Travel, Teach, Live in China

Yangshuo: English Capital of China
By:Carl Slaughter <[email protected]>

Yangshuo is the undisputed English capital of China. There are more language schools in Yangshuo than in any other city in China. I lost count of the people I met from all over China who told me they came to Yangshuo to study English. In addition to the littering of language schools, there are at least 3 major boarding schools where 16-18 year olds study English all day every day for 3 years and get the equivalent of a vocational college degree.

The undisputed godfather of Yangshuo’s ESL industry is Owen Buckland, who has been doing business there in one capacity or another for 20 years. His office staff - Beyond, Yuki, Kelly, Jasmine, Desta, Liu Hai, and Trent - were efficient and reliable. When taking you through established procedures, they flow like a well oiled machine. If you present them with a situation, particularly a situation they’ve never dealt with before and for which there’s no established procedure, there’s a bit of a deer caught in the headlights syndrome. Part of this is because none of them but Beyond have exceptional English skills. But they are all friendly and helpful (Liu Hai and Trent a bit less so). For example, when I had a problem with my scooter, Beyond rode me on the back of his scooter to a repair shop and waited til the mechanic told him the scooter was fixed. Yuki is the unofficial office manager. I discovered that if I didn’t know which office worker was the appropriate person for my situation, explain the situation to Yuki and she would assign someone. An intern named Lily is one of the most awesome translators I’ve ever dealt with, and I’ve been in China for several years and traveled extensively. Spend an hour with another translator and you’ll get one task accomplished. Spend an hour with Lily and you’ll get 10 tasks accomplished. I gave her a stack of my books. I also met May the Chinese course teacher, Apple the beginner class teacher, Greg the former office manager who pitches in during training sessions, and Ryan the former substitute teacher and trainer. Didn’t get a chance to meet Ping the recruiter. I had a bad personal experience with Owen. When I discovered he was hiring a lot of non-native speakers, a lot of candidates with thick and unfamiliar accents, a lot of people without college degrees, I told him I could do a lot better on the recruiting front. I think he resented it.

British Buckland teacher Richard did the training. The emphasis was on lesson planning. They used to have a lady named Betts who did the training. Now that she’s gone, there’s less emphasis on the technical and theoretical aspects of teaching ESL - methedology, learning styles, phonics, grammar, etc. They are starting a full fledged, 120 hour TESOL certificate course sponsored by the American TESOL Institute. They hired a Chinese lady named Carol to manage and promote the course. Her mother owns a kindergarten in nearby Guilin, where course students will do their teaching practice. Last I heard, they were still working on the curriculum.

Oscar manages the Buckland hotel. He doesn’t speak a word of English, but he’s very helpful in all respects. But he invited a steady parade of friends, relatives, and neighbors into the hotel and they used the lobby as a party room, cafe, and playground every waking hour of the day. The dining hall food is your basic Chinese dishes. Mostly vegetables. Crunchy, sour, half cooked. When they cooked a dish that was exceptionally delicious, and not by coincidence exceptionally popular, I would drag a translator to the kitchen and say, “This is terrific and everybody likes it. You should serve it more often.” After a few times, they started ignoring me.

I met Ou Da, Owen’s brother. Nice guy. Very outgoing. Never heard anything negative about him. Met his wife Kathy. Very nice lady with excellent English. Ou Da operates one of the vocational English language schools (Omedia in the park), a regular English language, and a Chinese language school. Also met a lot of the foreigners enrolled in his Chinese language school and they all seemed pleased. The bulletin board in the lobby is plastered with thankyou notes from former students. Ou Da recently opened a restaurant and a hostel above the restaurant around the corner from his English and Chinese language schools, which are around the corner from Owen’s language school and headquarters. The restaurant and hostel are very nice. The restaurant prices are very affordable. The hostel rooms are about 120 per night. The hostel is not downtown, so most of the guests are students in his Chinese language school and Buckland new arrivals. The Chinese language school receptionist is a friendly young lady named Cecily. She majored in English. I’ve taught a lot of English majors and Cecily’s English is much better than most of them. A vocational college, 2 language schools, a hostel, and a restaurant. Ou Da’s a busy guy.

Owen’s other brother, Billy, owns 2 of the vocational language schools. Both named Xi Jia. One on West Street, one next to Owen’s building. On English Corner night, the students comb West Street looking for foreigners. They tagged me and a couple of Buckland new arrivals while we were eating at Kelly’s restaurant. My favorite activity in China is English Corner. I’ve been to more English Corners in more cities and more schools than I can remember. But I’ve never been in same room with such an enthusiastic group of students than the Xi Jia English Corner on West Street. It was overwhelming. There I met Eyre, the Xi Jia office manager (?) ; Charlie, a Chinese English teacher for the other Xi Jia school; and Jenny, one of Charlie’s freshmen students. Jenny has an alpha personality, is serious about mastering English, and is destined for success. She likes to sing. When the mic is open, it’s in her hand first. I loaned and donated a lot of my books to her.

