Chinese Ethnic Minorities: Yao

Even after four years in China I’m still used to thinking of the term ‘ethnic minorities’ as a serious misnomer used to describe people of colour living in America and Europe.

I call it a serious misnomer because of its misleading nature. If statistics were properly accounted for on a global scale it would soon be clear that people of colour are far from a minority, but that’s another post for perhaps another platform.

In the meantime, I very recently had the privilege of finding out about one of the 55 Chinese ethnic minorities.

The majority of  Chinese are descended from the Han ethnicity, but spread throughout the country in clusters are non-Han descendants many of whom still live according to the tradition of their ancestors.

Today I met Stephen who is a Professor in Philosophy at Shenzhen University and a member of the Yao people.

Liu Zhishan. Professor Stephen from the Yao Chinese Ethnic Minority, Hunnan Province, China. Happy to tell me all about his people.

During our discussion about various types of food, he mentioned that he didn’t eat beef. It’s extremely rare to meet Chinese people other than Buddhists who abstain from meat.

When he elaborated by saying that no-one in his family had ever eaten beef I became even more curious. Then he mentioned that he had eaten rice almost every day since childhood because his family were in the business of growing rice.

All of this fascinating information coming from such a mild, unassuming man. Who knew?

So we talked more and he was patient enough to satisfy my curiousity about a group of people I’d never heard of before; the Yao ethnic minority, found mostly, but not exclusively in South Western China.

Yao family in traditional dress. Love the way they look so happy! The husband lives with the wife’s family.

So, apart from the not eating beef thing and the love of rice, due to it being the family business, Stephen told me about the home he grew up in. It was on the mountainside and followed the common practice of one sect of the Yao people living at the bottom of the mountain, another sect dwelling halfway up, with the final third division pitching their homes at the top. I’m unsure why this separation exists. Perhaps it’s just tradition which came out of survival necessity many years ago.


Yao house made of bamboo and wood. Some are built on stilts over rivers.

Yao houses are built for convenience and shelter. Made from bamboo and wood, the ground floor is used to keep livestock while the family inhabit the upper floors. Sometimes the houses are built on stilts over water. As the family grows the house is extended to accomodate the new unit creating unique and interesting structures.

This is so different to the west where planning permission is needed to even think about erecting an extension, while rules, regulation and paperwork override intuition, need and sometimes commonsense, but I digress.

A Yao Wedding

Unlike some Chinese families, Yao engagements are not usually arranged or helped along by family elders. Prof Stephen said that it’s common for young people to meet at a Yao festival. After this they decide for themselves if they want to pursue marriage. Most marriages are within the ethnic group, but it’s not a problem to marry outside. Husbands live with the wife’s family.

Stephen quoted a figure of 5 million Yao in China. Other sources say that there is half that amount with figures around 2.6m. Out of 1.4 billion people, it’s a pretty small number and I wonder if it’s increasing or decreasing.

The Chinese government has special rules for its minorities. For example they were exempt from the old One Child rule. in addition; “Some ethnic minorities in China live in what are described as ethnic autonomous areas. These “regional autonomies” guarantee ethnic minorities the freedom to use and develop their ethnic languages, and to maintain their own cultural and social customs. In addition, the PRC government has provided preferential economic development and aid to areas where ethnic minorities live.” Jim Yardley, New York Times 2008.

Tracing their roots back to the Qin Dynasty of 221-207, Yao were originally animal hunters. Now, they generally make their living from the land as farmers, rice growers or livestock holders. They have their own written and oral language or dialect but Mandarin is widely used.

Yao rice paddies. Green, beautiful and with no commute! Notice how the Yao homes are situated right next to them.

For more than 10 years Stephen has resided in the bustling, ultra modern metropolis of Shenzhen where he holds a good job as a Professor in Philosophy at Shenzhen University. Later this summer he’ll take up a position of Visiting Lecturer at a Los Angeles tertiary institute. His wife is a teacher and his daughter  is excelling at school. He goes home to see his relatives as often as he can so his daughter will know about her heritage.

I asked him if he ever thought about returning to the South Western countryside and contributing to the family business.

His answer was that he’s made the right choice and, as you can see from the first photo, he’s happy.



Do I Need A Visa To Come To China?

The short answer is most probably yes unless you’re from one of the very few countries which has an agreement with China allowing their citizens to enter and exit using only their passports or some other form of ID.

Applying for the right visa can be a bit of a mystery as, like most countries, China has many categories some of which seem to overlap.

This article from my Hub Pages blog has further, useful information to help you make the best choice for your needs.


