Fruits

Two weeks into my summer vacation I read the following job offer on my former associate Godson’s WeChat account: “I have a job in a small city named luochuan where is about 2 hours from Xian by bus.its from 15th to 25th in July.we pay 500 per day with free transportation and free apartment. There are about 4 classes per day.conatct me on my wechat asap if you can.” [sic!]

Rora and I had been making various plans for the vacation by then, but they were all overthrown as we couldn’t find available train tickets, and another plan of teaching for three weeks did not work out as the organizers were unable to get sufficient students. Note to self: plan well ahead when intending to take a train all over China, and buy the tickets in advance.

As I was becoming bored of sitting around in Hanzhong with nothing to do (not true, we went hiking and bike riding, which was lots of fun), I told Rora about the job offer, we agreed to accept it, packed our bags, and left the next morning. It was all a bit spontaneous, you see: Thursday night I read about the offer, Friday morning we got on a bus to Xi’an, and Friday afternoon we sat in Godson’s office to discuss the details. Instead of continuing to Luochan the same day, we were treated to a night in a hotel in Xi’an, and invited to attend the opening ceremony of a music school, Beethoven Music and Arts School (or some such name), the next morning.

This school needed some foreigners for publicity purposes, so Rora and I, as well as A. from France and L. from Sweden, watched the performances. Well, the other three only needed to watch – I was asked on stage to greet the audience (and I was the only one who was paid for this white monkey job). It wasn’t bad, though; the performances were only half an hour long, there was some singing and dancing, of course a lot of promotional pictures were taken with all of us, and afterwards we were taken out for a nice lunch.

After lunch, a private car was ready to take us to Luochuan, Shaanxi, a small town some two and a half hours north of Xi’an. The first thing we saw on entering the town was a big apple – we had previously been told that Luochuan is famous for its apples, and there wouldn’t be much else besides. It really is a small place, and there isn’t much to see or do, so for anyone who is looking for a nice place to travel to: go elsewhere; it’s quite unspectacular.

My job there was to teach two groups of students in a small training center for ten days. Group one consisted of 18 primary school students, aged 9-13, and group two of eight kindergarten kids, aged 3-5. I usually prefer teaching the older students, as I have so little experience with the very young ones, but these ten days have taught me a lot about how I can improve my teaching skills, and I’m more optimistic and confident about teaching kindergarten kids now.

Cherry, the owner of the school, assisted me in teaching every day, and often took us out for dinner. If there is one thing in Luochuan it’s restaurants! Between lesson planning, teaching, and finding food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I did not really have time to do much else, and Rora kept himself busy with his computer – when the internet was working (which it often didn’t). The only interesting place we found was a small folk museum, which reminded us a lot of the Agriculture Museum in Cairo, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Spending two weeks in this small town reminded me of why many foreigners experience a culture shock when they come to China. As we were the only foreigners in this town, we were stared at pretty much all the time. People often approached us to take pictures with them, and it’s all right if they ask first, but many just pull out their phones and film us or take pictures of us without asking for permission. The weirdest experience in this regard was one day when we were ready to order lunch in a small Muslim restaurant, a woman came in, stood right in front of us, took pictures of us without saying anything, and left the restaurant. Even the owner noticed our annoyance at this incident. Another day we had just sat down to eat dinner in a hotpot restaurant, when an older woman and two teenaged children came and sat down at our table and stared at us, with the woman telling the kids to speak English with us (which they didn’t). The waitress noticed our irritation, so I told her we just wanted to eat, and not chat with anyone. We were left alone after that, fortunately.

On the bright side: we sometimes went to a fast food chain called Dicos to get some coffee, where the women at the register called a kitchen worker for help, as he was the only one who spoke some English. We weren’t always lucky with coffee, though. One day we bought two cups at another place, and when Rora took his first sip, he ended up with a dead cockroach in his mouth. Naturally we demanded our money back, and ran as fast as we could.

All in all we had a good time, even if it was stressful for me, and often boring for Rora. Nonetheless we were happy when the two weeks were over, and we could head South once again.

Stay tuned for next week’s post, in which I will tell you about an unexpected encounter on top of a tower, and an overdue reunion in a small countryside village.

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Ramadan: Celebrations

Not all of Ramadan was a good time for us this year, because Rora has gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which often causes him sleepless nights and physical pain throughout the day, and for me, because I caught a cold, and even had to vomit one day, probably because I ate something wrong. To be honest, we were somewhat relieved when Ramadan was finally over and we could go back to a normal sleeping and eating schedule.

