Living In China

There are many reasons for coming to teach in China. Money, however, is not one of them. Part of China's development strategy was to link their currency, the RMB, to the dollar and keep it at a level which undervalued it. It led to rapid export-led development but also to a lop-sided economy – the present global downturn has forced the government to address this problem.

When I first came here the conversion rate was about fourteen RMB to one UK pound. With this kind of rate there was little point in saving unless you intended to stay here. Anyway, on a foreign teacher's pay you can live comfortably – things are so cheap – if you want to save it's not difficult. Most foreigners just spend it on buying things or travelling. One caveat; take out reliable medical insurance before you come here. Don't cut corners on this one.

I started work in China in September 2004. I was in a city called Dan Jiang Kou (DJK), in Hubei Province. I had a one-year contract teaching Oral English to students who were training to become English teachers. After a brief settling in period the weeks began to slip past as I got into the swing of things.

Shopping became easier provided I stuck to supermarkets where everything was bar-coded. If you shop elsewhere take a student with you – bargaining is how it's done here. If you don't bargain you'll be overcharged. I never found anything particularly malicious about this – it was more like a game which everyone appears to enjoy. One starts high the other starts low and they both meet at a price in the middle which they both knew to begin with.

Before coming to China my cooking expertise extended to using a tin-opener and a spoon – I usually didn't bother with a plate – it saved on the washing up. Unfortunately in DJK I couldn't even buy a tin of baked beans. Even the bread was different – it was sweet.

I just couldn't eat Chinese food so I had to learn to cook. A group of students took me shopping to some fresh meat and vegetable markets. I learned from them how much I should pay – much to the chagrin of the stall-holders. I downloaded recipes from the internet and actually didn't mind cooking that much. It was never exactly cordon bleu but at least I could eat it.

I was getting used to the large class sizes and the sweltering heat. There were ceiling fans in each room but, like the lights and electricity sockets, some worked, some didn't.

I learned the value of having a good monitor in each class. Their job is to represent their class and they take this job very seriously. For foreign teachers having good monitors is a big help – both in and out of class. As regards co-teachers (one Chinese teacher was assigned to each foreign teacher for support) I learned to use mine only when I really had to. They get paid very little for this extra work, and besides, the students are always more than willing to help with most things.

All foreign teachers were required to attend a thing called "English Corner" every Tuesday evening. There we could meet students and chat informally – not a bad idea on the face of it but actually a waste of time. It's usually the teachers who do all the talking rather than the students. I only ever came across one that worked – but that came much later.

I had to get used to the roads and the traffic and not having my own transport. In China the rule is that people drive on the right. In DJK you could be forgiven for thinking, at first, that there was no rule. I tended to avoid public transport and always walk if possible – it was safer. I probably walked more that year than I had in the previous twenty. If I had to use transport I used a contraption called a "Mamu." Imagine a motorbike with the back wheel replaced by an axle and two wheels making it a three-wheeler. A thin metal box is then bolted on above the two rear wheels. Inside the box is a wooden shelf which seats two. I've seen as many as six people squeeze into one of those things. I preferred to use these because the price was fixed. If I used a taxi I would be routinely overcharged. If I used a bus I was putting my life on the line!

One of the surprising things about China is that for most people it is very much a "cash" economy. Businesses use the banking system to settle debts, to what extent I don't know, but ordinary people going about their transactions use cash and, to a much lesser extent, debit cards. In a sense they have leap-frogged the cheque system.

When I received my first months pay I was paid in actual cash. I could hardly believe it. 4,000 RMB handed to me in cash. The last time I was paid in cash was when I was a student doing vacation jobs.

How much cash is flying around the economy and not through the banking system is impossible to say. Hoarding it to avoid tax seems to be a national pass-time. The economic consequences of this are serious but in a non-welfare state it's not that surprising. When hard times hit you look to yourself and your family to get through it – not the state.

As time passed the antipathy which I detected from a lot of Chinese teachers towards their foreign colleagues became understandable. Foreign teachers get paid two or three times as much as Chinese teachers. Also foreign teachers get free accommodation. The only thing we pay for is a landline, if we want one, and gas for cooking. Chinese teachers have to pay for everything. Also there's the fact that many foreigners seem to be unaware of the fact that they are actually being paid to do a job of work – in particular, improve the quality of the student's spoken English – playing games, singing songs, watching DVDs and various other activities are good fun and pass the time but don't actually achieve that much. By contrast, Chinese teachers have to operate under a rigid examination system where lessons are spent hammering away at grammar, vocabularly, reading, writing, comprehension and so on.

If we add to all this the fact that foreigners are the first to complain vociferously when anything goes wrong, or is not to their liking, then a certain amount of resentment is not that surprising.

The source of many problems is a thing called "culture shock." Read anything about working in China and you'll find that this is mentioned somewhere. In my experience it is really just a ready-made excuse for when things are not going well. Blame it on culture shock rather than yourself. Anyone who thinks they can come to work in a country like China and not have problems settling in is not being realistic. You're the one who has to be adaptable, flexible and ready to accept cultural differences, not them.

There are some things you've simply got to get used to. I refer to the three u2018S' words – smoking, spitting and staring. I could add a fourth but I'll leave it at three.

Many people smoke in China and there are few restrictions. Spitting is common and is usually preceded by an enormous noisy hawk. I'm a smoker so smoking didn't bother me. The spitting I got used to – except when I hear a woman having a good hawk – I still have a slight problem with this one. I found the staring more difficult. In the West a prolonged stare usually means trouble. It usually means it's time to get out of there quick – if this is not possible then it's probably a good idea to cast your eyes around for a blunt instrument. In China staring is simply curiosity – that's all – no threat is implied. It took me some time to get used to it and learn to ignore it. It's simply a cultural difference. But it's one that's changing.

