaking and listening comprehension. I’m not required to test them or evaluate them, which can make my job very difficult in terms of discipline and general classroom order, but it would also be a near impossibility to test all of these students accurately due to the dramatic variation in their language abilities, and the fact that I really don’t know many of their names!
Aside from a small overnight trip I made with 300 of my students and another trip to Taohuayuan with three busloads of other foreign teachers, I have not traveled much outside of Changsha. However, during my five-week holiday for Spring Festival (surrounding Chinese New Year on January 21, 2004), I will be going to Hong Kong to visit a friend who will be there on business, I may be going to Hainan Island for a relaxing, solo vacation, and I have been invited to go to Beijing with a Chinese family here in Changsha who has relatives there – experiencing a truly traditional Chinese New Year celebration. Mom and Dad are planning on being here for the May holidays, and I am researching potential places of interest so we can travel a little within China.
I am trying to stay focused on the present and not placing too much emphasis on what I will do after this year is over – hoping that the next steps will reveal themselves to me in time. Although many people have taught English in China before me (including several Kewpies – Shawn McDonald and Peter Hessler to name two), and many people will teach here after me, this experience is just what I needed at a time when I wasn’t sure what I needed.