Approaching a year in China, my wife and I have suddenly found ourselves as the longest serving members of the teaching department. A role that has come at impressive haste, helped by the quick departure of three other teachers, whose contracts have all ended. Like independence from the British Empire, the departures have created feelings of a new beginning. It’s also made me realise how little time my wife and I have left before we move on to pastures new.
The new teachers replacing those departed are an eclectic bunch and I hope they will have more success than the three previous new arrivals, all of whom were sacked within weeks. In the English teaching profession of Asia, there is the rarest kind of teacher that one wants to meet. They are as fabled and mysterious as unicorns, dragons and leprechauns. These teachers are known as ‘night-runners.’ For those unaware of what a night-runner is, it’s a teacher who decides their current teaching position isn’t fulfilling their dreams and lifestyle choices, so instead of informing their boss of this, they run away in the middle of the night under the safe blanket of darkness to a new location.
For some teachers, this escape is the only option of breaking away from abusive, violent bosses who offer nothing more than labour camp working conditions. For others it’s just a lazy, selfish way to distance themselves from their own actions. Unfortunately for this one night-runner new to Benxi, their behaviour seemed more of an addiction, running away for a second time within weeks of their arrival.
With the arrival of new teachers, it’s meant having several new pairs of eyes watching some of my classes. My students are a clever and observant bunch and upon entering one class with two new teachers, I asked my students, "what do I have new today?" With a new teacher either side of me, the students responded with the answers of, "a new haircut" and "a new shirt"
After my students finally realised they didn’t have triple vision and there were indeed two new teachers stood before them, I decided it would be good practice to allow them to tell the new teachers about me, practising their use of the English descriptive language. I however cut short this exercise when the first few comments from my students included, "he is fat and short," "he has a big chest," and "he is expecting a baby." Maybe I should have congratulated them on their honesty.
Although I am happily able to survive with my current level of Chinese, considering I have been here almost a year, my ability is a tad disappointing. Every day I often mishear what people say, answering with a comment that brings nothing but mocking and looks of exasperation. Deciding to surprise my wife with a spot of romance, I snuck out of my apartment early one morning to a nearby florist. Looking at the variety of flowers on offer, the florist approached me and asked, "are you American?" "No, I’m English," I replied. The woman asked the same question again. Again I replied with the same answer, this time a little slower and louder. It wasn’t until the third time the florist asked the same question, this time picking up a rose and pointing to it that I realised she wasn’t asking my nationality, she was asking if I wanted roses, two words that sound very similar in Chinese.
On a trip to the post office to send pen-pal letters to Argentina, I made a similar mistake. Looking at the envelope, which had Argentina written on in both English and Chinese, the post office worker asked if I wanted to send the envelope to Hong Kong. Confused to why she would say this when the envelope was so evidently marked to where I was sending it, I politely responded, "No," before pointing to the address and saying Argentina in Chinese. Like a rapid ping pong rally, the words ‘Argentina’ and ‘Hong Kong’ were exchanged without pause for breathe. It was only when the worker raised her arms to mimic an airplane that I realised that she was never asking me if I wanted the letters sent to Hong Kong, but if I wanted them sending via airmail. It should have been obvious that I was the culprit to this misunderstanding.
Other than this, the only spot of travelling I’ve been able to enjoy was a visit to a nearby botanical garden in Shenyang. A twenty minute taxi ride out of the city, Shenyang Botanical Gardens makes an ideal retreat away from the crowds of this mega-city. At the gardens, provinces and cities from all of China have built elaborate gardens to portray and promote their heritage and culture.
With no more trains from Shenyang to Benxi that day, we waited politely and patiently for a public bus back to Benxi once we had exited the gardens.. Being patient and polite in China isn’t always the advisable thing to do. As the frenzied mob of passengers elbowed us out of their path (including a frail, elderly pensioner, who I’m sure could have taken down Mike Tyson in his heyday) to beat us on to the bus, we were forced to admit defeat and wait for the next bus. The conductor informed those waiting that there would be only one more bus back to Benxi that evening. With near riot-like conditions, we had learnt our lesson. We pushed, pulled, kicked, elbowed and screamed like the rest of the contingent, this time making it on the bus. As I looked at the crestfallen crowd outside the window, who were now facing the reality of having to pay for an overly inflated taxi ride back home, I knew we had done a good job. If there is one product England could do well exporting to China, it would certainly be queuing!