Short story series: Uncommon Places (part 5)

Back in Ben’niu, Siso, one of my students, invites me to a family lunch. We’re at Aunt’s house because, she confides, Mother is a bad cook. Aunt assembles a banquet that includes two soups, various in-season vegetable dishes, gong bao ji ding (because Siso remembered it was my favourite dish), marinated jellyfish and a meat similar to corned beef. Siso points to the meat then shows me her electronic dictionary: donkey.

Over lunch Siso translates her family’s questions and comments at her discretion. Why are you so skinny when most foreigners are fat? Do you think Chinese babies are cute? Do you like living in China? Aunt vehemently explains that China has many poor people who do not understand how to behave around foreigners and she apologises if someone from China has behaved badly toward me during my time here.

Siso speaks candidly about her family as they sit around the table, right in front of us.

‘My father is fat and lazy, and he never helps around the house. My mother must cook and do all the housework even though she works too. Chinese men don’t do housework. That’s just the way it is. Do you think Cousin is good looking? I think it’s cool that Cousin has three girlfriends. I had a boyfriend in Shanghai last year but now we’re broken up. I love learning English. I want to study English in Canada but my father doesn’t want me to leave. He thinks I won’t study hard in another country. But, if I get good grades, he says he will think about it.’

***

In Shanghai, China’s largest city with a population bordering on 19 million, I embrace the rush of people, the plethora of restaurants, the multitude of towering malls. What once suffocated me now resonates within.

***

In English Corner today it is revealed that MP3s, iPods, mobile phones, laptops and love are banned at high school. If the electronics are discovered, they’re confiscated. If the relationship is discovered, the two students are suspended and sent home.

***

Chris, a teacher-friend from Foshan, comes to visit. We haven’t seen him in almost two years. He spent the past year in Australia but found the people, and the lifestyle, too materialistic and so has returned to China for the sense of community and the freedom that the way of life here offers.

***

I’m sitting at my desk writing an email when the study door starts to gently swing on its hinges. I stand and stumble slightly. Images of the ceiling collapsing around me tumble through my mind. Ash calls from school; he feels it too.

It’s not until the next day that we learn of the Sichuan earthquake some 1500 kilometres away. At the epicentre in the mountainous region of Wenchuan, and in nearby cities and towns, the devastation is incomprehensible. More than ten thousand are dead, countless buildings have been destroyed and several schools’ classrooms have collapsed, killing thousands of children. There are reports that one thousand students at one school, and nine hundred at another, were killed because of faulty construction work. The death toll eventually rises to 70 000 and approximately 4.8 million people are left homeless.

We have teaching friends based in the Sichuan capital, Chengdu. It’s been a week and still no word. Finally, on May 22, ten days after the earthquake, I receive an email from Rowena:

The aftershocks continue and the death toll increases, even as I sit here typing. I’ll know they’ve subsided completely when we stop noticing new cracks in our apartment. The old cracks from the initial earthquake seem to get longer and wider every time we come home. The city is still bustling with aid vehicles, soldiers and ambulances, and disease prevention teams are spraying everything they can find with hopefully non-toxic disinfectant. Life goes on, as many residents choose to remain in tents around the city, including many of the hospitals that moved their patients into tents, and everything appears to be as normal as can be.

 ***

Our classes are cancelled, without warning, a month before the semester’s end. Such is the nature of things in China. With their mid-semester results below district-average, the students must do extra study in preparation for their next-level exams.

Relaying this news to my students, all 450 of them, is an emotional moment, one that I repeat seventeen times for seventeen classes. By the last class I’m no longer capable of bravery or stoicism. Tears roll freely down my cheeks and my voice trembles as I announce that our classes are terminated.

‘You’ve been wonderful students… I’ll miss you all very much.’

The bell rings. Class is over.

A cluster of girls surrounds me. Some offer slips of paper with email addresses, several cling to me in a group hug, and others cry, unable to say a word.

‘Thank you,’ I say in a choked whisper.

Released from our contract, Ash and I decide to return to Australia to study, to get a degree; we want to improve our teaching options for the future. Ash hasn’t seen his family in six years and so, while we would both prefer Melbourne, we move to Bunbury.

***

Everyone looks so pale. And big. And fat. In Coles I stare at the wall of bread for so long that a shop assistant asks if I am okay. It takes me two hours to do the grocery shopping—reunited with products that I haven’t seen in three years I simply can’t decide what and which brand to buy.

