At a recent family party, my younger cousin was telling me all about how she’s planning to go travelling and/or teach abroad when she graduates from university this summer. I love my little cousin, she’s funny, smart, an absolute sweetheart, but I hate her too, because I’m so jealous! (In her words, I’d be considered “well jel”). Hearing her discuss her plans at the age of 20 years old (she hasn’t even reached 21 yet!) made me pine for the days when I had youth and freedom on my side. The world – cliché alert! – was my oyster.
To be fair, I think I did make the most of it. I travelled and worked abroad before training to be a teacher, and hearing her plans to do something similar made me smile. I’ve never had as big an adventure (except, perhaps, marriage and motherhood) as the six months I spent teaching English in China after I graduated from university, and so, in honour of the nostalgia my little cousin has awakened within me, I have decide to write my China memoirs…
1. The Names of the Children
This had me in hysterics! Children in China sometimes pick English-sounding names. I’m not entirely sure why, whether it’s because Western culture fascinates them, or whether it’s because they believe it’s easier to communicate with a Westerner if their name is easier to pronounce (I will refrain from jumping on my moral high horse with that one as that’s not the purpose of this article), but the kids I taught were all uber-keen to share with me their “English” names.
Iron Will was one of my personal favourites, but I also had the pleasure of meeting a Tomato. Apple was best friends with Mapple (yes, I am absolutely serious about this), and I spent a lot of time chatting to a young girl who wanted to be called Angel but insisted on spelling it Angle, despite my efforts to point this out to her. Blood Fox was an absolute sweetheart, as was Jackal. Bless them all!
2. My Celine Dion Impersonation
One of the schools I taught at in the city of Tangshan was called Kai Luan. I taught 8 classes one week, and 8 the following week, seeing each class once a fortnight. The reception I got was incredible; in this part of China, not many people have seen Westerners before. They asked endless questions, one of which being, “What songs do you know?”. The only Western songs the kids knew were really old ones; the Carpenters, Emilia’s “Big Big World”, Westlife….and Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”.
Their follow up question was, “Can you sing it for us?”. Imagine 55 sweet, enthusiastic little faces all looking up at you. You turn to your Chinese teaching assistant, who gestures that you should do it. You have no choice. You belt out a verse and the chorus.
Now, I don’t know whether word spread, but from that point on, I was asked to sing this by EVERY…OTHER…CLASS. And I wouldn’t mind, except my inability to hold a tune is a running joke within my family.
One kid did put his hand up to say, “Miss, you should be a pop star, not a teacher.” Was that a compliment, or a slur on my teaching skills?
3. The Toilets – A Truly Crap Situation
OK, so the toilet situation isn’t something to love about China, but it has provided me with many memories that raise a little smile now. In the teacher’s apartment that I stayed, and in the offices of the company I was working with, there was a Western-style loo. However, on my first trip to middle school I walked into the toilets and straight back out.
Imagine rows of stone cubicles. Without doors. All facing each other. No privacy.
Now imagine there is a drain running underneath all the cubicles, and that that is what you were expected to hover over.
Imagine next, that the waste isn’t flushed away, and that you can see exactly what has come out of the “toilet’s” previous occupants.
Imagine if you will, there is no toilet roll, no soap, and, in many cases, no sink.
Finally, imagine you are expected to use the same loos as the pupils.
Now understand how I am an expert at holding it.
4. The Minor Road Accidents
Watching the traffic on the roads in Chinese cities is like watching an episode of Wacky Races. “Unbelievable” doesn’t cover it. I had a bike, and truly took my life into my hands every time I went out on it – it was good fun though!
Our company provided transport to some of the schools we (the English teachers) taught at, and so we were driven daily to work by a lovely, non-English speaking driver. On a couple of occasions, we were involved in minor bumps on the road that were actually more entertaining than anything else!
When two cars collide and minor damage is caused to one or both of the cars, here’s what happens. Everyone gets out of the cars. Other cars stop nearby and their occupants get out. Everyone stands around looking at the damage, and, sometimes, discuss it. Everyone examines the damage for a little bit longer, and discuss it a little bit more. After anything from 45 minutes to an hour, the cars are moved. Where things go from there, I’ve no idea.
5. The People
The Chinese are some of the loveliest people I have ever met. Whenever I was struggling with something, be it buying train tickets or navigating myself around the Great Wall (and yes, my Swedish friend and I did get lost on it), someone – or often multiple people – would step in. With a frantic game of cherades and a lot of guess work, we always seemed to, eventually, get what we needed!
I was totally shell-shocked on my first day though. I’d arrived in Shizazhuang the night before, and had decided to go for a wander around, reaching a park. I was stopped firstly by a group of teenagers who asked if I would sign pieces of paper for them. I was stopped secondly by a young woman with a camera to ask if she could take my picture, posing in certain ways. I was stopped thirdly by another young woman with a toddler, because she wanted the little boy to shake my hand. Honestly, I thought maybe my whole flight, bus, taxi and train rides there had been some kind of special effects set up, and I was on some weird reality TV show in which I was the victim of some psychological experiment to see how I would react to bizarre circumstances.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this article. I’m always keen to hear about other people’s travel experiences!