What follows comprises selections from a diary I kept during my year of teaching English in China. Only the first six months or so are included here. The rest will appear in a later addition of EuroAfrica News Magazine Online. On February15, my wife Helen and I boarded a flight (which was delayed some 12 hours) from JFK airport to Beijing. More than 16 hours later, we flew from Beijing to Zhengzhou (pronounced JUNG-jou), where we were met at the airport by Mr. Dai, a truly affable man who would be our Mr. Fix-It at Shengda College, where I had accepted a teaching position.
The journey in a van from the airport to Shengda presaged a living presentiment that would dominate our view of China during the next year: rows and rows of newly constructed or in-progress apartment and office buildings stretching for seemingly endless kilometers.
We called it “mighty Zhengzhou,” and this Chinese muscling into the modern world defined almost everything we would encounter. Shengda College is actually in Longhu, some 45 minutes from the center of Zhengzhou. It is a walled community separating the students and staff from a poor but wildly vibrant life on the main drag, Zhongshan Lu, outside the gate. On arrival, Mr. Dai led us to a warm and bright apartment with white-stone flooring in the Foreign Teacher’s building, which was in yet another gated enclave. This additional protection, we learned later, was necessitated by the presence of the fabulously wealthy founder’s family across the yard from our building.
Our amenities were delightful: two bedrooms on the fourth floor of an elevator building, kitchen, spacious living room, TV (which showed nothing but patriotic fare during New Year’s and effectively blocked CNN), heating and hot water, washing machine (which Helen used almost every day), purified water quickly delivered in big blue jugs, and a desk computer to supplement the laptop we had brought with us. Neither of us had lived this well in many, many years, and we suddenly began to feel quite special.
had arrived at the height of New Year’s, the first full moon of the calendar, the most sacred and important of the Chinese holidays. It is a family time, and all Chinese are obligated to return home and eat, exchange gifts, and celebrate with their relatives. Consequently, virtually no one was on campus when we arrived, and the life on Zhongshan Lu was quite subdued. Moreover, Helen and I discovered that the bit of Chinese we had learned on the internet was getting us nowhere. Everything had to be negotiated by pointing fingers and such. There was no English to be found outside the gates of Shengda.
On our first evening there, we were visited by Eric, a twenty-something Chinese-American who was working at Shengda as ESL teacher. He gave us a brief description of the campus life and a few DVDs. This would become our entertainment staple throughout our stay in China. DVDs here cost about 75 cents and often feature films before they are released in America. Next day, I attended a party across the yard and met a couple of other teachers: Joe, a young Nigerian who had been in China about three years; Edward, a black-French Canadian; Natalia, a Russian teaching English who had been at Shengda for a few years and in China for several additional years; and Von, a young, very petite Philippine woman (I thought she was a boy) who had been in China just two years. So, I surmised, this is how English is taught in China—by non-English natives. Well. Several days later, we met our comely and highly articulate F.A.O. (Foreign Affairs Officer), Wei Xue. Her efforts were mostly responsible for persuading us to give Shengda a go. Then came Matt and Beth (young) from England; David and Gayle (60s) from Australia; Christina and Joshua (young and quite dedicated) from USA; Jay and Amy (40s and excellent teachers) from the hillbilly slurbs of southern Illinois; and a couple of old coots (both horrid teachers) from USA.
The department was run by Dean Chen, an affable Shanghai apparatchik who spoke excellent English but didn’t know shit from Shinola. His trusted assistant was the chubby Mr. Wong, also completely incompetent but at least smart enough to watch NBA games on his laptop at work. I learned the hard way to completely avoid them. Classes began in early March, and I discovered to my unending dismay that I had 360 students! I had six different Business English classes with about 30 students each, and three Advanced Writing classes with about 60 students each. I could not help but fail. But I didn’t. I dismissed the lousy text in the Business English class and introduced a series of weekly topics around youth culture: the business of internet, music, movies, fashion, and so on. And in these classes I used a method I discovered at Language Studies Institute in New York: cluster vocabulary and dictated sentences. My writing classes also featured a shit text. But here, I decided to push the use of complex sentences. I also introduced editing skills. It worked, except that I had about 150 papers to correct and grade every weekend. Best, I awarded an I Love NY t-shirt to the best essay writer. The competition was quite fierce. Some students cried and complained bitterly about not winning the prize. “Why’d you give her the t-shirt. My essay was better. She’s my roommate. Now I have to listen to her brag all night.” And so on.
