Getting On With It In China!

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There are good
starts, bad starts and great starts. A bad start may be difficult
to recover from. A great one usually has to stay great. Therefore,
of the three, "good" is probably the best. My start in
China was good …ish.

Coming here
to live and work had never entered my head six months before. Not
in my wildest dreams. But here I was — August 31st 2004,
Wuhan, China. My first full day was about to begin.

I had my first
acquaintance with an Asian toilet. Imagine an oval shaped ceramic
dish sunk into the floor. Having a pee does not present problems.
The other however requires practice. Women usually carry tissues
with them. If you are male I would advise you to adopt this habit.
Please be guided by me on this one.

It was a good thing that I didn't have any appetite as I recognized
nothing which was put before me — apart from one peeled boiled egg
— even then it was different — it was black.

I sat at a
table with three other people. Two men and the young woman who had
met me the night before — my so-called "helper." One of
the men tried to speak to me. As I didn't speak a word of Chinese
it was pointless. My helper spoke fluent English but offered no

After "breakfast"
she told me that I could spend another day in Wuhan or go directly
to Dan Jiang Kou (DJK), my new home for the next academic year.
I said I'd like to go straight there, but first I needed to change
my dollars into Renminbi (RMB) — otherwise known as yuan or kuai.
On the way to the bank I clearly remember saying to her "I
can't believe I'm in China." There was no reply. I didn't mind
that much — I let it just sort of wash over me. Before coming to
China I had made a decision to just get on with it for the first
few weeks, whatever happened — work hard, do a good job but, beyond
this, just to keep my mouth shut; look, listen and learn about living
and working in China.

About mid-morning
the journey by car to DJK began. My helper never said goodbye. I
met her once more a few months later. I was with a group of foreign
teachers. It was re-assuring to see that she treated them with the
same indifference, bordering on contempt, with which she had treated

The two guys
from breakfast shared the driving. Once we made it out of Wuhan
we got onto an expressway (what we call a motorway or freeway in
the West). These are all toll roads. I've travelled on them many
times since I've been in China. What they all have in common is
that they are immaculately clean, incredibly well-maintained and
I've never travelled on one which was congested. Motorway travelling
in rush hours in the UK takes time and patience — sometimes even
courage! Don't shout me down here but perhaps we just don't pay
enough to use these roads?

After a few
hours we left the expressway and continued on public roads. These
were nothing like the expressways, to put it mildly. However, as
we passed through countryside, towns and villages I now had something
to look at. The further we travelled west, into the heart of China,
the poorer things became.

We only made
one stop. It was in a small town — very run down. For the first
time in my life I tried to use chopsticks. Whatever it was that
was served up, even though I was hungry, I couldn't eat it. I was
directed to a "toilet" behind the building. I've never
seen anything like it. I won't try to describe it but the smell
was enough to knock me back. A little puppy dog was lying by the
side of this open sewer. I not sure whether he'd been overcome by
the heat or the stench or whether he was alive or dead. I didn't
care — I just had to get out of there. I had a leak behind a crumbling
wall in the back yard — it was cleaner and healthier.

Late in the
afternoon we arrived in DJK. When I realized where we were I must
have done a double-take. It was a sort of scaled up version of the
place we'd stopped at on the way. When we got to the campus of my
new employer, YunYang Teachers College (YYTC), I expected to see
what I had seen on their website back in the UK. The reality was
drastically different. I didn't say anything.

I met my co-teacher.
Their job is to help foreigners settle in. He offered a handshake
but no smile — at least it was more than I'd got so far. He showed
me to my accommodation which comes free with the job. The only thing
we pay for is gas for cooking and telephone calls. The best thing
about it was that it had a western toilet. But it was OK — it would
do me. He gave me my time-table and a text book — "Western
Culture" — I felt like asking what happened to Oral English?
But I didn't — I stuck to my decision — just go with the flow.

Next he took
me to where I would teach. We walked out of the main campus gate
and down a long sloping road for about half a mile.

When we got
to the teaching buildings it was double-take time again and then
again when he showed me the classrooms. The floors were just uncovered
concrete — walls and ceilings were whitewashed — most of which was
peeling. In the classrooms doors and windows were in a bad state
of repair. Each teacher's desk was set on a dais made of rough planks
of wood. Students sat on small wooden stools, two to a desk.

Wherever those
pictures on their website were taken it was not in DJK! I asked
when I would start teaching. He told me it would be at eight o'clock
the next morning. Some induction!

We walked back
to the campus. He led me to a food hall — I won't use the word "restaurant."
There I was faced with a plate of sliced green peppers mixed with
soggy meat slices (not sure from what animal), garlic chunks, chilli
bits and lots of oil. I gave up after a few chopstick-fulls.

