This has been my second Christmas spent in China. While last Christmas still felt like the festive season, this year, even with a full day off on Christmas Day to celebrate, failed to ignite the giddy levels of child-like excitement of yesteryear. With just over a week left in Benxi before I can shake away from the shackles of permanent employment once again, this was proving a far more appealing date than the birth of Mary’s first born.
As usual, most businesses and shops waited until the last possible moment to put up their Christmas decorations. I’m sure the majority have no idea to the real meaning behind this season of festivities, only the commercial, non-religious side gleamed from Western images. Once these decorations are up, there is little chance of them coming back down until the arrival of summer at the very earliest.
Like the previous year, my immediate employer took us out for a celebratory Christmas Eve meal at his favourite (and possibly also the cheapest) restaurant in the city. Amongst friends I have the reputation of being the stingiest man alive. But watching my boss in action, I believe there is plenty more I could learn before I can realistically challenge for this title. Not only did he wait until the actual day to inform everyone of his charitable plans of a free meal, when most members of staff had already made Christmas Eve plans of their own, but he also informed my wife and I that this celebratory Christmas meal would also double as our leaving meal. Such tactics, only a legendary skinflint would have the audacity to attempt!
I’m not sure how much Jesus would appreciate me jumping on his birthday bandwagon, but I did with great proficiency, scoffing as much free food as my intestines and politeness would allow. Moving on to one of the city’s premier nightspots afterwards, free drinks supplied by intoxicated students meant waking on Christmas Day morning with the obligatory Christmas hangover was achieved.
Alongside Christmas, winter has also arrived in earnest with daytime temperatures already closing in on minus twenty degrees Celsius. Unbeknown to me during my first winter in Benxi, a ski resort lies on the edge of the city, with a variety of ski slopes and snow related activities to keep even the most A.D.D of inhabitants happy. Strangely, skiing is something I’ve never once attempted in my existence.
Known for it’s popularity amongst the rich, skiing in Benxi, at only £6 all inclusive soon made me feel at ease as I was surrounded by the city’s working-class. Marvelling at the Chinese’s ‘here are your skis and poles, now go and learn for yourself,’ philosophy, I soon found myself following other absolute beginners to the top of the intermediate slope. Watching the bravery of the untrained, as they careened towards the bottom of the slope before disappearing from view under a haze of powdery snow from yet another spectacular crash, their skis and poles flying through the air, I knew I would have to be extremely foolish to top such extravagant failure.
I should have known it would only be a matter of time before such a thing happened, not even managing to make it to the top of the slope before an embarrassing disaster struck. Standing on the long, uphill conveyer belt that transported skiers to the top of the slope, I was slowly becoming accustomed to the awkwardness I felt wearing skis. After marvelling how far forward I could lean without falling over, I decided to try the same leaning backwards. Now I know, leaning backwards on skis can have only one result.
As soon as I started to lean backwards I fell, tumbling off the conveyer belt. If I had fallen to the left I could have dusted myself off and rejoined the conveyer belt without any hassle. Alas, I fell to my right, where there was a four foot drop and a rusty barbed wire fence running adjacent to the conveyer belt. I somehow managed to get my right ski lodged in the barbed wire, whilst my face was pushed firmly in the snow. I was stuck fast and as much as I wiggled, I couldn’t free myself. As Chinese skiers whipped out their camera phones and happily snapped away at my misfortune, it was a further ten minutes before help was at hand and I was freed.
This embarrassing episode didn’t deter me and I was soon at the top of the slope ready for my first adrenaline-lined taste of skiing. After falling twice on my first run, I was soon reaching the bottom unscathed and at speed. Like the majority of the Chinese skiers, all I could do was go in a straight line. I didn’t know how to turn (without falling over) or to stop (again, without falling over) but I decided if this was okay for the Chinese not to grasp then it was okay for me too.
After waiting a year for my first ‘night runner’ (someone who leaves without telling the boss beforehand), another has come and gone in the past week. When you travel halfway across the world to take up a new job, the last thing you want to hear when being met at the airport by your new employer is, "oh, you have an accent, hopefully the parents won’t complain." A strange thing to say, considering the many Skype conversations had beforehand. To then be taken to an unclean apartment with a kitchen full of noodle encrusted plates and a bed covered in love-stained sheets, you can’t help but wonder where the respect and dignity you expected to receive upon arrival disappeared too.
In complete contrast, another new teacher, who arrived with her 11 year old daughter, received nothing but VIP treatment, highlighting the relationship between what you can offer and the varying degrees of hospitality received. With my employer also having a young daughter, the arrival of a foreign child was heralded as the magic component to making his own daughter fluent in English. This point was proven within the first week of their arrival with my boss’s wife already asking the new teacher’s daughter to be her own daughter’s personal English teacher.
Having peaked in number several weeks ago, many of my classes are now dropping in size at an alarming rate. Knowing that I’ll be leaving soon, some parents have no faith in my school’s a ability to provide an adequate replacement. Instead they take their child out of class before they have to pay for the next instalment of classes. With the importance placed upon a child’s education in north-east China, this logic goes against the normal thought process.
When teaching, many times I over-pronounce words so students can hear the different syllables that make up the word. Doing so can often lead to varying sizes of saliva leaving my mouth and hitting students in the front row of class. I never thought this was such a bad habit until I noticed two young girls keeping a running tally of who had been hit by my flying phlegm the most times. If I hit them, their desk or any of their belongings, an extra dash would be added to their score, kept on the first page of their notebooks. A nod of approval from their rival acknowledged the point. I remember mocking such teachers during my youth and to realise I’m turning in to such a person makes me realise maybe it is time to move on before it’s too late.