My students? Before I mention them, I must tell you something about the Chinese in general: they have been isolated for several decades, cut off from all foreigners, especially black ones. So the sight of someone like me typically ignites a minor riot. This happened in every part of China I visited, from the backward outpost of northern and western China to the so-called sophisticated enclaves of Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai. They were beyond racist, they were pathetically ignorant, with a capital ig. And my students were not much better. Chinese education, with its reliance on listening, obedience and memorization, cannot and does not prepare students for the necessary verisimilitudes of encountering the peoples of the world. China, most often, is your family and perhaps your hometown. But no further. Outreach to others is unknown and unheard of.
So two new principles had to be instilled: respect for others (shut up and listen when others—especially me—are talking), and memorization will get you nowhere in my classes. You must create and generate language, not memorize vocabulary. Use five words rather than memorize fifty. And so it went. I freely kicked out students who did not respect others and flunked those who could not create language.
It did no good. The Chinese system of memorization is so powerfully entrenched in their skulls that nothing can move it. Worse, the entire Chinese system of ascendancy is based upon a series of national tests that literally gauge a student’s ability to memorize lessons. These national tests go back to the early Confucius schools, where civil servants were trained on their ability to memorize large passages from Confucius. Today, one cannot get into the revered state schools—Peking University, Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan—without an excellent ability to memorize. Shengda College, in fact, is an expensive (10,000rmb per year) private school for those who fail to get into the state schools. Shengda is Plan B, and all my students had a strong sense of failure before I even met them.
Each Saturday morning, the entire Shengda teaching staff and their loved ones (including, yes, whatever students Eric and Ed and the old coots were fucking) would ride a bus provided by the school into Zhengzhou and shop in well-stocked supermarkets, shopping malls and off-the-rack sidewalk merchants. It was a truly exciting time for us, our first real exposure to China.
Zhengzhou is the capital of Henan province, the most populous and poorest in China. Some 100 million people (one-third the US population) live in a province the size of Nebraska. More than 1 million live in caves; you can see them from the highways, with their shiny red-ribboned doors leading to earth-and-stone abodes. And they are pathetically poor. Many of my students describe their parents as “peasants,” mostly migrant people living off land owned by others. Zhengzhou is tightly controlled by the Communist party (as opposed to, say, Shanghai) and officials here are not afraid to flash their new wealth and ties to the new realty barons who control the amazing expanse of new office and apartment buildings, all intended for foreign consumption and the rising middle-management class, many of whom are learning their required English from me.
Still, Zhengzhou is a mess. It’s so congested and polluted by the new wealth that it has no identity. It’s McDonalds and KFC, Ralph Lauren and Chanel. Little of old China remains, especially in the new parks north of the city with their giant dings and emperors carved into the hillside. It’s just a show, nothing more. The saving grace, I think, is the Henan province museum, which has an impressive collection of artefacts from Henan’s own soil.
In April, Helen and I took our first major excursion to another city—Xi’an (pronounced SHE-an), an ancient capital of China in the west and the home of the TerraCotta warriors, the earthen soldiers designed to follow Qin, the first emperor of China, into the afterlife so that he could continue to conquer new worlds. The warriors were discovered quite accidentally some 25-30 years ago by farmers digging new wells. The Chinese government has appropriated all the land surrounding the site and placed the farmers in a rather elegant modern apartment complex. That is, elegant by Chinese standards.
The main archaeological digs, or pits, are located just outside Xi’an beneath an impressive housing apparatus that allows visitors to see the warriors as they were found in the ground. Our guide was a young woman named Candy who tried to recruit me to teach English at Xi’an University. I recall being struck by pictures of the warriors I saw some 20 years ago in the New York Times, but I was completely unprepared for this simply magnificent display of ancient artefacts. There are rows and rows of soldiers and officers, most dissimilar from others. They stand at attention, yes, but with a strong sense that they will leap into action at any moment. The horses have their hair locks pulled back. The archers, standing and kneeling, have their eyes on the target. Everything is more real than real.
