September 2014’s posts

“You speak authentic English”

“You speak authentic English”, Teacher Kate tells me.  My arrival in February was swift, fast-paced and stressful.  All emotions had been worn in a short pace of time.  This week the new school year began.  My second semester here is oddly one, I am at ease with.  There is much to be done.  There are many new faces.  Yet in the collective panic and worries, I am at calmness personified.  I am not coolness, let’s be fair the 34°C and humidity makes it feel closer to 47°C.  Locally, the average daily relative humidity for September is around 71%.  The weather here is not stopping my composure.


Teacher Kate has asked me to assign two slots of my timetable to coaching two students, Apple and Bobo, in oral English.  They are entering something called the 6th Annual Dongguan Oral English Competition.  The simplicity of the names of competitions here is that you don’t need a description afterwards.


The pace quickened last Friday.  After the arrivals of Liam, Bryony and Becky earlier that week, a new set of foreign teachers landed.  Meaghan, Emily, and Bonnie arrived from Beijing having had a week’s intensive TEFL course exposure.  Alongside them Micaela, Kira, and Joe arrived having had the month long course in Beijing for a TEFL certificate and teaching practice.


Teacher Cherry has replaced Teacher Bright as the person in charge of foreign teachers at the school.  Bright’s duties are now split between Cherry and I.  On the day of arrival, Bryony, Becky and I said hello to Emily and Bonnie.  The landlady of the accommodation block near to school practically forced us to.  We were told the new arrivals were in a state of slumber, so we would return later.  The landlady, is funny, speaks no English but insisted, physically grabbing us and then knocking very loudly on the heavy metal doors.  The cold steel/aluminium frames resembling something from a secret lair in a James Bond movie.


On establishing Emily and Bonnie are from Marple, Stockport, the U.K. and saying hello we scattered.  Later that day we reconvened in our fully assembled foreign teacher group, helped them obtain mobile phone sim-cards and find the local Liaoxia Suppermarket (this is how the sign is spelt) and Tesco.


Cherry asked us all to meet again the following Sunday morning on order to go through the plan of action for the week and semester ahead.  At this stage I realised playing football that Sunday evening for Murray’s F.C. was not going to happen.  My previous appearance (last Wednesday) with a winning goal would have to do.


Saturday night involved a trip with Liam, Nikki, Joe, Crystal (from Nikki’s kindergarten), Bryony, and Becky to H-One nightclub for a few drinks and a dance.  Earlier that day I had met Silence from one of the kindergartens to help me with my Mandarin articulation.  Silence insisted on having food at a restaurant afterwards.  Here I bumped into two kindergarten teachers working!  A massive amount of Là (spicy) sauce was added to a pot of boiling duck.  I struggled with the shrimp but managed to devour the glass miàntiáo (noodles). Afterwards I felt bloated and sleepy, bid my farewell and half wanted to stay in for the remainder of the evening.


Sunday at school was simple.  Introductions were made.  A tour given and lesson plans required on the day.  I managed to get my textbooks and draft my first timetable (with help from middle and primary school).  Grade 7-9 are separate from grades 1-6.  This semester, I have 7 classes in grade 6; 8 in grade 7; 4 in grade 8; and a class for P.E. and Science teachers.  The V.I.P. classes have not been assigned yet.  I have 20 classroom based classes, each lasting 40 minutes.  In total 800 minutes or 13.3 hours.  Each Tuesday morning is a team meeting for us foreign teachers.  The same day we have Mandarin class at 18:00 for one hour.  All other time is set aside for preparations, office time and the like.


