I still have to pinch myself. After fourteen months and over 1200 hours of teaching, my time in Benxi has come to an end. I was expecting to walk out of school on my last day like a freed Nelson Mandela; the euphoric scent of freedom in the air and visions of a more fruitful existence on the horizon. Strangely though, like a person suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, I had nothing but feelings of sadness and regret towards the city that had held me hostage for all this time.
It’s easy to say my time in China hasn’t been one of unadulterated passion. It’s been a sometimes long, hard slog. An experience though that has enabled some of my most rewarding and satisfying moments. I doubt I’ll ever get use to feeling like an expendable commodity, where qualifications and experience count for very little. I’ll also never understand how respect can be measured in wealth rather than personal attributes. On the other hand, the majority of Benxi’s population have offered nothing but warmth and hospitality and have been some of the friendliest people I have ever met. My students and their parents have proven this.
Upon leaving, the generosity of gifts I have received from students has surprisingly shocked me, especially considering how critically harsh some of the parents have been. Maybe if they had been more open with their feelings, then some of the stresses of teaching here would have quickly evaporated. It’s important to remember that it’s the students that have made this experience so worthwhile. Not the lazy, money obsessed employer that has brought about such negativity on my part.
I’m not one for showing my true emotions, but to stand in front of my classes for a final time and see sobbing students and mothers, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by my departure and realise my efforts had been deeply appreciated.
Some parents have propositioned me and offered their help in opening my own language school in the city. Extra-curricular classes and any child orientated industry is very lucrative in China. Even amongst poor families, all extra resources are poured in to their child’s development, thanks to the one-child policy. Having taught in Benxi for so long and having a decent reputation (which isn’t difficult being one of only a handful of foreigners in the city), it would be easy to attract a steady stream of students in to my own school and watch my income rapidly rise. To do so though I would need a Chinese partner to take care of all the paperwork, and in a country where morals are often forgotten in the pursuit of wealth, there would always be the constant worry of being screwed over at every opportunity. If that happened, with my lack of Chinese, there would be no comeback.
Other parents confronted my boss and questioned why he wasn’t attempting to keep my wife and I at his school. Not once did he enquire about the possibilities of us staying. He no doubt knew there was a good chance of being rejected, and to be rejected is equal to losing face. No Chinese man is happy to be rejected or admit defeat or a mistake. Such an occurrence is a sign of weakness. Instead he was happier to lose two competent teachers.
There was never any love-lost between my boss and I. I came here to teach, not make somebody (who became wealthy through plagiarism) as much money in as shorter time as possible. Because of this there was often disagreement regarding school principles based on greed, rather than a child’s access to a good education. If I was prepared to lose sight of my principles and have my dignity trampled all over, then there wouldn’t have been any problems. I’d rather leave though with my head held high knowing I did the best job I could.
This thought process was reiterated on my last day when my boss’s wife asked my wife if she liked her husband. After my wife replied, "he’s been a lot better recently," her response was, "well if I’d known you liked him, I would have taken you out for a goodbye dinner."
My last two weeks in Benxi have been full of invitations for farewell meals. I’m never one to complain when it comes to eating free banquet style feasts, but to attempt this for ten days straight has left me looking like a bloated umpa-lumpa. Parents tend to judge the successfulness of the evening by how much you eat. I’m never one to offend! During these marathon eating sessions, I’ve had the pleasure of sampling some new culinary delights. Amongst those eaten have been yak tendons, fermented mangoes, intestine salad and a personal favourite; curdled chicken blood soup.
Even with English classes curtailing in to classes of goodbyes and photo taking, there was one last humorous moment worthy of noting. I’d taught the sentence, "I wanr some more……………….," and after jokingly telling the students, "I want some more presents," I asked my students what they wanted more of. One five year old boy raised his hand and responded, "I want some more girls." Another five-year-old boy chipped in immediately after with, "me too."
New Year’s Eve fell on my last day of teaching. After finishing classes and saying an awkward goodbye to my former employer, I was hoping for some impressive celebrating with my local friends. Unfortunately after a strong start of hard liquor drinking and some chicken foot gnawing, I was back home by 11pm, before the bells of New Year had even started to chime. It seems arranging to meet with friends who bring children along will never turn in to the raucous affair expected.
This was probably for the best, as it allowed a refreshed, hangover-free awakening the following morning, perfect for leaving Benxi for the last time. As a fitting finale, that reiterated the niceness of Benxi folk, many friends, students and their parents came to the station to say goodbye to my wife and I. With them they brought flowers and enough fruit to survive on for months. I struggled with the extra baggage and as I waved farewell as we started our journey to Beijing (the first stop on our travels), a solitary tear trickled down my cheek.