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Education is Lifelong and Worldwide

…an article I wrote for my university’s magazine, “Scientia” :

My educational journey to SUSTech has taken me across the world, from the peaks of JiriSan in South Korea to the Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia.  Along the way I have worked and taught with countless interesting people, including Nuns in Nonsan and Diplomats in Addis Ababa, each reflecting upon me the beauty of cultural diversity shared through the common language of learning.

During my undergraduate studies, I had the opportunity to travel, in 2007 and 2008 respectively, to Mexico to do cross-cultural educational research, once in Nogales and once in Oaxaca.  In this land of a thousand stars, I studied migrant education, trying to understand the complexities surrounding the motives why people would leave their homelands in search of a better tomorrow, whether they be for economic, political, or scholastic reasons.  I didn’t know then that I too, through this platform of global education, would follow along a similar path, leaving behind the comforts of California for the experiences which lied beyond that great blue Pacific Ocean.

In 2009 I moved overseas, leaving behind North America for my first stint in Asia, teaching English in South Korea.  The Land of the Morning Calm welcomed me with a kindness I had never experienced before, called a foreigner in name only, while in reality I was treated as one of their own.  The personal and professional relationships I established then I still rely upon now; a testament to the people of Korea and the warmth with which they nurtured me.  It was while in Korea where I learned to understand the intersection of culture and acclimation, going on weekly adventures into the peninsula, trekking up national mountains or enjoying the warm hot springs.  I simultaneously fell in love with the metropolis of Seoul while at the same time found solace in the villages of Chungcheongnam-Do, each offering me a new element of life breathed in with that fiery Soju.  I remained in front of classes delivering lectures, but the truth is that I became a student of Korea, embracing its rich history while simultaneously standing in amazement at its boundless future.  The sleepy suburbs of Orange County or the placated cities like Portland couldn’t compare to the speed which I saw in Korea, a new vision I was witnessing through lenses I had never tried on before, but which I found, fit me perfectly.

One of the interesting things about living overseas is that it goes to redefine your perception of home, able to view it from a different perspective.  It was by providence through which I ended up in Korea; an uneasy sense of restlessness growing inside me while I lived in the United States, which somehow manifested itself through applying to jobs in a country I knew little about.  Yet looking back on that decision, it was perhaps the single most important one of my life, encouraged from a young age by my parents to travel, and still supported by them to continue chasing my dreams, wherever they may lead.  My move to Korea increased my professional development, but perhaps more importantly, it expanded my worldview.

It was during my five years in Korea where I began to earnestly write, sharing my experiences through travel articles and getting more serious academic-based pieces published in local magazines and newspapers, something I continue to do now, nearly a decade later in China.  The words I transcribed seemed to flow effortlessly as they were mere reflections of my thoughts, then as now, positive experiences from these magical places.  On long weekends I would fly to cities such as Cebu, Bali or even Vladivostok, incessant in my desire to see as many countries as possible, finding beauty in the absurd, and satisfaction in the delicious.  The contrasting cultures of Asia mesmerized me, from the clothes to the faiths and from the music to the foods, each one unique in its own individuality, writing their own stories of which I simply played a part.  Yet upon each return flight to Incheon Airport, I never felt any remorse, as I was coming home to a Korea which continued to be new to me, whimsical in its eccentricities and sometimes absurd in its distinctiveness.  It’s what kept me there for five years and why when it came time, it was so difficult to leave.

After enough memories to last a lifetime from my experiences in Asia, I wanted to challenge myself both personally and professionally, looking for a new opportunity which was as unique as I was.  Complacency can subtly disrupt ambition and I wanted to be careful to follow up my growth in Korea with something that tested my resolve as an individual and as a teacher.  Applying to a competitive program, I was accepted as an English Language Fellow, working on behalf of the US Embassy in Ethiopia for a two-year program which placed me at universities across the country, teaching English to students and Methodology and Pedagogy to teachers.  The single greatest “experience” of my life, while at the same time being the most difficult thing I have ever done, those two years in Ethiopia taught me more about myself than I could have ever anticipated.  Yet like the people I met in Korea, the kindness of the Ethiopians knew no bounds, welcoming me into their communities with open arms and warm hearts.

