Getting On With It In China!

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.

Breakfast. 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 help.

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 me.

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 one

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!

February 24, 2009