It must have
been about seven or eight o'clock by now. He brought me back to
my flat and then showed me how everything worked. There was a problem
with the internet connection. He tried a few things and then made
a call on his mobile. Not long after half a dozen students arrived
and set about fixing the problem. This was my first experience of
seeing Chinese industry and determination. They wouldn't leave until
the problem was solved.

I was exhausted.
I sat down on a wooden sofa-type thing. The next thing I knew was
my co-teacher waking me. He told me that the problem had been solved
and they all left.

I opened the
text-book, scanned the text of the first chapter and then zeroed
in on some very general questions at the end of it. Tomorrows' lessons
would be long introductions followed by the questions if I needed
them. I climbed into bed and had a half-awake sleep for a few hours.

Early next
morning I headed out the main gate and down the hill. It was hot
and going to get a lot hotter. The YYTC Foreign Affairs Officer
(FAO), Robert, was waiting for me outside my classroom. This time
I had a handshake and a smile — things were improving.

Time for my
first class. It was packed — over seventy students. They all clapped
and smiled. Whether they were put up to it or not, I don't know,
but I felt welcomed anyway. He introduced me and left me to it.
I wasn't well prepared — I'd had no time — I knew I'd have to "wing
it" for the first lesson.

I began speaking.
Just background stuff. I used the blackboard and chalk to write
up a few words and phrases. They appeared to be listening attentively
and some took notes. I asked a few questions as I went — no-body
ventured answers — wrongly, I put this down to just shyness.

The bell went.
My first lesson in China was over. We had a five-minute break. I
continued my introduction after the break. I asked some more questions,
still no answers. I dried up after about twenty minutes — twenty-five
minutes to fill. I asked if anyone had any questions for me about
anything. Silence. OK, time for plan B. They all had the text-book
with them. I asked them to turn to the questions at the end of chapter

A few did.
The rest stared at me blankly. There was an awkward pause. I repeated
myself and wrote the page number on the board. Another awkward pause.
One of the students stood and introduced herself in very good English
as the class monitor. I knew nothing about monitors. She spoke to
them in Chinese. They all turned to the page and then waited for
me to speak again. I asked them to spend the next ten minutes working
through these questions in pairs; then we would go through them
together. The monitor had to translate. They then set about their
task with great diligence. Everyone worked by themselves, not in
pairs. Complete silence.

I had a chance
to think. Could it be that hardly anyone in the class knew what
the hell I'd been talking about for the last hour?

Ten minutes
was not nearly enough. I let them use the rest of the lesson. Two
or three of the students put their heads down on their desks and
went to sleep. The others just got on with their work. I stuck to
my plan. Don't over re-act to anything. You're the stranger, you're
the outsider — just look and learn.

Tiredness had
caught up with me. Standing at my desk I actually nodded off a few
times. The bell brought me back to life. On her way out the monitor
said that I must speak much more slowly and not to write in freehand
on the blackboard — use separate lower case letters or capitals.
Under normal circumstances I probably would have been offended by
this — here I was just grateful for the advice.

For the second
class I was on my own. I introduced myself and then found out who
the monitor was. I asked the class to tell me if I spoke too quickly
or if I used any words with which they were unfamiliar. I then repeated
what I did with the first class but far more slowly. I made more
use of the blackboard writing in capitals and lower case letters.
There was still no interaction. I tried asking a few questions directly
— the response was mixed. A few spoke well, most struggled and some
had real problems.

I spent that
evening leafing through my textbook and thinking about the day's
lessons. I had eight more classes that week. They would all be repeats.
Under normal circumstances this would have driven me mad but I was
thankful for it. I had never taught English or anything like it
before. My subjects were always numerical — finance and accounting
in the main. I had never really had to think about how I spoke —
clearness, speed, volume and so on. My handwriting was another thing
— appalling — as my students in the UK frequently told me. No wonder
the monitor for the first class said something to me — they must
have found most of it, if not all of it, incomprehensible!

I had no EFL
training or qualifications. To this day I'm not sure if that was
a good thing or not. I was going to have to learn how to do this
job. I would also have to learn to teach in a different way. It
was not going to be easy.

However, if
there was one big consolation it was that something had become very
clear — I wasn't looking at alternatives — there was no going back.
It was make or break, do or die. Get on with it — and you better
make a fist of it — because for you there's nothing else. That's
how stark the whole thing was. It concentrated the mind wonderfully!

24, 2009

Clancy [send him mail]
is Associate Professor of Financial Accounting at Zhongnan University
of Economics and Law in Wuhan, Hubei Province, People’s Republic
of China.

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