Travel, Teach, Live in China

Blonde In China
By:Felicia Brings

Big Apple to Chrysanthemum City

I am a New Yorker who in 2007 had just one goal - not to spend another miserable and freezing winter in Manhattan. The very thought of trying to live through the raw, wet, windy, icy, cold and snowy horror that we call winter was more than I could handle. No, I wouldn't handle it. I am one of those people who can layer and layer, wear hats, scarves, fur boots and gloves and still be cold. Just thinking about the coming of winter drove me to depression.

I'd been hearing about the plethora of teaching jobs available in China for native speakers of English so I went online and began to explore. There was something else that was driving me as well. I was approaching my 60th birthday and there appeared to be a fork in the road ahead. Sixty signals the onset of old age and I refused to go there. If I died while in China, well, at least I wasn't doing the little old lady thing (while freezing my ass off.) No! No! No! I wasn't about to embrace old age without a fight. The truth is that on both counts, being cold and being old, I was desperate to avoid them.

I sent my resume out, looking specifically for opportunities that would enable me to spend no more than six months (most standard teaching contracts demanded a full year) on this crazy escapist voyage. I had taught English at two colleges so I wasn't exactly inexperienced. I had also written a wildly popular book and been interviewed by Katie Couric on the Today Show. I had some very impressive credentials, so it was with considerable confidence that I looked for an opportunity to utilize them fully-in a warm climate and among people who would look up to and appreciate me. I didn't know, then, how delusional I was.

When an offer from an exotic region of southern China presented itself, I leapt at the chance, never mind that I didn't speak a word of Chinese. I was ready for six months of adventure, warm weather and an opportunity to share my considerable expertise with the English language. Little did I know that China would be the minefield of profoundly outrageous (and often hilarious) challenges to everything I wanted or expected.

My new employer, James Zhang, the owner of the Bridge Language School, happened to be in HK when I arrived and offered to accompany me on the ferry from Hong Kong to Zhongshan, where I'd be living. HK is sort of like Las Vegas on steroids, with bright and colorful neon lights flashing and strobing everywhere. As in NYC there are sightseeing ferries in HK and people take them at night to see the beautiful city and harbor lights. But the 90 minute-ride to the mainland was totally dark. There were no lights to be seen anywhere throughout the trip, no lit up skylines of cities, or even towns. There was nothing but pitch darkness. The ferry was overly air conditioned and I was cold. Mr. Zhang asked the stewardess for a blanket for me. They didn't have blankets so she brought me a towel instead, which I draped over my shoulders. It really felt like I was entering another world.

Mr. Zhang was a well-educated and mild mannered middle-aged Chinese man who lived with his wife and young son in Vancouver, BC. As I learned later, he only visited his schools in China twice a year. It was comforting to have him make the trip with me; I could ask questions and show off a bit too. He should know and appreciate what a gem he'd hired. I had no inkling of what a crook he was at that early stage of the journey, though my sense of uneasiness began when we arrived in Zhongshan. We were met at the ferry landing by James' driver, Sparky, who, James suddenly announced, would take us the additional 45 minute drive to the town of Xiaolan, where I was to be housed. This was news to me. I thought I'd be living and teaching in Zhongshan. Throughout that drive James talked about how lovely Xiaolan was and how there were many different kinds of beautiful trees along the road as well as in the town. Still, I thought for just a brief moment that I should have been informed of this change earlier; the thought made me uncomfortable but I was exhausted and James appeared to be so respectable that I just put it away somewhere...

***IF YOU'RE GOING TO CHINA TO WORK FOR AN EMPLOYER BE SURE THAT ALL THE DETAILS OF WHERE YOU'LL BE LIVING IS IN YOUR CONTRACT - IN WRITING!

My apartment was in a high rise building. It was night when I arrived and I immediately became aware that though the apartment was sparsely furnished everything in it was hard. There was nothing cushy in the place. My mattress could have been made of concrete (which is true of all Chinese mattresses, as I learned later.) The living room sofa was a big piece of ornately carved wood-but without a single cushion, hard as a rock and very uncomfortable to sit on. The dining table was made of steel and glass. There were no closets and I wondered where I was going to put my clothes. There was a TV but no remote and I couldn't figure out how to turn it on (though as I learned later all the programming was in Chinese so it hardly mattered.) I knocked myself out with a sleeping pill that night.

