Cut loose at fifty: Chapter Six – Goodbye DJK
By Chris Clancy
Someone once said to me that when an employee starts thinking about his pension, he's had it. He might as well hold up his hands and say, "I surrender."
There's a lot of truth in this.
I remember reaching this point, back in the UK, when I was one year off my fiftieth birthday. Career-wise, I had gone as far as I was going to go – which wasn't very far anyway – and basically I was stuck where I was for the duration. What lay ahead of me was ten years or so of putting in the time - just more of the same.
I became resigned to it. Keep your nose clean, make your contributions and see the thing out.
The misery of such a future didn't bear thinking about.
But then, mercifully, liberation arrived in the form of redundancy - and China, as it turned out, proved to be my escape route.
I didn't plan for it – nor did I ask for it. But thank God it happened. I shudder when I think of what life might otherwise have been.
That first semester in DJK really was one of the most special periods in my life - I felt I was alive again – rather than living a kind of preordained zombie-like existence.
But reality has a way of giving us all a good kick now and then.
My travels during the Spring Festival did just that.
The holiday had not been enjoyable. I didn't like the long journeys, the crowds, the conditions, the hassle with the language and, in particular, being overcharged and ripped off everywhere we went.
With hindsight this experience was not such a bad thing. It brought me back to earth with a bump. Before setting off all I really knew of China was (Dan Jiang Kou) DJK and the marvelous students I was teaching. If I was in danger of getting any airy fairy ideas about my new life in China then this experience brought me back to earth.
It was timely.
We returned one week before teaching began. I had a couple of days to recover from my so-called vacation and then time to do some preparation for the second semester.
In the first semester I'd had ten more or less "repeat" Oral English classes each week.
For new teachers "repeats" are usually welcome. They're a chance to learn from mistakes and get things right - they also cut down on the hours spent on preparation - a lot of it wasted due to inexperience anyway.
However, for experienced teachers too many repeats are simply tedious. Once the same lesson has been taught three times in the same week that's as good as it's going to get. Any more and it tends to become flat.
The Foreign Affairs Office (FAO) at DJK managed to re-jig my timetable so that I had a bit more variety in the second semester. I was given five Tourism English classes, four Oral English classes and one Business English class.
I received one new book for each course. The one on tourism was the best - not so much for the text but for the exercises at the end of each chapter - lots of practice material. The one for Oral English was just a variation on the one I'd used in the first semester - with about the same number of careless mistakes. The one for Business English was simply un-usable - not only technical mistakes but grammatical and spelling mistakes. I decided to do some book-keeping with them - there were lots of business English words I could introduce.
Once I'd sorted out what I was going to teach and had a few lessons prepared I had a few days to relax. I was happy to be back in DJK. I felt comfortable. I was even looking forward to teaching.
It was a long time since I'd felt this sort of contentment.
There's a very old Celtic saying which loosely translates as, "If you're happy don't talk about it - or it might just go away."
I never told anyone how I felt. I certainly never told anyone that I was "happy" -- just in case it went away.
The semester began.
The tourism course went well. The students were genuinely interested. In China tourism is described as a "Sunrise Industry". For most of my students it represented a possible alternative to teaching -- which very few wanted to do anyway. I had lots to tell them about and they had things to talk about too. We actually started to communicate without me constantly prodding and practically pleading for contributions – but it was still minimal.
I continued to struggle with getting the Oral English classes to speak. I borrowed "activity" lessons from one of the EFL trained foreigners. I also learned a few useful things, e.g. "If you have to explain anything then you must also demonstrate", etc., but I felt that these activities were just "games" or time-fillers. In terms of getting the students to speak to any meaningful extent, very little was achieved. I persevered until I knew that if this approach worked for others then good luck to them - it didn't work for me. I returned to a more traditional approach. The students weren't that happy - they had more fun playing.
Business English. I started with vocabulary and built it around an imaginary business just beginning. Once we'd been through all the key words a few times I started to introduce some numbers. At this point I really had their interest. We started building the business together. Before I knew it we were into book-keeping proper. They ate up the material. In no time at all we were constructing and analysing basic financial statements.
By April the weather began to turn. It quickly became very warm again The FAO was starting to think about recruiting foreign teachers for the next academic year. He invited me to re-new my contract. My salary would be increased from 4,000 to 5,000 RMB per month and I would have a freer hand in what I taught.
By this stage the penny had dropped - I could do whatever the hell I liked as long as it got the students talking.
I must admit I was tempted.
