Summer should be a time of excessive tanning and evening drinking. For my wife and I, it’s been nothing but six day, sixty hour working weeks brought about by extra summer classes and my employer’s strange obsession with sacking every new teacher that arrives.
Since arriving in China I’ve had the pleasure of welcoming three new teachers through the gates of Benxi, all of which have been sacked within a month. First impressions seemingly count for a lot here. Thrown in at the deep end with classes full of scrutinizing parents and expectant children, the sink or swim philosophy has yet to reap any survivors.
It’s not only your teaching style that’s rigorously examined. Your appearance and personality is also critiqued. This was the downfall of the first teacher to get sacked: an experienced, black, dreadlocked male. The second, someone lacking any classroom experience, suffered the same fate. Interestingly both went on to find better paying jobs in China afterwards.
The last arrival was the quickest dismissal of the lot. Arrested on his first night in Benxi for break-dancing drunk in the street, he couldn’t have really made a worse start if he’d tried. Receiving little support, it was a downward spiral of drunkenness and hangovers from then onwards.
Call it naivety, but I envisaged foreign teachers in China would be like-minded, independent individuals, working professionally in order to travel and immerse themselves in a new culture. The reality is far more complex, with an array of personalities and reasons for travelling on show.
Teaching so many extra classes has meant summer is passing by virtually unnoticed. The only memories of the hot, smoggy days have been the sweat-soaked shirts I finish each day wearing. The air-condition free classrooms, fit to bursting with students and parents, act more as a sauna than an environment for learning. My appearance, more suited to an 18-30’s holiday wet t-shirt competition only confuses the students, one of whom innocently asked, "teacher, did you have a bath with your shirt on." My attempt at the humorous response of, "because I sweat a lot," only brought apologetic stares and the offer of some traditional Chinese medicine from one concerned parent.
Six-day, sixty hour weeks also don’t give many opportunities for travel. The closest my wife and I have come to leaving the city was a walk down to a man-made beach, built next to the dead-fish floating Taizi River, a river that cuts the city of Benxi in two. Sadly, the chilled, laid back beach atmosphere I was expecting to see was replaced with thirty butt-naked men, all of whom were using the beach and adjacent river as their own personal bathtub. It’s normal for people to stop what they are doing to stare at a foreigner, but having thirty naked men, with their (not so) pride and glories flapping in the wind for all to see, left us with no alternative than to beat a hasty retreat to a nearby playground. It didn’t help matters that this soap-lathered water is the city’s main drinking resource, pumped to every house in the city. I think I might start drinking more bottled water from now on!
Once down by the river, it’s easy to see the transformation this industrial city is going through. On one side, the bustling hub of the city churns thick smog high into the sky. On the other side, parks and tree lined paths hug the river, with posh, upmarket housing developments located close behind. Here, the rich children play in virtual tranquillity and silence, sporting the new summer fashions. Shirts containing references to the English language seem to be one such fashion.
While some shirts are emblazoned with random letter formations, such as ‘Deddrrtbv’ and ‘Layrrddt’, others are far more colourful in the language they use. ‘I’m a scat man’, ‘my mother smoked dope, got p*ssed, and dropped acid in her pregnancy and I turned out fine’ and ‘$10 will buy you my wh*re ass for a whole night’ all seem popular choices. Those wearing them walk around, blissfully unaware of the messages they are portraying.
With public schools on summer vacation, it doesn’t necessarily mean children have the opportunity to break from their rigorous curricular activities. Instead their parents sign them up to a multitude of summer camps. So much so that their summer holidays are just as busy as a normal school week. With the added pressures a one-child policy has brought on many students to perform to their highest capabilities it’s easy to see why parents put them under so much pressure. It also helps to explain the deluded nature of others.
One such delusional mother enrolled her three year old daughter in a new class of absolute beginners I was teaching. Barely seeing above the desk and still at an age where understanding her native Chinese was a new concept, the chances of this toddler coping well in the hour-long, sauna-like classes from a book designed for seven year olds was slim to none. Her mother obviously thought differently.
Prancing around like a mentally challenged clown is a routine I have become highly accustomed to whilst teaching here, amusing students and parents alike. Even this failed to be affective on someone so young. As soon as the class started I could see the mother becoming more and more visibly annoyed that her daughter seemed far more interested in chewing her book rather than reading it. Five minutes later, after twice leaving her desk to take a closer look at her new classmates, the mother couldn’t take anymore. Forcing her back in to her seat, the ‘concentrate and learn English’ slaps to the back of the head started. From the daughters muted response, this retribution was probably a regular occurrence. It took another two classes of the ’slap and listen’ approach for the mother to admit defeat that her daughter was too young.
There’s not many positives of working such long hours. Hearing the odd comically mispronounced or misused word from the students is one of the few. After teaching the words, ‘village’, ‘countryside’, ‘town’ and ‘city’ in class, I decided to re-cap these words the following lesson. After remembering city, town and countryside with little fuss, the last word, village, eluded my students. I explained that the word I was looking for was like ‘countryside’ but smaller. Upon hearing this description, one student enthusiastically raised his hand, before shouting, "a c*nt, a c*nt, a c*nt." Realising he‘d thought I meant shorten the word ‘countryside’, I applauded him on his ingenuity, before quickly correcting him. While he might have been correct; such a thing is smaller than the countryside, I thought it best not to explain in detail his error.
Other thought provoking mispronunciations and misspellings have included;
"I like eating c*ck." (instead of saying, "I like drinking Coke.")
"Do you like breasts?" (instead of saying, "Do you like bread?")
"I don’t like dirty bummings." (instead of spelling, "I don’t like dirty buildings.")
Hopefully such filthy language will disappear with a little bit of pronunciation practice!