This year (2016) I had two 2-month stints teaching OHS and risk management in Sichuan China as a casual employee for a Melbourne-based TAFE. It was quite a learning experience. And I thought to pass on a bit of the stuff I learned for others who might find themselves doing teaching or training in the economic powerhouse that is China. A total of 4 months teaching does not an expert make: so the “musings” here should be treated as intended: random observations from a China “newbie” for other newbies.
Both gigs were at a college in Deyang, a relatively small western region city (4 million pop. or thereabouts). Keep in mind “the vibe” changes a lot depending on size of the city. The capital of Sichuan is Chengdu, 80 km or so south-west of Deyang, and the vibe in that city of 14 and a bit million is significantly different to Deyang.
Some quick observations of work safety in China generally:
- Most people here guffaw at the notion of teaching OHS in China. Tip: Get over it. Most obvious work safety in China comes from seeing small-team construction workers on the job. Many awful work practices can be seen during any wander around the streets of a city. But, look hard at what can be observed on Australian small construction sites out in the ‘burbs and you will see plenty of crazy work practices. Stuff needs to improve a lot in China, but like workers everywhere, Chinese workers don’t have a “death wish”; you will see good work practices if you want to look for them.
- Yep, China’s workplace fatality numbers are “too high” according to their own workplace safety officials. The head of the national workplace safety agency reported 66,000 deaths in 2015 (China Daily, 11/03/15). But context is also necessary. The World Bank reports there are 806.5 million workers in China (and they are 2015 estimates). China has a huge working population and fatality numbers are falling fast.
- The scary work practices you do see seem to have the same causes we see here in Australia: lack of risk awareness, lack of knowledge how to use safety equipment properly and appropriately. Work safety training seems to be well “under done”. But see next point.
- The primary work safety law in China is a pretty good bit of legislation (Law of the People’s Republic of China on Work Safety). And recent amendments have bumped up safety training even more as a duty on employers. Yes, yes, a typical response is “All very well, no one bothers with the law”, but I just refer back to the total number of workers in China, and point out just how thoroughly do we see high levels of compliance here in Oz? Putting aside the big construction sites and bigger companies, compliance is a bit hit-and-miss in the SME sector.
All the points above shouldn’t be seen as suggesting workplace safety is pretty good in China, it’s not. But assuming it’s all bad, and a “cot-case” is not conducive to working towards a better situation. Tip: Lose the smug sense of how much better we are doing in the West with work safety, and have a bit more empathy for the massive challenges facing China. i.e. a bit of respect would be good.
Observations & tips on teaching/training for OHS:
- Putting aside language issues for the moment (more on that soon) I found the expectation that your teaching was going to be lecture style, with much emphasis on rote learning one of the biggest challenges. You have to work hard to generate engagement with problem-solving and creative thinking – both obviously important in OHS. Much positive encouragement, mentoring and patient leading students to think creatively is essential. All the standard “tricks” for making training interesting should be used. Recognising that sort of stuff is considered very unusual for Chinese students – turn it to an advantage.
- Related to point 1, is the trick of getting students to do a brainstorming session. A properly run brainstorming session introduces students to the power of collective problem-solving, and helps to break down the fear of losing face in front of peers ( a big issue).
- Another tip related to point 1. Get students up out of their desks, and ideally out of the classroom as often as you can. I guesstimated it was the years of lecture-type lessons that had students tending to shut down independent thought when in their desks. I was often amazed at how hard it was to get some students to leave the familiar surrounds of the classroom. But once out it’s obvious it generates a big improvement in the energy and enthusiasm for contributing to learning.
- Speak very, very slowly and don’t use irony, aphorisms or other language that is not direct, clear and simple. Forget about dabbling in using Mandarin terms – for the most part. You’re more likely to confuse students, even if you have the best intentions.
- Students are graded on their capacity for English, and placed in classes based on that grade. Even my lower graded students had quite good capacity to read and write English; it was in oral English that I found a big proportion were either embarrassed or just didn’t have sufficient skills. Much empathy and encouragement is needed for conversations.
- Cheating during written tests is rife, but understand the reasons. Chinese students tend to develop life-long relationships with their close schoolmates. And there is a strong sense of helping others who are likely to struggle in tests. Distributing answers from old tests and all that sort of stuff is done for the benefit of all. Produce new tests. If you are giving the same test to a group of classes expect that someone in an earlier class will try and get a copy to give to later examinees. Be very thorough in inspecting for copies of answers at a start of a written test. Don’t let students sit side by side when doing a test, and if that’s not possible, give out 2 tests, with the question sequence changed between the 2. And definitely don’t allow students to have their phones with them during a test; some bizarre internet-derived answers will appear on tests a lot if you don’t.
And here are some tips/observations/musings from a newbie to China.
- Finding a person (in a regional city) with conversational English is pretty rare. If you hang out on the street you will get lots of “Hellos” and it’s not uncommon to have an English speaker come up for a chat. But apart from “Hello” and “bye bye” (which I found almost every person likes to use) you will need a good translation app on your phone. I found Pleco really good. Other Western teachers like BaiduTrans. That one has a function where you speak what you want to say and it translates into simplified Chinese text.
- Chinese are keen phone IM app users. WeChat or QQ are the most popular. I found WeChat the most useful. (I rarely send SMSs anymore; WeChat is the go-to with friends, here and China.)
- Out on the street you will find a level of honesty that is way above what you find in Oz. I took to not trying to learn all the numbers for buying stuff, and fixed it by opening up my wallet to get the vendor to take what was necessary. Yep, for some there is the “foreigner price”, but most times a seller will be taken aback, but then will find the right notes, hold them up and then, if they give you change hold that up too. Also imagine leaving an item behind in a taxi here in Oz and then finding 2 days later a colleague has your item – because the taxi driver who had the item found a Westerner near where I’d got my taxi and assumed he would know who owned the item. In Oz it’s just not going to happen.
- Don’t drink or cook with tap water. I was staying in a rented apartment on both gigs and everyone (Chinese as well) uses water cooler type drums for potable water. Readily bought at stores.
- Food (and water) prices are very cheap, but things like electronics and appliances are only a bit cheaper than Oz. If you are a Mac user, check for authorised Apple outlets before you go – they tend to be in the bigger cities. There are lots of “Apple” stores in the smaller cities, most are not authorised outlets.
- Many people in Oz seem to think that travelling in China is heavily restricted. It’s not my experience. You do have to have your passport with you for intra-China train and plane travel. No passport, no ticket. Train and bus travel is good and cheap. The fast trains are excellent.
- And lastly, have fun. I found Chinese people more than ready for a laugh and to share a joke. They don’t have the sort of reluctance to try and talk with strangers like we experience here in Oz.
Working in China was exhausting, sometimes exhilarating, and always interesting. Give it a go.
Col Finnie – finiohs.