How did they do it, these ancient artisans? Their skill is unparalleled. How could they create thousands of such figures in such consistent proficiency? Where did they get the will? I have never seen such beauty, such power, such awe and wonder. This is the moment of my life, the one that allows me see the past in ultimate clarity. Damn!
The TerraCotta warrior complex includes a museum, restaurants, quarters for the archaeology teams, and several office complexes, not to mention extremely well-kept grounds. The warrior complex should be a big money maker for the Chinese government but I fear that few tourist venture beyond Beijing and Hong Kong and Shanghai. Perhaps when transportation to the site is improved.
As for Xi’an, it is both in decline and ascendancy, with nasty little whorehouses dotting the city and impressive new housing and office complexes shooting through the sky. Super trendy discos have opened, and one of the best nightlife scenes in China has cropped up here. The areas immediately outside Xi’an have become factories for fake TerraCotta warriors that are sold and shipped all over the world. There is also a roaring trade in other arts and crafts, including jade and lacquer inlaid furniture.
By the time Helen and had returned to Shengda, our perspective of China had shifted. The warriors made us aware of the Chinese will, their stand against the world, their loyalty to the past and present, the future of China. All suffering is allowed, so long as it advances China. As for the world, well, what world?
Helen took a tutoring job with a young woman named Jana, a second (oops!) child in the one-child policy world who was being raised by her grandmother but still under the thumb of parents she never sees. They wanted her to succeed magnificently, especially on the IELTS foreign-language exam. Jana, of course, was too young (barely 18) and too underexposed to good teaching beyond the dreary Chinese memorization system. Still, Helen heroically taught and sheltered Jana, who became dangerously attached to Helen. She did not pass the IELTS test but the weeks together (almost every day) deeply affected Jana and exhausted Helen. I was quite proud of her. Eventually, Helen took a position with Zhongyuan Technical University in Zhengzhou. Her improbable job was teaching proper pronunciation to Chinese teachers of English!
My own teaching moved along quite well, especially as I continued to test my students and assign various essays. The usual separation happened, with the good students rising and the poor falling. One sunny Saturday, lovely Miss Wei, our dedicated and attentive F.A.O., arranged an outing to Luoyang, the site of some rather brilliant carvings and sculpture just a couple of hours south of Shengda. Beginning around 500 A.D., during the infamous Ming dynasty, and continuing for the next 200 years Buddist monks—and some downright religious fanatics—carved deities into the mountains and caves and grottoes around Luoyang, which had become the new capital of the dynasty. Some of these giant Buddahs are simply impossible to apprehend. Standing across the river, I was still stunned by their mighty size and presence, their Romanesque muscularity. Slowly but surely, Helen and I were acquainting ourselves with the Chinese proclivity for massive building projects among the splendor of nature.
By the end of April, Helen and I were on our way to Beijing, where we had booked a room in a hostel and were meeting with two of my former students and friends—Bing Zhou, who is Chinese, and Makiko, his Japanese wife. I first met them at Language Studies Institute in New York, where I worked briefly before flying to China. Bing is Chinese, Makiko Japanese, a very uncommon coupling in this part of the world. They both work in the Chinese-Japanese translation business.
Our hostel lay in a narrow hutong, or ghetto alleyway, some 20 min or so from East Chang’an Lu, a main road that leads directly to Tianamen Square, the Forbidden City and Imperial Palace, Mao’s mausoleum, and sundry other Chinese cultural treasures. Beijing is a great city, on a par with London, Paris, New York. Easily surpassing Berlin & Washington, D.C. Population is 16 million, yet none of the chaos of NYC is apparent. Second, Beijing is becoming an even greater city.
The modernization that amazed me & Helen in Zhengzhou is here beyond description. Thousands of massive, sparkling buildings being erected daily, and seven new subway lines are now being built to complement the existing three. And it is busy preparing for the coming Olympics. Everything gets a fresh coat of paint, and flower gardens appear everywhere. Tianamen Square is especially busy, with both Chinese and foreign tourists, soldiers, and police. The site is dominated the gigantic portrait of Mao hanging above the entrance to the Forbidden City, so called because it was off limits to outsiders for 500 years. I cannot tell you about the Forbidden City in its entirety because we never saw it all, despite two days in the place. The Forbidden City continually opens from one palace and garden to another palace and garden. It is unbelievable. The buildings are classic Chinese architecture, beautiful furniture and rooms, magnificent gardens with dragons sculpture. And so on. It is a wonder of the world.
