A few months ago I reviewed Yes China! by Neil Clark, and when a friend asked me to review another book about teaching English in China I was a little hesitant to commit to reading what to me has already become a familiar story. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised to find Yin-Yang: American Perspectives on Living in China filled with thoughtful reflections packaged in an altogether new format.
Colorado China Council (CCC) Executive Director and author of this book, Alice Renouf, collects letters from former teachers and organizes them into a wide range of topics, and sorts them by location and date. I found this a wonderfully novel approach to creating a clear picture of China’s development and the diversity of experiences. This book shows it all, from adventurous eaters, eager teachers and avid explorers to painfully bad writing classes and border-line abusive department heads. Even though Alice works to place American teachers in China, she does not shy away from giving a complete picture of what that commitment entails.
Because Yin-Yang is a compilation of letters by a variety of people, it avoids some of the common problems in other writings about China – the problem of portraying China as a single entity (I fall into this from time to time myself). It gives a sense of time passing, and shows these teachers moving from their initial astonishment and shock to understanding and enjoyment (in most cases) of a new culture. After finishing just the first chapter, I was wishing that I had had such a guide before coming to China; it would have saved me from many headaches. Also because these were written as personal letters instead of blog posts, they tend to give a more intimate look at life without trying to make profound pronouncements about the country. These captured the effects of culture shock and bouts of depression in a way that doesn’t sugar coat reality.
A number of friends also picked up the book to glance through a letter or two and found themselves laughing out loud at some of the classroom descriptions, like an entire room full of 50 students crying their eyes out at the end of Armageddon, even the boys. The short sections make for great snapshots of life in China, and I think they could be used for a variety of activities in ESL classrooms in China to spark conversations on life in China.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone thinking about teaching in China, and even more so for those who already have. The reflections on living in rural areas and the simple joys of bike rides through the fields brought me back to Guangxi. As one teacher sums up his experience,
“There are good China days and bad China days. The good far outnumber the bad, and even the bad have their good side.”
Yin-Yang: American Perspectives on Living in China is available on Amazon in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle editions (That link also has a free sample).