SCHOOL teacher Li Kefei had not encountered prejudice the way he did at one middle school (high school) in Adelaide last year. As an English teacher from Peking, he was introduced to a class of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugee children. There was only silence from the class. This was not the warm welcome he had received in other Australian schools.
``Then I heard someone whisper `communist devil,''' he recalled recently. It was a tense moment as he felt the hostility of some children.
``I felt sad and sorry. After class I tried to be friendly and wanted to tell them, `we are the same. I like you.' But they didn't take my ready hand and I walked away,'' he said. He wasn't able to explain that China was not what they thought it was from their life in Southeast Asia.
The short time in that classroom deepened his commitment to teaching. ``I realized that as a teacher I had a duty to dispel ignorance,'' he said quietly.
Li's experiences in Australia, and those of a small group of other middle school (high school) teachers who have returned to China after living and teaching abroad, were made possible under a program sponsored by American Field Service (AFS) International, a nonprofit organization based in New York.
The program offers opportunities for Chinese foreign language teachers to live overseas for one school year. During these months of living with a host family and working with foreign youngsters, the teachers improve their language skills and learn more about life in a foreign country.
The number of middle school teachers sent abroad so far is small, but the program has had a strong impact on its participants. The teachers have come home more confident of their language skills and better able to help their students understand the world outside China.
Chinese officials say that the AFS program fills a need at a time when China's educational system has few resources and scarce opportunities for middle school teachers to travel abroad. There are a large number of exchange programs at the university level in China, but only AFS offers opportunities for middle school teachers.
During a recent visit to Peking, the president of AFS International, William M. Dyal Jr., pointed out that almost everyone in China attends middle school while only about three percent of college-age youth attend a university. For the country's 47 million middle school students, China's policy of opening its doors to the world touches them most deeply when they study a foreign language.
``Each teacher in a Chinese middle school has an incredible multiplier effect, not only for language but also for exposing students to world culture,'' Mr. Dyal said.
Chinese middle school teachers are at the heart of their government's ambitious modernization efforts, but the educational system remains mired in bureaucracy and is starved for resources. Pay remains low.
When Dyal first visited China four years ago, he realized that a high school student exchange program, such as those AFS sponsors in dozens of other countries, was a luxury China could ill afford. But he saw the need to improve foreign language teaching in Chinese middle schools, and the education authorities quickly accepted his offer to begin a program. China has more than 300,000 middle school English teachers and, while their ability to read English is often good, their speaking ability has suffered from lack of access to native English speakers.
In 1982, AFS arranged for a group of 12 English teachers to spend a school year in the United States. Each teacher lived with an American family and was assigned to attend classes in an American high school. They were asked to teach courses in Chinese history and culture and to observe teaching and school life.
Wang Jinghua was among the first to be selected and she and other returned teachers recently shared their experiences at an AFS conference in Peking.
``We were not sent to famous universities and were not studying for advanced degrees,'' unlike most young Chinese going abroad. ``At first we were sorry for this,'' Ms. Wang said in well-enunciated English, ``but after eight months we realized that we got what we most needed - improvement in English speaking ability and valuable teaching experience.''
The Peking school teacher admitted that there were big problems in adjusting to foreign life. They all had to survive on their own without close friends and family, a special challenge for Chinese. Sometimes the food was unbearable, especially for those in Britain and the United States.
``I had to handle all kinds of things with the best of my language knowledge so as to keep myself alive,'' said Cai Shengze of Shanghai. ``Fortunately, there are some good Chinese restaurants in America.''
The teachers' exposure to Western teaching methods has sparked debate among them about what new approaches should be tried at home. Learning in a Chinese classroom is a passive experience and the emphasis is on discipline and conformity. Western styles of teaching came as a revelation to some and as a shock to others.
Li Linong of Canton (Guangzhou) spent a school year in England and in a report to an AFS meeting commented on the small classes and lively atmosphere in the school where she was assigned. ``Children were active and excited to have discussions and not shy in front of strangers,'' she said. ``It seemed discipline in class was less important than developing the children's ability to solve problems in a practical way.''
The AFS program has expanded modestly and this year some 70 teachers have been sent to eight countries. The number of languages has increased to include Japanese, French, and Spanish, and there are plans to add German. With the exception of Russian, the program fits perfectly with China's priorities in foreign language teaching at the middle school level, according to an education official.
Dyal said he was sure the program could expand rapidly on the Chinese side, but that the ability of AFS organizers in the host countries to absorb more teachers was growing more slowly. One problem, he said, was convincing AFS donors to support the China program.
There is now a pilot exchange program for music teachers and some foreign teachers are coming to China for short courses in language and culture. The conditions are not yet suitable for foreign teachers to live with Chinese families, though AFS participants hope this will be possible in the future.