Maybe volunteered isn’t the correct word. I mean, I would definitely have stepped forward to volunteer if I’d been asked, but as it was I found myself being called into my boss’s office as I strolled past.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news, Bushy?” he asked me with his typically good natured larrikin smile.
“Hit me with the bad news first”. My mind raced with the possibilities. Had I done something wrong in class? Was I being sent out to the provinces on an extended teaching stint? Had my leave for my upcoming US trip been cancelled?
“The bad news,” he begins, “Is that the dirty fucking Blues are going to get their arses kicked tonight”.
I sigh. He’s talking about State of Origin. New South Wales (my home state) have lost six consecutive series and 2012 isn’t looking like the year we break our duck. Working in an office full of Queenslanders is a nightmare. You’d think I’d have been able to escape them by moving to China.
“Hilarious,” I reply in complete deadpan, “So what’s the good news?”
“How would you like to go on an adventure?”
He knows me too well. It’s a rare day that I don’t wake up ready for some kind of adventure, and I’m interested before he’s even started giving me the details. Ironically, I’d just been talking with some people about volunteering in China a few days earlier. Ah fate, you lovely bitch.
Welcome to Shuanggou
It’s late afternoon by the time our van rattles to a halt out the front of a school that has seen better days. Shuanggou in Jiangsu’s north is a city famed across China for its Baijiu , a potent liquor distilled from rice and wheat. But for all of the success China’s signature alcohol has brought the place, it’s a city at risk of losing all of its younger generation to nearby cities with more cosmopolitan societies and jobs that don’t involve reeking of alcohol seven days a week.
As part of my work as a teacher for the Jiangsu Department of Education, I’d been selected to head out to the disadvantaged schools of Shuanggou and do my bit to put smiles on faces and remind the region that they’re very much at the front of the department’s minds. While I’d still be on my own school’s pay, I was very excited about the opportunity to do some volunteering in China. In fact, once the two day visit was done, my co-worker and I were devising a way to get out of work so we could do a repeat trip in the future.
We’re greeted by smiling teachers and directors who quickly direct us to sit down and eat. There are five of us here – my Aussie compatriot and I, a Chinese translator, and two girls from Canada who couldn’t look less Canadian. One’s from Sri Lanka and the other was born in China! The early conversation between our interpreter and the officials is to explain that they are, in fact, Westerners and can speak fluent English.
Our meal includes slightly sweetened sparkling water and fruits that must have cost the school more than a few new textbooks. Grapes, lychee, apricots, and cherries are not the cheapest foods in China. I can’t help but think the money might have been better spent. But putting on a good show is important to the locals, and we’re certainly grateful for a little refreshment after a three hour drive.
Baijiu and the Liquor Sea
“The liquor sea!?” Lynchie explains with obvious excitement, “There’s a sea of liquor? Can we go there?”
He’s Augustus Gloop at Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory as our guides lead us through the Shuanggou Baijiu Factory as part of a tour our hosts put together at short notice. The tour’s early portions included several museum exhibits about the region and a pair of memorials dedicated to legendary locals, but it’s the factory where China’s infamous ‘white wine’ spirit is distilled that we’re most excited about.
The stuff has a truly repellent odor. It lies somewhere between fresh dog shit and vomit after a big night out.
We walk past bottling plants and the machines that do the distilling, but we’re growing more and more excited as the ominously named ‘Liquor Sea’ draws closer.
“Come in, come in!” the pretty Chinese tour guide says in her limited English. We’re ushered into a nondescript warehouse where a wobbly table awaits. A plain bottle and a number of small glasses greet us.
“The alcohol is 72%” our interpreter explains to us, “Maybe you shouldn’t try it?”
If there’s a way to talk an Aussie out of having a drink – telling him its alcohol content isn’t the route I’d take.
“Bring it on!” Lynchie says, rubbing his hands together. I put on a brave face.
The first shot is like pouring acid that had been set on fire down my throat. It burns in my stomach a good 10-15 minutes later. The taste is marginally better than the smell, and I actually have to bite back the urge to vomit. There’s no rest for the wicked though. We’re presented with a second and then a third shot.
After all, it’s rude to refuse when somebody shouts “Gambae!”
Rocked by three shots and just a little bit inebriated already, we stagger back to our hotel where we’re treated to a buffet dinner and more baijiu than I care to remember. It’s a mercy that the locals retire to their beds shortly after 8pm. I don’t think I’d have made it to class the following day if we’d been out late.
I’m tired but (blessedly) not hungover as Thursday dawns. I’ve got three classes to teach before lunch and a further two to teach in the afternoon. My brothers (and sisters) in arms and I have hashed out basic forty minute lesson plans we’re confident will get us through the day.
But despite having done this ESL teaching thing for three years now, there are still butterflies in my stomach as I poke at my buffet breakfast. I’m still feeling a tad nauseous as our van pulls into the elementary school and more children than I have ever seen flood out to greet us.
The Shuanggou Elementary School is a ‘small school’ in the same way that Australia is a ‘small country’. Over 3,000 students attend the campus and they’re crammed into classes of up to fifty students at a time. The blackboards predate my birth and the books look like they may be on their fifth or sixth owner. The kids wear hand-me-downs and two or three students may have to share a pencil in class.
But the beautiful thing about kids is that they don’t let that keep them down. They’re all smiles as we emerge from the van. At first its all grins and waving, but once we wade into their midst – it’s on for young and old. Ten boys grab my hand at once to shake it. Girls stand back and snap photos of the white giants as they push through a sea of screaming kids.
