Clark Nielsen came to China with no training and no clue how to be an English teacher, Yes China! An English Teacher’s Love-Hate Relationship with a Foreign Country ($13.45 paperback, $5.99 Kindle) is the enjoyable record of what happened next. The majority of the book focuses on his experiences in a variety of classroom settings and his failure to understand how to properly lesson plan.
Clark’s first foray into China was with a largely Mormon summer teaching program, which leads to interesting reflections from Clark on his former faith and how his decision to leave the church has changed his life (non-China related personal content makes up about 20-30% of the book). It’s also an account of him struggling to control a class full of primary students who seem to understand only the most basic commands. From the primary classes I have sat in on, it sounds like a realistic picture of the chaos that can ensue in such an environment. He finds the same is true at the middle school level.
Clark’s recounting of daily classroom scenes should serve new English teachers well, especially those still considering what level they would be interested in teaching (these sections make up about 40-50% of the book). For me and my wife, who worked at a particularly crazy school in Chengdu, we found Clark’s passages of internal rage cathartic. There are however a few instances where he crosses the line from humorous to dangerous. While I have dreamed of gingerly tossing a student’s book out the window, I have never actually acted on it.
The remainder of the book takes a wide angle view of daily life as an expat in China (30-40%). His descriptions of bus rides, overnight trains, and cafeteria food are again humorous and fairly accurate. I appreciated that he tried to describe scenes as they were, but at times he gets caught up in hyperbole to the point that it can be hard to tell what was actually happening. As another reviewer noted though, there is a fair amount of “bathroom humor,” and he seems to relish the opportunity to describe in full detail some of the worst bathrooms he’s seen.
While the book overall is a fun and easy read, it is not without its flaws. First and foremost, it is quite poorly organized. One might assume with a memoir that it would start at the beginning of the experience and then progress linearly to when he leaves China. Clark however skips forward and backward in time without much notification. Half way through he also reveals that much of the content came from his blog, which isn’t surprising given his informal writing style. He would have greatly benefited from an editor to help him sort out the wheat from the chaff.
Given these problems I would still recommend it to people considering teaching English in China, or current teachers who are looking for someone to commiserate with. It can be easily finished in a couple of sittings, and is worth the few hours it takes to complete it. Yes China! however is not going to teach China hands anything they don’t already know about the culture or history.
If you are interested in learning more practical information about being an English teacher in China, check out my guide to teaching in the Middle Kingdom.