hey, you! it's been a while. but i'm alive and well-ish (reluctant, as usual, to admit to feeling anything other than so so). here's some shit i've been up to lately.
i went to a relatively remote town in yunnan province in mid-november. It was a volunteer program arranged through the british council, with me as the token foreign face. I’m used to this sort of thing, and hadn’t actually TAUGHT a class in nearly a year, so the prospect of some sort of new experience, along with revisiting my teaching practices, was intriguing.
I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. Even on the flight, I had no idea that I was part of a volunteer program with 10 chinese college students. I didn’t know where I was going—except that it was in Yunnan. I didn’t know where I was staying or what was going to be expected of me daily. All I knew for certain was that I would be teaching large classes of middle school students. Fair enough.
I had a bumpy flight in from Chengdu on the first saturday. I cried, with two empty seats next to me. I’ve become quite the nervous flier since the flight from hell last September—where “hell”=phuket, thailand. I know, not a place that would be considered “hellish” but fuck, that was horrible. I believe we flew through a lightning storm. Anyhoo, I now panic and cry at the slightest hint of turbulence. And crying alone on a plane makes me feel all-the-more pathetic. I just don’t like the idea of being stuck on a plane of Chinese people if we go down. They’re already every[wo]man for her/himself when the plane is still taxi-ing. I would be trampled or eaten. Those are the only two possibilities. And of the myriad reasons being in a plane crash would totally suck, if it happened to be on a domestic Chinese flight, that would be about the worst thing I can imagine.
Landed in Kunming for the first time in my life--“the city of eternal spring.” Always something poetic with Chinese cities, even if they have chunky air. Fortunately, kunming’s air is significantly less chunky than that of many other places in china.
Anyhoo...Airport taxi line is slow. Meet up with danny, the marketing dude from BC. He introduces me to sue and tony, the news folks from Chongqing (cqtv and cq morning post, respectively). i still have no idea what’s happening over the next 4 days, other than I’ll be hanging out at a poor school and the classes are big. No new information.
On the first day we had breakfast near the hotel. Photos before hopping on the bus to head out into the countryside. At this point I still don’t know much, but the 10 chicks on the bus are volunteers. I didn’t realize they were teachers, I just thought they were “helpers”, whatever that means. It didn’t dawn on me that they would be teaching until we got to the school and they all introduced themselves to a panel of locals.
After about 3 hours of driving, we met up with some important local government peeps in a city that looked like the fake town in blazing saddles. I felt like I could easily have knocked the façade over. But I chose not to, you know, out of respect. lunch was nice, actually. Not the food, but just to be able to just eat and not have people try to translate for me and communicate with me. I know I should appreciate others’ attempts at inclusion, but sometimes it’s really really annoying. A lot of times, translation turns into conversations about you, while you’re sitting between the two people you’re supposed to be talking “with.”
Arrive at the school. the first impression neither denied nor confirmed expectations, because I hadn’t yet set any. I was just trying not to freak out about the logistics that I hadn’t been told. it wasn’t until the meeting to introduce all the teachers that I saw the toilets and inquired about showers. There didn’t appear to be any communal showers, but I just figured that I hadn’t seen them. nope. No hot water. no showers. it’s a little different for dudes to rough it with no showers. Girls have certain “monthly needs” that are already really fucking unpleasant and gross. And the other 10 volunteers were all girls. But they all already knew the situation.
i detected an almost amused/condescending attitude from the others: ‘the foreigner doesn’t know how to rough it.’ there was also the subtle implication that “taking a shower everyday is wasteful. The very idea is an insult to all of these students and teachers who don’t get to do that.” So I was pissed because of this presumed “posh-ness” on my part, but mostly because I hadn’t been told. Like everything else, I had no idea what to expect or what I was doing for the next 4 days. Considerations seemed to have been made for everyone except the foreigner, despite the fact that they were eager to parade my foreign face around. They couldn’t tell me anything I wanted to know, but they’d happily put me in front of news cameras to say lots of nice things and try not to look confused and bewildered by my ignorance.
Got my schedule a bit later. Sort of. 21 classes over 4 days, plus a 2 hour teacher training session. The contract was for 14 classes. So that’s also another nice surprise. I love surprises!
I planned a generic class that I could use repeatedly. that was smart on my part. The volunteers had to teach all different subjects, so there wasn’t the same capacity to recycle materials/activities that I had. But we spent all evening that first day planning in the makeshift office they’d assembled for us. Despite the overwhelming ‘lack’ that characterized the school grounds—no tables/chairs in the cafeteria, no showers, no privacy, no heat—the school had recently gotten wifi and the rooms had interactive whiteboards (donations). Those things saved my life.
The volunteer teachers were set up in a 10 student dorm. I was put up with 2 of the news women in a classroom that had been cleared out and had 4 cots put in it. communal toilets and sinks with all the students and they consistently said “laoshi, hao” as they walked past you, squatting. Polite, even with pants around ankles.
Dinner was in the table-less, chair-less cafeteria. everyone hovered or squatted in little circles of friends, eating mostly out of oversized tin cups.
