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Teaching English and guanxi

Written by Beth Eliason
January 19, 2006

Much business, both public and personal, in China is accomplished through systems of "guanxi" (gwanshee) , the word for relationship. Guanxi relationships often begin with an unsolicited favor or an invitation to a meal. With that event, a cycle of mutual obligation is begun.

Despite China's push to extend English study into middle- and now primary schools, students at our teacher-training college in southwest China have never had a foreign teacher before coming here.  This is mainly due to the huge number of teachers needed throughout the country and also to the fact that most foreigners looking for teaching jobs head to the big cities and environs or to the wealthier "key middle-" or "experimental primary" schools.  Many of our students are from the countryside.  When we walk into a class of first-year students, they aren't sure what to expect from us, either with regard to instructional style, personality, or professional and personal relationships.   To be truthful, we're not sure what to expect either.

These students are curious about everything, but there does seem to be a predictable, nearly universal progression of questions.  Starting with "Do you like Chinese food?"  and "Can you use chopsticks?", they move into the territory of personal history – our families and friends, interests, prior jobs, travel experience.  Sometimes a student will risk asking about political attitudes or opinions.  We usually go just so far in our answers before asking them to tell us what they know or think or feel about a situation in the news.

Frequently, a student will come up after class and ask how to improve her or his English, another standard question not looking for a serious answer but instead asked as an opener for the student to become known to the teacher.  And occasionally, a student will boldly make a request or suggestion, which proposes establishing a special and somewhat exclusive relationship with the foreign teacher. 

My first year here, one student gave me a present she had made and asked if she could help me with her class.  I thanked her for her gift and offer of help.  Then, she asked if I would please announce her new status as my personal assistant in the next class.  Caught by surprise, I quickly responded, "No, I won't do that."  When she asked why, I explained that many students in the class would be my helpers during the term and that she would be one of them.  Now, two years later, as I reflect on that moment I think I have an understanding of a possible meaning and expectations within her proposal.

Much business, both public and personal, in China is accomplished through systems of "guanxi"  (gwanshee) , the word for relationship.  Guanxi relationships often begin with an unsolicited favor or an invitation to a meal.  With that event, a cycle of mutual obligation is begun.  It is expected that a sequence of reciprocating favors or invitations and requests will follow, with each exchange further strengthening the relationship and increasing the degree of obligation.

With regard to my student, perhaps she was looking far down the guanxi road toward a time when her foreign teacher could be asked for a job recommendation, a personal introduction to a western university for further study, or an invitation to visit my home country.  From contacts with other foreign teachers, I now understand just how frequently such requests are made and the many forms they may take.

Last week, a Chinese colleague in the English Department asked me on behalf of a new female student of ours if the student could visit my home.   Because I guessed where this might be heading, I replied, "No, I'm sorry – one student can't come to my home," but that there would be opportunities during the year for her and her classmates to visit.

Instead of developing one-on-one relationships with our students, my American colleague and I try to respond to students' natural curiosity about our lifestyle and us by inviting them to our homes for seasonal activities and parties or for small group learning experiences.  At Christmas, students come to see our trees and decorations.  One year we had a Christmas party for the small class of seniors, and the following June, we put on an American-style outdoor picnic complete with hot dogs, baked beans, potato salad, coleslaw, chocolate cake and watermelon to celebrate their graduation.  Last year at Easter, after learning about the religious meaning and traditional observances of the holiday in class, several first-year sections, divided into groups of 8-10 students in half-hour "shifts", came to my home to dye Easter eggs.  Half an hour was insufficient time to make so many momentous decisions – what color dye(s) to use, whether there would be a series of dunks in different colors, or what kind of decoration or message would be applied before dyeing began – and to actually complete the process!   A continuously-running slide show on my computer showing pictures of my grandchildren at Easter was a hit!

In addition to these opportunities for cultural experiences, I've had students at my apartment for English learning-related activities – for end-of-term oral exams and last year, for a weekly extra-curricular short story group.  All of these occasions for fun, learning, and hospitality have given my students a chance to see how I live.    They always remark at the number of books in my library – I show them the different shelves and kind of books in each section so they have a bit of appreciation for the range of reading I do.  When asked, I tell them if and where books might be available in China or I let them "sign out" some (which they always return!)  Students are also surprised at the rows of files and folders with teaching materials – and I'm given the chance to explain how important it is for them as future teachers to be well-organized.  Sometimes, they look at my photo albums or peek around the corner into my other room where clothes racks, dresser, sofa/daybed and TV take up most of the floor space.  They always comment, "It's so clean!"  As a foreign teacher, my apartment has tile floors and real paint on the walls rather than an unsealed cement floor and whitewashed walls like so many of my Chinese neighbors on campus.  Many of my students are from remote villages where homes have packed-earth floors, exterior walls of mud and straw, and loose tile roofs.  During the winter, students tell me it's too hot inside my apartment, even though I try to keep my space heaters as low as I can.  It's a fact that very few folks in our area have heat – at home or at work – or even the money to pay the bill if heat were available.   The college pays for my utilities.  With these visits, my awareness develops, too.  I've asked myself if it's really a good idea for them to see all this – my uncomfortable have-have not "buttons" get pushed.

After cocoa or lemonade or green tea, when students leave, I never know exactly what impressions they take with them.  But I hope they have felt warmly welcomed, that they know me just a little bit better, as I do them, and that they feel we have strengthened our connection by having had this time together.

Their presence in my home is always a blessing.

Beth Eliason
Beth is a missionary with the Amity Foundation through Church World Service.  She serves as an English teacher.

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