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: Arrival

Welcome to part two of this Ramadan series, and welcome to China, once more, to my husband Rora.

After the first week of Ramadan was over I got on a bus to Xi’an to meet Rora at the airport. After checking in at the hostel I hastened to the Muslim Quarter, because I wanted to pray and break my fast at the Great Mosque of Xi’an, the biggest, and probably most famous mosque in all of China. Once I reached the mosque I was already hearing the prayer through some loudspeakers, but I was not sure where the prayer hall was, as this Ming Dynasty (14th-17th century) building has various gates and courtyards. People all pointed me in one direction, and I eventually reached the prayer hall. I was a bit confused when I only saw men and no women, but as the prayer was already halfway over I decided to just pray behind the men.

After the prayer was finished, I was once more welcomed by very friendly people to sit down and have some food, and once more I noticed the absence of women. Actually I was not sitting with the other diners, I was sitting in a room adjoining the kitchen, with two other women, who were kitchen workers.

I was soon on my way again, and walked around the Muslim Quarter for some time, live streaming to my Facebook friends what I saw and heard. At 10 pm I went to the hostel to meet the driver who would take me to the airport and pick up Rora. Once I was in his car I checked Rora’s flight status – it should have left Beijing by then, but was labelled as “delayed”. This meant I had to wait for two hours at the airport, but what’s two hours after having waited for a month and a half?

Around 1 am Rora eventually arrived, and we got to the hostel around 2 am. We ate some simple food, and drank enough water before sleep to get us through the fast the next day. I think we slept until 2 pm, as we were both quite exhausted from traveling. The previous days had been rather hot, so I was relieved that the temperatures had cooled down, but we were not too happy about the constant rain that weekend. The first day we still tried to brave the weather without umbrellas, but at some point we gave in and bought a couple, before becoming completely drenched.

Rora was quite surprised by the big number of Muslims in China – there are about 20-40 millions spread throughout the country, and in Xi’an , a city with a population of 8.5 million, there are around 50000 Hui people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority. Even our much smaller Hanzhong has around 4000 Muslims in total.

On Sunday afternoon we spontaneously visited a mosque we were passing, and by chance we found some people with whom Rora could speak in Arabic. This mosque, believe it or not, had a beautiful prayer room for women! In the evening we went to the Great Mosque for prayer and iftar once more, and there, too, Rora was able to communicate with some people. We even met a Jordanian Muslim, who has been living in China for many years. This time we were at the mosque early enough to do a bit of sightseeing in this historical place – which usually requires some entry fee from tourists, but which is free to visit for Muslims. It’s certainly worth visiting!

This time I did not have to sit in the kitchen and instead was sitting with two other women and Rora next to all the other men. When it was time for prayer I was shown the designated prayer area for women – a small raised platform surrounded by curtains next to the entrance of the prayer hall: OUTSIDE the prayer hall! This was seriously disappointing, even more disappointing than the sauna-like prayer room for women in Hanzhong.

Once we were back in Hanzhong the rest of Ramadan, and the rest of the school term, passed rather quickly. We went to the local mosque for iftar once more, and Rora had a long conversation with the imam, who speaks Arabic fluently, and I chimed in with a mix of Arabic and Chinese. That night we were treated a bit like special guests, which I’m already used to, but which for Rora was a new, and slightly embarrassing experience. All eyes were on us, and many people wanted to welcome and talk to us.

In the upcoming third and last part of this Ramadan series I will talk about Eid el-Fitr, the big festival at the end of the holy month.

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.