Cut loose at fifty: Chapter One – On coming to China
By Chris Clancy
It was May 1st 1976 – I was at university. To kick the May Day festivities off the student union organized a three-legged pub crawl. A map was provided detailing ten pubs – the last being a student bar in one of the Halls of Residence.
The rules were that every male must drink one pint of beer at each pit-stop. Females must consume a half-pint of beer. Everything had to be verified by student union officials. For those who made it to the Hall of Residence their reward would be a free beer.
After the third or fourth pub the maps were no longer necessary – you just had to follow the trail of vomit. My three-legged partner and I decided to call a halt to proceedings at the fourth or fifth pub. We then headed off to find a party somewhere. This was an easy job as there were so many going on that night.
So it was I stumbled, much the worse for wear, into some party, at some time, some where, that evening. There I met the girl who I would marry two years later. From this meeting would follow four children and a marriage which would end over thirty years later.
I've often wondered if the sequence of events on that evening, all those years ago, was just coincidence?
If so, then how meaningless and random life really is. I have no religion but I find it difficult to accept this one. There must be some reason or purpose to it all even if the reason or purpose is beyond our comprehension. I suppose that makes me agnostic; if so, then so be it.
Looking back over the years I can see that there were many more such seemingly innocuous events which led down unplanned and unimagined paths – most recently, there's the string of circumstances which led me to China.
But this one was different – this one proved to be seismic – life-changing.
It started in September 2003 – the beginning of yet another semester. We were all busy enrolling new students. I received a message, out of the blue, telling me to see one of the senior managers immediately. I did so and was told that my services were no longer required – I was to be made redundant.
I was forty-nine years old.
I could have "played the system" and strung the thing out for a year, but I just couldn't be bothered. The redundancy package was good and I accepted it; even if it was bad I would still have accepted it. The truth is I'd had enough and was happy to go.
I decided to take some time out.
My wife and I had separated some seven years before.
I worked a long way from home but travelled back at the end of each month to see the kids.
I decided to return home and rent a place not too far away. I thought that maybe we could try and make a go of things again – get back to where we once had been.
For the first time in many years we would have time to talk.
Unfortunately, when it came down to it, we had nothing to say to each other. To say we had become 'strangers' sounds a bit too well-worn – but it's the only word that really fits. The cracks in our relationship had become canyons. Our lack of communication could no longer be blamed on the pressure of work, children, money etc. We'd reached the end – we'd never ever get back to where we once had been.
What a pity so many years were wasted pretending that we could.
A few months later – in January 2004 – my eldest son told me that he was going to China to teach for a year. I don't know where he got the idea from but off he went – to a city called Maoming in the southern province of Guangdong.
By March I started to think about returning to the world of work. I dreaded the thought of going back to the sterile, politically correct world, which Education, and everything else it seemed, had become.
In one of my son's emails he suggested that I go over there to teach English – after all I was just kicking my heels in England?
I dismissed it at the time – but a seed had been sown.
By June I was beginning to panic. My redundancy was running out. The seed started to grow. I now had a choice. The easy one was to return to teaching in September and put my time in until retirement. The difficult one, the unknowable one, was to go to China.
I think it's safe to say that for the first time in my life I didn't take the easy way out – I chose China. Even at that point, when the decision was made, I knew that if things turned out just half right, I'd never return.
I registered with a Chinese government agency called China TESOL Teachers Register (CTTR). Their job is to find placements for foreign teachers. My only stipulation was that I wanted to teach in a college or university. Within a few days they put me in touch with a college called YunYang Teachers College (YYTC). It was in a city called Dan Jiang Kou (DJK) situated in the north-west of Hubei Province. I went to their website and was very impressed with what I saw – beautiful gardens, lovely teacher accommodation, nice teaching rooms and so on.
The job would be to teach Oral English to English majors. I had never taught English, never mind Oral English, so I spent some time reading up on it and felt I could cope with it. I filled in all the necessary documentation, of which there was surprisingly little, sent it off and that was that – YYTC offered me a one-year contract and I accepted.
I used most of what was left of my redundancy to buy an airplane ticket.
There was no going back now – the die was cast.
The next two months were a mixture of sorting things out, tying up loose ends and all the time wondering just what in the hell I had done. The truth is I had no idea. Had someone told me at the outset, just how much I would have to learn, just how much I would have to change, I doubt if I would have had the courage to go there in the first place.
The actual journey to China began at the end of August 2004. My wife drove me to a coach station. We didn't speak on the way. Our parting words were as loveless as our marriage had become.
"Are you coming back?" she asked.
"I don't know," I replied.
And that was it. What a sad end. We exchanged divorce papers, by post, some years later.
I flew from London to Dubai. There I had a few hours to kill waiting for a connecting flight to Shanghai. I wandered around the concourse and to my surprise found an Irish pub. I treated myself to a surprisingly good pint of Guinness.
The second part of the journey began. It was a long flight. Slightly mesmerised, I arrived in Shanghai not knowing whether I was coming or going. My instructions were to wait at arrivals until someone from YYTC came to meet me.
As I waited I looked around the concourse – not much different from any airport in the West. Most of the shops were Western. Not that different from home really?
How much I had to learn.
The representative from YYTC appeared. I would like to say it was a warm and friendly meeting but it wasn't. Little was said. I was taken to another airport and hustled off to buy a ticket to take me to a city called Wuhan.
With ticket in hand my surly companion marched me to a check-in point and then on to security and departure. As far as I remember she didn't even say goodbye. I'd read about "Chinese hospitality" before beginning my journey – I felt I must have got my wires a bit crossed here.
Another woman met me in Wuhan. She was younger. If the greeting in Shanghai was a bit on the cool side then this one was ice cold. She just asked my name and then I was driven to a run-down building. I was put in a room and left there for the night.
YYTC had said I would be treated to a 'banquet' in a luxury hotel on my first night – yeah right!
Time to reflect – no longer about what in the hell I was doing – but about what in the hell I had done?
I was starting again at fifty, on the other side of the world, with one suitcase and 400 USD in my pocket.
I didn't sleep that first night. Just lay on my bed wondering if I hadn't just made the worst mistake of my life.
Chris Clancy lived in China for seven years. Most of this time was spent as associate professor of financial accounting at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan City, Hubei Province. He now lives in Thailand where he spends his time reading, writing, lecturing and, whenever he gets the chance, doing his level best to spread Austrian economics.