This article completes my first year in China. One emailer said that the story of being "cut loose at 50" was "about as libertarian as it gets." Maybe so, but the story stops, for now at any rate, as the day job must come first. I want to express my gratitude for the friendship, kindness and encouragement which so many people have offered me during the time spent writing the series.
September 2003, London, England — I was handed my redundancy notice — I was 49 years old.
One year later I arrived in China. I had signed a twelve-month contract to teach Oral English in a small city called Dan Jiang Kou (DJK) in Hubei Province. My students were all English majors training to become teachers.
The first semester really was one of the most special periods in my life — I was alive again — rather than living the wage-slave, zombie-like existence, I had become used to in the UK.
After the first semester finished I went travelling with another foreign teacher for the Spring Festival. This is the biggest holiday period in China 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 the same time.
Overall the holiday was not enjoyable. I didn’t enjoy the long journeys, the crowds, the conditions, the hassle with the language and, in particular, being overcharged and ripped off everywhere we went.
The experience was not such a bad thing really. It brought me back to earth with a bump. Before setting off all I really knew of China was DJK and the marvellous 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 reality.
The college where we worked insisted that we return from holiday at least one week before teaching began. It gave me a couple of days to recover from my so-called vacation. Then I had some time to prepare for the second semester. In the first one I had ten repeat Oral English classes each week. For new teachers repeat lessons 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 time due to inexperience
However, for experienced teachers too many repeats is 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. Anymore and it tends to become a bit flat.
The Foreign Affairs Officer (FAO) managed to re-jig my timetable so that I had a bit more variety this time. I now had five Tourism English classes, four Oral English classes and one Business English class.
I was given 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 related work 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 couple of days to relax. I was happy to be back in DJK. I felt comfortable. I was even looking forward to teaching. So long since I’d felt this sort of contentment — I couldn’t actually re-member the last time. 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 got underway
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 lots to talk about too. We actually started to communicate without me constantly prodding and practically pleading for contributions.
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 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 little was achieved. Anyway, 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 had only one lesson a week. 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 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 financial statements
By April the weather began to turn. It quickly became very warm again The FAO was beginning 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.
I was unable to give him an answer straight away as I had been invited to attend a second interview with a university in Wuhan in May. 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 and its designation as a Special Economic Zone.
I researched the thing thoroughly, prepared a PowerPoint presentation to go with the lesson and even practised it in front of two of the foreign teachers.
Four weeks later I was back in Wuhan.
The lesson went well for about five minutes but after that the leaders seemed to become a bit restless. Something was wrong. I started to sweat. Then I was stopped and asked if I would do something specifically on an accountancy topic. There was a short break. Luckily I had brought the letter of invitation. 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. 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 lot 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. 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, 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 in DJK was the easy way out. I had got to know the place, the people. I knew the job and had ideas about how to do it better. My conditions of employment would be better. Best of all I liked it there. This was indeed the easy option. But I knew it would be the wrong option.
Wuhan was the more difficult choice — 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? Did I really want to face all this newness again? The answer was yes. I chose Wuhan. I had nothing to lose anyway.
The semester drew to a close. I had some time for reflection again. I had arranged with Wuhan 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 walked to the top of a mountain. The path to the top was steep and narrow and in places a bit treacherous. By now the weather was very hot. It was hard work. The mountaintop itself was flat — a bit like an anvil — about an acre in size. The only thing there was a giant electricity pylon. I had been here once before, about two months after coming to DJK. Someone took a picture of me lying on the grass. I didn’t know the picture was taken. It was emailed to me later. I was laughing for some reason. Not a loud laugh it seemed but a relaxed and genuinely happy laugh. The picture had been given the title "Happy moments" — it was an apt and fitting title.
I lay in the same spot, stretched out in the warmth of the sunshine and the blueness of the sky. I tried to absorb the enormity of the changes which the last year had wrought. Coming to DJK was one of the most special years in my life. It was a turning point — I had left behind an unhappy life and an unhappy place — I had regained my self-respect, my dignity and my confidence.
To have stayed any longer would have ruined it. It had its own time and its own place
On my last night there I thought of my first night in China. With hindsight I can see now that I’d touched rock-bottom.
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 that someone climbs to the top of that mountain and, once there, scatters my ashes far and wide. I can think of no better place.
But in the meantime Wuhan beckoned. I could not possibly have dreamt of the events which would unfold over the next four years.
But I felt good in myself and for the first time in years I was looking forward and wondering, not knowing, rather than looking forward and thinking, oh no, not more of the same — I’m just not sure how much more of more I can take.