Idaho State University Ruined My Husband’s Future. Please Help Us Right This Injustice.

Idaho State University Ruined My Husband’s Future. Please Help Us Right This Injustice.

A startling message from writer Jo Eikenburg creator of the blog Speaking of China. Jo and her husband Jun tell of an injustice from Idaho University which caused him to lose his five year PhD degree. He is still re-paying student loans and battling the institute in a fierce and expensive court case.

Please help if you can.


Doing A Demo Class in China: Performing Monkey Syndrome

If you’re in China looking around for a suitable teaching job you could eventually be asked to do a Demo Class at a prospective English Language Centre.

If you currently have a job in a Kindergarten or Children’s Training Centre, you may still be expected to do Demo Classes for prospective children and their parents on a regular basis or at least from time to time.


The more organised centres will give you a little bit of notice about the group, for example, how many students, their ages and the kind of topics they’d like you to cover along with the duration of the Demo. But, sadly, such precision is far from the norm.

It’s more likely that you’ll only be told the duration and an approximate number of students. You’ll have to make your own enquiries to determine their age group and the kind of topics suitable to cover i.e not too hard and not too easy.

A Demo Class shouldn’t last any longer than 30 minutes in my opinion. Actually 20 minutes is enough to see your teaching skills, classroom management and personality. Some centres will ask for 2 hours which is taking advantage. A 2 hour demo class isn’t a demo it’s a real lesson which you should get paid for. GroupPartySept20155

The whole point is for the centre to evaluate your skills and aptitude, in theory. In reality it’s to see if their students and parents like you. You could do a great class where the children learn something but if no-one gets a whiff of your charm, you won’t get the job, no matter your credentials or experience.

For this reason many ex pat teachers see Demo Classes as Performing Monkey events. Chinese staff press you to make the children laugh and have fun and equally important; the parents (usually sitting at the back, or sometimes behind a glass window looking in), want to see happy, relaxed children because apparently, this signals a future ability to speak English like a native.

The end result is that you start to feel like a bit of a clown as opposed to a professional and experienced teacher. This is one of the reasons I stopped doing Demo Classes a long time ago.


A potential employer can see from my CV that I’m a seasoned teacher, therefore if you want to see me in action give me a normally scheduled class to teach and pay me the going rate. If you like what you see and I like your centre, afterwards we can negotiate. If not, we agree to say goodbye and you’ll have paid me fairly for doing a good job.

One of the reasons why Western teachers are encouraged to entertain as opposed to teach during these sessions is that training centres and private Kindergartens are businesses first and foremost. Education is simply the train on which the cash rides towards them, but it’s not their primary concern.

The more children and parents enthralled by the hilarious western teacher means more bottoms on seats. More bottoms on seats means more money rolling in. More money rolling in means that the children of the business owner and the shareholders can go to schools and universities in America, Australia or England where supposedly their child will gain more than just a good time. This is the Chinese theory.JennyVanessa

Now if you’re currently doing the rounds of Demo Classes, or about to embark down this road, please don’t think I’m trying to put you off. I’m just recalling the experiences of many of us before we found a place that fits.

On the plus side, doing a Demo Class eliminates all of the waiting around to see if you’ve got the job that comes with a more formal interview because if they like you, they’ll hire you straight away.

Sometimes the centre may call you in for an interview when the children are actually at school. In these cases expect to do your demonstration with the sales or admin staff who are usually very receptive as they’re delighted to be called away from their desks. This could be a little more challenging as their levels of English will vary but you’ll walk into a room full of smiling faces and maybe even some polite applause which is always nice.

Waiting for the Performing Monkey? No, sorry, I mean, waiting for the Demo Class to start.

All in all I’d advise not to take Demo Classes too seriously. My best ones (where I was instantly offered a job), were the ones where I had as much fun as the children.

Putting the Performing Monkey syndrome aside for just a second, it is great to see the parents happy because their children are happy and to have the Head of the Centre give you a big grin and a thumbs up sign during your class.

Also, as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs

I intentionally create a relaxed atmosphere where laughter comes naturally as I believe that this creates the best environment for learning. I also want to give my younger students an environment which is different to their school.

In my classroom I’m in control in whereas when doing a Demo Class you tend to become the Performing Monkey at the whim of managers and their staff.

You may not enjoy this feeling, few people do.

Just something to bear in mind.





Is Teaching Abroad Only For Young People?

No, I don’t think so.

You see, one of the many things I’ve learned through years of teaching, training and leading workshops is that teaching involves much more than imparting knowledge about a subject.

