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Teaching English in the nation’s rural areas is no mean task, given textbook content that has no local context and teachers who themselves lack proficiency in the language.

“Morning! Morning! Morning!” repeats a group of third-graders loudly after their teacher, first in English and then in Chinese. This is followed by other words from their vocabulary list, taking up half the 45-minute English class at Wangji School in Dongxiang county, Northwest China’s Gansu province.

Although the class of 47 third graders of Wangji take three English classes a week, few can respond to their teacher trying to initiate a simple conversation with a new face at school.

“Kids here are very smart,” teacher Ma Yanhong, 24, says. “But they are very shy. Encouraging them to speak out is the hardest part for me. In the presence of strangers, very few kids are brave enough to raise their hands and answer my questions in English.”

More than 90 percent of the teachers and students here belong to the Dongxiang ethnic group, which has its own language and whose members are Muslim. Most are fluent in the Dongxiang language, but find it hard to communicate in Mandarin.

Ma began teaching in Dongxiang county in 2010. She says when she first started, she sometimes had to explain an English word first in the Dongxiang language and then in Mandarin to make sure that every student understood.

Wangji School has just two English teachers teaching eight classes from the third to the sixth grade.

“We face a serious shortage of English teachers,” says Yang Junwei, head of the education department of Dongxiang county. Attracting university graduates to take teaching positions in the county has always been difficult. “The place is poor and isolated and some graduates find it almost impossible to communicate with the locals,” Yang says.

“In many primary schools, majors in other disciplines often double as English teachers. They have no training in English teaching and just know some simple words and sentences,” Yang says.

Even Ma, who graduated with an English major in 2009, finds her proficiency in the language wanting after teaching for one year.

“Every time I participate in a teaching seminar in Lanzhou and see students from urban areas responding quickly to their teachers and hear their clear pronunciation, I feel sad. I feel I’m not capable of teaching students well with what I learned in college. I am trying to improve by learning English online every evening after class.”

Both of the school’s English teachers graduated from the Gansu Normal University of Nationalities in Gannan Tibet autonomous prefecture. Ma says she has never visited any place outside Gansu.

Poor knowledge of the outside world is a common problem for teachers in Dongxiang, no matter what subjects they teach.

At Zhongbao Hope Elementary School, a school founded by China Daily in 1999, some teachers find it hard to introduce topics they themselves are unfamiliar with, to their students.

Ma Xiaojun, 25, has been teaching English in Zhongbao for four years.

“Here, we use books that are common to all primary schools across China, and the teaching material is decided by China’s education department,” he says. “But for many topics in the books, we have no idea how to explain them to the kids.”

One example he gives is of an English lesson that deals with traffic rules.

“The book explains that in China, cars keep to the right side of the road, while in many other countries, such as Britain and Australia, cars keep to the left,” he says. “But most children have no idea where Australia is, or even about traffic. Many of them walk 7-8 km of mountainous roads from home to school.”

While teachers grapple with providing context to their lessons, what Wangji student Zhao Rui, 11, misses most is the one class taught by a teacher from Beijing.

Last year, a group of students from Peking University went to Dongxiang to spend some time teaching the students of Wangji School.

“Our teacher was called Tom. He was tall, and spoke beautiful English,” Zhao recalls. “He explained things very clearly. I remember how he taught us about colors. He said yellow is a coward and purple is shy.”

These are the only names of colors the girl remembers clearly to this day.

Similar problems crop up with Chinese literature lessons too.

Tang Xiuli, 34, has been teaching Chinese to third graders at Wangji for nine years. She has just finished reading a story to them titled A Little Photographer, which is about a Russian student trying to take a photo for renowned Russian writer Maxim Gorky.

When a China Daily reporter visited the class and asked the students what they understood by the word photographer, the class fell silent, before one of them shouted, “a journalist!” But he had little idea of what journalists did.

When asked who Gorky was, the class fell into a longer silence.

“Do you think he is from China?” the reporter prompted.

“Yes!” said the whole class, without missing a beat.

Only four students in the class of 44 had ever had their photos taken or seen a camera – and that was in the village studio.

Ma Xiaojun, who is now taking an online English teaching course, says: “My biggest wish is to write an English book for teaching students in Dongxiang.

“The book will have content that children here are familiar with, such as their ethnic dress, special celebrations for festivals and their rural lifestyles. They would be very interested in learning about something close to their lives, in English.”

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“I’m much stronger now, don’t you think?” said Kim Lee, flexing her arm and smiling. We had bumped into each other in the elevator to her lawyer’s office, where we had arranged to sit down for our interview.

