Editor’s Note: Step into the world of Zhengzhou, China with our writer Karl Arney. This week, we are transported into the life ofa Chinese native who currently teaches English in Zhengzhou, Henan, as part of an ongoing series discussing the lives and lifestyles of both immigrants and nationals of China, in an effort to bring us closer to the Chinese culture and the faces that stand behind it.

One of the main focuses of the Chinese education system in recent times has been to ensure that its youth learn English. It’s a focus which supports the larger goal of growing into the kind of global player the country’s size and economy now allow it to be. The effort has created a cultural exchange between the once-isolated giant and the West, built on studying abroad and the hiring of foreign expats to teach students in China. It’s also an effort that continues to produce its share of both success stories and failures. Kristin Yao, a Chinese native who currently teaches English in Zhengzhou, Henan, has been privy to her share of both, and brings a unique perspective to the cultural and lingual transformations occurring in her country.

“I can’t stay in one place for too long,” says the 27-year-old vegetarian and Vampire Weekend fan. “I get tired of it and want something fresh.” That exploratory nature has taken Yao, whose Chinese name is Yaó Qiàn, through a myriad of experiences throughout Eastern China which shed some light on the English zeitgeist.

That need to keep moving, like much in her life, came from her father, an artistically minded former teacher and failed business owner. Their family lived in the Henan countryside until Yao was six, at which point they moved to Zhengzhou, the provincial capital. Her father traveled often and brought back books, music, and educational toys, all of which helped spark his daughter’s interest in the then still-exotic Western world.

Her interest grew as she uneventfully moved through primary and secondary schooling, teaching herself English along the way. It was a process that developed out of her early fascination with Western culture and further developed with her exposure to English media.

“I read a lot about Western culture, watched movies all the time in English, and listened to English music. I liked to repeat the lines and lyrics,” she says. Helping matters was the fact that she seems to take to languages naturally. “I’ve always learned in my own way and I haven’t gotten confused by grammar or anything like that,” she muses. “I think I have developed a really efficient method for studying languages, ’cause I tried it on French too, and it worked.”

With an already substantial grasp of English, Yao graduated high school and was accepted to the highly-ranked Henan University. It was here that she encountered her first bump in the road, though it was not the same bump faced by many freshly enrolled college students.

“Henan University was only so well regarded because it was the provincial university, not because it was any good,” she explains, not one to mince words. “Most of my Chinese English teachers spoke worse English than I did.”

While she is sure to acknowledge her appreciation for the few foreign teachers she encountered at the college, it was not enough. Dejected by the low quality of most courses and perhaps seized by her restless nature, she began missing classes, and in her third year, she dropped out. It was something she’d wanted to do from year one.

With her university days a thing of the past, Yao took the opportunity to truly explore her options. She moved to Hainan, a nationally beloved island off the coast of Guangdong Province in southern China.

Hainan is generally regarded as the Chinese alternative to the beach meccas of Southeast Asia, so it comes as little surprise that Yao now views her time there as a vacation. It was there that she whiled away much of 2004-2007, a period she described as “fun and laid back. I did a lot of hanging out at tea houses and bars with friends. There was no pressure to it.”

While living in Hainan, Yao came across the first of many English-related jobs, albeit one that she found a bit suspect. “My first real job came when Asiafriendfinder.com found my resume online and asked me to translate letters for them,” she says with an amused grin and roll of the eyes. “I knew it was a weird job, but at first I was just handling letters back and forth and it was okay. But soon they had me translating these really personal texts and e-mails and it just got to be too much…a bit disturbing, even.” With that, she quit, ready to move on.

Hainan’s relaxed charms proved to be the last thing capable of holding her in place for any extended period of time, as her departure marked the beginning of a constantly shifting handful of years. First up was a return to Zhengzhou, where she studied French for five months in hopes of moving to France.

“I wanted to go because first, I was really interested in the language and had seen many French movies and even read some French literature, so I wanted to see it all myself,” she explained before admitting to a another, more general motive. “Second, compared to other European countries, France was a little bit easier to go to for Chinese, and I really wanted to live in Europe for a while.” France proved harder than expected to acquire a visa for, though, and when she was rejected, she decided she’d only wanted to visit, anyway, and turned her attention elsewhere.

It was during the French period that she met American expat Brian Luciere, who introduced her to the local expat bar of choice, Target Pub. Before long, Yao had taken up helping behind the bar, her English proficiency making her the only staff member who could easily communicate with the foreign customers. Many of those customers went on to become lasting friends, though tending bar proved to have one similarity to the Asiafriendfinders gig. “Being behind the bar, people don’t realize you’re there, especially when most of the workers don’t speak English. I didn’t want to pry, but after a while you hear so much that you do start looking at people differently, for better and worse,” she says.

Yao spent roughly a year working at Target Pub and making lasting relationships with its multi-national clientele. Though it was always meant as a temporary situation, she looks back on it today with extreme fondness, openly acknowledging it as “one of my best experiences.”

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