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A New Yorker in Beijing

When I was a child, I used to play in the dirt, trying to dig a whole as far down as I could. I didn't really dig very deeply, but my mother used to encourage me by saying, "If you keep on digging, one day you'll make it all the way to China". Well, guess what? I finally made it! I arrived in China in the Autumn of 2001, many years after I started digging in the dirt of western New York State.

It's hard to believe I have already spent three years in China. "Time flies when you're having fun!". That's what people say, and it's true in my case. My first year in China was spent in Yantai, in Shandong Province. It seems like only yesterday. However, my first impression was not a good one. The evening I arrived, the air was full of smoke. I thought I would choke to death and wondered if I could survive a whole year. Someone from the university brought me to my apartment, showed me how to turn on the TV, and then left.

Unfortunately, I had no water to drink! I had just flown more than 20 hours from New York and I was very thirsty. I had to go out to find something to drink, though I didn't know where I was and couldn't speak Chinese. Fortunately, I found a small restaurant that was open late at night. They offered me beer and Chinese white alcohol (baijiu), then brought me a menu to read. The menu, of course, was in Chinese. I finally noticed a small refrigerator in the corner and was able to point to what I needed. Later that night, I made sure to learn how to say "mineral water" in Chinese!

The next morning was not a good one. I needed more water and had no idea where to find food. My telephone wasn't hooked up yet, so I couldn't even call someone for help. The previous night I found a restaurant in the dark, but in the daylight, everything was different, and I was lost. I had to attend meetings that whole first day, still tired from the long trip, and with my stomach rumbling. At that moment, but just for a short time, I thought China was a terrible place to be!

On my third day in Yantai, I started teaching, and that is when things started to look up. It didn't start off well, though, because I entered the classroom and found 40 students with only 20 very small desks. I thought, "How can I teach students who don't even have a desk to write on?". I suddenly felt a bit apprehensive. That changed when I walked to the front of the class and greeted the students with a big "Gooooood morning, Everybody"! They all responded with a loud "Good morning, Teacher"! Okay, maybe China wouldn't be such a bad place after all.

From that moment on, my life in China got much better. The air in Yantai was only bad for the first few days I was there. The rest of the time, a strong wind from the sea kept the air clean and fresh. I learned where to buy water and all other necessities, including delicious Chinese food. In fact, I found so much delicious food during my year in Yantai that I gained 10 kilograms! (Some people get "beer bellies" when they get older. I will have a "Chinese food belly"!) As for my students, they have always been eager to learn and very responsive to my lessons.

As an example, consider my first lesson in Yantai. I had to introduce myself and my funny foreign name. I'm from New York, but students saw me write an Italian name on the blackboard. Explaining the meaning of my name was both a mini culture lesson and a listening comprehension test. I told my students that I was born in New York and that my father was born in New York and that my father's father was born in New York. For some reason, they all laughed at this. When I explained that my father's father's father was born in Italy, many of them whispered "Oh", realizing where my name had come from.

I had to then explain how to pronounce my name. Actually, Americans don't really pronounce Italian names correctly, because we often pronounce the letter T as D. Although my family name is spelled DeVeto, in America it is pronounced DeVedo. To simplify things for my students, I decided to empahsize the final D and just take out the vowels, the two Es. After that, my students called me Mr. DVD. Hey, it's not only easy to pronounce, it's easy to remember too!

After listening to my introduction and taking a short test, I wanted my students to practice speaking out. I gave them questions to ask each other, and instructed them to remember other students' answers. After they walked around the room asking and answering questions, they all reported on what they heard. I was struck not only by how eager they were to practice English, but also by their attitude when I corrected their mistakes. One student told me, "I must learn to enjoy losing face!". I guess that comes from Crazy English, doesn't it? I found it a refreshing change from my previous teaching in Japan, where students would rarely risk making a mistake in English class.

After one year of very enjoyable teaching in Yantai, I came to Beijing to teach, and have enjoyed a fascinating life while helping students of all ages and levels of English. I have taught university students, high school and middle school students, company employees, students preparing for TOEFL and IELTS exams. I have also taught middle school teachers, to help them teach more conversational English. I have even taught students in China and around the world using the Internet. All I need is a microphone and my old laptop computer and I can teach anywhere. Someday, I may even reach my ultimate goal in life - to "teach from the beach"!

At the moment, I am writing a book for high school and middle school teachers. The book is called "Super Teachers", and will help teachers with teaching practical, conversational English even in large classes. In addition, I am making my own personal web site (www.teacherjoe.us) for students. Of course, it's called "Super Students" and will help learners take one more step on the road to success. For the future, I hope to continue helping more and more students not only in Beijing, but all over China.

This article first appeared in English Salon, a magazine for students of English in China, in June, 2005. If you can read Chinese, visit their web site here for more interesting articles.

"Professor" Joe

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