By Tang Jie
My life might seem unexceptional, even ordinary. Each morning, I leave my house at 6:00 a.m., attend my school’s flag raising ceremony at 7:30 a.m. and start my lecture to 30 students just a few minutes later. As a Chinese teacher at a middle school in Singapore, it fills me with immense pride that each day, I am given the opportunity to teach young people and help them achieve their dreams.
I believe my current occupation is a reflection of my upbringing. From a young age, I dreamed of becoming a teacher, helping students overcome their difficulties and achieve their goals in life. At that time, I never thought my dream would come true, and years later, as I travelled down the path of academia, seemingly heading for a PhD, I was sure it would not happen. But at the last moment, instead of pursuing further education, I decided to apply for a job as a Chinese teacher in Singapore, sending my application to Singapore’s Ministry of Education. I had discovered I was not ready to give up on my dream of being an educator. To my delight, the Singaporean government offered me a job.
First Days on the Job
At first, I found it challenging to wake up as early as I had to and make it to work on time. The first school I worked for in Singapore was called Kranji Secondary School. In order to arrive there on time, I first had to take the subway from my home, and then transfer to a bus. Each day, early in the morning, I felt sleepy throughout the journey. However, after a few days, I began to realize there were many students sharing the same bus as me, and in order to maintain a positive image for the young students, I forced myself to appear energetic. The bus was a lively place, with students speaking a mix of English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese and other Chinese dialects.
Most of my students came from ordinary families. They were curious about my background. Did I really come from China? What was my hometown like? It was then that I realized that at that time, China remained a strange and mysterious country in the eyes of young people in Singapore. Something that is common knowledge among Chinese citizens turned out to be strange to my students. My ability to give these young people access to knowledge was even greater than I had hoped, but I also realized the scope of my responsibility as an educator.
The Singaporean Ministry of Education mandates new policies each year regarding Chinese-language teaching and testing. Meetings were held each year within each school and department. The local media would publish editorials with various points of view on the changes to the education system. Thanks to China’s growing economic power and its increasingly important role as a trading partner to Singapore, Chinese language education was gaining more and more prominence in Singapore. Many Singaporeans were beginning to view it as a necessity in a business-related career.
Despite this, each time I would return to China on holiday, my coworkers would joke with me that they wished me a “pleasant stay in the countryside”, exhibiting their mindset that China is an underdeveloped, agrarian country. Most of them had never been to China, and had little concept of the fact that China was modernizing and industrializing quickly at that time, and is still doing so today.
After leaving Kranji Secondary School and moving to teach at a school in which English is the common language used in daily communication, I encountered a very different experience. In class, I often took every opportunity to help my students acquire some knowledge about Chinese culture. Often times, the students were already aware of what I was teaching them. These students knew a lot about China. Some had lived in China when their parents were there on work assignments, and others learned about China-related news from their parents who frequently worked with Chinese companies. To these students’ parents, learning the Chinese language proved to be hugely beneficial in their careers.
What’s more, when I first entered my class at the school and got to know my students by roll calls, I was surprised to find that there were some names in pinyin (romanization of Chinese characters). Then I got to know that they came from China, and that more and more Chinese students were choosing to study in Singapore, which would certainly promote people-to-people exchange between the two countries. After that, I began to assist the president of our school in enrolling students from China, during which I got to know more Chinese parents and frequently attended some parents’ meetings. From those meetings, I realized that the performances of students at schools and what kind of life students would have after graduation were the things parents were most concerned about. Thus, in order to ease parents’ anxiety, I often invited two or three Chinese students who had been admitted to universities after graduating from our school to share information with the parents. Their confidence and eloquence served as a vivid advertisement for our school.
Every year, there are visiting parents of our school’s graduates who express their thanks to our school. Some of the graduates continue to study and live in Singapore, while some move to Europe or North America. No matter where they go, the fact that they were once students at our school will never change. A graduate who entered an American university once wrote on social media that upon hearing words spoken with a Singaporean accent on a U.S. street, he would miss Singapore. He would never forget the good taste and smell of Hainanese chicken rice, and always cherishes the days he spent in Singapore, particularly the dormitory room he shared with students from different cultures.
In my early days of teaching in Singapore, students learned about China through books. Now, however, China offers greater opportunity for young Singaporeans, who are becoming increasingly knowledgeable about China. These days, I never hear words like “countryside” in reference to China.
Years after leaving Kranji Secondary School, I set up an appointment with former students from the middle school to meet for tea. I told them about the prominence of overseas Chinese students at my new school, and to my surprise, they said that there are now three Chinese teachers from China at Kranji. Chinese-language study is being placed in higher and higher esteem in Singapore, and as one of Kranji’s first ever teachers from China, I felt immensely proud.
In my early days of teaching in Singapore, students learned about China through books. Now, however, China offers greater opportunity for young Singaporeans, who are becoming increasingly knowledgeable about China. These days, I never hear words like “countryside” in reference to China. I’ve spent much of my adult life traveling between China and Singapore. These days, the gaps between the two countries are narrowing fast.