I have met Lee twice before; the first time just a short while after she made headlines by posting on her micro blog pictures of bloody head injuries allegedly inflicted by her husband, Li Yang, a well-known entrepreneur.

She was right. She looked a lot better, more relaxed and confident, and far less tired.

The 40-year-old has had a turbulent six months and is going through a very public divorce from Li (the first hearing was on Dec 15). Yet, as she chatted about the Christmas she had just spent with her three children back in her native Florida, it seems she has had a chance to recharge her batteries and think about the future.

“I want to change my environment, maybe work in Guangzhou or Zhuhai (both in Guangdong province),” she said, as we walked into a small, sixth-floor office in a tall building next to the East Fourth Ring Road. “Some educational institutions have invited me already. Maybe I’ll teach in a winter camp, too.”

You could say education is Lee’s family business. Her mother was a teacher and, before she met Li Yang, founder of the Crazy English language school, in 1999, she had spent almost a decade working at schools in the United States. She also home-schooled her three daughters, now aged 9, 5 and 3.

Getting back to work, she says, will help distract her from the pain of being separated from her children, who are staying with relatives in the US until the divorce is finalized.

“I really miss them, but they don’t miss me,” she said with mock anger. Then, with sudden excitement, ruffled through the glossy down jacket she had taken off moments earlier and produced a set of photographs.

In one of a young girl on stage at a spelling bee, she pointed out her second daughter, Lila. Then, almost in a whisper, she added: “Her personality is so much like her dad. She is the most like him (of the three). She loves attention, loves people looking at her. She likes the crowd.”

It was the first mention of Li Yang during the interview, and the effect on the mood was as if he had just walked into the room.

The conversation soon turned to the topic of domestic violence and the media fallout over Lee’s accusations against her soon-to-be ex-husband. She claims he regularly slapped her face and pulled her hair during arguments, and twice injured her so badly she needed hospital treatment.

In August, following what she called the second serious incident, Lee decided to upload pictures of her injuries on Sina weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

“(Before making the allegations online) I went to the police and told him (Li Yang) that I had gone, but he didn’t care. He was still confident there would be no result,” she said, adding that her decision to speak out was partially fueled by the fear of what her children may think. “If kids see you beaten by your husband several times and you say it’s OK, they will think that it’s OK. That’s terrible. I don’t want my kids to think it’s OK for a woman to be abused by a man.”

Although Lee says she uploaded the images to attract the attention of Li Yang, an avid Internet user, they were trended on Sina weibo and within hours had been shared by hundreds of thousands of bloggers.

“The first reason (I posted them) was because I wanted it to stop, I wanted to protect myself,” she said, adding that she was not prepared for the media frenzy that ensued. It was not long before both husband and wife were being bombarded with reporters’ requests for interviews.

Both have received their share of criticism in the last six months, including some people who accused Lee of simply seeking fame.

“I’ve received great support and encouragement from most Chinese people in the past five months,” she said, recalling briefly with tears in her eyes how an elderly Chinese woman in Beijing’s Tuanjiehu Park had recognized her one morning and given a thumbs-up.

Lee said she can accept “ugly” words from netizens but cannot help arguing with people who say domestic violence is acceptable. In interviews, Li Yang admitted hitting his wife but said it was a small mistake, and he claims Lee is using the case to become famous. (Li Yang declined to comment when contacted by China Daily.)

“That upsets me, the fact that he sees himself as a victim, that I did something to hurt him,” Lee said, raising her voice, her first visible sign of anger that morning. “He still thinks the biggest problem is that I exposed the violence.”

Since the media attention, Lee has spoken at a domestic violence conference in Beijing and, in some people’s eyes, has become a hero for women caught in abusive relationships.

“I’m not a hero,” she said when asked about how she is viewed. “That’s not my job.

“The difference between a Chinese and US woman in such a relationship is that when an American woman finally gets the courage to speak out, she knows the support is there. The law (in the US) is very strong. But here, even if a woman speaks out, it’s very difficult,” said the mother of three, who plans to write a book about domestic violence for Chinese women.

“I don’t think other women can follow my example, because I’m an American I can leave the country; I have lots of options. However, I hope I have made it clear to men who abuse women that it’s not OK.”

At the end of the interview, Lee finally sat back in her soft, brown armchair and took a sip of the coffee she was carrying when we arrived. It had gone cold long ago.

“I just want an ordinary, quiet life,” she added. “But I still believe in love.”

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