Within an Ethiopian educational context, I quickly discovered that learning outside of the classroom seemed to have a longer lasting impact on the students.  While we met weekly for our prescribed classes, it was our trips to Gender Empowerment Art Exhibitions, Sports through Diplomacy Programs, and Poetry Workshops which meant more to these students, most of whom were the first in their families to receive a tertiary education.  I was the first foreigner they had ever had as a teacher, and I felt that it was my responsibly to not only teach them English but to expand their cultural awareness as well, giving them ownership over their future and options from which to choose their direction.  By all accounts, Ethiopia is a developing nation, and my role there as a Fellow was to instill notions of pride, empowerment and ambition into the minds of the students and teachers I worked with.  These practices in turn taught me not only about the context I was working in, but also the context from which I came.

An advantage to working overseas is that I get to experience opportunities which would be hard to come by if I was teaching in a California school district.  In Ethiopia, these were manifested through outreach I did with local communities, including volunteer teaching at a Mosque school, organizing a $500,000 book donation to my university, and bringing my students to see President Obama speak at the African Union.  While my teaching contract stipulated that I teach 20 hours a week in the classroom, I was able to excel because I quickly learned that true education takes place outside the confines of campus, where reality shows both sides of its nature.   For my students, these opportunities gave them sustainable learning experiences which will last long after I have moved on and provided them with the tools to build a future in which they can continue to help lead their country.

During my two years in Africa, the Asian countries I used to travel to were replaced by trips to Djibouti, Kenya and Burkina Faso, each of which I was able to present at international conferences, highlighting my work in Ethiopia from a socio-linguistic perspective.  Yet it was at the 2016 TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) Conference in the United States, presenting on Gender Identity in an Ethiopian Context where my road to SUSTech was paved.  This preeminent conference in our field had attracted the Center for Language Education (CLE), and I decided to sit down for an interview, explaining myself and my viewpoints on teaching.  With a return flight to Africa to finish my Fellowship, a future in Asia was once again dancing around in my head, interested to find out more about not only SUSTech, but Shenzhen.

As part of an Embassy program, two years was the maximum time I could spend in Ethiopia, so I agreed to come to China, excited about a new opportunity in a country I had only visited once on vacation (Beijing, 2010).  I arrived at SUSTech in the Fall of 2016, and in the time since, have once again been welcomed by a student body and administration which wants to learn, while at the same time, is happy to share knowledge.   Teaching both students and staff, I have tried to instill many of the lessons I learned while living in Korea and Ethiopia, from authentic learning in the classroom to extended opportunities outside of campus.  Over the course of nearly two years, I have worked with students in the English-Speaking Club and also started a Staff English Book Club, both examples of education which doesn’t have to be from a prescribed format.  Similarly, I have been honored to work on International Student recruitment, a firm believer that multiculturalism in the classroom is a benefit to all; broadening the scope of dialogue which can take place and strengthening the bonds between differing ideas.

I continue to write about my experiences, having numerous articles printed in the local English newspaper, The Shenzhen Daily, highlighting the work I am doing at SUSTech, and even helped one of my Sophomore students get an article published as well.  Traveling remains an important aspect of my time abroad, visiting Malaysia, Cambodia and Singapore since arriving in Shenzhen, cognizant that Asia is multifaceted, with each country a piece of a complex puzzle.  The conversations I have and the lessons I give are a reflection not of me as an American, rather as a global educator, combining my experiences from across the globe and transmitting them through a platform of inclusion, including aspects from China, too.

The direction which SUSTech is on is one of rapid transformation into one of the leading research universities in the world, and I am privileged to be a part of the process.  It is my hope that through my teaching I am able to instill in this community of learners the knowledge necessary for a successful future in which they get to make decisions which will, quite literally, affect the world.  I am grateful to be able to share my story here, for as long as it may seem, is only one small chapter of my life, complex as it is interesting.  The conflux of teaching and travel has given me these opportunities and continued to remind me that Education is Lifelong and Worldwide!

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Staff English Coffee Socials: An Authentic Language Platform

One of the goals pertaining to my approach to teaching English is to provide as many authentic opportunities as possible to practice the language.  Traditional classroom lessons are fine, learning the fundamentals which underscore the importance of grammar, syntax and pronunciation, but for the communicative properties of English, it is important to provide everyday settings for students to utilize their knowledge.  To facilitate this, I have begun the Staff English Coffee Social, meeting once a month for not only language practice but to do so while enjoying delicious Ethiopian coffee.

