Tes­ta­ment to change

Re­tired Aus­tralian Alex Olah’s pub­lished diaries doc­u­ment the chal­lenges and achieve­ments of teach­ing English in China. Zhang Yue re­ports.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SUNDAY EXPAT -

Alex Olah’s wife’s first re­ac­tion when he sug­gested con­sid­er­ing teach­ing English in China was: “Are you crazy?” That was years be­fore the 67-year-old Aus­tralian who’d re­tired from the Aus­tralian Trade Com­mis­sion re­cently pub­lished a book on the topic.

It was soon af­ter that the cou­ple took a three-week tour of China in 2008 to de­cide whether teach­ing in the coun­try would be a good idea.

Af­ter work­ing as an English in­struc­tor for four years at the China Univer­sity of Petroleum in Dongy­ing, Shan­dong prov­ince, his se­lec­tion of diaries about his in­ter­ac­tions dur­ing his first two years teach­ing stu­dents in CUP was pub­lished in Septem­ber by the univer­sity press.

This is Olah’s first book, and its pub­li­ca­tion co­in­cides with the univer­sity’s 60th birth­day.

“I feel lucky look­ing back to 2008 as we made teach­ing English in China our sec­ond ca­reer,” says Olah, who’d pre­vi­ously worked for the Aus­tralian Trade Com­mis­sion for 30 years.

“It has been a won­der­ful time in our life to be with stu­dents in China.”

It was a ca­sual con­ver­sa­tion back in 2008 in the gym in Olah’s apart­ment back in Can­berra, Aus­tralia, that in­spired him.

“I came across a good friend of mine in the gym and he told me he was do­ing the course Teach­ing English to Speak­ers of Other Lan­guages with his wife and was in­tend­ing to teach English in China.” That was a very fresh idea for Olah. He was in­spired. The friend also told Olah that there was a strong de­mand for English teach­ers in China.

At that time, Olah had re­tired from the trade com­mis­sion and was still do­ing some ca­sual con­sult­ing work around Can­berra.

Un­like over­seas ex­pats who are cu­ri­ous about China but have never vis­ited, the Olahs had spent three years in China from 1983 to 1986, dur­ing which time Alex worked in the Aus­tralian Em­bassy in Bei­jing.

Life in Bei­jing was pretty hard in those days com­pared with to­day, he re­calls, and “cab­bage was the only veg­etable through win­ter”.

Olah never vis­ited China dur­ing the 22 years in be­tween but found a dif­fer­ent coun­try upon his re­turn.

“We were amazed at the changes that took place in China in the past two decades,” he re­calls. “It was as if we were in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent coun­try.”

Af­ter the cou­ple fin­ished the TESOL course in 2009, it was the China Univer­sity of Petroleum that pro­vided them with the best of­fer.

“It was a bit dis­ap­point­ing as it is a small city that we’d sel­dom heard about,” he says. “We were even a bit re­luc­tant to go in the very be­gin­ning.”

It was the cam­pus as well as the stu­dents that cheered them up on their ar­rival in the city in Au­gust 2009. The costal city is three times as large as Can­berra. The cam­pus, hold­ing about 26,000 stu­dents and staff, seemed like “a city within a city” to them.

“The kids looked very sim­i­lar to Western kids, wear­ing T-shirts and jeans, and they cy­cled to class,” Olah says, re­call­ing his first im­pres­sions.

“They’ve been very nice to us from the very be­gin­ning.”

It was through later and longer in­ter­ac­tions in class that he grad­u­ally no­ticed cul­tural dif­fer­ences, some he even de­scribed as a “cul­ture shock”.

“There was a class dis­cus­sion af­ter the Na­tional Hol­i­day of 2009 where I shared my travel ex­pe­ri­ence in Yan­tai,” Olah re­calls. “Stu­dents were keen about my travel story, and I was sur­prised to learn that only one of them went trav­el­ing dur­ing the hol­i­day. Most chose to go home.”

Another sur­pris­ing find­ing, dur­ing a class about China’s au­to­mo­bile in­dus­try, was that none of the 31 stu­dents ma­jor­ing in In­ter­na­tional Busi­ness and Trade in that class had a driver’s li­cense.

“In Aus­tralia or Amer­ica, al­most 100 per­cent of a sopho­more class would have their driver’s li­cense. Ac­tu­ally many of them would have their own car or mo­tor­cy­cle,” he wrote in his di­ary later that day.

He recorded such in­ter­ac­tions in his di­ary over four years. The di­ary is also what he can quote from when he writes e-mails to his mother, Traudi Olah, to whom he has ded­i­cated his newly pub­lished work. She has a great in­ter­est in China, he says.

“I wrote let­ters to my mom by e-mail. My sis­ter would help print out the let­ters for her and some­times read them to her. And she usu­ally asked some fur­ther in­ter­est­ing ques­tions in re­sponse,” he says.

What largely en­cour­ages him is that stu­dents are also chang­ing along the way.

“I asked the stu­dents the same ques­tion again about their driver’s li­cense last month,” he says, “Now, 20 per­cent of stu­dents have a driver’s li­cense, which is ex­tra­or­di­nary.”

Over the past four years, Olah has used news topics from the me­dia to en­cour­age class dis­cus­sions.

“They sel­dom had the habit of read­ing any news in English at that time,” he re­calls.

“It is such a de­light to see that many of them are get­ting in­for­ma­tion in English through the me­dia and In­ter­net now.”

Olah had never con­sid­ered pub­lish­ing the diaries un­til ear­lier this year when he met Shan Honghong, pres­i­dent of CUP. Shan learned about Olah’s diaries and thought that their pub­li­ca­tion would be a good gift to have for the univer­sity’s 60th birth­day.

Now, the book has been pub­lished in both English and Chi­nese.

“I hope more of my stu­dents will like the book as they can now read it in Chi­nese,” Olah says.

Con­tact the writer at zhangyue@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

Olah’s se­lec­tion of diaries about his in­ter­ac­tions with stu­dents at CUP was pub­lished in Septem­ber.

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