Ramadan, however, is not complete without Eid el-Fitr, one of the most important Islamic holidays, which takes place at the end of the holy month. Everybody goes to the mosque for Eid prayer, and many people celebrate all day long. I always look forward to Eid, but in past years I was prevented from attending the prayer sometimes – last year we arrived a bit too late at the mosque and had to pray outside, the year before, when I was at home in Germany, there wasn’t any space for women at the mosque, etc…

This year, for the most part of Ramadan, I thought Eid would take place on a Sunday, so I did not arrange to have a day off from work. We found out on the Friday before Eid that the prayer would not take place on Sunday, but Monday morning. I accepted my fate of not attending it once again, as I was under the impression that I had to teach my kindergarten students on Monday morning, and there wouldn’t have been any chance of going to the mosque first and reaching work on time.

Somewhat saddened, but not in a bad mood, I went to the kindergarten to start my classes. On entering the classroom the teaching assistants were looking at me like a being from outer space, surprised to see me. They brought another assistant, who speaks a bit of English, only to tell me that I would not have class that day, as the kids had a preparation for primary school. That’s when I lost it and was close to tears. All that was needed was a simple text message a day or two before, informing me that I didn’t have classes that day. I mean, everyone else seems to have been informed about the schedule change, but is it too much to ask to also inform the teacher whose classes have been cancelled? Naturally, by this time it was too late for me to ride to the mosque to attend prayer – it’s a 30 minute ride by bike, and prayer had begun at 8 am.

After reaching my apartment, and closing the doors behind me, a flood of tears broke loose, and didn’t subside for some time.

Rora, on the other hand, had a chance to attend the prayer. There were many people at the mosque, he spoke to a few of them, was greeted by the imam, who speaks Arabic, attended the prayer, took a few videos with his phone, and rode home.

The rest of the day was uneventful, until we attended the high school graduation ceremony in the evening. There were several performances on stage, and a splendid, half-hour long fireworks display after sunset. Rora and I watched the lights in the sky while holding hands, sitting close to each other, and with a smile on our faces.

Settling: Job

I can’t believe I’ve been in Hanzhong for 60 days already. Time flies quickly indeed!

That’s 60 days of new adventures, new friends, new opportunities.

And 60 days without my husband, Rora.

15 more days, and he’ll be here, too.

What follows is the first of three parts on settling in, regarding my job. The next weeks I will focus on my city, Hanzhong, and leisure time activities respectively.

Job

I teach oral English in a private primary school and kindergarten to students aged 4-6 and 9-12. As my previous teaching experience was always with those over the age of 12, I wanted to work with that age group again. As the other foreign teacher arrived at the school before I did, however, he was able to choose the grades he wanted to teach, and I was assigned the others. Or, as our foreign affairs officer (FAO), Lou, put it: “This way you can gain experience in a new field.”

I must admit, I really enjoy teaching my grades 4, 5, and 6 now. The students are generally well behaved, and their Chinese English teachers help to maintain order and discipline – at least most of the time. In primary school I teach 23 classes, and see all of them once a week for 30-45 minutes, and in kindergarten I teach 8 classes, 4 each week, for 25 minutes each. I don’t particularly want to teach kindergarten students, and I have expressed my dismay to the school, but somebody has to do it. Don’t get me wrong, the kids are cute and funny, but it’s just not my thing – I don’t show that in class, though.

The average school day of primary school students at my school looks something like this: they get up at 6:50 am, have breakfast, then attend “morning class”, during which they do some reading practice or review, from 7:30 to 8 am.  Regular lessons begin at 8:10 am and end at 11:45 pm; during this time they have four lessons and ample breaks in between that are filled with snacks (usually some fruit and buns) and physical exercises. This is followed by a 2.5 hour lunch and nap break, and afternoon classes are between 2:35 pm and 5:45 pm – four lessons with breaks in between. The students then have a dinner break from 5:45 pm until 7:20 pm and “evening class” from 7:20 pm to 8:20 pm for grades 1-4, and to 8:55 pm for grades 5 and 6. Bedtime is, I believe, at 10 pm. They have class from Monday to Friday, as well as Sunday afternoon.

My school, reportedly the top school in the area, is also a boarding school. Most students sleep here, and only see their families on weekends, others live in nearby apartments with their parents, grandparents, and sibling. No, the singular form of sibling is not a spelling mistake. After the one-child-policy was amended to be a two-child-policy, many Chinese families have opted for a second child. Many of my students’ siblings, however, were born before the policy was changed; in other words, they have rich parents who could afford the penalties that had to be paid in order to be allowed to have a second child.