Ash and I forget that others can understand us. We make inappropriate comments in public. People glare at us. The ‘foreigners’ here are abrasive, unfriendly, wasteful. I now understand why the Chinese think all foreigners are rich—the people here have so much and want ever more: two cars instead of one; houses with swimming pools, games rooms, home theatres and big screen televisions; and children demand mobile phones, iPhones, iPods, iPads, computers, designer label clothes and money for just ‘hanging’.

One night we go to a local Chinese restaurant. The waiter speaks Chinese and the majority of customers are also Chinese. The room sings with the chatter of Mandarin and the click of chopsticks. I smile at Ash; it’s the first time in a month that I’ve felt comfortable in Australia.

 

benniustudents

 

 

Short story series: Uncommon Places (part 4)

Every morning I wake to the smell of burning plastic and rubber. My nose runs like a river undammed. At 6.30 am Susan, another Western teacher, and I walk laps around the school running track. Today the pollution-fog is so thick that I can look directly at the burnished amber disc that is the sun. Chanting echoes down through the fog. The students are already in class doing their morning reading.

***

Amber, one of the Chinese-English teachers, invites me to watch her teach an English class. Sixty desks are crammed into her classroom, each one stacked high with textbooks. The students sit on small backless stools and when I enter they rush to find one for me. I sit squashed up against the back wall, barely fitting between the rows of desks. The room is completely silent as Amber teaches. The students choral drill when prompted but out of sixty students only six stand to speak during the hour-long lesson.

 ***

My students constantly ask about school life in Australia. I distribute a letter from Rose, a student in Bunbury, who, at my request, has written to them about her school.

‘What do you think about school life in Australia?’

‘Australian students are so lucky.’

‘School in Australia is like a holiday.’

My attempt at cultural exchange has gone awry. Glum faces replace smiling ones. ‘Would you like to write a letter to Rose, telling her about schooling in China?’

‘Yes!’ they chorus and the room becomes silent except for the sound of pens scratching across paper.

 

Dear Rose,

I go to high school in Ben’niu, Jiangsu Province, eastern China. My school has approximately 2500 students aged 16-19 years old. We go to school nearly seven days a week, from 6.35 am to 9.45 pm. We have about half an hour for lunchtime. We also have a canteen but it isn’t very popular. We often eat rice, meat and vegetables for lunch. We have a lot of homework to do every day. We spend 3-4 hours on it.

Best wishes

Cherry

 

Dear Rose,

I have loved your school life and I want to go to your school to study. We have eight lessons in one day and three self-classes. We are very tired when school is over! We have two home-days once a month. On the Sunday afternoon we have two hours free time. We can go out of school and go shopping or playing. But at 4.30 pm we need to go back to our class and do homework or reading.

Best wishes

Snow

 

Dear Rose,

We have much homework and it’s very difficult for some students but we are very lucky because we can ask our teachers for help. They are patient and helpful. Most of the students live in our school and we go home once a month, so we often feel helpless and unhappy. In China, school life isn’t the same as yours in Australia, but people can’t live without knowledge!

Best wishes

Siso

 ***

We have a pet hedgehog, bought on impulse at the market. I’ve named him Russell because he constantly tips over the wastepaper bin and rustles around in it, kicking out every last scrap, looking for food. He also likes to bite Ash on the big toe.

 ***

One day, over lunch, I ask Mr Auden, the principal of Ben’niu Junior High School, why the students are pushed to work so hard.

‘Well, of the junior high students, only the top forty per cent can go on to senior high school. The rest will go home. For them, education is over. Only thirty per cent of senior students can go to university, and not all of them will be accepted. The other seventy per cent, they go home, get a job, maybe go to a college. But real education, and a chance at a better life, is over for them,’ he explains.

‘Why are so few university positions offered?’ asks Ash.

‘Because China has too many people. Even at thirty per cent there are too many students and not enough spaces at university. So the students must work very hard if they want a better life.’

‘So, what scores should the students get to proceed to the next level?’ I ask.

‘They should score ninety per cent or above. Actually ninety-five per cent is preferred. This will guarantee a student’s position at the next level of schooling.’

