By Sage Othams
“You hit the jackpot,” one of my colleagues said to me as we concluded our three-week Endeavour Language Teacher Fellowship to Dalian, Liaoning, China. She wasn’t wrong. I had the most amazing experience, full of challenges and rewards, as I participated in the intensive language program interlaced with cultural experiences aimed to strengthen the abilities of aspiring and practicing Chinese Language Teachers. But the jackpot that she was referring to, and probably one of the most influential aspects of the program, was my homestay family.
Going into the three-week program, beginning with an early flight on January 1st, I was surprisingly nervous. In particular, I was worried about the homestay. What would my host family be like? Would I get on with them? How would I cope with having forgotten so much of the language since graduating from the Diploma of Languages? I need not have worried. Out of the 18 participants on the tour, I seemed to have had the best experience with my homestay family.
Although I only spent five days with them, I came away feeling as if I belonged; that I was a member of the family. They took the utmost care of me, each day driving an hour to drop me off and pick me up from class. Each night they cooked a banquet of local seafood delicacies and some of my favourite Chinese dishes. Yi han, the 9 year old daughter who affectionately called me a-yi (Aunty), would take great pride in helping me with my homework before having it checked over by both her parents. Needless to say, my Tutor commended me on my homework which was “almost as if it was written by a Chinese person themselves”. Each night we watched a local TV soapie called First Marriage, Then Love, a custom that also rubbed off on my roommate as I continued to watch it on my return to hotel accommodation, under the guise that it was beneficial to my language learning. When I wanted to buy resources my host mother would know exactly where to go and when I needed another suitcase to accommodate my new purchases she helped me barter one down to a decent price. Even after my homestay had finished my family continued to pick me up from our accommodation and take me out for meals, dinner with their parents, or out to see the local sights.
More than anything, my homestay family reminded me just how generous Chinese people are and how many different aspects there are to a culture. Culture is not all about the food, the decorations or the holidays. Neither is it about the fashion and the games. It’s so much more than that. It’s removing your shoes at the door. It’s putting food in your guests’ bowl each time it appears to be empty to ensure they are not hungry. It’s making sure you use both hands to present a business card instead of one. It’s putting on costumes and sequins to stage a huge show when guests attend schools, or holding official welcome and closing ceremonies in which the guests are expected to perform. It’s also these sorts of things that most teachers of language do not think of when they are teaching.
Having said this, we did have many opportunities to experience more commonly perceived aspects of Chinese culture. We were instructed on dumpling making by our cafeteria chefs where I learnt, not so successfully, how to roll pi (skins), and varying methods of pinching the skins to keep the filling in. We attended knot tying, paper cutting, painting and calligraphy sessions. Our teachers also treated us to sessions on Chinese opera and traditional poetry. We visited a traditional Chinese herbal pharmacy and ate out at various restaurants where people tried local delicacies such as frog and, in some instances, dog meat. We were also fortunate enough to spend two days in Shanghai. Here we participated in a river cruise along The Bund, visited a Jade Buddhist temple and had several shopping opportunities at Old Shanghai Town and at the famous shopping precinct, Nanjing Road. And throughout all of this I was constantly provided with opportunities to build relationships and form networks with my fellow participants who are practicing or pre-service Chinese language teachers from across Australia.
During my three weeks in Dalian, not only did I improve my Chinese substantially and gain greater exposure to Chinese culture, but I had an unforgettable experience that has forged lifelong friendships. Participating in an Endeavour Language Teacher Fellowship is an opportunity that I would recommend to all students studying to be language teachers. What better way to know the culture and learn the language than be immersed in it?
For further information on the Fellowship, visit http://deewr.gov.au/endeavour-language-teacher-fellowships or http://www.eltf.austraining.com.au/how-to-apply.