Learning from professional peers from Guangzhou

I recently had an experience which reminded me of the danger of relying on preconceptions.

We all have preconceived notions about other communities: the Italians are artistic
but inefficient; the Germans are disciplined but boring; the French are
cultivated but arrogant. And like many people in Hong Kong, I have
preconceptions about the work culture of China too. These preconceptions have
been derived from reports in the mass media, and stories from personal
acquaintances.

This is why when I was first approached about a month ago by the Teaching and Research Office (廣州市教研室) of the Guangzhou Education Bureau to see if I would be interested in
taking part in a coursebook development project, I had my hesitations. On the
one hand, given my academic background and my actual experiences in designing
and reviewing learning materials in the last twenty-five years, I was confident
that I could be an asset to this important project. More importantly, it was an
opportunity that would enable my expertise to reach a larger audience, through
contributing to this ELT project in a major city in the People’s Republic of
China. This is not the kind of opportunity that crops up every day. On the
other hand, influenced by my preconceptions about the work culture of China, I
was worried that it might turn out to be an unpleasant experience. I was
worried that even if I put in a lot of effort, nothing would really get done. I
turned to a few colleagues, none of whom could give me any concrete advice.

But my first face-to-face meeting with two of their curriculum officials, Hey and
Susan, who travelled all the way from Guangzhou to Hong Kong to meet with me,
completely shattered my preconceptions. We had a three-hour meeting, during
which they thoroughly blew me away with their high level of professionalism:
their strong commitment to the project; their sophisticated and up-to-date knowledge
of English Language Teaching; and their highly professional work attitude. This
initial meeting convinced me that it would be a rewarding experience being part
of the project, and I then decided to get on board this meaningful materials
development project.

Owing to the tight schedule of the project, the next couple of weeks were a taxing time
for me, as I worked intensively to meet one deadline after another. But they
continued to provide me with timely support and feedback from Guangzhou.

Two days ago, we had a work meeting in Hong Kong, and I was able to meet with most
members of the writing team: Hey, Mr Lu, Winnie, Karen and Angelo. Again, I was
greatly impressed with their level of professionalism and their knowledge of
English language teaching. It was a long meeting that straddled both the morning
and the afternoon, and there were many moments when I silently wondered, as
they were so good at it already, what they still needed me for! We had a very
productive meeting, and it was mainly because while they were eager to suggest
ideas, they were also prepared to accept others’ as they had a highly
results-oriented work attitude. They dispelled all my previous preconceptions
about the work style of people in Mainland China, such as a lack of attention
to proper procedures, indulging in empty talk, moving in circles, and avoiding
responsibility. I came away from the meeting with an entirely new perception of
work culture in China. I understand that this new perception is founded on my
close encounter with this particular team of professional education officials
only, and that I know little about other workplaces in China. But this experience
is enough to caution me against sticking with my previous biased thinking.

There is one more thing which I must mention about the meeting two days ago. At this
meeting, I had the good fortune of working closely with Mr Lu (魯宗干老師), who is a pioneer in the professionalizing of English language teaching
in Mainland China. I first heard about Mr Lu’s name when I was a beginning
teacher educator more than two decades ago, when I would see his name again and
again while browsing professional journals in ELT published in China. In the
many years that followed, his name kept popping up in ELT documents and
publications. Hence, it was a big privilege to me two days ago to be able to
learn from his insights and experience at the meeting. With his long career in
ELT, Mr Lu had many interesting stories to tell, such as how he became adept at
drawing portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong (but wisely staying away from
sketching pictures of Lin Biao) while being sent to re-education in rural areas
(including my own native town) during his university studies; the hurdles
that he had to go through to be nominated as a Master Teacher (特級教師) and how, when he asked a class of children how many of them were the
only child in the family and no one raised their hands, he mistakenly thought
that the children did not understand the question in English.

Mr Lu, Hey, Susan, Karen, Winnie, and Angelo have reminded me, and hopefully my
professional peers in Hong Kong, that it is time we guarded against complacency.
If we had a better idea of the amount and quality of work that they are doing,
we might feel quite embarrassed about ourselves.

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