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Hannah Talk­ington teaches in China. Facebook

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.”