Monday meant all hands on deck.  Here we go.  The familiar jostling school entrance swarmed with parents, children, bicycles, scooters and angry beeping car horns.  The large security guard welcomed me back.  The flag raising ceremony doubled up with the opening of the school ceremony and lasted a massive two hours.  Sweat resembled Victoria Falls on my legs, back and front.  Nothing was spared.  I was drenched.  Later, it was noted I had some sunburn too.  My first class 603 bit the bullet.  The first day sparing me a class straight after the two hour sweaty parade.  Class 803 marked my return to overhead projectors and teaching.  This is a class made up of last semester’s grade 7 students.  I was instantly recognised and greeted with zeal.  Questions, mostly about summer, fired at me for many minutes before the tones of the classroom speaker system boomed out.  Class 804 after lunchtime also greeted me with vigour.  I felt and feel very welcome here.


Tuesday zipped by, four new classes in grade 7 figured me out as I figured them out.  They’re as new to me as I am to them.  All it takes is one click, and barriers and shyness will scatter.  In the evening Nikki and I met Micaela, Kira, Bryony and Becky for a huge hotpot costing 12RMB each.  It was most satisfying, even though I had to avoid the sweetcorn knobs.


Yesterday was an interesting day.  School zipped by, the flow and confidence of new classes carrying me on the crest of a wave called curiosity.  Shirley (Lĭ Huì Mĭn), a 21 year old new teacher, graduate of JiangXi Normal University did give me some feedback, I may have been a little apprehensive about, considering it was my first time with class 604, with students I do not know their exact levels of and in the first few days of a new school year.  This is a tricky time, several new students have entered every grade, some unbeknown to the ways of speaking the English.  On top of this, the students are excitable, some upset at starting a new semester, some upset at spending an entire semester away from their families and friends, some just bouncing off the walls to learn more and succeed.  This week and next week, for me, are entirely about judging, planning and then deciding an action of lessons for the entire semester.  I’m sure a Chinese Chequers player would do the same.


Today, Shirley (Lĭ Huì Mĭn), has observed another class.  That is four in two days.  I’m not supposed to have any observers.  Whilst polite and curious, Shirley doesn’t seem to have noticed – or if she has, she certainly hasn’t let on, that each class she has been to, has been pretty much the same.  The same content, layout and purpose.  An introduction to me, and for me to get to know a few names.  The afternoon at school drifted in and my two new classes in 602 and 702 have proven to like the clown at the front of the class.  I think this semester shall go well.

Busman’s holiday

“Be at the school gate for 7.50am please, we will go drifting then go to a hot spring.  The next day we will go to a beauty spot” was the message sent via popular national messenger service Weixin (my WeChat ID is acton28) by Cherry [NB: I also have QQ International, my number being 2814963400].  So naturally, the efficient German Kira arrived on time, as did Volvo loving Micaela, Aussie rules Joe and Emily from near Stockport arrived all on time.  I also plodded along punctually.  Almost an hour later and we boarded the coaches, complete with a cheap nasty orange baseball cap, so nobody could get lost.  We seated midway along the coach’s upper deck (no discernible lower deck was sighted, and the coach was rather high).  Legroom was claimed immediately.  Joe sat to my left.  Emily and Micaela behind, Kira accompanied by a Chinese teacher, Smile (I think).  Three hours passed before we arrived at Héyuán.

The city of Héyuán includes many rainforests and the largest lake in the region of Guangdong: Xinfengjiang Reservoir.  The literal meaning of the city’s name is “origin of the river”.  The spring water Nongfu Spring is sourced here.  Wanlv Lake is another name for this vast man-made lake.  The Xīnfēng Jiāng (river) runs into the lake that spans a massive area of 370 km².  We arrived at a city claiming to boast Asia’s tallest water fountain (out of order at the time of the visit) and immediately exited our two coaches into a restaurant.  A lukewarm meal platter awaited, here Regina, Snowy, Smile, and other teachers treated us well and mingled lightly.  Conversation seemed mostly reserved for the food on the deck – as befits most Chinese meal tables.  The duck, the pork drizzled in honey, the scrawny chicken, the homemade dòufu (tofu) and other selections made for a fine meal.  Alongside 7-Up (qīxĭ, which translates as seven happiness and not 7-Up) rice and something resembling chicken stock-meets-thin soup.  Immediately after eating, we re-boarded the coach and headed for the drifting.  Drifting is a lightweight version of white-water rafting, essentially a streamlined stream, often stylised to force water down tighter and sharper channels.  The main flow of the river was natural.  Our coaches split off, helmets (that would fail every sane nation’s safety standards) donned alongside fluorescent orange life jackets, big enough to qualify as being a bra for me.