“Hello! Hello! Nice to meet you!”
They shout what little English they know and we reply to as many of them as we can. Lynchie hefts one of them up into the air like Simba at the start of The Lion King. I poke my tongue out at a shy boy and delight in the big grin that splits his face. Our Canadian friends aren’t quite as fearless, but they clearly get a kick out of the hordes waving at us from balconies and from behind grimy windows.
We’re whisked away to the office and again lavished with tropical fruit and sparkling water. The staff members are every bit as excited as the kids. We go from posing with seven year olds to posing with people ten or twenty years our senior. It’s a surreal experience.
“My English is not good,” one of the English teachers confesses to us, “I am very happy to meet you”.
It’s a sad truth that the better teachers go to the more prestigious schools. A ‘small’ school in a backwater town of 50,000 just doesn’t warrant the big guns.
All too soon it’s 9am and we’re required in class.
“Please, follow me,” my co-teacher urges me. Once more into the breach, my friends…
Teaching to a 50+ crowd
Classes are usually only 30 0r so students, I’m told, but a visit from the white man is a special occasion and parents have lobbied to ensure their children get to participate. I’m greeted by a classroom packed to the gills with eager young faces.
“Hi,” I open tentatively. They all stand in unison and shout back: “Hello!”
I eye the mountain of chalk in front of me and the pile of printed word finds we requested. My heart is racing and I’m already drenched with sweat. They don’t do air conditioning out here in the boondocks.
“Alright,” I start, but then auto pilot kicks in. My theatre background doubtless helps. I bounce around the classroom like a man possessed. I draw cartoons to illustrate my points and leap around during Simon Says. I drop down on one knee to help particularly confused kids and grimace my way through a cup of coffee that’s blacker than midnight.
“Excuse me,” my co-teacher says, “Class is finished”.
It can’t be! I haven’t even made a dent in the lesson plan! I haven’t stopped enjoying it yet!
But soon enough I’m whisked out of the classroom, mobbed by more adoring students, and taken out to tour the school facilities and witness the students ‘exercising’. To what can only be described as the catchiest piece of propaganda ever, all of the students move in some kind of weird ‘dance’ that I guess counts as exercising. It’s fucking adorable, regardless of how useful it might be.
And then it’s time to be swamped again. Twenty or so kids seize my arm and try to drag me off to God knows where. Others rush up, snap photos, and flee. We’re all drenched with sweat and we’re not even close to done. But soon we’re seeking shelter behind the office door and being plied with tropical fruit.
“Ok,” they announce entirely too soon for my liking, “Time to go again!”
The rest of my morning is a blur of too many faces, leaping around energetically in ‘Simon Says’, and being treated like a rockstar. Teachers corner me to practice their English and a trio of giggling girls who can’t be older than ten call me to the back of the class to inform me with grave certainty that they love me.
It’s a gratifying and exhausting experience and I loved it. Whether we were in class or kicking a ball around with 300 of our closest friends, Lynchie and I were moved by just how eager these kids were to have access to a Westerner for a few short hours.
Bigger Kids, Same Reaction
Our next stop would be Shuanggou’s Middle School and things weren’t so different there. The spread put on by the staff was a far simpler affair (just water or coffee) but if we’d expected 14-16 year old kids to be any less awed by our presence, we were wrong.
Lynchie and I spotted a pair of kids playing ping pong and rushed out to join them. Soon we had an audience of close to a hundred kids cheering as we tried (and failed) to beat a few of the local kids.
The classes were not much different with the older kids either. They were every bit as energetic for ‘Simon Says’ and every bit as inquisitive when I would make a correction to their speaking of writing. Hell, even the teachers were taking notes!
“It’s not ‘I like go shopping’,” I inform one of the students, “It’s ‘I like going shopping’ or ‘I like to go shopping'”.
The girl nods and begins to scribble this down.
So does her teacher.
I teach two fifty minute classes and they’re over too soon for my liking. Soon we’re being packed back into the van and driven back to our hotels for some much needed rest before our farewell banquet.
Small Town Night-Life
On both nights in Shuanggou, we’re treated like royalty. The food laid on is the best money can by. We’re treated to exotic fish, every kind of meat available, vegetables, soups, pastries, and all the baijiu we can drink. Lynchie and I, wary of being put into some kind of coma, insist that we’re allowed to chase our 43% alcohol content spirit with a much milder bottle of beer.
Soon enough we’re challenging the high ups to chugging contests and well into our cups. The food and drink flow from 6pm until 8pm when our hosts are ready to call it a night.
But what are two Aussie blokes full of beer at 8pm to do with their night?
Explore, of course!
The Canadian girls aren’t having a bar of it, but Lynchie and I are soon roaming the mean streets of Shuanggou and getting much the same reaction we received at school. Women stop and point, men stop to shake our hands, and the occasional local even pauses at our table to practice his English with us.
“I love Australia,” one old man says emphatically. He can’t say much else.
We settle down out front of a shaokao (street meat vendor) with some beers and a veritable feast of meat and vegetables on sticks. I out-chug a nearby Chinese guy and his friends buy us beer in congratulations. It’s 10pm on a Thursday night but the street is alive with people. A foursome of what appear to be flight attendants buy a case of beer and sit on one side of us while our erstwhile drinking buddies polish off the last of their beers and head home.
We stagger home at around 11pm and call an end to our adventure in the provinces. It wasn’t technically volunteering in China, but we felt like we did a lot of good. Hell, our first words to our boss upon returning?
“When we can go again?”
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