When a Teacher’s Not a Teacher

This post was originally written during my years in China.

It is very interesting how culture comes into play when bridging two different sets of understanding of the same word. One of my Chinese friends was inquiring about teaching jobs in Singapore and she was puzzled when her Singaporean contact told her that a university lecturer is not a teacher.

“难道大学教授不是老师吗?”

“Isn’t a university professor a teacher too?”

I had to explain to her that, to those of us whose primary culture is English, a “teacher” refers to a job that requires a certain degree of pastoral care, because a teacher handles minors (high school and below). On the other hand, a “lecturer” simply lectures, and is not expected to give the same degree of pastoral care that a teacher is expected to give. To those of us who think in English, a teacher is not the same as a lecturer, even if the lecturer teaches as well.

I am reminded of another Chinese friend of mine, who was very puzzled because Singaporeans like to say 一百千 (a hundred thousand) instead of 十万 (ten wan – a wan being a unit of ten thousand in Chinese) when we speak in Chinese. She understood when I explained to her that we tend to think in English, and the next unit after thousand is the million – we have no wan in English. The Chinese has no million. Instead, their next unit of count is the 亿 yi, which is a hundred million. There is no bigger unit of count, as far as I know, when the numerals stretches into the billions and trillions.

It is great to be bilingual and bicultural!

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