Along the coccyx-bruising dips of the stream, gentler pools allowed for some rowing and water play.  Teachers took aim at us, and we drenched them with eratic splashing and targeted countermeasures the U.N. would be proud of.

On exiting, drying and diving back onto the coaches, our party of many headed for an evening meal with sweet mǐjiǔ rice wine.  The meal resembled the earlier day’s lunch to a near perfect replication, save for a different type of fish.  Table talk extended to each other’s abilities to speak English or Chinese.  “English is so hard to learn” countered by “Chinese is so hard to learn.”  7-Up was not on offer, an evening chá (tea) replaced this.  To go with a very busy day so far, we re-boarded the coach yet again and headed for the Yeyuan Hotsprings Resort in the village of Liangtian.  A varied set of springs, an ice cold bath, a swim and a game of basketball in the pool was completed with running along mats in a kind of budget Total Wipeout style.  Joe, being from Àodàlìyǎ (Australia), is used to hopping over crocodile heads so managed the full length of the pool – and greeted by cheers from an ever increasing crowd of Chinese folk.  I practically belly flopped after 4 or 5 mats.  The other 10 mats or so being a pipe-dream.  A water fight later in a wave-ridden surfing pool and back on the coach we went, via a sign that said whiff pool, and made me laugh.  We arrived back in the centre of Héyuán for the third time that day.  On checking in half of China into the Emperor Hotel, Joe and I joined Micaela, Emily, Kira and Smile for a wander to get a snack.  We settled on K.F.C., a combination of no real other options and exhausted feet and souls gave the colonel a share in our rénmínbì (RMB, yuán, kuài or máo).

Joe and I bunked in a room with two single beds, woke up startled by my phone’s alarm (playing a jitty by The Levellers), showered (separately), breakfasted and then again boarded the coach.  Off we headed for Wanlu Lake to see a short cultural show, try a zip-line and a stroll along the lakeside views.  The show told the story of Jinghuayuan.  The plot consisting of flower fairy people born of the Tang family in Heyuan County.  After this, you guessed it… we headed back into Héyuán for a meal cloned of every other meal experienced in the same city.  A three hour sleep on the coach back to Houjie allowed me chance to sleep.  On arriving I hopped on my bike, cycled 20km to play football for Murrays F.C., we won 13-2, before cycling back.  I had every intentions of sleeping but managed to make it to Irene’s Bar and Iron Bar for a few drinks.

Monday was a national holiday.  Zhōngqiū Festival celebrates the moon.  Mooncakes were devoured, the odd lantern flew by, but Nikki and I stayed in and watched Dexter.  A good rest does the world of wonders for tired legs.  That and I had to plan lessons and make powerpoints for this week.  The festival is celebrated by family and friends gathering.  Thanksgiving and praying is seen but the emphasis is family.

The weekend away was also to celebrate this Thursday’s other national celebration Teachers’ Day.  The whole weekend was paid for by the school, a thank you letter is needed now…

Have I changed?

215 days have passed since I arrived in China.  218 days since I last attended a Manchester City senior fixture.  Have I changed?  I think so.  Perhaps the culture has rubbed off on me.  I feel much more relaxed, despite not knowing what exactly is expected of me, other than the obvious:  get students talking.  I also think I’m really enjoying the culture, the dining locally, the people and the job.  I’ve never felt like I have ever fitted in.  Maybe I have a little, but something has been missing.  Maybe I dislike swathes of bureaucracy and talent suppression.  No more systems thinking, no more intervention teams, no more Customer Cups, and nothing resembling these terms should ever cross my life.  I’d rather focus on doing the job.  Here’s the task, get on with it.  Simple thinking without a label.

