Lyons Township High School teacher Mary Christina Oxtoby is no stranger to China. She's been several times, most recently as a part of a United States State Department program for teachers for whom Chinese is a second language.
Oxtoby instructs students at both and campuses who are interested in learning the Chinese language. She is also the faculty advisor for the East Asian Culture Club at LT. Students in the club meet every other week to go on field trips, watch movies and learn about Asian cultures.
Oxtoby recently returned to the U.S. from her latest trip to China, which ran from June 21 through Aug. 4.
Here's what she had to say about her trip:
La Grange Patch: First off, how awesome is it to be in China? Was this your first time?
Mary Christina Oxtoby: I have been fortunate enough to go to China several times in order to travel, work and study. This time was unique, as I really knew what I would need to focus on in order to make me a better teacher back at LT.
Patch: What were you doing in China for your studies?
Oxtoby: I was participating in a program sponsored by the U.S. State Department for Chinese teachers for whom Chinese is a second language. There were 15 of us.. at Northeastern Normal University College of Humanities in Changchun, Jilin province. It’s in between Mongolia, Russia and North Korea.
Patch: What did you do in China for fun?
Oxtoby: One of my favorite activities to do in China is go to the parks in the cities. They are very lively places—full of people dancing, singing, playing instruments, exercising and just enjoying [the] cool air in the morning and evenings.
Patch: What's are some differences you've noticed between life in the U.S. and in China?
Oxtoby: One major difference is that there are so many people in China. What would be a family farm in the U.S. is a village in China. In the city very few people live in houses—it's all apartments. College dorm rooms typically contain six to eight people (in bunk beds).
Patch: In what ways can you bring your experience back to students at LT?
Oxtoby: It will help my students and me immensely! First of all, I want to teach my students not only how to communicate in Chinese, but also how to do it in the most linguistically and culturally authentic way possible. To this end, every Chinese person I met was my teacher and I learned from [him or her] by listening to how they expressed themselves, as well as asking questions.
Secondly, when I teach students to read, I want them to be reading things they would actually have to read if they were in China. Therefore, I gathered lots of authentic materials such as menus, brochures, forms and books. I also took lots of pictures of signs.
Patch: When did you first get interested in China and the Chinese language?
Oxtoby: I first got interested in China in high school while watching Hong Kong martial arts and action movies with my brother and sister. I started studying the language in college after visiting China for two weeks in the summer. I enjoy studying the language because the grammar is relatively easy and the characters are very interesting. In college and graduate school, it gave me an advantage as whenever I studied other subjects such as art, history, politics, religion and philosophy, I could look at them from the Western as well as the Chinese perspective.
Patch: Did you have an trouble getting books would have liked, or access to certain Internet sites?
Oxtoby: There aren’t many English language books outside of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, but I did get some great Chinese books that I look forward to using in the classroom. As for the Internet, some American websites are blocked, such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, but that really wasn’t an impediment, as there are many Chinese video-sharing sites.
Patch: Did anything happen during your trip that left you amazed, awed or humbled?
Oxtoby: When I teach my students about China, I end up with a lot of simplifications and generalizations. Also, because I am one of the few people at LT who has been to China and speaks Chinese, I am the de facto “expert” on the country and its people. When I visit China, however, I am reminded of how complex and complicated a place it is. As a result, I will always be learning about China and Chinese. While I want to teach my students what I know about China, I think it is more important that I share my passion for the subject and to give my students the tools to keep learning on their own when they leave my classroom and when they leave LT.
Patch: How's the food? What have you been eating?
Oxtoby: The food was great! We ate all of our meals family style in the cafeteria. Northern food is known for being salty, but fortunately the cooks didn’t add too much after we complained.
Patch: Anything else you'd like to share about your trip?
Oxtoby: Just that whenever I told people that I taught Chinese in the U.S. they were excited to hear that more and more Americans are interested in learning Chinese. In my experience, Chinese people have very positive attitudes towards Americans and are very welcoming to people who are interested in learning the language and culture.
Patch: Thanks Mary. It sounds like a great way to spend a summer!