The kids have lessons in English, Math, Chinese, Science, Art, Music, Computer, PE, and an optional class (cooking, cross-stitching, rope-skipping, etc.). And they have my oral English class. There is no curriculum for this kind of class, and my school does not provide a course book or material, so it is up to me what we do in class. We play English games, sing songs, the kids have to practice pronunciation, sometimes we watch a short movie and discuss it, or they have to work on tasks in groups and present their results to the class. There is no homework or test in my class, which means there is less stress in my class, too.

Each primary school class consists of up to 45 students, and in kindergarten there are up to 25 children in one class. Add all the numbers and you will realize that I teach up to 1000 students each week. I assume there are over 5000 students enrolled in my school.

Please note that this is not representative of all primary schools in China. In most primary schools the schooldays are much shorter, and the workload lower. As a top school, however, my school has the aim of putting as many graduates into the best universities in China and abroad as possible. There even is a “wall of fame” along the high school building, giving information on previous students who managed to get into such prestigious universities as Beijing or Tsinghua University.

Speaking of the school: while the kindergarten and nursery are each housed in separate buildings outside the school campus, the primary, middle, and high school all share the same campus, albeit all have their own buildings. There are, furthermore, the following things on campus: a huge canteen with several floors where students and employees can have breakfast, lunch, and dinner; a fine-art/music building, the administration building, a large hall, the students’ and teachers’ dormitories and teachers’ apartments, a huge basketball court, a football field with racetrack, and lots and lots and lots of trees and other plants everywhere.

I work approximately 20 hours per week, and while I do have quite a full schedule, I do not have any required office hours. My lessons take place between 8am and 4pm, and I have a lot of free time every day, which I spend reading, writing, riding my bike, watching TV shows, and surfing online. Lesson planning is minimal, as I usually teach the same lesson in all my primary classes – I simply adjust them based on the class’s English level. In kindergarten I can use one lesson plan for two weeks. I love this job, as it makes me and my students happy, isn’t too stressful, and provides me with enough money and time to enjoy life. Summer and winter vacation add up to 3 or 4 months, and almost every month there is some national holiday or other, which means additional days off throughout the school year.

There are many critics of foreign oral English teachers. The most common argument is that the teachers are not qualified. While this is often unfortunately true, the Chinese government is making it more difficult for unqualified people to obtain a working permit. I can, with pride, say of myself to be fully qualified to be an English teacher in China: not only do I hold a degree in English from a British university, but, besides many years of teaching experience, also have a teaching diploma, and thus the necessary background in education.

Another reason oral English teachers are belittled by many is that they are an example of what is often called a “white monkey job”. Many Chinese companies will hire foreign staff, preferably white Westerners, and use their foreign faces as a means of advertisement to make their product more attractive to buyers – kind of like the exploitation of circus or beggars’ animals. They claim superiority of their services, and thus justify charging higher fees. It’s a win-win situation for both employers and employees: the company makes more money, and the employee gets a high salary and many benefits (free housing, free food, travel bonus) for a stress-free job, while his or her only merit might often be nothing more than the color of his or her skin, the passport he or she is holding, or the native language he or she might speak.

A 30-45 minute oral English class once a week – or 25 minutes in kindergarten – might not be very efficient for such large classes, but I believe that those students, who are interested in the language, can still benefit from even such little practice. White monkey job or not, I strive to do my best and try to make my classes fun for the students. And I have some hope that I can teach my kids at least a little bit of English.

Books about China

While searching for books about China, by Chinese authors, and regarding Chinese issues, I came across several lists of recommended books. These, in no particular order, are the books I was most intrigued by and will try to read in the future.

Factory Girls by Leslie Chang (2008)

China in 10 Words by Yu Hua (2011)

Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikötter (2010)

China’s Second Continent by Howard French (2014)

Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China by Ian Johnson (2004)

The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu (2008)

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke (2006)

Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China’s Gulag by Harry Wu (1994)

The Tiananmen Papers by Andrew J. Nathan (2001)

The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang (1997)

Understanding China by John Bryan Starr (1957)

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li (2006)

Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler (2006)

Midnight in Peking by Paul French (2011)

China Candid: The People on the People’s Republic by Sang Ye (2005)

Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu (1947)

Monkey by Wu Cheng’en, translated by Arthur Waley (1942)

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (1931)

Big Breasts and Wide Hips by Mo Yan (1996)

Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian (1990)

The Plum in the Golden Vase by anonymous (1610)