Classes this week have been varied by the response of each student.  Discipline is drilled into students here.  Most classes see me having a Chinese English Teacher to assist or watch over the students like a hawk.  In Grade 6, this is more apparent but so far there has been no need for any intervention.  Grade 7 is mostly the same, except a teacher Alex, will often ask the students what the equivalent is in their native tongue.  This can be a little distracting and kill momentum.  That said by the end of the week, she gave me praise over a game used to review a class.  Sometimes I expect feedback too much, I think this is a very British or western mentality.  People here give feedback, just in a much more relaxed way.  Maybe, I strive for higher than present standards, I have a hunger to be better, to do better, and not just to be liked by students – the desire to want to make a difference.  Some classes respond loudly and try often, others have pokerfaces, that collective teenage ego that does not want to be seen to get things wrong.  Each has a niche who will raise their hands, some have super students, far more advanced than others, and then there are the evasive students – some who will never try, or simply don’t understand.  The fine line of balance to reach all is so tight, and 40 minutes is all that is available to grade 6 and 8 each week.  Grade 7 get double the time

As is often the way the question, “How much do you get paid?” crops up regularly.  The new batch of teachers had the same equivocal, elusive, cagey and indistinguishable answer numerous times over in the last fortnight.  According to CNN’s online global wage calculator, which uses data from the International Labo(u)r Organization, the average annual salary of a worker in China’s private sector was 28,752 yuan (about $4,755) in 2012, or 38% of the global average.  The average monthly wage for a native teacher in a middle school is around 2200RMB.  My salary factors in comparative costs of living; provision of high standard accommodation; salary free from taxation; the ability to pay for basic health care; the ability to self-fund the reimbursement of airfares amongst other things.  I feel very privileged to exchange cultural notes, language etc to both the school students, the teachers and support staff, the community and people around me.

No more so than the community is curiosity present.  Photographs with foreigners by the locals is commonplace, a little invasive or sneaky at times, but never intended for anything wicked.  Often teachers tell me, everyone here wants to ask me or other foreigners so many questions, but they lack the language to ask.  I lack the language skills to answer or recognise all their questions.  Maybe one day, my Mandarin knowledge will be good enough, but not today!  The community welcome foreigners, especially if the person is a lăoshī (teacher).  Perhaps foreign workers often form cliques together, not mingling too greatly, but teachers generally are viewed to mingle, looking for culture and tourism more than pennies and profits.

This week I have had meals with teachers, seen dinosaurs loose in Houjie, received wonderful gifts for Teachers’ Day (all from students in class 703!), spotted signs of Christmas, enjoyed the brilliant bright moon, and played football for an hour each way sandwiched between a 19km cycle ride… today, I am happy relaxing, alone.  A state I am enjoying.  Oddly, I’m no longer missing going to football so much…

Post #77: Notes from afar

After listening to this, I decided to write some words.  This past week’s heat has fluctuated between 36°C and 29°C.  Yesterday and today has been slightly cooler, a breeze following the recent passing Typhoon Kalmaegi (Luis).  It passed very far from Houjie, over Hainan Island but the weather here has varied from being ridiculously humid to slightly windy and wet for short blasts of time.  Thankfully the last typhoon was not so bad here, and across Asia.


Scotland is still with us.  Try explaining the concept of independence to some people in China.  That a place with 5.3 million people [Dongguan has 8,220,237 folk] with a surface area of 78,387 km2 (30,414 sq mi)[Dongguan 2,465 km2 (952 sq mi)] wants to be free and independent does not compute.  Their communist minds will rattle, steam explodes like plumes of volcanic gases and ultimately neither party can convey what is happening.  Very much like a Scottish person (not Scotch, back off Americans!) finding out Majorca has ran out of sausage rolls and Irn Bru. 


