It’s dark in China – educating with social networks

For nearly a year, I had been waiting for the email that would change my life. Post-grad, I picked up four jobs, the PULP was the only one closely related to my English degree. I was eager to use this piece of paper for something other than a minimum wage job.  

That Thursday I had tagged my second item of clothing, at my second job of the day, when my phone buzzed and lit up. Across my screen was an unfamiliar email address. My curiosity always gets the best of me, and without a thought I swiped to view the message. I glanced at the Peace Corps logo and then read the chipper, “Congratulations! It is with great pleasure that we invite you to begin training in China for Peace Corps service.” I read through a paragraph before my brain woke up. 

I’m moving to China to teach English. My immediate reaction was that I needed to call my parents. I also needed to tell the entire world. Everyone I know. I tagged two items of clothing before I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I called my dad and told him the great news, while jumping up and down. I shot a few texts to the people I am closest to, and then I told the world. Everyone I know. My “I’m moving to CHINA!” Facebook post blew up. Texts were piling up in my inbox. 

That kind of news is overwhelming. I couldn’t believe it, after a year, I got the email I was waiting for. After the excitement faded, I started to joyfully cry, but then that joyful cry turned to a sad cry. 

I thought of everyone I was about to leave. Little did I know that it would be the whole world. Everyone I know. 

Over the next few weeks, the excitement still burned. I spent time researching and devising clever ways of teaching college students English. I compiled ideas from some of my favorite college professors: books to read, theories to apply to writing, creative writing prompts, Guerilla Recitations, even book reports. My strongest tool would be social networking. It’s the way my professors taught me. 

I want to provide the kind of education I had. Cutting edge. So, I took everything that enhanced my learning experience and wrote it down. I researched and Googled. I surfed blogs and watched Youtube videos. 

Then, I found information that would throw a giant wrench in my plans for teaching.

China has banned Google+, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and virtually every other social network platform thinkable. Even Blogger, where I keep my blog, is out. 

How am I supposed to teach people how to communicate effectively when a good chunk of how the world communicates is banned? I’ve lost my main tool, I thought. I am doomed. And even worse, I won’t be able to communicate back home. I’ll be offline to the whole world. Everybody I know. 

I can handle two years without Pueblo Chiles, two years without the site of the Rockies, two years without driving a vehicle, even two years without the sweet luxury of Starbucks; I can even handle my future language barrier struggles, but two years without the use of GYFT? I am in no way ready to give them up, but unless I bow down to China’s only social network, MySpace, it looks like I’m going dark in June. 

In moving forward with my career, I discovered many fears and insecurities around separating from GYFT. 

I rationalized that I would not as easily talk to people, or that by the time I returned home, I would be way behind American culture. In my search for alternative teaching methods, I also found myself more and more curious about how prevalent social networks are in everyday life here and around the world. In my efforts to just ‘know,’ I was hopeful that somewhere along the way I would find a way to get past the Great Firewall of China. 

I found, well, Pew Research found, that people in other countries have the bug way worse than I do. Eighty-eight percent of Egypt’s population uses social networking sites. Both Russia and Turkey beat out the U.S. too. Seventy-three percent of Americans use social media. 

Of course, just my luck, China has the lowest percentage of GYFT users with only 48 percent. And it’s not just that they are pretty much considered non-users compared to Americans, it’s that their strict communist government doesn’t want the people to experience the power of social media. A social media site can cause a revolution, as recent events have taught us. So, the big social networking sites do not exist, but there are alternatives. 

There are networks like WeChat and Weibo, most of them in traditional Chinese. I’m still not convinced they compare to what I’m used to or will be useful in the classroom. But after learning the language, it shouldn’t be too hard to adjust to them. I signed up for Weibo, in hopes down the road that I would use it to teach. 

But in effort to learn more about networking abroad, I went to the professor who took me on my first trip abroad. Doctor of Philosophy in Rhetoric, lifetime world traveler, and close friend, Dr. Donna McKinney-Souder calmed my wits around social network restrictions. “Seventy-five percent of teaching is listening and paying attention. The other 25 percent is actually giving a damn. You got this, in other words,” she told me.  

Dr. Souder uses social networks as a tool for educating in the classroom and has found it to be successful. Reading responses through the use of Facebook and Twitter provoked in-class discussion among the students in her class, which was a useful way to get her students involved, with not only her, but also their peers. I liked that we got to use Facebook during class; it felt like Dr. Souder ‘gave a damn’ about our generational interests. But still, I asked why she thought it was important for education.

“They’re all just a medium for sharing and communicating ideas with colleagues, students, parents, etc.,” she said, but that is pretty much a given. “Social media isn’t really any more ‘social’ than the telephone once was when it was new, or email was when it was new. It’s all an instant method for knowledge/information gathering and dissemination. Unhindered by time or space or place.” 

The important thing behind the teaching experience is intent. Not necessarily the use of social media to appeal to the generation. But I still had a strong urge to find a way to use the networks I am so accustomed to, which I voiced to Souder. “China strangles all that,” she said. “I wouldn’t try and buck that part of the system.” She’s one of the smartest people I know, how can I argue with her? Thanks Dr. Souder.

Okay, so I’m very obsessed with my American social networks. It’s one of the main reasons I want to use them in the classroom. But to be quite honest who isn’t obsessed? Ninety-one percent of the U.S. population uses cellphones and more than half of those cell phone owners have a smartphone. 

PEW says that by 2020, Americans are still going to be disclosing their thoughts, opinions, and timeline events for all to see. Not surprising.  Some say that’s bad and some say it’s good. Professionals are repeatedly claiming that the use of social networks has negatively impacted proper grammar usage, has exposed people to more pedophiles and predators, has contributed negatively to ADHD and has a negative effect on how potential employers view people.

But it’s a part of life, so I can’t see not using it, and other professions have the same view point. 

Educators, rather than fighting the increased popularity, have found ways to incorporate them into their curriculums for class credit. GYFT are the fastest ways to spread and learn new information than any other form of media. Law enforcement agencies use GYFT to track and find criminals. Musicians and artists uses GYFT to expand their fan base without having a record contract. Any of America’s GYFT have even provided millions of new jobs to people around the world. And among many other positive things, GYFT provide a way for people to communicate with others across the world, which is really the whole point anyway, and even if less than half of China’s population uses some form of social networking, I know deep down we, as people, want the same things. 

We want to be happy, we want be loved, we want good jobs, we want a good education, and we want to feel like we’re important. But as countries, we are oh so different. Nothing can properly prepare me for the extreme detachment that comes with leaving my country. How can your prepare for something you haven’t prepared for your entire life? I think of it this way.

Remember your first day of school? That’s all China is for me, my first day of school. I get to learn as I go. I get to practice my skills and become  proficient. I’ll learn to use Weibo. I’ll do the best I can to teach my future students. The only worry now on my first day of school is, I hope everyone likes me.

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