There are two Chinas. Young China and old China. The three u2018S' words apply less and less to young China. However there is one thing which applies equally to both. I found it particularly striking. What I refer to is the pride and love which Chinese people have for their country. It's something which, in a large part, we've lost in the West. In the UK we don't even know what the word "British" means anymore. No-one cares anyway. If anyone does they're not saying for fear of upsetting one group or another.

Those who come to China and then start complaining, carping and criticising make themselves un-welcome. Behaviour like this is not only taken personally, as an insult to their country, but it is also never forgotten. When your contract comes to an end you can expect to move on.

The weather changed in December.

It changed from very hot to very cold very quickly. The students continued to show a level of application which I could scarce believe. From teaching in stiflingly hot conditions the classrooms were now freezing – I mean see-your-breath freezing. The students wore hats, jumpers, coats, scarves, boots and gloves (with the fingers cut off so that they could write). I was dressed in similar fashion.

If my admiration for them had grown steadily it was now multiplied manyfold. There was not so much as a murmur – they just got on with it. Some pushed their stools together so that they could sit shoulder to shoulder to keep warm. During the break they stamped their feet to get the blood going. I never heard a single complaint.

Yet again it's not that surprising when you think about it. They grow up seeing their parents working like hell and living on next to nothing in order to provide for them. They grow up knowing that they have to be independent and self-reliant. They grow up knowing that if you give up you're on your own. If you choose to do nothing you get nothing.

There were many images that first year which will always remain with me. One of these was in that December when it turned very cold. It was a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and I was walking through the campus. There was hardly anyone around. I saw one of my students sitting at a table in one of the drab looking gardens. The table was a concrete slab set on some concrete plinths. She was reading a text-book. I went to speak to her and sit for a while. She must have been so cold. Her hands had turned blue and the skin between her fingers was cracked. I asked her where her gloves were and she told me that it hurt her to wear them. I asked why she was sitting out in the cold and she said that it was just as cold in her dormitory – there was no heating – it was so cold that some of the girls slept together. She smiled and then laughed a little when she said this. I almost cried. The selflessness. The bravery. The quiet dignity. I felt myself start to choke. I made my excuses quickly and left.

Throughout my teaching career in the UK I can honestly and unashamedly say that I'd rarely felt "inspired" as a teacher. The only people who ever said thank you were those who were paying for it from their own pockets – they worked hard and wanted their money's worth – if you as a teacher did your job well, then all was well – quite so. For most who were getting it heavily subsidized or "free" it was not appreciated. It was taken for granted. There was little or no thanks no matter how hard you worked.

But this was different. Here I was inspired. Almost right from the start and even more so when the weather turned cold. If they could work this hard in these conditions then I could do no less.

Christmas came and went. I didn't miss it.

There was only one thing I did miss in China. That was not having a car. As I've said above, I tended to walk everywhere if I could. Given the heat and the exercise and learning to eat properly I lost a lot of weight. I came across a passport-size picture of myself taken when I first arrived in DJK. It was more like a mug shot – of a zombie – one of the living dead. I was shocked at how terrible I looked. The words pale, drawn and pissed-off came to mind. At the beginning of the semester I weighed well over 80kg. By the end of it my weight had fallen to 70kg. I was tanned and fitter than I'd been in years. I thought of all the money people spend in the West on dieting – it's a multi-million dollar industry. But they're doing it all wrong. If you want to lose weight the answer is simple. Don't go on a diet – just go to China!

My first semester was drawing to a close. I asked the Foreign Affairs Officer if he could give me a bit more variety in the next semester – I didn't fancy the idea of another one doing nothing but repeat lessons. He said he'd see what he could do and then asked me if I was interested in re-newing my contract when my current one expired. I said that I'd prefer to teach my specialist subjects – finance and accounting – rather than Oral English. We left it at that for then.

I had agreed to go travelling during the Spring Festival with one of the foreign teachers. The semester finished about mid-January. The second would start at the beginning of March. There was plenty of time.

The biggest holiday period in China is the Spring Festival which ushers in the Lunar New Year. It's like our Christmas except that literally millions of people travel to be with their families. At this time there were two other holiday periods called "golden weeks" – one in October the other in May. They were introduced in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s to get people spending again.

I only travelled out of DJK three times in the first semester. The first time was to a city called Shiyan for our medicals. The second time was in the October golden week. My eldest son, who had been teaching in China for nearly a year, travelled up from Guangdong with his fiance for a visit. We went to a place called Wudang Mountain – about an hour from DJK. The scenery was breathtaking. Visitors usually get up very early and walk to the top of the mountain to watch the sun rising. It's a long walk and steep. If you want to you can pay people a few RMB to carry you to the top in a sedan-like thing. I drew the line here – even I wasn't decadent enough for that. It didn't matter anyway – that night the rain came down and walks to the top were cancelled because conditions had become treacherous.

The third place I travelled to was a city called Xianfan. It was just a weekend trip. It wasn't much different from DJK, Shiyan or even Wuhan. This was something I would get used to as I travelled more in China.

The semester finished and I prepared to do some real travelling in China. Some of the other foreign teachers who had been here for a few years said they were staying put. When I asked one of them why he would not travel in the Spring Festival he simply said "never again." I didn't inquire further.

I was about to find out for myself just exactly what he meant.

March 17, 2009