Five Things I’ve Learned About My Students

My freshmen students during their mandatory military training.

After my first week of teaching, I’m left ecstatic and exhausted. I’m really pleased with how great my students are; how much they understand; how willing they are to participate; how eager they are to learn. But I’m tired of standing on my feet all day in uncomfortable (but really cute!) shoes. It’s taking some getting used to on my end after five months of travel and relaxation (I know, life’s rough), but they’re just excited to finally be at university.

I hear it’s a typical first week for freshmen classes to act this way, and that once the newness of both college life and a foreign teacher wear off (probably about the same time I’ll break in my shoes), they’ll begin to slack off. I hope that doesn’t happen, but it’s easy for me to see that even if it does, I’ll still think my students are as sweet as peaches when compared to my broom-stick-fighting, spit-wad-shooting, elementary-level high school kids in Thailand.

Aren’t they sweet?

During our introduction lesson, the students asked me a lot of the same questions I asked them: Where are you from? What are your hobbies? How old are you? (Every class guessed 18…err, that’s a good thing, right?) and Why did you come to Peizheng?

I told them I came because I want to learn about Chinese culture, and that teaching allows me to do that. “Why do you want to teach us?” one student asked, to which I replied that one of the best perks of being a teacher is that I constantly get to learn new things.

“By being in this classroom together, you get to practice your English. And I get to learn about you, your culture, your country and your ideas,” I said.

Here are five things I learned from, and about, my students last week:

1. Peizheng wasn’t their first choice for university. Chinese students spend all of junior and senior high cramming for their college entrance exams – a rigorous test often compared to the SAT’s, but with far higher consequences. And they only get one shot.

A good score can send them to one of the country’s top public universities (the best, with ivy-league-comparable options) for very little tuition. A bad score means they’re forced to choose a private college, and pay more than triple the price. Peizheng is a private university charging more than $3,300/year, according to one of my students. A government school would be somewhere around the $600 mark.

2. They don’t always get to choose what they study. Three of my classes are full of marketing majors. Two of those (about 40 kids) didn’t choose marketing. In fact, most of them chose business administration (Peizheng is a business school with a high priority on learning English), but that major was already full, so the college chose for them.

Some of my students, like my accounting majors, were forced into their choice by their parents, though they hate the thought of working with numbers.

The other half of my classes did get their major of choice, and are unaware of the problem facing their peers. Luckily, they chose majors the school needed to fill, like law, psychology and marketing.

3. They LOVE China. There are several questions the students will ask, to which there is only one right answer. For example, “Do you like China?” obviously has a positive answer. China is communist, and all of my students believe it is quite possibly the best country ever. But the trick question? “Do you like China or America better?”

Answering America would leave them dumbfounded and questioning why I’m here, but eventually they would realize America is my home. Answering China would bring a big smile to their shining faces, but then, once they realize how unnationalistic that is of me, it would quickly fade.

It seems even trick questions have only one answer: I love them both, for different reasons.

4. The boys want girlfriends. The girls just giggle. Nearly all of my male students found a way to talk about girls in class, whether we were discussing favorite hobbies (“watching girls”) or how beautiful the campus is (“the girls are very beautiful too”), but all of my girls are too shy to reciprocate, unless it’s for a friend.

I had groups of two come up and deliver an impromptu introduction conversation. One girl wrote down her partner’s phone number on the chalkboard and told all the boys to write it down. And they did.

Yes, those are their chosen English names.

5. They have curfew, every night, in their dorm rooms. If they don’t return on time, they’re locked out for the night. None of them want to experience this because it means an uncomfortable night sleeping outside (like I did my freshmen year of college), or getting a ride to town after the buses have finished for the night and paying for a hotel.

On any given night, a walk around campus is shared by couples holding hands on the river path, or canoodling on a park bench – their only “alone” time outside of the rooms they share with at least three roommates of the same sex.

On Friday night, I saw girls dressed for the opera, others dressed for the club, and all of them just wandering around campus or eating dessert because they don’t have time to go into the city. They make the best of their time, and the innocence is adorable.

For Chinese students, all of these things are normal, so they don’t sit around talking about how they wish they could be at the bangin’ keg party on Greek row. They don’t need to go to the bar and drink until they puke because it’s legal for them to go and have one or two beers, then call it an early night.

They’re in it together, and they seem to have light-hearted spirits about the things they can’t change, like their poor exam scores and the major they’re stuck with for the next four years.

To them, freshmen year of college holds the same amount of freedom it did for us at 18 – freedom from parental rules, freedom to make their own friends, and freedom to go out to dinner whenever and with whomever they choose, as long as they do it within curfew limits.

Do you have any questions for my students? 


  1. Lani says:

    Hi Jessica! I’m learning that my Thai students go though the same problems when declaring a major. I couldn’t believe it when one of my Ss told me that her mom chose her major!!! I’d be a bank teller if I let my mom chose my future job – Ug!

    It seems the more we travel, the more we learn how we are so much the same!

    Good luck w/ China, I’ll be following 🙂

    • jessicajhill says:

      That’s very interesting, Lani. I didn’t know it was the same in Thailand because I met very few students who actually planned to go to college! Luckily, my parents were very supportive and I still don’t know what they had hopes of me being, though I’m guessing living an ocean away wasn’t part of their plan. You’re right, traveling (especially teaching) allows us to learn so much about other “normalcies.” I bet you’re much happier than you would be counting money all day! Thanks for the insight.

  2. Great blog! I found you via WP’s Focus on Expat Blogs. There are so many of us living the expat life. You’ve found a new follower. 🙂

  3. I taught in 2003 for a year so I know exactly what you are going through!

  4. what is it with Asia and the shoe thing? The relief I felt when I finally found a job that would accept trainers or sandals was immense. shoes are uncomfortable. And girl’s shoes stop at size 39 or something and some of us have much bigger feet than that.

    • jessicajhill says:

      I haven’t been shoe shopping yet (though I plan to this weekend), but my school is really laid back when it comes to attire. Many teachers wear sandals and trainers. Do you have a strict dress code?

      • I’ve worked in lots of schools with silly dresscode rules yes. And normally I’ve walked out of the job because of it. I don’t wear shoes, I’ve worn nothing except sandals or converse boots for a long, long time now. But even if I wanted to comply there are no shops in the mainland where you can get girl shoes in my size.

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