Three Weeks In and My First Day Out

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. We were on our way to a city called Shiyan for our medicals. If everything was OK we would each be given our 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 is that first you are a native English speaker and second that you can breathe.

A drunk foreigner once told me that he never even finished High School. He held a BA certificate 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 legitimised these fakes. As far as he was concerned they had become "real." Beware of bogus qualifications – they are not unusual, they are easily obtained and they are very authentic.

Anyway, the journey to Shiyan took about two hours, I had time to think about the newness of everything I had encountered so far. There had been no induction. We went straight in. 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 were not good enough for them to go to university. They were all English majors training to become English teachers. Very few wanted this as a career but they didn't have much choice – this is what their parents wanted – but you can't blame the parents for this. There's no welfare system here, as such. 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 vast majority of people that's how it is.

The most striking thing I found was how hard the students 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 fierce. As time passed my admiration for them, for their courage and determination, could only grow.

Their English language skills were generally of a very high standard.

Vocabulary, reading and writing were very good. Their grammar was better than mine. Listening or comprehension skills were especially good – once they got used to your voice and accent. Even for an experienced teacher this takes a few lessons. Speak slowly (but not as if you're talking to a bunch of half-wits or to the hard-of-hearing), pick the words you're going to use, articulate them clearly, assume nothing and don't be afraid of boring them – after what they go through in the school system here they have learned 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, they do worry 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 was that I had escaped from the world of political correctness. In many ways I actually had more freedom to speak here than I had in the UK. I remember once being with a group of teachers when one 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 our thought patterns and 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 is still a relatively new concept in China – everyone just sort of piles in – it looks like a noisy and chaotic free-for-all but actually things get done very quickly.

The Chinese teacher who was in charge could queue jump with the best of them. Amidst the mle 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.

More tests.

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. Some hope. 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 the language. This was not the case. It's amazing just how far you can get using body language, facial expressions, your fingers and pointing. Learn the number system so that you can cope with prices, time 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, and anyway, 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 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. 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 started cooking my biggest headache disappeared. Things started going more smoothly. I stuck to my policy of looking, listening and learning. This is probably the best advice I could offer anyone thinking about coming here to work. Right from the start just go with the flow, get your bearings and try not to over-react to anything – if you do you are probably making a mistake.

One of the most common mistakes made by foreign teachers is having a good rant at students who fall asleep in their class. It is not unusual for students to do this. It happened to me in my very first class. I didn't say anything. A few days later I learned that students have more than thirty hours of classroom teaching each week. Out of class nearly all their time is 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've usually only nodded off for a few minutes anyway.

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 I was met by two people who were not friendly and welcoming – far from it in fact. 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.

"Chinese hospitality"?

Yes, it is real. It does exist. During my time in China I have 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 still be here five years later.

I had settled in. There was still much more to learn. So much more to come. But life had offered me a second chance. I grabbed it with both hands.

March 3, 2009