Cut loose at fifty: Chapter Three – Three weeks in and one day out!
By Chris Clancy
September 2004. Hubei Province. China. Three weeks in.
I was sitting in the back of a van with the other foreign teachers – in total there were six of us in Dan Jiang Kou (DJK) that year.
Three had already worked in China before coming to DJK. The first was an American called Glen who had been here for three or four years. I guessed his age at around sixty. He tended to keep himself to himself. The other two were a married couple from Africa, Ernest and Linda. They were probably mid to late twenties. They had already been in China for at least one year.
As for me and the other two, China and teaching abroad was a new experience. They both came from New Zealand. Jan was late fiftyish, although the exact number varied depending on who she was talking to. Her compatriot, known as "Kiwi", was around the fifty mark.
As mentioned, Glen very much kept himself to himself. A man of few words you might say. This was a pity. He had a lot of experience which us newcomers could have benifitted from. On the few occasions when I managed to have something resembling a "conversation" with him I learned something.
Two examples come to mind straight away. They both happened early on.
The first was when I remarked to him about how most grandparents in China seemed to look after the granchildren.
"That's their welfare system," he replied. He didn't say anything else. That was it.
The second was when I happened to mention to him that the Chinese teachers seemed to be fearful of their college leaders.
"That's how it is here," he replied, "and it goes from top to bottom – everywhere."
"What do you mean?" I ventured.
"Step out of line and you're in trouble – you're on your own."
This would go down as a "long" conversation with Glen. He didn't say anything else – just went on his way.
I didn't get the full import of what was behind his words. It was far too early. But as the years passed I did.
Understand how the welfare system works, such as it is, and the power which those in control can wield, at whatever level, and you go some way to understanding, as far as any foreigner can, how China works.
Understand and accept these two things, and all that flows from them, and you can make a life for yourself in China.
Not many foreigners can.
We never really gelled as a group – we had a few "official" get to-gethers - but only one night out as an actual group. This night was memorable for a few reasons, not least that the place we ended up in was a knocking shop. Rumour had it that it was one of three such places owned and controlled by the local Chief of Police.
But anyway, back to the story.
After three weeks I was having my first excursion outside DJK. We were on our way to a city called Shiyan for our medicals. If everything was OK we would each be given a Foreign Expert Certificate. As my time in China passed and I met more and more foreign teachers the word "expert" for many of them became questionable if not downright laughable.
Basically, the only criteria needed to come here and teach was that first you were a native English speaker and second that you could breathe.
A drunk foreigner once told me that he never even finished High School. He held a BA in English Literature and two Masters degrees – one of which was in Education – all three were fake. He had taught all over East Asia. He said that the references he got when he moved from one place to another actually legitimized these fakes. As far as he was concerned they had become "real".
In this part of the world bogus qualifications are not unusual, are easily obtained and are very authentic.
The journey to Shiyan took about two hours.
I had time to think about the newness of everything I had encountered so far. As mentioned earlier, there had been no induction. We went straight in. Obviously, this made the transition more difficult than it need have been.
There was lots to absorb.
The state provides education for all children up to age 14. After this comes high school. Which one they go to is a mixture of how good they are academically and how much money their parents have. My students in DJK were in the age range nineteen to twenty-three. Their high school grades had not been good enough for them to go to university.
They were all training to become English teachers.
Very few actually wanted this as a career but they didn't have much choice – this is what their parents wanted – and it's hard to blame the parents for this. The more highly educated the children are, the more likely they will be to look after their parents when they can no longer work.
For the majority of people in China that's how it is.
The most striking thing I found at first was how hard they worked. This was due not only to a sense of duty and responsibility for the sacrifices which their parents had made but also because the competition for jobs was so fierce.
As time passed my admiration for them, for their courage and determination, could only grow.
My actual teaching in that first three weeks was really on-the-job training.
Their vocabulary, reading and writing skills were very good. Their grammar was better than mine. Listening or comprehension skills were especially good – no doubt due to all the English speaking DVDs they watched.
I had to learn to speak more slowly (but not as if I was talking to a bunch of half-wits or to the hard-of-hearing); I had to learn to the pick the words I was going to use before each class, to articulate them clearly, to assume nothing and not to be afraid of boring them – after what they had gone through at their schools they all fully understood the meaning of the word "patience".
Curiously, at first, I found that the most important skill, speaking English, was their weakest. There are many reasons for this. Maybe the most important is the Chinese language itself; it is a "tone" language and therefore incredibly precise. Many students get the idea that English is also a precise language – that the words have to be pronounced perfectly – nothing could be further from the truth!
However, students in China do worry far too much about pronunciation and this makes them reluctant to speak.
Another reason for their weakness in speech was just common sense –such large class sizes – who wouldn't feel intimidated?
Probably one of the most refreshing things I found in China was that I had escaped from the world of "political correctness". In many ways I actually had more freedom to speak in China than I had in the UK.