Using the beautifully designed Social Science and Humanities Center on the 2nd flood of the SUSTech Library, I try to provide an arena where colleagues from different departments across the university can meet to network, share ideas, and get to know each other in an informal setting.  Lowering the effective filter is an easy tool to promote oral practice, and through our relaxed setting, ideas such as this are endorsed.  Staff English students from Physics, EEE, and the Library (to name only a few departments) all come for about an hour to meet and talk, perhaps sharing collaborative ideas or perhaps simply making new friends, both of which are underlying reasons why I thought this is a good idea.  Our Coffee Socials foster positive outreach from those who attend, aiming to build cross-departmental relationships for the betterment of the university at large.

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Coffee Social

The lubricant of the discussions is delicious Ethiopian coffee, from the Oromia region, a remembrance of my past teaching experience on the Horn of Africa.  To able to share cultural ties which bind my current set of circumstances in China to those from my time in Ethiopia is something I am grateful for, and which highlights the worldview which has shaped my teaching experiences: Learning is Lifelong and Worldwide!

All are welcomed to join the Staff English Coffee Socials, expending the growing network of English students at SUSTech, working together for our common goals…

The World’s True Global Langauge

With the World Cup taking place, I am reminded of the influence of Football, especially its extension beyond the field, crossing the chalk lines of socio-cultural bounds the way in which no other sport – or language – has the power to do.   From the surfing towns of Mexico to the banks along the Egyptian Nile, and from the soccer-crazed metropolises of Korea to the cafes of Ethiopia, football has stamped my passport in every country I visit, providing deeper insight into a culture than any travel book could ever offer.

Group Photo
Djibouti

In 1994 I had the opportunity to attend matches in Los Angeles during the World Cup which was being hosted in the United States.  The stadium where I went to see the games was the Rose Bowl, a cacophony of colors and languages crowding the seats, mirroring the multicultural beauty which defines the populace of LA.  It was my first time watching soccer on an international stage, where I was treated to Gabriel Batistuta vs Gheorghe Hagi on the field, while in the stands I saw the true power of Football, and its ability to bridge geographic divides and bring fans from different countries together.

During high school, I remember a family vacation to France, Switzerland and Italy, where I bought some European jerseys: Tottenham from the EPL and Juventus from Serie A, mesmerized by the history of the colors, crests and numbers; souvenirs for an American teenager who had limited overseas exposure to the Beautiful Game.  In Milan, I made my family take me to visit San Siro – the stadium which houses both Intern Milan and AC Milan – even though it was of course closed to the public on a Wednesday morning.  Simply staring at the famous spiral staircases was enough for me, entranced by the mystic which surrounded this place where European Championships were housed and where legends had played.

Years later as a Teaching Fellow in Ethiopia, I was able to partner with Nike Korea to organize a $50,000 donation on behalf of the US Embassy’s Education and Cultural Affairs Office.  We hosted a “Gender Empowerment Through Sports” initiative whereby we held clinics around the country not only giving out donations of cleats and balls but more importantly, pairing it with messages of empowerment for female youth. In Djibouti as well, we used Football as a mechanism for social change, creating opportunity through sport for those who don’t always have economic advantages at their disposal.

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Shenzhen Daily

Soccer, or Football, has been a constant throughout my life, paving the road, regardless of the country I am traveling in.  Stuck in a taxi in the notorious traffic of Phnom Penh, I can talk about Messi’s latest heroics to ease the anxiety between the driver and myself.  Similarly, living for two years in Ethiopia without adequate access to electricity, I would pass the hours playing Soccer with my students, oftentimes with a ball made from yarn and plastic bags.  Yet the differences in our nationalities, cultures, or languages never mattered because of the commonalties found in our love for the sport, something which crosses continents and oceans, arriving this summer in Russia, but forever remaining the World’s Game.

Ethiopia and China: Global Education

I vividly remember the endless blue skies underneath which I sat, surrounded in some settings by rising plateaus upon which to set my gaze, wonder abound by the life I saw around me.  Working as an English Language Fellow, I split my time between the classroom and other contexts, teaching to be sure, but more perhaps more importantly, learning.  Spending two years living on the Horn of Africa in Ethiopia, I was able to gain new perspectives about myself as well as others, an experience I surely will never forget, and the lessons of which I brought with me when I moved continents to come and teach in China.

By some estimates, there are more than one million Chinese in Ethiopia, many of whom are working on various infrastructure projects, from railways to telecommunications.  A global player on the world stage, China has not shuttered from the call of international relations, for as even as early as 2014, when I first arrived in Addis Ababa, I remember conversations which revolved around the Sino-African narrative.  To a large degree, both the United States and China have important partnerships which continue to aid in the development of Ethiopia, with strategic approaches from both ends.  My particular interest is of course education, and that is how I found myself in Africa, to develop sustainable teaching methodologies which could be used in classrooms from high school to the university level.  Similarly, my involvement with tertiary education brought me to Shenzhen, where I am a Senior Lecture at Southern University of Science and Technology.

