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Strangers in a strange land - Teaching in China

I was walking up a street in a mountain village in Anhui Province, China. Few foreigners get there. I think AJ, my friend and I are probably the only foreigners ever to go to this town. We are there because AJ's wife is a Chinese woman; they have a son, Titus, and grandma and grandpa live here.

Grandma and grandpa live outside of the actual town, even higher in the mountains, where they raise pigs and grow tea. Anyway, I was out for an evening stroll with a Chinese friend walking up the street through the village. We passed a bunch of women idly chatting, as they do, on the side of the road. 'Oh' one exclaimed as she clapped eyes on me, 'So that’s what foreigners look like. They are so hairy and so big and strong'. As we walked away, I could hear them discussing the 'laowai' (foreigner) for many minutes.

Then later as we walked down the hill back to grandmas, we met a guy herding his two cows back home. We exchanged a 'good evening' and he asked where I was from. We told him I was English, and he said 'Good, so you are not an enemy like the Japanese or the Americans'.

That’s the thing about China, we are strangers here, even in the big cities like Nanjing you get gawked at. Mouths drop open at the sight of you. People surreptitiously film you on their smart phones, and not so surreptitiously just blatantly walking up to you to stand next to you while their mate takes a picture. There must be hundreds of pictures of me all over China taken with or by random strangers. I don't know what they do with them. Do they show their friends? 'Hey look at this - a foreigner' or 'Hey look at this - me standing next to a foreigner.' They all have TV, computers and Smartphone’s, so they have seen foreigners before, but maybe just not in the flesh, so to speak.

It’s because we are strangers to this culture we often find things that are jarring or difficult to understand. This is often because we view this culture through the judgmental lenses of our own cultural values and mores. In the jargon of sociology, it is Ethnocentrism. This means judging an alien culture using the values of your own culture. So, for example, if we went to an African village where the local witch doctor has a powerful influence on that society, we might suggest that this is just backward thinking because we know (or science has disproved, or religion killed them all) that witch doctors cannot summon up spirits and cast spells and so on. This is what rational thinking, science and religion in the West has taught us. But in that village the power of the witch doctor is real to these people. If we deny that we are being ethnocentric.

So every day in China we come across stuff happening which we think is inappropriate behaviour or just 'wrong'. Like the motorway toilets we encountered on our journey to the mountains. Don't worry I will not provide the photographic proof. Okay, having a ceramic hole in the ground is a popular solution all over the world - even the French do that, right? And they are meant to be fashionable and tres chic. But one would think a society that claims over 5000 years of civilisation would have come up with motorway services toilets that are little more than a trough along the floor and no doors on the cubicles. It gets worse. At the temple we visited there was just the trough, no doors and no walls. (To be fair, our Chinese friend - a city girl - was appalled too and not just because they had been used a lot in the last few hours - you can imagine.)

Even at school the cubicles, and I even hesitate to use the word 'cubicle' because it suggests walls, to the ceiling, whereas here, in school, the walls are waist height, and there are no doors. I only use these toilets for a pee. Plus I only go for a pee at the last minute before class because I find it uncomfortable to be hailed by one of my students with a 'Hello Teacher' as he crouches over the hole doing his business. Neither do I want to see one of my male colleagues doing the same thing, enjoying a cigarette at the same time. But this, in China, is normal. One does the business, and no one blinks an eye. Kids, on the street, also seem to have a free pass to have a pee when they need to everywhere and anywhere. I have seen young children held over waste bins on the metro and kids having a poo on the pavement onto a piece of paper or card judiciously provided by grandma or grandpa. In our eyes this is disgusting but for most people here no one bats an eyelid. (I will contradict myself here because sometimes, just sometimes, if a parent or grandparent is letting their kid have a pee or something worse on the metro, I have seen people remonstrate - so some don't let it go, so maybe attitudes are changing.)

It’s the same with hawking and spitting. I have to say it’s a grandma or grandpa who is hacking something up from the deepest darkest recesses of their lungs and then gobbing it out onto the pavement. But I have seen people gobbing on the floor of the restaurant. I’ve had it done right next to me in a bar. And it is blooming disgusting from my point of view, but it’s normal here. It’s what people do. I have to add there are funny ideas about health and illness so having a good gobbing session might have its roots in some of the ideas about health. Some of the more strange ones, from our point of view, is eating a part of an animal is good for your particular part. So an animal heart is beneficial for your heart’s health, brain for brain and so on. I’ve been trying to buy elephant penis on the same basis, but no luck yet.

