Call to Arms
It’s mid Wednesday and, true to form, I’ve only just dragged myself out of bed and pulled on a pair of pants. Actually, the pants may be creative license on my part.
Regardless of attire and level of awareness, I do recall receiving the text message from my boss that read:
Mate, pop down to my office whenever you have a spare moment.
The man makes my timetable. He knows I have a spare moment. I have oodles of spare moments.
And so, heart heavier than it has any right to be, I soon find myself in his office and hearing the words:
“Mate, I’ve got a small imposition to place on you”.
The rest of the conversation is a bit of a blur, but the long and short of it is that I’m being shipped off to one of our partner schools in provincial Jiangsu. Specifically, I’ll be spending the next month of my life in sleepy Lianyungang in the provinces north-east. The home of the legendary Monkey King (Sun Wukong) and a city of 600,000, it’s a bit of a demotion in terms of social life when compared to Nanjing and the life I’ve come to love there.
Still, I wouldn’t be much of a traveller if I weren’t just the least excited about the prospect of seeing another part of China far removed from the western influence that has made Nanjing so comfortable. Bags were packed, expensive new PCs were loaded into vans, and goodbyes were said.
Bring it on!
Coming to Lianyungang
The JSIE van rattles and bumps its way down a stretch of road that seems to be more pothole than level surface. My driver, a sour faced old man who hasn’t said ‘boo’ to me since we got on the road at 9am, weaves and swerves like an F1 driver as we dodge potholes and bicycles alike.
I’m not filled with confidence as I take in the ramshackle assortments of huts and aging shops that line this stretch of road, but relief floods into my system when we turn onto a street with all of the mod-cons: street lights, cars, curbs, and people in possession of most of their teeth. For a moment, I’d been worried we’d hear dueling banjos at any moment.
You see, while Lianyungang is a city of some 600,000, my station is in the border suburb of Haizhou – which isn’t quite as developed as the beachfront stretches of apartments and shopping malls that have sprung up in recent years. I’m a good hour’s drive from the muddy waters that constitute a beach in mainland China.
The driver ushers me out of the van and I move to collect my things, but he shakes his head and points me in the direction of a restaurant. I enter expecting to be warmly greeted by my co-workers to be, but find instead a table set for two and neither hide nor hair of my would-be employers and fellow employees. Undeterred (and just a little hungry after our four hour drive) I sit down to eat a silent lunch with my stone-faced driving companion.
The spread put on is typical of ‘banquet’ style Chinese dining – a selection of tasty dishes that are occasionally refreshed by the staff. It’s similar to the fare I had when volunteering in China earlier in the year, although the company this time around isn’t much to write home about.
Once we’ve eaten our fill of good food and awkward silence, it’s back into the van for my first glimpse at my new school. It’s a ‘small’ campus by Chinese standards – with only 3,000 students in attendance and 800 of them in their first year of high school. I’m guided through a maze of buildings and up to a padlocked gate that marks the entrance to my apartment and that’s the end of my guidance. My driver sullenly returns to the van and I’m left to figure the rest out myself.
My apartment is a converted dorm room – all ugly tiles and fading paint, but it’s far from uncomfortable. A big double bed awaits me and a living room boasting cable TV and a comfy couch is a welcome sight. The ‘kitchen’ is more hallway than preparation space, but the bathroom sports a shower with water pressure and the place his internet that puts my overloaded college network in Nanjing to shame.
It’s not long before I’ve got my PC set up and I’m kicking ass and taking names in Bastion; while waiting to find out who I work for/with and what exactly I’ll be doing for the next month.
Lucky S.O.B that I am, they arrive as I’m in the midst of a heated battle and I hurriedly rush to greet them. Sonia, my co-teacher, and Tony – my boss – are on hand to give me the tour and explain my duties to me. Sonia, who spent some time living in Australia as a student, speaks fluent English and happily chatters away to me about her travels and about the school as she gives me a tour.
My classroom, she explains, is a group of 34 students at the lower level of the spectrum from an English perspective. I’ll be teaching them four days a week for forty minutes at a time – giving me an exhausting (ha ha!) four hours of work a week. While Tony originally insisted that I be in the office from 8am until 6pm, Sonia soon negotiates that down to ‘twenty minutes before your class’.
The school itself is typical of Chinese schools. Classrooms that have seen better days and perhaps aren’t meant for such large classes, a running track and sports field, a concrete basketball court, and a token garden at its heart that sees precious little attention from the students.
I’m introduced to my office – all of whom speak some degree of English – and then it’s time for my official welcome. Tony, Sonia, and a trio of other teachers who speak varying amounts of English adjourn with me to the restaurant from earlier for a more formal affair.