On May 2, just after May Day, Bing and Makiko and a friend of Bing’s picked us up at the hostel and drove us to the Great Wall at Badaling, one of the best places to view the wall. The journey northward gave Helen and me a chance to see the depth of modernization in China. New apartment complexes stretched for miles, unending. Bing tells us that just five years ago, Beijing was a jungle of bicycles and hutongs. No more. Now the city boasts sleek Japanese and Korean sedans (like the one we were riding in) and towers of steel and glass. Home, sweet home.
The Chinese refer to the Great Wall as the wall of 10,000 li, or 5,000 kilometers, extending from western China to the sea just above Beijing. The crowd at the Badaling wall was massive and insane, but somehow apropo for the occasion. By the way, one does not see the Great Wall, one must climb the Great Wall. And what a marvel it is, some 15 meters high, five meters wide, comprising millions of chiseled stones carried by millions of peasants, and—most important—magically connecting one hill to another for as far as the eye can see. The Great Wall exists in complete harmony with its environment. Complete harmony. What a treasure! Helen and I were so proud of having ascended the wall that we had a special photo taken. I see it as the achievement of my life.
Back at Shengda, life moved on, though the pollution was getting to me. Breathing was more and more difficult. The Chinese have mountains and mountains of cheap sulfurous coal that they burn with impunity, especially with oil at more than $100 per barrel. But it renders air in China foul and unsavoury; smelling like the sky was on fire. Within our first few weeks there, our dentures turned brown. And stayed brown. So my time in Shengda was drawing to a close.
Unlike other foreign teachers there, I had made very good contact with few Chinese teachers. I attended their classes, and they sat in on mine. One guy, Shang Wei, was quite ebullient about himself and his opinions. He steadfastly defended that old dishrag Mao stomped on, Chou En Lai and his bullshit policy of non-intervention. China went where the fuck they pleased: Tibet, Korea, Mongolia, and Angola. Shit.
One weekend, the teaching staff was invited to a park in north Zhengzhou to plant trees. The place was one of those useless, super grandiose homages to death emperors chiseled into the mountainside. Enough of that. What I want to mention is the inclusion of several African teachers from other colleges. One guy, from Congo, was wearing a stupid-ass quasi-Mao get-up with camouflage, boots, peasant’s hat, etc. You get the picture. He was ripe for caricature. And sure enough, Shang Wei, in one of his classes that I attended, described the Congolese as “two meters tall,” which he certainly was not, and ridiculed the guy’s commie pretensions.
Wei Xue, our comely and supremely competent F.A.O., set up some nice excursions for the staff. On one occasion, we drove to Luoyong and visited the magnificent cave drawings and sculptures of ancient Chinese deities, especially Buddah. Following the trip to the caves, we went into Luoyong itself—yes, another example blistering modernization—and had a great dinner at a marvelous restaurant, replete with lovely waitresses and a classic Chinese dinner entertainer.
Henen province is not the most exciting or pleasant spot in China, but I probably would have stayed if the pollution did not get to me so badly. I literally could not breathe. A few visits to Chinese doctors persuaded me to leave. So I informed Wei that I wanted to change my contract to six months, and Helen and I prepared to vacate the premises. I applied for jobs in several places, and had a good offer going from English First in Hangzhou, a beautiful city with splendid gardens. But I made the mistake of asking Dean Chen to write a reference letter for me, and he wound up offending the English First manager. End of that job. Then I accepted a job at a university in Nantong (Jaingsu province), which lies on the northern bank of the Yangtze, across a new spectacular bridge and highway that gets you to Shanghai in a couple of hours. The pay was shit, but I took it anyway. But not for long.
After accepting and signing a contract, I found a better job at a college in Wuxi (also in Jaingsu province), just an hour or so from Shanghai. And this job doubled my pay at both Shengda and Nantong. So I called the people at Nantong and told them some lie about having to leave China, and then signed on at Wuxi.
There were some sad good-byes at Shengda—my students, Wei and Hillary, Mr. Dai and Mary. But it was good to go, as we did at the end of June 2007.