So here we are in Changsha. The day we arrived it was 17C, which was quite pleasant. It’s a good thing we didn’t have to get used to it because I am constantly freezing. 0C here is worse than -20C. The sun is a rumour. If I want to see the sun, I have to find a picture on the Internet. However, the weather says the sun will come out tomorrow.
It was a long trip for a cheap price. The tickets were one-way for $490 Cdn., which is a damn fine price. This was on Hainan Airlines, the number one choice of cheapskates everywhere. The movies were crap (Jersey Boys, give me a break, what were you thinking Clint?) and the flight was 13 ½ hours from Toronto to Beijing. Upon arrival in Beijing they took us to a hotel to spend the night at their expense and we were up early the next morning to get the 2 ½ hour flight to Changsha.
Yes, I was back in China. I would have known that if I were blindfolded. How could I have pulled off that trick you wonder? The lovely smell of cigarettes and the noise. Why, oh why, am I here?
Changsha is in the “south” but in China the “south” means nothing. There is a river whose name I can’t remember and if you’re below that you’re in the “south” and if you’re above that you’re in the “north”. If you’re in the “north”, there is heat in homes and buildings. If you’re in the “south” you turn the air conditioner to heat mode, spend a fortune on electricity, and there you go.
Every day there has been no sun, a little rain, always overcast, and I’m chilled to the bone. Except at home my winter coat is always on, along with my hat and gloves. Today it got to 10C so it wasn’t as bad, but not good enough to take my coat off. Tomorrow says it will be 12C and sunny and the temperature will continue to move up. I hear the summer is humid and more humid so who knows why I’m complaining because I’m not looking forward to that.
We were picked up at the airport and taken to some sort of school with a residence where we would live until we found somewhere to live. The apartments in the residence don’t have kitchens and you can’t cook in there. You are supposed to go to the “canteen” to eat which can be a problem for someone who hates Chinese food. I opted for the housing allowance.
My boss took us for lunch and then took us out to look at apartments. I liked that. We could live near the University campus and be close to school and the city center, or we could live in the “new” high-tech area. I have no idea why they call it “high-tech” because there is nothing high-tech about it. The area near the University is old and the apartments are supposed to be dumps because they keep renting to students. The apartments in the high-tech area are father out but the area is cleaner. We took Philip’s (my boss) word and looked in the high-tech area. We found a place that met our budget (we pay a little more than the housing allowance). The apartment owner is a single-mom (divorced) who is beyond nice. She took us everywhere the first weekend to buy things, she calls Shujie every day, she’s taken me to the dentist (a tooth broke), and she’ll do anything we ask her. Shujie calls her “darling” and she has a nice smile. She doesn’t speak English and she has a 16-year old son who I’ve had lunch with at Pizza Hut while Shujie and her ate Chinese.
The apartment is nice but it’s far from school. In the morning I take a bus to where we could have lived for free to get a lift from a school employee who lives there. To go home I take 2 buses and it can take from ½ hour to an hour. It’s too far but it’s important to live in a home that’s clean and comfortable. Bigger would be better, but I’ve lived in worse. And we get the landlady who takes care of us.
The school has an agreement with Hunan University and they get room there. It’s associated with NCUK (whatever that is), but it’s in the U.K. It’s a “pathway” program and I’m part of the pre-masters program. A student can come to this course and if they pass they are guaranteed acceptance into a University in the U.K. Not all University’s but there is a choice of about 11 Universities. It’s not cheap to take this course (I haven’t asked the price) but these kids come from rich families because the cost of the course and to send their kids to the U.K. for a year is not cheap.
There are six students. I prefer 15-20 so I have a larger audience to try my jokes out on. They learn “English for Academic Purposes”, “International Business”, “Listening”, and “Research Methods”. I’m the “Research Methods” teacher. I’m supposed to teach them how to write a thesis using my great experience. “Those that can, do, and those that can’t, teach”. However, what they don’t know won’t hurt them. The students get my best effort and there is much I can teach them. With me as their teacher they don’t just get “research methods”, but they get slang, manners in the West, humour, and anything I can do to help them. For some unknown reason I’m good with young people. It’s effortless for me to be helpful and interested in them. I do this because it’s not like work, it’s fun. Regardless of the course you teach when you’re in China, you are still an English teacher. I have one student whose English level is below that of a barking dog. I don’t have anyone great. I have 3 ½ students who want to learn (the half is for a student who wants to learn but has a habit of zoning out), one student whose picture can be found in the dictionary under “lazy”, and another one who I don’t think really cares.