Your students see you as a role model. Once trust is established they will come to you with their personal and professional problems, headaches and queries. They value your wisdom and experience even if you’ve lived a different life in a different culture simply because you’re now in the position of guiding them.

Consequently I actually believe that older, more mature men and women aged 30+ make better teachers.

A graduate with several years work experience prepares to take his English speaking exam as part of a self-development programme. He’s 29 years old.  Would he want to be taught by a 22 year old?

Young people in their 20’s fresh out of university still have something to offer, but perhaps not much in the way of life experience. They’re also more likely to see teaching abroad as a chance for an extended holiday before returning to their own countries, settling down and getting a real job.

The problem with this is that they often don’t take their role as teachers seriously. At that age and with no immediate parental overseeing, the parties, clubs and general social scene in a new environment can be irresistible, which would be okay if they didn’t have class to teach at 8:30am the next morning.

As a result the children receive a teacher who is only partially mentally there and who’s likely to hand out yet another wordsearch in order to keep the class quiet until his or her hangover subsides.

This means that eventually our work as foreign teachers becomes undervalued and we’re seen as little more than time fillers.

University undergrads wait for an English speaking presentation to begin.

Older teachers are less likely to succumb to the lure of the bright lights of party town. We’ve been there, done that and worn the t-shirt. On the occasions that we do go out we’re much more likely to be responsible about it, in other words, our jobs come first.

Another point is that young people generally don’t have any teaching experience. They know nothing of classroom management or lesson planning. They don’t know how to run ice-breakers or of ways to motivate bored or shy students. They have no idea how to use a textbook effectively, create extension activities or even accurately grade their pupils.

But yet they leave home, fly a few thousand miles across the world, perhaps complete a two day training course and feel that they are ready for the demands of the classroom.

Could you handle a room like this?

Naturally I’m generalising.

Of course there are some very dedicated and skilled young teachers who bring vibrancy and enthusiasm to their classes and are loved by their students. In addition there are older tutors who still like to party to the detriment of their work. But if a young person asked me about teaching abroad for a year, after ascertaining their motives, I might advise them to try something else.

There are many options for living and working abroad which don’t involve standing in front of a room full of people or children wanting to speak English like native speakers, yet knowing you can’t help them because you only had two hours sleep, you’re three sheets to the wind, or you’re just too inexperienced.

Click on this link for some great ideas about what else you could do to earn a living abroad.

Confident Students Do It Better


Upbeat and self-assured students learn more and do better. In addition I get to really enjoy my work! (all photos:AvaMingImages)

The greatest satisfaction in teaching comes from seeing my students grow in confidence.

Yes, of course it’s wonderful when they conquer the dreaded and quite difficult English exams (IELTS and TOEFL) where they’re faced with sections which include reading. writing, listening and speaking. Or the brutal SATS and APT which add in maths, logic and reasoning. Sometimes it’s hard enough to do these in your own language, never mind a foreign one which you’ve only been speaking for a few years!


I wholeheartedly admire my students tenacity as they patiently learn tedious vocabulary lists and tackle organising their thoughts and words into formal, informal and semi-formal paragraphs and phrases.

On the days when they just can’t get their pronunciation right, or when yet another weird rule of English grammar makes no sense, I’m right there helping them to jump over the hurdles and keep on going.

For many of my students this is the only way to reach the promised lands of England, or Australia, Canada, New Zealand or America.


Informal discussion classes with unusual topics are a great way to practice English. These students are thinking up ways to fool the other team.

However I always feel that I’d be doing them a disservice if these were the only things I focussed on.

I’ve mentioned before that I like my classes to be fun, interesting, active and dynamic.

During discussions no-one gets to shy away at the back letting the others do all the talking. Everyone speaks because everyone has a view on stimulating and unusual topics. In this way they get to practice conversationals skills without feeling as though they’re under the spotlight. Nerves are eliminated or at least signficantly reduced allowing them to just be themselves.

Getting ready to do a role play which is always a great activity to get teenagers talking.

Most students are with us for an average of three months, some a little less, some a little longer.

This is a good amount of time to measure progress in soft skills such as confidence in speaking in front of a group, willingness and ability to work with others and encouraging classmates.

When, at the end of this time period, the corridors are filled with bold chatter and students are suggesting activities that they’d like to try within the group, I’m ready to ‘clap along like a room without a roof.’

Yes, grammar and everything that goes along with it is vital but so is the self-assuredness that will take you into another country and a new life with your head held high, ready to ace challenges because your backbone is stronger and you’re no longer afraid.

I don’t instil this courage in our centre’s youth, it’s already there but sometimes undiscovered. However, I’m really glad I can be a part of bringing it to the fore.