When Monique Costello goes out to a restaurant, it’s not unusual for people to stop and stare at her through the window as she eats.
That’s not only because Costello is the only American woman living in the Chinese city where she teaches, but also because staring is not considered impolite in China and is done very openly.”
Costello found the staring very strange at first, but she has become accustomed to it and to other cultural differences she’s encountered while teaching English-language classes at Tianmu High School in Lin'an, a small city that’s about a three-hour drive west of Shanghai.
Other customs particular to her new social sphere include the questions the Chinese feel are appropriate, food full of bones and fat and even the sense of orderliness.
“Age, relationship status and money questions are all fair game here,” said Costello, “And there are no such things as lines in China. It is first-come, first-served to whomever can elbow their way to the front.”
But the fascinating variations are part of what brought Costello to China. She graduated from Suffolk University in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies and a minor in History and began a 10-month stint in Lin’an the following September. Costello is a second-generation Suffolk alumna, and her mother, Roxanne, made the long trip to visit her.
“I have always been interested in the rich history and culture of Asia, and I saw teaching as a great opportunity to experience daily life there and to travel to its many beautiful places,” said Costello.
She teaches American culture to Chinese students through speaking and listening exercises, critical reading and a performance of Shakespeare.
The right answer
In teaching 18 classes per semester and a total of around 800 students, Costello has encountered very different teaching and learning styles.
“The students always want to know the right answer, not the how or why,” says Costello. “They have so many important exams as students that I think they are learning for the exams much more than learning for the sake of learning. The teachers are all focused on test scores as well. It puts a lot of pressure on the students.”
Unfamiliar dialect a challenge
While Costello studied Mandarin for two years at Suffolk, she lives in an area where most people speak Lin'an dialect, which she does not understand, so making friends has been a challenge.
As the sole American woman in the entire city, she finds that many people are intimidated by her, especially as they are embarrassed if their English is not proficient.
Yet one day when Costello was lost in a nearby city, a young woman who spoke English offered to help.
“She was originally from Shanghai and had better English than anyone else I had met in China,” said Costello. “We discovered that she went to college in the city where I live and quickly exchanged numbers. We have been great friends since then.”
The Chinese government keeps a very close eye on where citizens and non-citizens are living and traveling, and this caused Costello a bit of a headache after her arrival.
“My school took me to get a residency permit ten days too late, and I was almost deported. I had to go to the police station and give a report on why I was living in my city unregistered—and therefore illegally, she said.
Plans for the future
Costello plans to pursue a career in college administration, possibly in the Boston area. In the meantime, she is realizing one of her life goals—to travel and experience as many different cultures as she can.
“China was the tenth country I have visited and the only one I have stayed in for a significant amount of time,” she said. “I think this experience has not only helped me become more understanding of other cultures, but it will also help me with future jobs in administration, because there are many foreign students coming to universities in America.”