Wang in Love and Bondage by Xiaobo Wang (2007)

Tiananmen Moon: Inside the Chinese Student Uprising of 1989 by Philip Cunningham (2009)

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (1925)

Sources:

Scott Cendrowski at fortune.com

Zhengyi Mei Mei at listverse.com

Annie Wu at chinahighlights.com

Alec Ash, Tom Pellman, and Anthony Tao at theanthill.org

Paul Mason at theguardian.com


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Surprise

Walking towards the exit, I saw a big sign with my name on it, and the Chinese woman who held the sign, Rita, was smiling and waving at me. Approaching, I noticed that there was an older foreign lady standing next to Rita, doing the same thing. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I noticed who the lady was! J. from Australia, who has been living in China with her husband A. since 2012. We used to be living close to each other in Yangshuo, Guilin, Guangxi for several months when I was still in China, and often met each other. We had stayed in contact for some years, but as I am somewhat lazy when it comes to responding to e-mails, I hadn’t heard from them in some time, and wasn’t sure whether they were still in China, had moved elsewhere, or gone back home to retire. They moved to Shaanxi province some eight months ago, and by chance J. had heard on Friday afternoon that Rita was picking up some German teacher from the airport the next day.

After check-in, I spent the afternoon at See Tang Hostel near the Southern Gate, getting to know some Buckland employees, and catching up with J. and A. over some tea and Muslim noodle soup. On leaving the small Muslim restaurant, I noticed that I had been in that street before – six years prior, on my first trip to China, I had visited a tea shop there.

Later that day, after the two Aussies had left, I was joined by university student Heather, who has been a friend since my teaching days in Yongzhou, Hunan, and one of her classmates, Ava. In the evening we went to one of my favorite places in all of China: Xi’an’s Hui Muslim Snack Street! We shared many delicious, local specialties, such as 羊肉泡馍 (yang rou pao mo), a mutton stew with pieces of bread, also known as my favorite dish in China, 肉夹馍 (rou jia mo), aka. Chinese hamburger, 菠萝 (bo luo), aka. half a pineapple on a stick, some rice cake, and some other snacks. While talking to some friends in Egypt later that night, I commented that I had eaten a bigger variety of flavors in one night in China than I had in four years in Cairo!

On Sunday morning I had some sheep intestine soup for breakfast – it tasted much better that it sounds!

J., A., and Heather were not the only friends from bygone days I met so soon after my return to China. Sunday noon I met my Hawaiian friend B., who has been living in Shaanxi for five years, and he introduced me to R. from the US and J. from Scotland. Our plan was to have biang biang noodles (aka. belt noodles) for lunch, and I’m pretty sure we told the waitress the correct thing in Chinese, but we were served some bowls of 羊肉泡馍 instead. We then headed to one of the countless shopping malls, ate donuts, and the others bought some imported goods they can’t live without. B. and J. soon headed back to Weinan, while R. and I explored some more shopping malls and haggling markets. After a short stopover at a cake shop we decided a foot massage would be the thing to do.

Oh, what a pleasure!

In Egypt massage parlors are hard to find and treatments only for the wealthy. Not so in China: most neighborhoods have at least one massage parlor, and they are often very affordable – but some can charge a fortune, too. R. and I opted for a foot massage, which cost 30 RMB (a bit over 4 US$) each, and lasted about one hour. The perfect thing to do after flying halfway around the globe!

R. proved to be a good resource for information about my new school and home in Hanzhong, Shaanxi, as she previously lived and taught there for two years. As there are not many foreign residents or travelers in Hanzhong, online information about the city in English is rather scarce – a circumstance that will change with this blog. I had many questions that R. was able to answer, and I became more and more excited about finally reaching my new home.

Sunday evening I went to the Hui Muslim Snack Street for another round of food, and on Monday morning I packed my bags once more. Before departing to Hanzhong, however, it was time for the mandatory health check. Five years prior I had to take the health check in a grubby, cold hospital in Guilin, Guangxi, where people were smoking inside the doctors’ offices. Not so in the hospital in Xi’an: clean, organized, people waiting in lines, nobody was smoking, the rooms were heated, and the doctors spoke English!

After that was out of the way I had lunch with Rita and Joanna from Buckland, and then was on my way to the bus that would take me to Hanzhong.

Departure: 40 minutes delay.

The bus ride was quite comfortable, and I was very much surprised that the bus not only had seatbelts, but that use of them was mandatory!

Four hours, fifty two tunnels, and some stunning mountain vistas later I was home: Hanzhong, Shaanxi, People’s Republic of China.


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