White found out most Chinese are well acquainted with the United States.
EAST LIVERPOOL -- Anyone with a college education, says Chris White, can go to China to work with the Amity Foundation as he did. "They're desperate for teachers, so the only criterion is a bachelor's degree.
"You'd think it would be all young people like me, but there were retirees, older couples. One man in my apartment building was 61. He's from North Dakota, and has already been there four years," White said.
Those coming from the United States must have a sponsoring religious denomination, and in White's case that was the Episcopal Church, though he is not a member.
The National Council of Churches put him in touch with the Episcopal Church in New York, and it provided funds for his trip.
Curiously, White was categorized as a missionary, though he did not do missionary work.
"I was labeled a volunteer, since missionaries aren't permitted in China. We weren't allowed to proselytize, though we could answer questions if asked."
Intensive training: When he got to China, he had already spent a month in Vermont at an intensive course designed to prepare nonteachers for a classroom. "When I left home," he recalled, "there were so many things to learn and do that it was hard to feel homesick. It was difficult and exciting all at the same time."
During his first month in Linyi, he attended orientation classes. "They taught us Chinese customs and living skills -- how to go to the market, how to deal with a landlord, what to do if your bicycle is stolen. Things like that."
He was not taught to speak the language. Every Chinese has at least an academic knowledge of English; it's a required subject for six years of junior high and high school. So White had no real need to learn Chinese, but he had a very real desire.
"I did my best, studying from books and talking to people. They speak a local dialect in my city, it isn't pure Mandarin, so that made it more difficult."
Church attendance: He started attending a local Christian church. "There are 15 million Christians in China, but religion isn't encouraged. The pastor told me there are 4,000 Christians in Linyi, but it's hard to believe."
Many of the songs were familiar hymns translated from English, so he was able to follow along -- at least when the congregation sang. Eventually, he said, he learned enough Chinese to understand about half the sermon.
White's official job was to help education majors become comfortable with spoken English. "Chinese people can usually read and write very well in English, but speaking it is a different matter. Amity's goal is to teach the teachers to speak English well. That's why they want native English speakers as college instructors."
Lessons in culture: Besides English, he taught a class in American culture. "We covered government, law, politics and history. During the last election -- which maybe wasn't the best one for an example -- I even taught them about the Electoral College."
They covered American music and entertainment. "We saw movies like 'A Few Good Men' and 'Enemy of the State' to show how we criticize our government. For humor, we saw 'Forrest Gump' and 'The Truman Show.'"
Most of his students, White said, are fascinated by the United States.
"They know a lot more about the U.S. than we know about China. They know our movies, our music, our slang words. Ninety-five percent of them would come here if they could, especially to study.
"I was always being asked if I knew anyone, if I could help get someone into the states. Seventy percent of the ones who do get to the United States stay."