One of the most important things they need to be able to do when they enter the Master program in the U.K. is write. Their writing ranges from pitiful to bad. There are 5 guys and 1 gal and the gal’s writing is horrible but she wants to get better. I think one of the things that happened is that these kids didn’t know 5 years ago they would really need to know English so here they are. I’ve offered to help anyone who wants to improve their writing and to review his or her work. The girl has already written something extra which is good. We’ll see what the others do.
The lazy boy (who I don’t like, sorry) was clipping his nails in class the other day. I had to tell him to not do that and if he did that in England he’d look like a fool. Today I told a boy to stop burping loudly and if he did that in England he would be friendless. I try to stress things they need to know in general about life and how to succeed. I’ve told them that if they continue to write “Chinglish”, their professors will throw their work out. There are no free rides because English is your 2nd language. All that means is your job is harder. Philip has told them that but he likes me to tell them because he thinks it will mean more to them coming from someone from outside China.
Their EAP (English for Academic Purposes) teacher is not from the West. He’s from the Philippines where English is quite common and they start learning it in pre-school. I know Korean kids who have money but can’t afford the West will go to school in the Philippines to improve their English. His English is not at the level of a native speaker and because the student’s writing is so horrific I wonder about him. He knows their writing is terrible so I’m not sure he puts forth the extra effort to help them. I know there is a lot to teach (for him, for me) but you have to go the extra mile (if the students want to take advantage of that). It’s not my job to teach them writing but it turns my stomach that a student who wants to improve gets no extra help. I tell the students I’m happy to help them, not because it’s my job, but because I want to help. I asked them if they liked helping other people and if it made them feel good and they all said yes. I told them it was the same for me. I guess I’m not always the total ass I may appear to be.
The classroom is on the 4th floor and of course there is no elevator. Walking in general is difficult for me. I’m getting older (I think) and my heart is not the finest it could be. Four flights of stairs are a killer and it takes me a while. I don’t try and push myself to be faster because, “what’s the point”? On some days I had to do the stairs twice and my girl student suggested I get my classes put one after the other so I only had to do the trip once. I asked and they changed the schedule. I can’t complain because they try to be nice. They said they would give me airfare money within a week of my arrival and they did. I only work in the morning, which I prefer.
One day it was so cold in the classroom that the students and I were complaining about it to each other. I told them to tell their parents and their parents would call the school and complain and the problem would be resolved. Shujie said they’d never tell their parents to do that and I agreed with her. We were wrong. They went home and told their parents that their teacher suggested that they call and complain and that’s what the parent’s did. Philip was annoyed because he didn’t know about the problem so he never had the chance to resolve it. The University students were already on “Spring Festival” break so they turned off some of the electricity to save costs. Philip asked me if I really told the students to complain to their parents and I had to tell him I was guilty. I explained to him that in my Chinese experience no one gave a damn about the students and based on my prior experience I did what I did. I apologized to him because it seems like this program is a little different. It’s a business and they want to make money, but they do care about giving value in return. I’m impressed so far and I told Philip that anything I could do to help (marketing, talking to parents, etc.) I’d be happy to do.
This could be my last Chinese year since I hit 60 this year and the rule in China is that they don’t accept teachers once they hit 60. I know that’s not a hard and fast rule and sometimes you can get a visa. I was talking to Philip about it today and he said last year they had a teacher who was 62. He thinks it depends on the visa man in the chair that day. If he’s in a good mood, you’re in, and if he’s not then it’s hit the road. I know it’s only been 8 days but I’ve never had such a positive start before.
I have a 3-week holiday starting Monday. It’s “Spring Festival” which means it’s the Chinese New Year (Feb. 19 this year). We are going to Baoding for 6 days to spend time with Shujie’s family. I’m so glad I like them. Only her younger brother speaks English so it’s always nice to chat with him. The only thing that won’t be as good for me this year is that our Chinese nephew won’t be there for me to talk to. He’s in Hamilton at University. The family has already reserved seats at Pizza Hut for the day after New Year’s because they know I don’t like Chinese food. I hate that we go out for Western food when I’m the only one who really likes it and there are more of them than there are of me. However, it’s very kind of them. We will be staying with Shujie’s son instead of a hotel this year. I prefer the hotel but we haven’t saved any money. His apartment is at 18C so I’ll be cold. It’s basically a boring time for me, but I’m happy to do it because it’s a good time for Shujie. I can read and I can play on the Internet and I don’t really care if no one talks to me because they can’t. Plus, there is the visit to the cemetery to visit Shujie’s father’s grave and burn some money to send him wherever he is. It’s kind of sad since Shujie never liked her father but she’s a dutiful daughter. I do the Jewish thing and put a stone on his grave.
So that’s it and you’re up to date. So far, pretty good. Below are some pictures of the apartment for your enjoyment.