***

I awake to Ben’niu transformed. It snowed last night and our ugly town is quiet, white, beautiful. The snow falls and falls. For days it falls. My students race out of class onto the oval, squealing and shouting. It’s the first time any of them have seen snow. Still the snow falls. ‘China experiences coldest winter in two decades’ announces the China Daily. Some provinces are experiencing their worst winter in fifty years. Houses have been destroyed, crops frozen, power lines are down in many areas, transport and rail lines have ground to a halt and millions of migrant workers are stranded, unable to return home for the holidays. Silence descends over our industrial town as roads are closed. Determined taxis skid and slide down the main street. Bored hairdressers build giant snow-mice, complete with whiskers; it’s Chinese New Year, Year of the Rat.

***

Emma and Simeon invite us to spend the Chinese New Year holidays with them, in Beijing. The train lines are declared open just two days before our planned departure. The city pulses with energy, as much from the New Year’s celebrations as preparations for the 2008 Olympics, in six months’ time. There’s so much to see and do: the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, the Winter Palace, Mao’s Mausoleum, Tiananmen Square, markets, fake designer label stores, and English bookstores.

 

benniuschool

Short story series: Uncommon Places (part 2)

Foshan is a city of contrasts. Crumbling brick hutongs hide behind pollution-stained high-rise buildings; teashops on every street offer free tastings—there’s jasmine, pu’er, gunpowder, oolong, white tea, tight little dried rosebuds for infusions and more; fresh produce markets bursting with vibrant colour and pungent aromas are crammed into tight spaces throughout the CBD; motorcycle butchers speed down the streets with pigs—sliced in half from snout to curly tail—slung over the back racks; and on street corners mobile fruit vendors display their produce on the backs of adult-sized tricycles. They sell sweet sweet peaches, lychees, rambutans, watermelons and dragon fruit in the summer and barbecue pork buns, steamed corn and roasted chestnuts and yams in the winter.

***

In the autumn I am allocated new conversational English classes—Children’s Beginners aged 6-8. I must maintain their attention for two hours and so abandon the traditional-teacher mode in exchange for a dramatic persona and English-focused games. The goal is for the students to speak eighty per cent of the time and limit teacher talk time to twenty per cent. I have a teaching bag full of flashcards, coloured magnets, two balls, music CDs, balloons, hand puppets, a ‘sticky ball’ that when thrown sticks to the white board, and numerous whiteboard markers. In class I mime, act, play the clown, sing and dance my way through the teaching materials—it’s playschool on steroids. The kids love it. They race up to greet me and I walk the last few metres to class with children clinging to my legs, arms and hands. An excited rabble, they rush me into the room.

***

At the supermarket an old woman rummages through the contents of my basket, inspecting my baguette, noodles, soymilk and other purchases. I stare open-mouthed at her, too shocked to say anything.

***

Ash and I are learning Putonghua (Mandarin), the official language of China, even though we live in Guangdong, the old Canton, where many people speak only Cantonese. I can count to one hundred, buy bus and train tickets, order dumplings and noodles in a restaurant and introduce myself.

***

The pollution cuts the horizon in half, pushes down and envelopes the city. At the end of the street Bia Hua TV Tower is reduced to a shadow of its former self. The sun and blue skies are a distant memory.

***

One day Sinny, my teaching assistant, invites me out for lunch. We go to a noodle house that I’ve nicknamed the Three Kuai Place, because that’s how much most dishes cost. Sinny orders chicken and it arrives chopped into bite-sized chunks. Bones included. I still can’t eat chicken on the bone using just chopsticks. Sinny deftly pops a piece into her mouth, swishes her cheeks as though rinsing with mouthwash, then extracts a clean piece of bone and places it on the table. Behind her a man in a suit is doing the same, only he spits his bones directly onto the table.

‘How do you do it?’ I ask.

‘Just use your tongue to help suck the meat off the bone,’ she replies.

I try but can’t get my tongue to wiggle the meat loose and, on reflex, chew, mashing meat and bone together. My face flames red as I spit the mess into a tissue.

Ai ya, I wish there was chicken without bones,’ I complain.

‘Westerners have lazy mouths, that’s all,’ Sinny shoots back with a grin.

***

December arrives and with it hints of Christmas emerge as stores put up festive decorations, tinsel streamers and Christmas trees. Christmas carols, sung in Chinese, are piped through supermarket speakers.

Helen calls a staff meeting. Lingdong will host a school Christmas party, she announces. There will even be a turkey. Adult students will be encouraged to buy tickets to the party, the selling point being to experience a true Western Christmas. We, the teachers, must provide some form of entertainment for the paying guests.

‘You’ve gotta be kidding, Helen! I’m a teacher not a performing monkey,’ bellows Kinga.

The room is a rumble of discontent.