I’m seated in the position of honor (marked with the most ornate napkin arrangement) and the host, Tony, sits to my right. Everybody else settles around and the procession of food begins. The beer flows quite liberally and everybody on hand is courteous enough to speak only English – even when they’re speaking to one another.
It’s a wonderfully welcoming affair and I’m nice and tipsy by the time our two and a half meal draws to a close at 8pm. I’ll never get how to Chinese can get a party into full swing and then end it so abruptly, but every formal dinner I’ve had here has followed that same pattern of eat, drink to excess, and halt abruptly.
Regardless, any lingering fears I’d had about feeling like an outcast or being uncomfortable are quickly dispelled. I’m no longer wary, but excited for the month to come.
In the past two weeks Sonia has taken excellent care of me. My first week here saw me out to dinner with her and her daughter every night and she was a pillar of strength last week when I was laid up for 24 hours with a nasty stomach bug. She’s been on hand to answer any questions I’ve had and generally just been a wonderful help. I’d be lost without her and I’m not afraid to admit it.
My first class is at 5.20pm the next day, but I spend most of the day in the office reading or playing on my iPad, until Sonia says I should just go home and relax. You don’t have to ask me twice. Skyrim isn’t going to liberate itself.
When I do walk into class later that afternoon, I’m greeted with applause from my kids – many of whom haven’t met a white person before. The first class rushes by all too quickly as I’m inundated with questions ranging from “Where are you from?” to “What video games do you like?” to “Are you married?”
The kids are all quick to select English names for themselves as the week progresses and now I’ve got a motley collection of traditional names like Rose, Agnes, Owen, and Fiona doubled up with the likes of Fly, Bread, Egg Rolls, Sleeping, Archer, Hades, and Zero. Guess which of those is a girl and I’ll give you a shiny penny.
While the English level I have to work with isn’t on par with the generally well spoken kids I know back in Nanjing, classes are no less fun or informal. We work through the syllabus, joke around, and quickly establish a friendly rapport that means I’m equally capable of playing a game with them or driving home a difficult grammar point. It’s the one facet of my teaching that I’ve always been proud of – that ability to establish a rapport without losing control of a class.
Two weeks in and I’ve noticed a steady improvement in the spoken English of the students. Several of them take the opportunity to chat with me outside of the classroom or exchange emails with me, and I even got a few Teacher’s Day gifts last week while buried beneath a mountain of 800 spelling tests I had to help mark.
Being the Only Paleface
The real ‘challenge’ out here has been adjusting to a world largely without the western influence that I’d come to appreciate in Gwangju, Busan, and Nanjing. There’s no McDonalds on every corner here and the only westerner I’ve seen since getting here was my friend Kara when she visited a week ago.
My diet has shifted to one entirely of Chinese street foods – spicy noodles, BBQed beef, and the savory shaokao treats that I usually reserve for post drinks recovery.
Kids stop and gawk, adults shout ‘hello’ in the street, and my beard is generally considered an exotic feature the likes of which the area has never seen. My predecessor, an Italian-French Canadian who I met briefly, wasn’t quite as ‘western’ as the locals had liked with his dark skin and Quebec accent – so I’m a real novelty.
It’s been a struggle at times. Where in Nanjing most people know enough English to get a basic point across, I’m left entirely to gesture and my own pathetic smattering of Chinese to figure things out. In two weeks here I’ve learned more Chinese than I had in four or five months in Nanjing.
But this lack of language hasn’t made locals cold to me. Far from it. The vendors I regularly see great me warmly every day and are quick to advise others that I am Australian and don’t speak Chinese. A foursome of girls on the bus yesterday took me completely under their wing – going so far as to make sure I was in the right seat and buying me a snack when we stopped halfway home.
The hospitality and unabashed fascination shown towards me has been both heart-warming and disarming. It’s not easy to walk down a street and have every head turn in your direction, but that’s exactly what I’ve become used to. Even in restaurants, people stop eating to turn my way and get a look at the foreigner. Girls in the street will hear me speaking and attempt to repeat what I’d said, and kids alternate between excitement and terror at my approach. As they well should…
More to Come
I’m two weeks into my stint here and there looks like being two more weeks before it’s back to the comparative comforts of home. Truth be told, I’ll miss the lazy lifestyle and feeling of being ‘exotic’ when I leave – but I will be grateful for some socializing and western food.
I’ve got an entry to come about my visit to Hua Guo Mountain (the home of the Monkey King) and the beaches of Lianyungang, so keep your eyes peeled for that one.