After dinner I went into all of the classrooms and introduced myself to each group of students. The classrooms were actually really nice. 2 students per desk, in rows. Around 40 students in each class. I didn’t bring too many resources with me, but a few things that might be useful. BC brought hula hoops, so those proved quite useful for my first round of lessons.
That first night, the news peeps and danny from bc went out with local government people. I had 6 classes the next day. They “didn’t want to disturb me coming in late” so all the news peeps got a hotel in town and came back in the morning the next day, after the classes had already started. So that was a bit annoying. Mostly because they probably got to take real showers. I ‘took a shower” in danny’s teacher dorm. Which meant hovering over the squatter toilet in the bathroom and splashing cold water all over myself, trying to work up the courage to lather up, which would inevitably require more cold water for rinsing. It was cold. And sucky. And none of this would have been a problem, if I’d been told.
On the first day of actual classes, i skipped breakfast, which offended everyone. Not because it’s rude, but because apparently it’s just fucking crazy and unhealthy and all sorts of stuff to skip breakfast. Always fun to be patronized as a 35-year old adult. You can’t really skip meals in any sort of subtle way in china, as so much of their life/schedule/routine is based on meals.
No coffee! Of course I didn’t expect there to be any, but I was still hoping some might magically materialize. No luck. Classes started at 8. forty-five minutes with a 10 minute break in between. my underestimation of the students’ skills paid off, as they were all consistently a very low level and were very keen to just repeat everything I said. But they were some of the most polite teenagers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in china. it was actually kind of shocking. I’m used to spoiled little rich kids at training centers who lack any sort of intrinsic motivation. so this was quite the 180.
I only had 6 classes that day, but the volunteers were getting milked for all they were worth, with some of them teaching for 12 hours/day. It’s worth noting that these chicks were just volunteers, with no teaching experience or teaching backgrounds. They just wanted to join a volunteer program. So as stressed as I was, at least it was in my professional wheelhouse.
The rest of the days were pretty much the same, as far as teaching and the schedule. I taught each class twice, so I only planned 2 classes. I knew those activities very very well by the end of the week, as did all the teachers who were observing. It was nice though, because then they could help me monitor all the students and keep them on task.
There were some other highlights. on the third day, a home visit had been arranged. During the lunch break I joined a caravan of teachers and administrators to drive about 20 minutes to a students’ home off campus (they go home every weekend). This was quite the humbling experience. I knew they were going to be poor, that much was obvious, simply by how much the news crew had built it up. but when I arrived, the kid’s family were so nice, so hospitable. And it was obvious that this was a big deal for all of them—to have a foreigner and a news crew in their home. the place had been cleaned thoroughly prior to our arrival. Despite the dust and the condition of the actual home, the place looked clean and orderly. We were all given some sunflower seeds to knosh on as a token of said hospitality. The news team did some interviewing and translating. The only uncomfortable moment came when the son said his father had purchased his mother. I don’t think that was a translation error, either. Yikes.
That same night I was told I needed to attend a singing class, because the students really wanted me to sing for me. I begrudgingly went. I say begrudgingly, because the whole experience was characterized by people making plans for my time without telling me. so then imagine my surprise (and feelings of asshole-ness) when I get to a room full of candle-laden desks and children singing happy birthday to me. I’d mentioned to one of the teachers that my birthday was the following week, so she had arranged a little surprise party. The news crew was there, eager to catch me should I cry out of sentimentality (and I was close). All the kids came up, one by one, to give me hand-made cards and say happy birthday to me. all in all, home visit plus surprise birthday party made for a pretty overwhelmingly good day.
The next day I was invited to a traditional dance party. Surprisingly, I was able to refuse to do a traditional dance with students for the news crew. I asked “are the Chinese teachers going to be doing a traditional dance with the students?” “no.” “then I’m not doing it. I’ll gladly take pictures, but that’s it.” at this point, it seemed like the news crew had plenty of token white chick shit for their news program.
Other things of note, in list form
-a row of dark-haired teenage girls, bent in right angles, hovering over the giant fountain to lather up their hair with what appeared to be an almost synchronized fluidity. It was mesmerizing. The boys didn’t wash their hair.
-pigs in a pen attached to the school. honestly, I don’t know why they were there. But they were so fucking loud.
-teacher workshop: got a lot of teachers from the area into the science lab for me to workshop teaching methodology and principles. I was waaaaaaay too ambitious and wasn’t able to cover nearly as much ground as a mere 2 hours would allow. Failed at editing myself. :(
Ultimately, I was relieved to get out of there (back to beer, coffee and a hot shower. Yes, in that order). It’s probably something I would do again, now that I know (sort of) what to expect. But anything good in china is always balanced by something completely unorganized or reactive instead of proactive. This is an overwhelming truth here.
By the end of the week, there were two things that had really gotten under my skin: 1) the amount of translation, when I’d specifically asked the volunteers NOT to; 2) being in close proximity to 10 college-aged girls. Doesn’t matter where on earth that happens, that shit is difficult. All the unsolicited advice and judgment that you’d expect from such a demographic. Good gad.