The next morning, and every day from then on, I couldn't help but notice that the sky was gray instead of blue and the air had a greasiness to it that felt strange. The bathroom in the apartment had a western toilet (which I'd been told I could expect,) a sink and a shower contraption against the wall, but there was no demarcation between the bathroom floor and the shower. There was a drainage hole in the floor. So I took a shower standing on the bathroom floor. When I turned the water off everything in the bathroom was soaking wet, towels, toilet paper, etc. I learned to remove everything from the bathroom before I showered and then put it all back later after the room had dried out a bit. I had to towel dry the toilet seat after every shower too.

My apartment was only a five minute drive from the Bridge school, where I would be teaching, and I had no car, which wasn't a problem as there were plenty of motorbike taxis and they were both reliable and cheap. With motorbike taxis you just climb on behind the driver and go. If there are two or three of you, you all climb on and squeeze yourselves onto the very small back of the motorbike. I would regularly see two, three, even four adults squeezed very close together on the back of a motorbike, as the motorbike drivers routinely carry as many as five people, including toddlers and even infants.

***TAXI DRIVERS IN CHINA DO NOT SPEAK OR UNDERSTAND ENGLISH. MAKE SURE THAT SOMEONE WHO CAN WRITE CHINESE CHARACTERS WRITES YOUR DESTINATION ON A PIECE OF PAPER, WHICH YOU CAN SHOW THE DRIVER. BE SURE YOU ALSO HAVE THE CHINESE CHARACTERS WRITTEN DOWN TO GET YOU BACK TO WHERE YOU STARTED FROM.

Xiaolan is known as the Chrysanthemum City because it produces tens of thousands of Chrysanthemums each year for its nationally known Chrysanthemum Festival. I wouldn't have guessed that agriculture is officially the main form of industry in Xiaolan, but it is due to the enormous number of flowers that are grown there. Factories that produce stereos, DVDs, high-tech digital audio equipment, loudspeakers, laser heads, circuit boards and other computer parts also abound in this very small (at least by Chinese standards) town. But while there are many foreign companies operating in the area, there don't seem to be a lot of westerners, certainly not blonde ones, in this part of China. My hair made me the object of tremendous curiosity. People stared openly at me, gaping and pointing, and even those driving cars and trucks would take their eyes off the road to fix them on me; I was, from my first day in Xiaolan, the cause of some very close calls.

Little kids would run up to me and shriek "hello," then start giggling, screaming and jumping up and down excitedly when I said hello back. Every so often an elderly passerby on a bicycle yelled out a Chinese word that I found out means "foreigner." I didn't get the feeling that it was said in a "you imperialist pig" kind of way, just a spontaneous outburst expressing the person's shock at actually seeing someone who wasn't Chinese. For the most part I found the people to be quite friendly.

I was surprised to find that the town is actually very pretty and, at least in the center, didn't look at all like an industrial site. I saw broad boulevards and lots of different kinds of trees. There are a lot of cars, trucks, and buses; bicycles, two- as well as three-wheelers; donkey carts, homemade motorized contraptions and, of course, rickshaws, many of which are motorized although most of them are pedal powered. But more than anything else there are motorbikes - everywhere.

I noticed right away that there didn't appear to be traffic lights or stop signs anywhere in Xiaolan, nor did there seem to be any recognizable rules of the road. Everyone honks their horns non-stop. Cars, buses, motorbikes, bicycles, rickshaws and gigantic trucks all barrel full speed into the intersections at the same time, from every direction. Once they get within an inch of crashing into each other they slow down and somehow manage to negotiate around each other and move forward. Pedestrians, including very old people, mothers carrying infants, and schoolchildren just step into the road and add to the incredible chaos. But the negotiation happens, amazingly, without anyone shouting, yelling, cursing, or getting out of their vehicles to threaten anyone. A very far cry from what happens at most intersections in New York, even those with traffic lights.