Hung out a lot at the Junxion Shop. It’s THE networking hub for foreigners in Yangshuo. Foreigners go there just to hang out, but they also go there to make connections. Meet people, buy difficult to find products, get information and advice, find jobs. Scooter repairs. Quick acting toothache medicine. Mold resistant paint. Video game software. You name it. Need to find something or get something done, go to the Junxion Shop, somebody there can help you. They’ve also got classic books, DVD movies, and collector comics. The other hangout is Monkey Jane’s. Monkey Jane’s is owned by a Chinese lady. The Junxion Shop is owned by Damien, a British guy. Whereas Monkey Jane’s is frequented more by Europeans and has a party atmosphere, the Junxion Shop is frequented more by native English speakers and has a very relaxed atmosphere. Monkey Jane’s is at the end of a dark ally. The Junxion Shop is one of main drags of West Street. A lot of foreigners cruising through West Street will see a foreigner behind the counter and go in and ask for information. After screening, Damien sends a of the rock climber/backpacker types to Lui Hai to teach at Owen College.

I had a very positive experience with Chris, the American VET coordinator. In Buckland circles, Chris is referred to as Grampa. Bobby, the Chinese coordinator, who used to be Owen’s manager before Liu Hai. He took me to and from the airport, train station, and bus station in Guilin and Yangshuo. When I had a problem with insects, he translated for me at a pesticide shop. Took turns treating each other for breakfast at McDonalds. BB, the support person for VET. Hangs out at the Junxion shop. (Spent a month hitchhiking to Tibet and back. Wow.) Left my scooter with him. Vivi, the VET secretary, who very helpful when I was putting together a VET networking letter. I’ll make a shameless plug for the VET here. Stands for Volunteer English Teacher. They send foreign English teachers into surrounding villages, which can hardly afford Chinese English teachers, much less native speakers. At its height, the VET had 400 teachers a year. After the Canadian cofounder left, that figure dwindled to a few a month. Chris and Bobby are in the process of reinvigorating the program. They plan use the Yangshuo model to spread it all over China and then eventually take it international. NGOs are hot right now. If you’re trying to break into the NGO field or the ESL field, if you’re keen on experiencing real China, or if you’re just trying to put a major plus on your resume, doing the VET thing is a good place to start.

I had the misfortune of working for Owen’s nephew, Wonderful. Total jerk, total quack. When he knocked on my door, I opened it and waited for him to introduce himself and explain why he was standing outside my door at 8:30 in the evening. But he just stood there and looked at me. Finally I closed the door. Owen had to send me a phone message explaining who he was. Wonderful’s school, Meicheng, is down the street and around the corner from Ou Da’s new restaurant. It’s a bit isolated and hard to find. I wasn’t the only foreign teacher who got lost trying to find it. But Wonderful had contempt for me when I called him and asked him to help me find it. He hung up on me. One of Wonderful’s students got me fired. You’ve seen her type. The first 10 minutes of my first lesson, she stood in front of the mirror and combed her hair. 5 minutes after sitting down, she looked down at her mobile phone and hardly ever looked up again. Unless I specifically called on her, she did not participate. There was only one exception. Shortly after the lesson started, she asked me, "Are you single?" It was after this question that she started playing with her mobile phone. In short, she was the worst student in the class. She told Wonderful, “He seems more interested in learning Chinese than teaching English.” I asked the students to write 3 words in Chinese. 2 in the dining hall and one in the classroom after the lesson. But Chinese administrators have no resistance to accusations from students. Even one student. No matter how false or petty the accusation. A couple of students at one of the Xi Jia school got a teacher fired under similar circumstances. Liu Hai, who was managing for Billy at the time, accepted their accusation that he was a bad teacher and fired him. They emailed this teacher later to say, “We’re very sorry we got you fired. We just wanted to get a tuition refund, so we told Liu Hai you’re a bad teacher.” The teacher relayed the message to Liu Hai, who hired him for Owen College. He’s been teaching at Owen College for 3 or 4 years now. His picture is on the wall. Nuff said. Back to Wonderful. He got into a stupid argument with me about electronic dictionaries. He carries on like he’s an expert at teaching English, hiring and supervising foreign teachers, and operating a language school. After he fired me, his only foreign teachers were 2 French guys with thick accents. Nuff said.

I didn’t meet Billy, but I met one of his former teachers, who told me this story: Billy tried to keep his passport. He was told, “That passport doesn’t belong to you. It doesn’t even belong to me. It belongs to Her Majesty the Queen’s government. You can give it back to me or I can call the British embassy. The British embassy will call the Yangshuo police and the police will come to your school and take the passport from you.” Billy promptly returned the passport.

Buckland trainees did their teaching practice at one of the vocational colleges, so I was able to listen to a lot of the students use English. And the practic lessons were given to students on the verge of graduation. These students spend an awful lot of time and money studying English, yet none of them could string a complete, correct sentence in English. Something is fundamentally wrong.

OK, now someone explain it to me: HOW DO FOREIGN TEACHERS IN YANGSHUO AFFORD MEALS IN WESTERN RESTAURANTS WHEN THEY GET PAID ONLY 50 YUAN PER LESSON?


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