Helen asks us to define entertainment at a Western Christmas party. ‘Basically, it comes down to three things: food, alcohol—lots of alcohol—and music,’ explains Kinga.

‘That’s it?’ she asks.

‘Yes!’ the ten of us chorus.

‘Helen, our Christmas parties are very simple. We eat, we drink, we dance, we drink some more, talk to people, drink and dance even more, and then keep drinking,’ offers Ash.

‘Chinese people would not enjoy such a party,’ frowns Helen. ‘They need guided entertainment. They need to have an activity to be involved in, to be told what to do next.’

And that’s how we find ourselves poolside, with a stage, Christmas tree and fake snow machine in the middle of winter. The glistening pool stirs up memories of golden beaches and sunshine; I haven’t seen either for five months.

‘Next,’ announces Forest, Helen’s second in command, ‘is the candy relay race. Rules of the game are: the first runner dips a spoon into the bucket of candy, takes just one piece, races back to the team and passes the spoon to the next person. The team with the most candy is the winner.’

I move in closer to watch. I’ve played this game with my younger students and while they love it, they are unable to show restraint; cheating abounds.

Forest blows her whistle, ‘Go!’

In under a minute the adults resort to stealing candy, tripping up competitors, pocketing candy and, yes, trying to steal the candy bucket for their team. Forest screeches into the microphone in an attempt to get everyone to play in an orderly fashion. It’s too late for that. The stilted, stiff Chinese guests are laughing and having fun.

 

lingdongclassroom

Short story series: Uncommon Places (part 1)

The job offer in my inbox reads:

Teach English in China! No experience necessary. Must be a native speaker. TESOL/TEFL certificate required. No university degree needed. One-year contract. Teach 24hrs/week maximum. Salary: 6500RMB/month plus end of contract bonus of US$800. Round-trip airfare reimbursed. FREE accommodation, Chinese classes and gym membership. Start ASAP. Contracts are attached.

Ash, my boyfriend, and I accept this job over ten other, similar offers.

 ***

Beads of perspiration line my top lip. I brace my knees to stop them shaking but can’t suppress small tremors rippling through my fingers. My throat refuses to let sound pass. The air conditioner thrums and water trickles from the drainage hose into a red bucket. A dark green stain on the carpet betrays an earlier spillage. The smell of stale sweat infuses the room. Twenty blank-faced students stare at me. They’re all about thirteen and most wear blue and white nylon tracksuits. Parents crowd at the hallway windows, my judge and jury.

Today is my third day in China, my first day of teaching at Lingdong English School, and my first day of teaching. Ever. My gaze flows over faces then freezes. Helen. My boss, pen in hand, sits among the students. She mentioned assessing my teaching style. But my first class? My heart races, the air conditioner whirs. I smear clammy palms across my skirt, take a deep breath and split my lips into a stiff smile. ‘Good morning boys and girls. My name is Sonja.’

Time falls away. The minutes pass with excruciating slowness as I plough through my lesson plan. The students are mostly mute, unless asked to repeat a word in unison; then they become champion choral drillers.

‘If Tom is tall and Bill is taller, then what is John?’ I ask.

No answer.

‘Tom is tall. Bill is taller. John is the… ?

Silence.

‘Can anyone tell me?’

Twenty pairs of brown eyes avoid my blue ones. The air conditioner chugs. Water trickles. Parents glare at their child, and me, through the windows. Later in the semester I cover those windows with drawings done by my students, to give us some privacy, but for now we’re all on display.

‘Anyone?’ I ask again.

Still no volunteers.

It’s death by silence.

***

I’m not sure why I’m here. China was never on my list of ‘must see’ countries. I recoil from the chaos and confusion, the congestion of traffic and people; all of it presses up close. Too close.

 ***

 Plastic tables and chairs from several restaurants crowd the footpath. Ash and I stare up at a picture menu plastered on an external wall. The diners stare at us. So do the staff. Our decision on where to eat is made by a table becoming vacant. We sit, become less conspicuous. People continue to stare. Laowai, they whisper. We are white foreign devils. A waitress rushes up with a pot of green tea and menus in Chinese.

Cheeks flushed, she asks us something.

Ting bu dong,’ I say. I don’t understand.

She speaks again, points to the menu.

Ash flicks through our phrase book. ‘Wo yao ji,’ he reads.

The girl speaks in a rush, her cheeks blush brighter.

‘Yes,’ we nod, not understanding a word.

She whips the menus off the table and disappears into the restaurant.