In this week, I have understood why so few people wear watches. Sweat rash and sweat around a leather wristband does not appeal.  I’m unsure how people keep track of time, aside from mobile phones.  Clocks here are set at many times, and at a height where batteries are rarely replaced they sit dormant very often.  Yet punctuality in school is great for classes – but lapse, touching on abysmal for meetings and excursions.  Time is golden here, yet relaxed.


Round our way there seems to be a little redevelopment.  An area with a crumbling poor conditioned pavement has been torn up.  Kerbs (not curbs, back off Americans!) are in place, but the rest of the walking area has yet to appear.  Some of the roads nearby essentially look like an abandoned building site.  Where pavements are poor, most of the roads are poorer.  I’ve cycled along worse, often avoiding a ten foot wide gorge alongside one road edge on the way from football midweek.  I could have easily disappeared and ended up in the centre of the Earth the first time my bike lights discovered said ravine.  On top of this my rear bike light/laser combination appears to be faulty now.  Time for a new rear light!  Made in China.


Cycling back from football is relaxing, it may be dark, but most roads have an eerily quiet feel to them.  Rogue pockets of older ladies dance on wide public concrete squares often around a crackly speaker dancing to music on a cadence similar to 90’s dance music but smashed in the face with pop lyrics.  Somehow, not far from this hullabaloo, old men play Chinese Chequers alongside card games dealing in small denominations.  Occasionally, roller-blading teenagers skim by, fuelled on their passion for their sport and occasionally toppling over, but rapidly getting up – without a laugh to be heard.  In the U.K. this would be funny, but not here.  Oddly, most public squares in Dongguan seem to be neighboured by pungent waste management centres.  As Eric Morecambe would say, “Ruggish!”


At night, no matter how late, restaurants spill onto pavements, like a Chinese version of U.K. greasy spoons with much more spicy options.  People sit there eating, relaxing after a long day’s work.  Smoking is prominent.  Food is splayed out like a sharing buffet and the moods are light and cheery.  This would not work in the U.K.  It is too cold back home!  For every person eating at home, it appears supper and evening meals are always eaten out by many, many people.  Places with food are rarely quiet after 8pm and before midnight.  There are many places to relax.


In this past week I’ve played football on two evenings, for an hour each way.  The latter being to greater opposition with substitutes, unlike our team.  The game last night being on a half pitch, far too wide to defend.  We lost 7-5 in 8-a-side.  The midweek game we won 7-5, with just one sub.  Should I play Wednesday?  Hell yes.  We need to get back to winning ways!  Since I joined Murray’s F.C., we’ve been beaten once in around 12 games.  We haven’t drawn a game either! 


Classes 603, 803 and 804 today reacted in dissimilar ways.  Sometimes it depends what teacher is in the room marking books, how their last class went, and how they feel.  Monday morning classes are usually sluggish.  Students tend to underhandedly panic write their homework due later in the day.  Later on, they seem to calm and then the competitive edge reappears.  This is the opposite of Friday classes, where afternoon classes are like fighting a tide of lethargy and distraction, their collective focus aimed towards the weekend ahead.  Class 801 and 802 are my afternoon classes.  Class 704 before lunch is not so bad.  Class 703 after lunch are fast becoming my favourite class.  They try hard, behave brilliantly and smile lots.  They like to question things too, which is a rare quality.  Teaching is both torture and fun.

Got wood.

Some days resemble artwork stylised by Max Ernst.  Last Tuesday, a teacher, Miss Li from middle school, entered my office, “You’re classes this Thursday and Friday are cancelled.”  Seconds later, a school director and a shorter-slimmer man entered.  Before I had chance to ask why, all three discussed something.  As are the mannerisms and tones of the common language, to my western ears it sounded heated and belligerent.  After a while smiles broke out and then all three faced me.  I know from simply saying hello to the director before that he spoke no English.  I heard the dates 26th and 27th banded around their lively conversation.  My mind could easily have started with, “What have I done wrong?”  Instead, I opted for, “What do they want?”  The smaller man asked the teacher, “How big is he?” in Chinese.  The teacher was about to ask me.  I said, “I am very big.”  Then she explained that they need my shirt size.  I assumed here on it was to size me up for the awful red/black school shirts.  That is where all logic ended.