However, I was unable to give him an answer straight away as I had been invited to attend a second interview with Zhongnan University of Economics and Law (ZUEL), in Wuhan. This interview would involve teaching a lesson to the staff of the Accounting School. The letter of invitation informed me that I could pick any "relevant theme." I chose to talk about China's rapid development since 1978 with particular reference to Shenzen, where the "Big Four" accountancy firms (PwC, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Ernst & Young and KPMG) were firmly established.
The FAO had told me that the accountancy department at ZUEL was famous for both its research and the quality of its graduates. Only students whose high school grades were well above the national average were admitted.
At this point this was simply information - I had no idea just how good the place really was.
I made sure I researched my topic thoroughly, prepared a PowerPoint presentation to go with the lesson and even practised it in front of two of the foreign teachers at DJK.
Four weeks later I was back in Wuhan.
The lesson went well for about five minutes until one of the Leaders seemed to become a bit restless. Something was wrong. Then I was stopped and asked if I could do something specifically on an accountancy topic. There was a short break. Luckily I had brought their letter of invitation with me. It asked for a lesson on any "relevant theme", not one on an "accounting topic".
This is a good example of the kind of confusion which can arise due to misunderstandings about words and phrases. It almost cost me the job!
I then did a lesson on accounting ratios. It was something I was very familiar with and had done many times before. It went smoothly and everyone clapped when I finished. I was greatly relieved. I was then taken for lunch with a group of people from the department.
I knew I'd got the job if I wanted it.
Back in DJK I received the official offer a few days later (along with a course text book which ran to 1,200 pages!). The hours were not clearly specified but would be in the region of twelve per week. Salary would be 3,500 RMB per month.
Once again, in the space of twelve months or so, I had a big decision to make - and once again the options were between an easy way out and a leap into the unknown.
Staying at DJK would have been the easy way out. I had got to know the place and the people. I knew the job and had ideas about how to do it better. My conditions of employment would be improved. Best of all I liked it there. This was indeed the easy option.
But I knew it would be the wrong option.
To have stayed any longer would have ruined it.
DJK had its own time and its own place.
So I chose Wuhan.I didn't know what to expect; new city, new people, new situation, less money etc. I wasn't even sure what the job entailed or how to go about it.
All I did know was that it was the right choice.
The semester drew to a close.
There was no fanfare at the end, no party – no celebration - nothing – it just sort of … well … ended.
There were no handshakes or embraces - this went for both staff and students - no matter how well you had got to know them. It was nothing personal – just the Chinese way.
This surprised me somewhat at the time, but as the years passed it would surprise me less and less.
Few foreigners will ever properly understand China or its people. Nor will they ever truly be part of it, no matter how much they try to, "Go native!"
Academics love to get all mysterious about, "the enigma that is the Chinese character"; its inpenetrable nature, unreadable expressions, the intricacy of their relationships, their unfathomable networks, invisible signals and so on. They say the reasons are hidden deep in the Chinese psyche; in their ancient culture with its complex history, its languages, religions, art, music, Confucianism and so on.
Of course, there's obviously something in all of this. But I think it may also have a bit more to do with the lingering hangover of thirty years of communism than they really want to admit.
There are very practical reasons why Chinese people are careful about what they say and how they behave. Put it this way – there are no secrets in China. More later.
It was time to say goodbye to DJK.
Kiwi was the first to leave. She had got herself another job near a city called Ningbo, which is situated on China's east coast. Glen was next. He'd got a job in some other province. Jan had decided to return to DJK for another year. I'm not sure if Ernest and Linda stayed in China or not.
I had arranged with ZUEL to stay in their accommodation for the summer. The thought of returning to the UK for the holiday never seriously entered my head.
The day before I left DJK I climbed to a place I had visited with Kiwi and a small group of students in the first semester. I suppose you could call it a mountain. Someone took a picture of me lying on the grass. I didn't know the picture had been taken. It was emailed to me later. I was laughing for some reason. The picture had been given the title, "Happy Moments" -- it was an apt and fitting title.
I don't want to start getting soppy at this stage, but I actually made a point of sitting in the same spot. The day was warm and sunny.
I can't remember how long I sat there.
But I do remember trying to absorb the enormity of the changes which that year in DJK had brought.
In truth, I was a million miles from where I had been.
Maybe we all have one place that's special in our lives. I had to wait fifty years and travel to the other side of the world to find mine.
If I die in this part of the world, I hope someone climbs to the top of that mountain and scatters my ashes there or therabouts.
I can't think of a better place.
But in the meantime Wuhan beckoned.
I could not possibly have dreamt of the events which would unfold over the next six years.
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.