Classroom Culture Clash


photo by LeeTobey

A friend in Beijing recently reported an exchange with his Chinese tutor to me that went something like this (embellished by my own imagination and translated into English):

> Friend: So today I’d like to talk about the air quality in Beijing.

> Tutor: I really don’t want to talk about that. You foreigners come to China, and all you want to talk about is how bad the air is, or how the food is unsafe. There’s really a lot more we could talk about. China is an immense country with a long history and rich culture. We don’t even have to talk about China. There’s so much more we could talk about than just complaining about the air quality here.

> Friend: I’m hiring you to help me improve my Chinese, and I want to talk about Beijing’s terrible air quality. So that’s what we’re talking about today.

> Tutor:

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t the greatest tutoring session. But just that little piece of dialog recounted by my friend contained quite a few layers of cultural expectations. (A thoroughly enjoyable exchange, from my perspective!)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. In my experience, most educated Chinese are somewhat embarrassed to meet foreigners who are well versed on China and Chinese affairs, especially when the foreigner insists on touching on sensitive topics. Their embarrassment comes from being acutely aware of the problems which China faces. In equal measure, they are helpless to do anything about them. Because this weakness has been exposed, they prefer not to talk about the sensitive topic.

    I also taught English in China for two years. I welcomed any topic and heard some very off the wall opinions about the world. Some of my most successful and lively classes touched on sensitive subjects such as poverty. I saw it merely as a chance for students to practice their English in a safe environment. The only parameters I set up were exclusive to language use – ie grammar and appropriate choice of words.

    Also in teaching English in China over a period of time, I began to realize there was a limited amount of topics which students could discuss at any length. Students could only produce so much at a given time in their language development. For the native speaker, it seemed the same topics came up again and again to the point where you become quite jaded from hearing the same old thing, and wished for anybody – anybody – to mention something new and refreshing. Perhaps the same is happening here.

  2. Without being insensitive or flippant, the exchange, as translated, seemed a bit like the dialogue of a typical “Dilbert” comic strip. : )

  3. Nathaniel Says: March 22, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    I dunno, I’m American and I cringed at the student’s response to the tutor’s strong dislike of the topic. It seems like a very dehumanizing and alienating response. I’m a very political person and would probably not learn some of the Chinese that would be interesting to me if I had to keep topics totally “safe”, but if I wanted to go over the same vocabulary terms and sentence constructions, I’d probably switch it to discussing air quality somewhere else in the world, possibly the US.

  4. Julian S Says: March 22, 2013 at 9:15 pm

    It just seems like gross insensitivity on the part of the foreign student to me. They can fly right back to wherever they’re from and forget all about China’s air problems. The Chinese teacher most likely is stuck with it. Not particularly surprising it is a sensitive issue.

    Nathaniel’s point is good: talk honestly about pollution (or other) problems in your country first, and you’ll get much a much better response.

  5. Funny, a few weeks ago my tutor suggested we spend a session talking about air quality. We touched on filters, breathing masks, the various air quality measurements, etc. From a certain point of view, it seems reasonable for the student to want to practice the vocabulary to talk about something his/her Chinese friends are almost certainly talking about.

  6. I had a wonderfully opposite experience many years ago. I signed on with a professor in Beijing for some advanced tutoring. I wanted to learn how to read a newspaper. The first time we met, he said to me “I’m not a Party member, so we can talk about anything you want!” It was great — there were no “off-limits” topics. I learned so much from him.

  7. With limited context, I can’t tell whether your friend was being rude, the tutor was being touchy, or both. That being said…

    I don’t think it’s true that Chinese people are unwilling to talk about stuff like this. From my experience, it’s kinda easy to talk to Chinese people about bad weather, food safety, the Party or anything else.

    A lot has to do with tone. Foreigners who complain bitterly about China tend not to get far. (Of course, we don’t like it when people complain about our home countries, either.) There’s also a big difference between a foreigner who talks about China, sometimes critically; and the guy–you know, that guy–who literally has nothing good to say about this place.

    Another important thing is Chinese ability. I never had these kinds of conversations until my listening skills got good enough to follow what Chinese people were saying. As it turns out, Chinese people complain about China all the time. However many foreigners complain about the air in Beijing, they are dwarfed by millions of Beijingers doing the same thing.

  8. What’s that bright orange dot in the picture? Something wrong with the camera? I’ve never had that problem here in Beijing.

  9. Well thats funny. When you meet someone on the street on Beijing and the air is really bad that day I’m sure the conversation will be all about Beijing’s rich cultural history.

    When learning Chinese the teachers need to forgo this “cultural teaching” aspect and start teaching the practical. I can talk about the problems of the Qing dynasty all day long in Chinese but if only there were someone who cared enough to hear it. There isn’t.

  10. chelsea Says: July 25, 2013 at 3:36 pm

    she is a very “chinese” teacher.
    I’m not .
    one morning class, an old German student came over furiously and complaint: I hate chinese . (then tell me a story just happened in parkinglot.)
    “I hate chinese too ,sometimes” I responded.

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