Another thing is when the weather is cold you can't drink cold drinks or have ice cream as its cold and you will be ill. If a girl has her period, she must not drink or eat cold things. Don't ask me, I don't know why. I went to a doctor to follow up something I had checked in the UK. Here the doctor wants to do a biopsy which would mean a five day stay in hospital, in the UK it’s a quick outpatients procedure. There is an over compensation on all things medical and heath related - again maybe this is because I am speaking from a Western perspective, but some things are just difficult to 'get'.

On our way to the mountains we drove for about 12 hours. This was not because of the distance, this journey would take about six hours. This was the start of the Golden Week holiday and everyone wants to get back to their hometown to spend it with their families. The traffic jams were horrendous and the atrocious driving of the Chinese caused most of the delays. These Chinese drivers seem to have learned their driving skills from playing Grand Theft Auto on the computer. They have no lane discipline. They do not look ahead and anticipate what is happening up front. Many of them will be on their mobile phones and some might even use the phones or the screens in their cars to watch TV or movies - whilst driving. Consequently people are constantly being rear-ended. The roads are wide and flat, the average speed is low, around 100/120kph (Fortunately this keeps the death toll down) but we pass smash after smash after smash. Ironically, a lot of the smashes involve new cars. This is because many of the 'country boys' (and girls) who are working in the cities want to go home with evidence of their success - the new car. We can tell they are new because many of them still don't have a legal registration plate - that takes about 30 days to get.

One explanation for the bad driving maybe because many of these new drivers never experienced sitting next to their dad or mum as they drove. The simple explanation is that mum and dad may have never owned a car. Car ownership is still new here. So good driving skills and behaviour behind the wheel have not been passed on. Coming down a single-track mountain road after visiting the Temple the front car in our party came face to face with another pilgrim out to seek enlightenment up the hill. A stand off ensued with the usual honking of horns, gesticulating and shouting. Finally, the single car submitted as our side had the greater number of vehicles waiting. However, as soon as we got to the place where it was wide enough to pass the Chinese member of our party, in the lead car, leapt out and continued the yelling and gesticulating - it was full on road rage. The other driver got out and took his coat off preparing for fisticuffs or kung fu or something - but it was handbags at dawn and the women of the party managed to cool tempers down and get us on our way.

One of the most irritating things for me, and other teachers in other schools so this is not an isolated case, is the poor management skills/procedures followed by our managers. Things are constantly told to us at the last minute or even late. So it’s not that unusual to get a call.

'Rob, where are you?'

In my apartment. Why?'

'You have a class....'

Frantically checks phone diary

'No I don't. My next class is tomorrow'

'Yes you have a class now - the 5th class'


'Yes, we changed the timetable didn't anyone tell you?'

'No because that’s your job.'


Runs out the door...

Take this week for example. We have just had a week’s holiday. Wednesday was the final night of the holiday. At around 18:30 I got a message telling me I had to work Saturday because we have just had seven days off but the local education office likes to pull one back. On Friday I was told that the Saturday classes were cancelled because of a basketball tournament. One might think the staff knew of a tournament before they organised the Saturday classes. That’s Chinese holidays for you. So regardless of the fact that one might have made plans for Saturday or even the whole weekend the school admin thinks they can just drop these changes on us. I think this is because the Chinese staff are not much more than indentured labour. Once they are on campus they are not allowed off campus as we are. They work god awful long hours. Many teachers have to work from around 7am to 9pm and have to be at their desk or teaching all day. If they want to/need to go off campus, they have to get a paper signed by the boss allowing them off campus - the security guys on the gate check the paper.

Often we will be requested to do something at the last minute with little regard for what we might already have in hand. So, for instance, there might be some random and unspecific admin task they decide they want us to do and we get told it must be done by the end of the day. One example is the lesson plans, they wanted us to write the whole semesters lesson plans and hand them in the next day. We said no. They got them but in a very stripped down form and within a few days, not a few hours.

So if you are coming to China to teach ESL or to do something else, these are a few of the things that might seem strange to you. And most of them are just minor inconveniences. Most don't happen every day and most are ignorable and do not spoil the adventure that is China. This is a great country and the people are nice, so my advice is try to meet as many Chinese people as you can and make friends with them - they will show you a good time and help to make life here easier. Don't live in a bubble of expats - who bring with them their own inconveniences. Be a stranger in a strange land and enjoy those inconsistencies and jarring moments - because that’s life and life is for living my friends!

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