Ten minutes later I had agreed to go to Guangzhou and help a student’s parent (the slim-smaller man) with a job.  The role would simply be to look big, look western and represent their company as an American colleague could not fly over to assist them.  This is how I attended Wood: Guangzhou International Artificial Board Industry Expo.  The fair was to be held at the Guangzhou International Convention and Exhibition Centre on Pazhou Island.


My now normal Wednesday game of football for Murray’s F.C. against a local Chinese team ended with a resounding 12-4 victory.  Marcelo, from Brazil and works for a company that produces shirts for Nike and other sports brands, gave me a new Atlético Madrid shirt, printed with Koke on it.  I’ve heard of this player – and since reading further about him, his full real name is Jorge Resurrección Merodio.  That’s not a bad name to have.  I might get it translated into Chinese.  Before the game, I finally received my 3XL Murray’s F.C. shirt, which is a tad too small but did the job.  The green shorts that go with are way to small and the socks – I gave them away immediately.  You can’t squeeze a fat lad into skinny jeans.


So, Thursday morning arrived.  I was up for 6am.  Out the door, soon after I was in a flashy sports car with Alan and two of his colleagues.  Off to Guangzhou we zoomed.  The two days that followed were pretty boring, meeting many traders and potential customers.  However, the calamity of Thursday morning won’t be forgotten.  It transpired Miss Li and the school director, despite saying they would, had failed to tell Cherry, Miss Jiang or the teachers of my grade 6 classes.  As such my company was informed I was absent, and confusion had to be sorted swiftly.  I felt duped, cheated and angry.  Later on, all appeared resolved, but deep down I still feel I let the school down by not double checking this with all my affected teachers.  Ultimately, I feel I let my students down.


At the trade fair, I was well fed.  I had two lunches the first day.  Alan and the other two men said that the first meal was poor.  Soon after one of them returned with McDonalds.  Hmmm, not sure they were being serious or trying to accommodate a westerner.  In the evening we had a huge meal and stayed at a 2000RMB a night room in a plush hotel called Poly World Trade Centre.  The prices varying greatly across the internet for the same rooms, dependent on how many events are to take place locally.  Pazhou Island is essentially crammed full of exhibition centres.


Anyway, after arriving back to Houjie, I wanted to sleep.  I didn’t.  Now I want to sleep more.  Due to golden week (1st to 7th of October), I am working a Sunday.  The 1st of October marks Guóqìng jié (National Day of the People’s Republic of China).  Founded on that day in 1949, this year will mark 65 years of this hugely historical, cultural, and nationalist day.  The native red flags straddled by 5 stars adorn many pieces of road furniture, shop fronts and school gates.  Government organised and private organised festivities, including fireworks and concerts will turn mainland China, its islands, Macau and even Hong Kong (known in Chinese as Xiānggǎng).  Portraits of revered leaders (e.g. Mao Zedong) are expected to decorate many walls publicly.  I can’t imagine David Cameron will ever get that treatment in the U.K.  I’m sure Ed Miliband has a poster up on brother David’s dartboard.


There is something strangely enticing about devout nationalism.  I think we view it with fear in Britain.  We fear St. George’s Day as being too far right, too easy to exploit symbolism to exclude others.  I think our history with a certain moustached dictator did not help this.  Yes, symbolism can be a path of exclusion – or it can be a path of pride.  There is no perfect way to view symbolism, and no way to properly ignore it either.  Worship the eagle crest of Manchester City and spit on anything with the devil?  I don’t know what the answer is, I’m Mancunian, not English – and European before British.  Slapping a brand, label or border on something just doesn’t do it for me.


Today, I have four grade 6 classes and a VIP class with grade 5.  It is going to be a long day!

Right, I’m off to raise my blue and white flag in this sea of red.

I’ll add some photographs later.

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