“You can teach some of our students” said my new boss, in hesitant English. “They are looking forward to meeting with you now.”
“Now?” I said, shocked. “But I arrived late last night and I’m really jet-lagged.” I’d dragged my luggage through customs, been bumped about in the back of a taxi for half an hour – roads in China aren’t fun – and slept for just a few hours. To say I felt like pap was an understatement.
My first day
“It’s ok, just some free talking with them,” he said, with a grin and a quick wave of his hand.
“But I haven’t prepared…” I started, as my boss directed me down the corridor and nudged me into a classroom of about 30 blank-faced 11-15 year-olds, staring up at me. A young, ‘white’ woman was a rare sight for them.
“Hello!” I said, as casually as I could. I quickly introduced myself before asking everyone’s name.
“Miss Emma, you are very beautiful,” said one girl, Rachel, giggling as she covered her mouth with her hand.
“Oh, thank you!” I said, surprised because I was having a bad hair day. The students went on to ask me lots of questions about where I came from and if I was married. Everyone relaxed as we wound up talking about everything from music to family. Each student was delightful in their own way and keen to tell me about their city.
I’d applied for the teaching job online, independent of any organisations that help people find work placements. I didn’t want to be tied to any particular organisation or have too much structure on my trip. This can be a good idea for really independent people, but it’s also advantageous to have a large organisation’s support in case things don’t turn out the way you expect.
The school offered me a furnished apartment and a good wage for the area for teaching evening classes. Most schools also offer free accommodation, and sometimes food into the package to compensate for the low wage offered. There are also restrictions by law on where foreigners can live, so it’s easier for schools to find suitable apartments for their teachers.
I grew to love my students, and experimented in class using games and role play. Over Christmas we played ‘pinning Santa’ with the children and Christmas hangman with the teenagers. Giving out sweet prizes to winners made getting their attention much easier. I felt bad for the students as they’re under a lot of pressure to succeed academically. If they don’t, it’s difficult to find a good job. Often their classes start at seven (in the morning) and finish at five, and then they have English classes in the evening. It makes long days for the students, so teachers need to create interesting classes so they don’t fall asleep during them. The trick is to find out what they like and use that as a basis to teach English.
“What is your name?” I asked one boy, Miki, to distract attention from his mates who were talking in their native tongue.
“A secret,” he replied, cheekily, leaving his friends in giggles.
“OK.” Though he hadn’t told me his name, at least I knew he could speak English. I indicated his friend sitting next to him. “Is he your friend?”
“No, he not my friend,” Miki grinned as all the students laughed.
I looked at his friend, John. “Is Miki your friend?”
“No, I don’t like,” John shook his head.
At least now I had their attention and a (hopefully) fun activity in mind. I asked them to choose a friend and say why they were a good friend.
“He is a good friend because he like to.” Leon started.
“Likes to,” I corrected.
“Likes to play computer games with me,” Leon finished.
“Great!” I looked at another student, called Took.
“Who is you friend?”
Took pointed. “She is my friend. I like her because she is very kind.”
“Good!” I congratulated. From there on, I could teach something the students all listened to and contributed towards. The feeling of satisfaction of getting through to them was wonderful.
The school was 15 minutes’ walk from my apartment and I soon got into the swing of life in China’s oldest city. I lived down an alleyway where an elderly woman and her two children made a living by manning a fire all day burning scrap wood and cardboard. The children often stopped to stare, recognising at an early age that I was somehow different from them. Vendors and passers-by also stared as I walked up the street, some of them having never seen a white person in their life. Occasionally people shouted out ‘hello’, toothless old men insistent on shaking my hand and teenagers dying to try out the English they had learnt. A man on his bike was so busy looking my way once he almost crashed into a post. Never before had I been in a country where I was so popular but knew nobody.
Every evening beggars approached, haggling and persistent, hunched and tugging on my sleeves for money. The standard reply for natives is ‘mayo chien’, translating into ‘haven’t money’, and usually works. There was one man who stood in the same place each night, begging. The following week I came across a market stall, and looked up to see the same ‘beggar’ running the whole thing. To many, begging is simply a second source of income.
It’s only on the main roads you’ll find occasional traffic lights or wardens controlling pedestrians – the rest of the traffic in China is chaos! I was about to cross a road when I felt a sharp prod in my arm and turned around in surprise. A short, plump lady in illuminated kit had warned me, with her rather large lollipop lady-type stick, that I was not yet allowed to. I waited until they blew their whistles, then we were free to go. It took me a while to understand the fine art of crossing the road. Traffic control leaves a lot to be desired but at the same time that’s what makes China, well, China.
“Come Emma, we must go now,” said my colleague John, pulling me into the road.
“But there’s a car coming!” I said, frantically stepping back to the safety of the curb. John glanced at me but continued walking, narrowly missing the approaching car. I think the trick is if you’re gonna go, then don’t hesitate. At all.
“Crossing the road in China, it can be very – how you say?” John said to me later “- dangerous. So we must help you find your way so you are – how you say?”
“Safe,” I prompted.
“Yes, safe.” John smiled, delighted. “That’s the word – safe! Sorry, I forget my English often!”
“Did you think that was safe?” I asked.
John grinned. “Emma, don’t worry – this is China. It safe!”
Well, he was right about one thing at least – it certainly was China. And this was only the beginning of my journey…