By Philippe Shepnick, STAFF WRITER
Every weekday at 6 p.m., a 60-year-old Kitty McTyre faithfully clicked on the wooden Philco radio in the living room. Minutes later the smooth voice of travel correspondent Lowell Thomas swept her from Beckley to Buddhist temples where monks prayed and clashed cymbals.
For decades, McTyre replayed snippets of Thomas’s stories whenever China popped into her thoughts. But she longed to replace his experiences with her own.
Last year McTyre, now 60, did. From September of 1996 until June, she walked the bustling streets of Shanghai and got paid for it. The kindergarten teacher from Huntington’s Miller Elementary taught English to aspiring high school students who hoped to someday run Chinese businesses.
“It was a marvelous opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream,” McTyre said at her home in Huntington. “For a long time I had been very busy raising my family, doing the things you do in your younger years. Now that my husband had retired and my son was gone a minister in Knoxville, Tenn., I had no reason not to do this.”
A Marshall University program called Appalachians Abroad sponsored her trip. Teachers live in China for 10 months to teach conversational English at Chinese schools.
To prepare for the trip, McTyre studied Chinese culture and learned a little Mandarin, the national language of China.
“I really did not have any fears,” she said. “I simply felt this is where I should be.”
There were surprises. At her school, the teachers switched classrooms, not the students. Each day, she lumbered up 300 steps to teach in three different buildings.
The school never seemed to throw anything away. Students learned to type on manual typewriters. Teachers made copies using the old, hand-cranked mimeograph machines. In Huntington, teachers once nicknamed the machines “purple passion” because they stained hands with purple ink.
When McTyre met her students, she was impressed by their knowledge of English. Many had studied English for at least seven years. But they could not speak English.
“They understood English grammar better than I did, but they spoke survival English,” she said.
If the students wanted to conduct business in English, they needed to pronounce vowels and consonants as Americans, she said. They should know a little slang too. She encouraged her students to pepper their sentences with words like “kick back,” and “awesome.”
“Our language is so intertwined with cliches,” she said. “I wanted them to see how we Americans run our words together. So we broke apart each word in a phrase and studied them.”
Several weeks into the school year, the students spoke enough English to create a phrase mixing Mandarin and English: “Ni-Hough Y’all.” “Ni-Hough” means hello.
As the school year progressed, McTyre noticed differences between Chinese and American education. She found teaching in Shanghai easier because the smarter students helped other classmates. She thinks most American schools discourage that practice.
“The school is highly competitive, but not a ‘kill you’ type of competition,” she said. “You compete against one another, but your basic function is to help your society grow, change and get better.”
The students were more focused than Huntington students she knew. At 17, Steve Une, whom she called “my Chinese son,” had already planned the next seven years of his life. After finishing school, he would work five years at a business and then become an entrepreneur.
Although school came first, the students maintained a life outside of tests and homework. Sometimes it included McTyre. Une, and occasionally another student, planned day trips for McTyre to visit ancient sites outside the city.
McTyre, seated in her living room, picked up a photo album from the floor. Snapshots of her and Une filled several pages. As she flipped through it, she was asked to name the biggest similarity between West Virginia and China.
“Being just plain friendly,” she said. “Very few West Virginians are nonfriendly. The same is true of the Chinese. They are not only interested in you, but they also show you their culture and their family.”
McTyre’s living room looks like a mini-museum of Chinese culture. Vases spanning 600 years of Chinese dynasties occupy two poker-sized tables. Baby-blue plates and Chinese opera masks painted in coal black, deep red, dark green and turquoise also sit on the tables.
More souvenirs are on the way. She is expecting three more suitcases from China.
McTyre captured mementos on film too. She took at least 600 photographs, 300 slides and five hours of video. But they cannot replace the friendships she made, she said.
“Some things you can put in a box and put away. But you can’t put away people.”