Oct 17, 2014
SYLVAIN Benoit never expected that his initial interest in Asia seven years ago would lead him not only to find his career in Suzhou but also a beautiful bride in the same city.
Today the 32-year-old Canadian from Montreal is a star English teacher of Hong-N English School, playing the “ringleader” among kindergarten and primary school children.
“I just love being with children. It’s so much fun and I’m also the fun guy,” he says with a smile.
Benoit started to work in education many years ago in Canada. He coached swimming during his free time and also got involved in volunteer work in his community.
“Swimming had always been a part of me, growing up. I enjoyed it so much,” he says.
By day, he was a serious-looking bank clerk wearing a suit and tie from 8am to 5pm. But in the evenings and weekends, he coached swimming.
And being a poker-faced bank clerk was not what he had pictured himself doing, though the money was good.
“Luckily for me, I kind of found what I loved doing,” he says.
At that time, a new government program was being initiated, aimed at helping integrate students with autism and behavioral disabilities into regular classrooms.
“A teacher who had heard of some of the work I was doing with my swimmers suggested I was an ideal candidate to become a mentor for these new students. So I went,” he says.
This teacher — Mrs Reichert — influenced Benoit a great deal more and gave him the courage to go to China.
“She helped me understand what patience really was. She helped me become a creative teacher. She showed me the importance of listening, observing and reaching out to students in need,” Benoit recalls. “These have all been tools and skills that have helped throughout my years as a teacher in China.”
At that time, Benoit was contemplating going to Asia.
“When I was in college, I had a great history teacher who constantly romanticized China. His lectures were captivating and filled with what seemed to be implausible personal experiences,” he says.
So the Canadian finally decided to find out if the teacher’s many stories were true. Young, single and having money to explore the unknown, Benoit landed in China at the age of 25. At first he chose to work in Changchun, a northeastern city, but a friend recommended he go to Suzhou, a warmer place full of history, though he knew nothing about the city at that time.
He found the job at Hong-N, teaching children English. On weekdays he goes to local kindergartens to do classes.
“I like playing with children. And they want to learn so much,” he says. “Adults have to learn for their business and tend to be shyer, while teenagers want to impress everyone. But children learn simply for fun and are not afraid of failures.”
It’s all about knowing when to distract, which Mrs Reichert taught him in Canada. “You should be able to notice your students start to get distracted when you try to teach them and use that to your advantage,” the teacher says.
He seeks to be more creative, with lots of activities and simple games in the class, such as word puzzles, telephone games and whispering (kids have to whisper something and see the mouth’s movements), among many others. “These games are what we used to play when I was a kid. I just use them today in class,” he says.
Benoit has a Chinese assistant in the class, but he thinks body language is more efficient for children. “Kids are very smart and they can quickly understand by body language and pictures,” he says, adding that the children enjoy talking with him.
The teacher has to do a lot of research on his students to know their capabilities and help them understand. At the same time the children also teach him lots of things as well — cool toys, hot TV shows and cartoons.
“To some extent, they kind of help me integrate to the culture,” he says.
After work, he hangs out with his friends in pubs and restaurants or walks his big golden retriever, but most of time Benoit has dinner at home with his fiancée, a Suzhou girl. Six years ago they met at a birthday party and started to date. They are getting married in a year.
“In China, you have to buy a house before marriage. Yeah, I understand this because it is the culture difference,” he says.
Benoit is in the middle of settling down in the city and has become accustomed to life here. When his parents and sisters flew to visit him, he showed them around the city as well as the country, including Beijing, Shanghai, Kunming in Yunnan Province and Zhangjiajie in Hunan Province.
“Suzhou has been changing incredibly during the past seven years,” he says.
The Canadian still clearly remembers how he felt when he landed in Suzhou. “Wow, there were a lot of people. It was intimidating and I was super scared,” he recalls.
But he soon realized Suzhou had everything he had hoped for, especially when he walked on the ancient streets, such as Pingjiang and Shantang roads.
“Pingjiang Road has changed a lot. There was only one little tea shop before it became a tourism site,” he says. “It was quiet and peaceful, and old grandmas were washing clothes by the river.”
“I like modern things and I also love the old,” he says. “The city is growing fast and I can feel the government is doing a great job maintaining the old cultural view of Suzhou, while trying to develop a better economy.”
Suzhou has been perfect for Benoit because it is convenient and close to Shanghai but not as big and expensive.
“I’m kind of intimidated by Shanghai. It’s such a huge metropolis and my first experience in Shanghai was bad,” he recalls.
He was invited to have tea by a stranger on the street and in the end he was asked to pay the massive bill.
“Later I found it was a con. It was an important thing for me to learn not to be so naïve about things. But one bad guy won’t ruin everything, and I still like the city,” he says with a smile.
In Suzhou he has everything and has found happiness. He can escape the Western or modern Chinese culture and go back to the old.
“I have my ultimate dream in China — to explore the old Silk Road in the desert. That would be a very cool experience,” he says.
About the Column
This series focuses on individuals who have lived in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province for a while and have a tale that’s worth telling. Age, gender, nationality and race are all unimportant in comparison with what adventures the subject has been up to, the experiences they can recount.