***DON'T TRUST TRAFFIC SIGNALS, EVEN WHERE THEY DO EXIST. WAIT UNTIL THERE ARE NO VEHICLES COMING BEFORE CROSSING THE STREET.

My date to start teaching was approaching when I discovered that I was being placed in a local middle school, an unexpected turn of events as I was expecting to teach adults. Actually, James Zhang had told me that I wouldn't have any actual teaching to do. He assured me that each class (which I had also expected would be held at the Bridge school) had a Chinese English teacher and that they would be teaching, testing and grading the students, and essentially acting as my assistant. As a foreign English teacher my job would be to mostly motivate the students and provide a role model for correct pronunciation. I was also led to believe that my students would be a combination of mostly adults, with some secondary (including middle school) students thrown in. None of it turned out to be true.

***MAKE SURE THAT YOUR CONTRACT SPECIFIES EXACTLY WHAT YOU'LL BE DOING - AND WITH WHOM!

I observed almost immediately, that some of the other foreign teachers employed by Bridge were not native English speakers and that some of them spoke very imperfect English. I knew that I was being somewhat judgmental when I also noted that some of the other native speaker teachers were from Britain, Scotland, and Australia and that they had very strong regional accents. Some things were stacking up that began to make me feel uneasy, but I decided that I would just see how things went; I did, after all, have a round trip airline ticket and could just up and leave if things became unbearable, which at this point they definitely were not. Part of me didn't want to run home and have to admit that I had acted stupidly and I just couldn't handle things, and then there was also the fact that I was making very good money by renting out my New York apartment while I was away. Admitting defeat, especially this early into the adventure, was not an option. I let it go, deciding that I was just being my usual too critical self.

The Bridge school had assigned me two 'organizers,' young Chinese English teachers who also had the responsibility of helping me to acclimate and find my way around. One of them, Sharon, spent two days taking me around town, showing me the markets, the road which I could use to walk to school, the park, etc. Though Sharon was a certified English teacher in China, her English was difficult for me to understand. The other 'organizer,' Trina, was supposed to assist me with all teaching-related issues, and though her English was a bit better, it was a struggle to communicate effectively with either of them.

***EVEN IF YOU'VE TAKEN A COURSE IN MANDARIN DON'T EXPECT THAT COMMUNICATION WILL BE ANY EASIER. THERE ARE 57 DIFFERENT LANGUAGES OR DIALECTS SPOKEN IN CHINA. I HAVE OBSERVED PEOPLE FROM NEIGHBORING TOWNS BE UNABLE TO COMMUNICATE WITH EACH OTHER BECAUSE THEIR DIALECTS WERE DIFFERENT.

Accompanied by Trina, I visited the middle school to which I'd been assigned, to meet the principal and the head of the English department before I started teaching. We got there by both of us climbing onto the back of a motorbike taxi. Arriving at the school my first thought was that we were at the wrong address. The place looked like a country club with enormous, beautifully landscaped grounds, palm trees everywhere and a huge sports arena. But it was the school. The kids were all wearing their school uniforms-identical red, white and blue athletic suits. Neither the principal nor the vice principal spoke a word of English but the head of the English department had enough skills to enable us to communicate. After we left I asked Trina if this was some private school for rich kids, but she said no, it was a typical middle school. She said that the Chinese government was very committed to education and that it spends the money to ensure that all children have the best resources available. Finding a motorbike to get us back to town was another challenge as we stood on the empty road waiting and hoping that a motorbike taxi would come along, which eventually it did. On the ride back I saw another beautiful complex, which Trina said was an elementary school. This was not like anything I'd ever seen in New York. But, just like in NYC, I discovered very quickly that Chinese middle school kids are not exactly well behaved.

On my first day at the school I realized that I was the only foreign teacher there, and the only blonde most of the kids had ever seen in the flesh. They were all over me, yelling hello (everyone in China, it seems, has learned the word 'hello' and people will repeat the word over and over in what they must perceive to be a conversation, as did a lot of the kids at the school) and reaching out to touch my hair. The big difference between these kids, though, and the ones back home is that there was absolutely no threatening vibe there. The kids were excited and had a lot of energy but I never felt as if anyone wanted to kill me.

