Where the Great Wall of China meets the coast of the Yellow Sea, a two-hour train ride east of Beijing, Hannah Talkington ’16 teaches English to almost 300 students every day.
This fall she began her second year teaching spoken English to college students in Qinhuangdao, a city of 3 million people in northeastern China.
“I’ve always felt drawn to China and knew I wanted to spend time here after college,” Talkington said. “My job in China is much more than teaching the English language. I’m also a representative of America and the West.”
As a teacher with English Language Institute/China, a group that sponsors English language teachers around the globe, Talkington is the American that hundreds of students know best.
“For most of my students, I’m the first Westerner, or, as they sometimes say, ‘foreigner,’ that they’ve ever met, so I’m grateful for the time I spent studying Western thought at Hillsdale,” Talkington said.
Talkington graduated with majors in history and Greek. After completing a one-year term with ELIC, Talkington said she felt so connected to her students that she signed up for another year.
Hannah had always been interested in China, visiting family with her sister, Haley Talkington ’17, while growing up.
“All our family already lives in China on our mom’s side,” Haley Talkington said. “We grew up going there every other summer and staying for the summer.”
Despite her childhood experiences in China, Talkington encounters some difficulty navigating the cultural differences between what she expects and what her students expect a classroom environment to look like.
“I expected to communicate directly with my students, but in China there’s a class monitor who acts as a middleman between the teacher and the class,” Talkington said. She says it took her a while to get used to speaking through the class monitor.
Talkington tries to foster discussion in her classes, but it is sometimes hard for her students to participate. Often she doesn’t know whether that’s because of cultural differences or difficulty speaking English.
“I had a student, Amy, who would come to class but she wouldn’t participate and most of the time she looked bored out of her mind,” Talkington said. “After a couple weeks of this, I talked to her and found out she didn’t understand anything I said in class.”
After working with Talkington outside of class, Amy passed her midterm.
“In a class of almost 40 students, it would have been easy to assume that Amy didn’t care or that she was a bad student. I learned last year that teaching is a lot of meeting people where they are, but it’s not always easy to know where people are,” Talkington said. “The hard work — and the best work — is intentionally seeking students out and learning how best to serve them.”
Besides teaching eight classes of students, Talkington hosts an English table, which regularly draws more than 30 students.
ELIC has enabled hundreds of thousands of Chinese students in 23 cities to learn English since the 1980s. Other Hillsdale students have taught through the program in different countries. Jonathan Lewis ’13 and Kathryn Lewis ’16 taught students at a refugee camp in the Middle East.
“My husband and I served with ELIC this past summer,” Kathryn Lewis said. “ELIC does what they do with excellence, professionalism, and intentionality. They equipped us with everything we needed to serve in a difficult setting.”
Since Talkington arrived in China, her language and writing skills have improved, but she still encounters some difficulty.
“Chinese is a tonal language and a slight change in tone can change the meaning of one word from something normal to something inappropriate or offensive,” Talkington said.
The letter “A” sounds similar to “hey,” and “B” sounds similar to a curse word.
“In class I often put students into A and B groups,” Talkington said. “So basically, I was saying ‘Hey, expletive!’ over and over again to my students in class.”
Despite small setbacks, Talkington continues to build relationships with her students every day.
“Some of the kindest, strongest, most generous people I know,” Talkington said, “I met in China.”