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Discussion

An office we have on our university campus here, UNESCO International Center for Higher Education Innovation (ICHEI), does global engagement work beyond China, including with numerous countries in Africa, specifically Ethiopia!  From Addis Ababa University to the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, our UNESCO ICHEI office is able to partner with stakeholders whom likewise have a vested interest in continued educational opportunities, working with them on both continents, and in fact, hosting an upcoming seminar on Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Application in Higher Education for African Countries.  I was honored to recently have the opportunity to sit down with our campus UNESCO office to share some of my experiences as they pertained to my education in an Ethiopian framework, helping to shed light on differing platforms, including language training and cultural outreach.

I view myself not as an American educator but rather as a global one.  Sure, I incorporate into my curriculum the practices I learned from my university studies in California, but equally, I share teaching methodologies which I practiced in Ethiopia as well.  Both have value and place in any classroom, be it in the US, Africa or Shenzhen and should be acknowledged in all learning arenas.  I am grateful for the personal and professional growth each of these respective places have given me, and to have continued opportunities to share these experiences with others is another piece of the puzzle which makes up the complexities of global education, where learning is lifelong and worldwide…

Staff English Book Club: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

The Shenzhen Daily

For the third semester in a row, I am hosting an English Book Club, run in partnership with 15 Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) staff members who are dedicated in their creative learning approaches to language acquisition.  Every two weeks, about 100 pages of reading is assigned before meeting on Thursdays at lunch to hold an open discussion on not only what we read within the book, but how those ideas translate to our own personal experiences.  Dedicated and motivated, the members of the SUSTech Staff English Book Club area a testament to not only the collective efforts of the university but also to the individual ambition of each of these colleagues who dare to scratch beneath the surface of the words and express themselves in a constructive learning environment.

Discussion
Group Discussion

The past two semesters we have read, Perter Hessler’s River Town and Anchee Min’s The Cooked Seed, respectively, each describing the dichotomies of cross-cultural integration into differing societies, from America to China and vice versa.  Taking a completely different approach this time, I chose Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which doesn’t deal with Sino-American complexities, rather addressing the “Metaphysics of Quality” through the story of a family motorcycle journey across the US Midwest.  Daytime rides through the plains set the table for nighttime discussions about “quality of life”, and how it pertains to our narrator, and in turn, each of us.

The members of our Book Club bring with them a unique set of personal circumstances which underscores the intricacies of our discussions where prompts seemingly flow from one to another, forming a stream of consciousness which is highlighted by the book’s narrative.  Careful to understand that there is no “right answer” in our biweekly deliberations, respect for other’s opinions is a key facet of our meetings, where group participation leads to constructive dialogue.  There are some members who are joining the Book Club for the first time while there are others who have participated in the past two groups, yet each encourages with support which goes to benefit everyone involved, regardless of their English skillsets.

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Newspaper Article

Early in the book, Pirsig writes, “[w]e want to make good time, but for now, this is measured with emphasis on ‘good’ rather than ‘time’ and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes.”  I brought this sentence up at our first meeting, questioning the relationship of “good” and “time” and the effect each has on our lives.  The subsequent discussion which ensued served as an example of why I chose to volunteer my time with these Book Clubs: intelligent conversation shared among university colleagues which stretches beyond prescribed textbooks into a realm where creative thought and expression is fostered.  The SUSTech Staff English Book Club provides this opportunity every semester and it is my hope that we are able to continue to explore the boundaries of non-traditional narratives and the relationship the stories have on our own experiences as individuals.

Movie Review: “Isle of Dogs”

An off-campus English-language learning initiative I have done twice during my time at Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) is the Staff English Movie Day, meeting up with students at a local theater to watch an American film.  Last year it was the Academy Award winner, La La Land, and this time, the Wes Anderson stop-motion animation, Isle of Dogs.  Deeper meanings can be found beyond the Jazz music or barking dogs; elements of Western film making which incorporate the English language, but, in both cases, don’t rely on it.