I was assigned a cubicle in the teacher's room, and a desk with an ancient computer on it, which I was looking forward to using for sending and receiving emails from home. I spent part of my first day at the school visiting all the women's bathrooms on the campus, hoping to find one with western facilities, but there weren't any. I would have to learn to squat. None of the bathrooms contained any toilet paper, soap or towels. There were stalls with doors that had holes in the floor - but which you could flush - and there were sinks. Women using the bathroom just wet their hands in the sink and walked out. I made a mental note to go to the supermarket that evening to stock up on toilet paper, as I would have to start carrying a roll with me in my bag. The stalls didn't have any hooks either, so I would have to put my bag on the floor - or leave my bag in my cubicle and just walk around carrying a roll of toilet paper every time I had to go. I'd been in China for a week and could see that the Chinese take health and exercise very seriously. TV commercials frequently exhort people to eat a balanced diet in order to build a stronger, healthier nation. I was amazed that basic hygiene wasn't part of the national 'let's all get healthy' program.

***CARRY TOILET PAPER AND BABY WIPES IN YOUR PURSE. IF YOU'RE A MAN, CARRY A PURSE.

A very major challenge early on was finding real coffee. There was Nestle's instant in the supermarket but no ground coffee or coffee beans. Except for oatmeal, I couldn't find any breakfast cereal either. I had brought a package of bran cereal with me but I didn't know what I was going to do when that was gone, a minor concern, for sure, although not finding coffee was beginning to make me panic. There was an enormous and ultra modern supermarket right across the street from my building, but of course all of the labels were written in Chinese so, except for the fresh produce, I didn't know what anything was. Another supermarket item I hadn't seen in any of the stores I visited (and was starting to obsess about) was hair color in any shade of blonde. Though I'd brought a couple of months supply with me I was already worrying, based on what I'd seen so far, about what I would do when I ran out. Meanwhile, though, I had bigger problems.

***IF YOU MUST HAVE FRESH BREWED COFFEE FIRST THING IN THE MORNING IN ORDER TO FUNCTION, BRING SEVERAL MONTHS SUPPLY WITH YOU (AS WELL AS FILTERS OR OTHER COFFEE MAKING NECESSITIES.) YOU CAN GET COFFEE IN CHINA, BUT SOMETIMES IT'S CHALLENGING TO FIND IT.

My first classes at the middle school gave me an immediate glimpse of what I'd gotten myself into. When I arrived in the morning hundreds of kids were outside doing their perfectly synchronized morning exercises. Several hundred kids, all wearing identical track suits, doing organized calisthenics. There was a Honda factory along the road leading to the school and as we passed it I could see hundreds of workers, all wearing identical white uniforms, doing the same.

I arrived at the school and was escorted to my first class and introduced to the students by a Chinese English teacher who then left the room, leaving me alone with a group of over 50 students. I'd been told by James Zhang that Chinese students all had pretty advanced English language skills, but as I tried saying a few things I realized right away that these kids' command of English was zero, never mind that they'd been studying it for at least five years. All of the classes were huge - with 50 or more students in each class, sometimes with not enough seats, forcing some of the kids to stand in the back of the room - and I had no help, no Chinese assistant, nothing. The kids were completely disruptive, restless and showed no sign of interest in learning English. At 13 and 14 years old these Chinese middle school kids were as impossible as the worst of this age group back home. I didn't know what I was going to do but, like a new young bride in an abusive marriage, I was determined to figure out a way to make it work.

Felicia Brings' new ebook, CHINA TIPS: What Every Westerner Should Know is available for Kindle at amazon.com. Her memoir about living in China during the buildup to the 2008 Olympics, as well as during the coldest winter on record, the worst earthquake in 30 years and the biggest uprising in Tibet in 20 years (called NO HUGGING IN CHINA- And Other Cautionary Tales ) will be available in December, 2011.

FB is coauthor of the iconic and wildly popular, OLDER WOMEN/YOUNGER MEN: New Options For Love and Romance (New Horizon Press, September 2000) featured on the Oprah Show, the Early Show, the Today Show, etc.


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