‘Do you reckon we’ll get chicken?’ asks Ash.

A chicken complete with feet, head and rosy red comb lies on the plate before us. How does one eat a whole chicken with chopsticks? The blameful eye of the chicken watches me as I poke at it. I plunge my chopsticks into the bird’s breast. Stringy chunks of meat come away from the bone. The leg meat is more resistant. The tendons at the knuckle refuse to give way to my jabbing and I resort to using my fingers. A nearby group of diners stops eating and stares.

***

Early morning shoppers slowly cycle past me as I walk to the gym located next to Lingdong School. One woman’s front basket is brimming with leafy greens and a still-flopping fish in a plastic bag while another has a live chicken, legs tied, hanging upside down from the bicycle’s handlebars. Toddlers wearing split pants, their little buttocks on display, teeter down the street grasping their mothers’ hands. (The Chinese don’t use nappies, so when nature calls the child is held up over a shopping mall bin, a garden bed or sometimes just left to squat on the footpath.) At the gym middle-aged women walk backwards on the treadmill and men in suits work out and smoke.

***

English has not yet infiltrated Foshan, a city of five million people. Street signs, product packaging, menus, newspapers and books are all in Chinese. I am illiterate—my communication is limited to miming and the use of a phrase book. I need help opening a bank account, buying bus tickets, organising dry cleaning, connecting the internet, getting water delivered, going to the doctor and buying medicine.

***

I peek into the staffroom to see who’s around. There’s Emma, a brown-eyed Brit with an effervescent personality, her boyfriend Simon, a blond, blue-eyed computer geek who is taking Kung fu lessons and Kinga, a large-in-every-way Aussie.

‘My teenage students won’t speak,’ I announce.

‘Welcome to teaching English in China,’ retorts Kinga.

‘But what do I do?’

‘You just have to suffer through it,’ answers Simon.

‘You’re kidding?’

‘We all have the same problem. It’s almost impossible to get the teenagers to speak,’            sympathises Emma.

‘But why?

‘Saving face,’ says Kinga. ‘You can’t fight it. It’s so ingrained it’s like it is part of their  DNA. Trust me, I know. I’ve been here for five years. They won’t talk because they don’t want to look like an idiot in front of the others. It means they make everyone look like idiots. Something about the group “face” being more important than the individual. That’s why if you ask “Do you understand?” most times they’ll say yes, even if they don’t. For the Chinese it’s better to leave the conversation confused than to “lose face” by saying they don’t understand.’

‘So what can I do?’

‘Nothing,’ says Kinga.

‘Endure the silence as best you can,’ adds Simon.

Emma shrugs.

***

We’ve been here for over a month and, apart from the Lingdong teachers, I haven’t seen another foreigner’s face.

***

foshan-31

Short story series: Uncommon Places – Introduction

sonja-zhongdian

I normally only post book reviews to my blog, but I’m veering into new territory and am
starting a thread featuring short stories that I have written. I studied writing at university and since then my stories have languished on my hard drive, gathering the digital equivalent of dust. So, I thought I’d start the Short Story Series with a creative non-fiction memoir about my time living in China. 

I lived in China for three years, teaching English and travelling between 2005-2008. I have brought my adventures in China to life through a short creative non-fiction memoir which I will post over a series of entries.

For me, living in China was an incredible experience that involved getting to know a new culture, meeting some of the most generous people I’ve ever met, learning from the children, discovering food heaven (and hell), exploring diverse regions of countryside and of course dealing with culture shock and my own western bias.

My aim for this creative narrative is to show what life was like for me, as a foreigner, living in China. As a resident, I was able to access a deeper understanding of the culture, ask questions, become a part of people’s lives yet I still remained on the outside. This was one of the paradoxes of living in China – being allowed in, but only to a certain point. It is impossible to recount the entire three years of events and interactions, and so I have written about the more memorable and striking moments that portray the cultural differences, what life is like living in a Communist country—it’s nowhere near as frightening as people imagine, the nature of the people, the harsh realities of school life in China, and the diversity of the both the food and the countryside.

When I returned to Australia, I discovered that China was a country that was viewed with suspicion, the culture was not widely understood, and at the time it was definitely not a top 10 travel destination. I wrote about my time in China so that others can gain an insight into this wonderful country, away from inflammatory issues that often feature in our western news.

I hope you enjoy reading about my China adventures, told through vignettes to cover the time frame and events.

Cheers,

Sonja