I remember being present at a meeting in the UK, a few years before, when one teacher suggested that we should no longer mark in red ink because it was "such an angry colour." Nobody dared to laugh or say something like "Are you serious?" We had all learned to behave in a particular way. PC had grown to such a point that not only did it control our speech patterns but, more importantly, it now controlled both our thought patterns and our behaviour – as it was intended to do.
Time was actually spent "seriously" discussing this "pressing issue".
No, no more of this lunacy. It has actually got worse since I left. I hope I never have to endure it again.
We arrived at the hospital in Shiyan. It was packed like everywhere else. The idea of forming a queue was still a relatively new concept in China at that time – everyone just sort of piled in – it looked like a noisy and chaotic free-for-all but actually things got done very quickly.
The Chinese teacher who was in charge could queue jump with the best of them. Amidst the mêlée he dragged us from one test to the next. Most men were smoking, including some of the doctors. While I was waiting for my eyesight test I decided to light up – what the hell.
Blood pressure. The doctor indicated with a thumbs-up that it was fine – I knew for a fact it wasn't – I wondered how accurate the other tests were? I went to the toilet – I expected it to be clean – this was a hospital after all.
The urinals were in a terrible state and there were no doors on the cubicles. One old boy wearing a straw hat was squatting down for a crap – he was smoking a cigarette and reading a newspaper.
I lit up again and took a leak.
When all the tests were done we were given a couple of hours to look around and get something to eat. I was starving. I don't think I'd ever felt so hungry.
When I arrived in China I thought that my biggest problem would be communication. This was not the case. It's amazing just how far you can get using body language, facial expressions, counting on your fingers and pointing.
Learn the number system and you learn to cope with prices, times and dates. Combine this with a few words and phrases and you're on your way. For more difficult jobs, like posting parcels or booking airplane tickets, the students will help. For the vast majority, being helpful and courteous is simply in their nature, plus of course, they have an opportunity to practice their English.
No, my biggest problem was not the language but food!
Back in the UK I enjoyed eating Chinese food. But here I was getting the real thing and it was different – very different – it looked different, it smelled different and it tasted different. I just couldn't eat it.
The first time I went to a supermarket in DJK I recognized very little of what was on offer. Much of what I did recognize I would never eat anyway (e.g., fish heads, duck heads and chicken feet wrapped in hermetically sealed bags). The only thing I bought was coffee and biscuits. I later discovered crackers made from seaweed and processed cheese which was like soft plastic – tasteless – it didn't even smell like cheese.
Coffee, biscuits, crackers and plastic - this is what I survived on for the first three weeks.
As we wandered down one of the main roads in Shiyan I looked up and saw a McDonald's.
Back in the UK I rarely ate fast food. I started to salivate. I was so happy I nearly cried. Trance-like, I floated down the road and into the unit. I ordered two Big Macs, French fries and a milkshake. After three weeks of virtually nothing, I can say without doubt, that this was the best meal I'd had in years.
Two hours later we were back in the van. I dreaded returning to my staple diet of biscuits and crackers etc.
Things on the food front just had to change. I was going to have to learn to cook.
Once I did this I knew that my biggest headache would disappear.
Thus far I had stuck to my policy of looking, listening and learning.
This is probably the best advice I could offer anyone thinking about coming here to live and work. Right from the start just concentrate on getting your bearings and try not to over-react to things – if you do you are probably making a mistake.
There were a number of things which I could have over- reacted to in those first three weeks. It could have happened right at the start, when I first arrived in China, when I was met by people who were far from friendly and welcoming.
Thank God I didn't lose it with them or start drawing conclusions straight away. I would have been totally wrong. It didn't take me long discover that behaviour like theirs was the exception, not the rule.
Another good example was when some students fell asleep during my first class.
In the UK this is usually treated as a heinous offence – worthy of a good rant.
However, I noticed that the other students just got on with their work – no-one seemed particularly surprised or bothered.
I let it ride. I didn't say anything.
This turned out to be the right decision.
A few days later I learned that students had more than thirty hours of classroom teaching each week. Out of class nearly all their time was spent studying. There's little point in shouting at them and attracting all the classroom negatives which follow if they are simply exhausted. Let them sleep. They usually just nod off for a few minutes anyway.
There were other things that I could've kicked up over in those first three weeks – but I didn't.
As for "Chinese hospitality"?
Well, yes, it is real. It does exist.
During my time in China I experienced kindnesses the likes of which I thought no longer existed. Had I made my start here in any other way I doubt I would have experienced this or that I would have stayed for as long as I did.
At this point of course, just three weeks in, I had no idea what lay ahead.
Only one thing was clear - life had offered me a second chance.
I grabbed it with both hands.
Chris Clancy lived in China for seven years. Most of this time was spent as associate professor of financial accounting at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan City, Hubei Province. He now lives in Thailand where he spends his time reading, writing, lecturing and, whenever he gets the chance, doing his level best to spread Austrian economics.