Isle of Dogs is set in Japan, although the keen observer realizes it could be anywhere which infuses corruption and hate as underlying fundamentals of national policy.  Similarly, the exiled dogs which the story revolves around could easily be replaced with migrants or any other excuse to find fault with a voiceless group.  It is through this notion of communication, or lack thereof, where the film plays with the viewer, as oftentimes the Japanese dialogue is not translated, and in one scene, lamented by the alpha mutts, saying about the main character, Atari, “I wish someone spoke his language.”  Language of course is why I am here in China and why I chose this movie to take my students to, yet it is the complexities of “otherness” which creates the chasm between the dogs and their masters and which adds to the intricacy of the movie.  Language, in this case, only complicates.

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The Shenzhen Daily

As an educator, I believe that authentic learning takes place outside of the classroom, and within the movie, it is the banished “Trash Island” where the characters, both human and canine, learn the true nature of themselves and what they are capable of.  If students simply study within the parameters of standardized tests, little growth is obtained, and similarly, if the dogs stayed housebound to their masters, they too would never have realized their full potential.  Working together, Chief, Rex, King, Boss and Duke, our K9 heroes, overcome adversity (and evil Robot Dogs!) to expose the wizard behind the curtain, the scheming Mayor Kobayashi, and his plans to eradicate dogs completely from the dystopian near-future of the fictionalized Megasaki City.  A clever soundtrack by Academy Award winner Alexandre Desplat adds music to the noise, but what stands out is again, the voices.  Voices of dogs speaking, to be sure, but more importantly, the voice of hope over despair.

To say the film is entirely in English would shortchange not only the Japanese language but also the Japanese culture which sets the tone.  From the opening scene with Taiko Drumming to the deadly Wasabi which kills the opposition party candidate Professor Watanabe, the director sprinkles about subtle messages while keeping a defining plot line and character development.  Yet it was the English dialogue which drew me share this movie with my students but like the ending of La La Land where everyone doesn’t live happily ever after, it was the complex nature of the film’s message which I think was the ultimate takeaway.

Isle of Dogs is currently playing in Shenzhen, with English (and Chinese) subtitles)

Newspaper Article: “SUSTech’s Global Reach: Polish International Education Fair”

The Shenzhen Daily

The snow fell from the Eastern sky, a dizzying display of linen white landing softly upon the ground, cold as it was beautiful, painting the landscape of Warsaw into a dreamlike state.  I was in Poland on behalf of Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) along with two other colleagues, Dr. Liu from the Department of Computer Science and Dr. Yung from the Physics Department.  We were attending the Polish International Education Fair, an annual exposition which attracts local students and colleges, as well as a few international universities such as SUSTech.

Last year I had the opportunity to go on a similar trip to Cambodia, in an effort to recruit international students for my university’s undergraduate programs.  As is the case with the global finance and industry sectors, be they in Shenzhen, Phnom Penh or Warsaw, the internalization of staff, the mixture of ideas, and the conflux of cultures all go to create a dynamic workplace where everyone thrives, irrespective of where they come from.  Similarly, these practices are replicated on campuses across the globe, the university acting as a microcosm of the larger world, where distances between countries are mitigated by growing technologies and changing ideologies.  China understands the benefits of international learning, and platforms like the Polish International Education Fair offer a perfect opportunity for our university to share these prospects with students who are interested in performing on a global stage.

Education Fair

As an international educator myself, who has taught on four different continents, I have seen firsthand the value of multiethnic dynamics within the classroom.  For my students too, when the percentages of homogeneousness are decreased in favor of multiculturalism, it offers them lesson which can never be found in any textbook; challenging preconceived notions while at the same time bolstering cross-cultural competence.  With every passing semester, faculty and researchers at SUSTech continue to be hired from different countries around the globe, and through recruitment fairs such as the one in Poland, we are trying to mirror these numbers with an increase in our international student admission.

My educational experience on the European continent dates back to 2000, when I was completing a study-abroad program in Paris.  In the nearly 18 years since, much has changed with respect to the European identity, from infrastructure to economy.  Yet what remains the same, irrespective of location, is students’ desire for learning, and the collective knowledge that an education will create future opportunities across the globe.  My experiences studying in France certainly played a part in my decision to teach in China, learning then what I practice now: that education is lifelong and worldwide!

Warsaw

Warsaw is rich in history, renowned in the arts, and as I happily found out, almost unmatched in cuisine.  It was an honor to visit and represent not only my university, but also Shenzhen, with its ceaseless economy, entrepreneurial spirit, and expanding education.  I am grateful for those three days at the Polish International Education Fair, able to act as a bridge between these two incredible cities, and hope that there are students who soon make the educational decision to follow my global footprints from Eastern Europe to East Asia.