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Cut loose at Fifty: Chapter Four – The girl in the garden

By Chris Clancy
web posted September 5, 2011

There are many reasons for coming to teach in China.

Money, however, is not one of them.

Given the conversion rate between Renminbi (RMB) and other currencies there's little point in saving your earnings unless you intend to stay here. Most foreign teachers only stay for one year and just spend it on buying things and travelling.

One of the surprising things about China is that for most people it's very much a "cash" economy. Businesses use the banking system to settle debts - to what extent I don't know - but ordinary people going about their daily transactions use cash and, to a lesser extent, debit cards.

In a sense, they have leap-frogged the cheque system.

When I received my first months pay I was paid in actual cash. I could hardly believe it. 4,000 RMB handed to me in cash. The last time I was paid in cash was when I was a student doing vacation jobs.

How much cash is flying around the economy and not through the banking system is impossible to say. Hoarding it to avoid tax seems to be a national pass-time. This is to be expected since China has nothing even close to resembling the welfare systems we have in the West.

For the vast majority of people, when hard times hit, they have to look to themselves and their families to get through it – not the state.

As time passed the antipathy which I detected from a lot of Chinese teachers towards their foreign colleagues became understandable. Foreign teachers get paid two or three times as much as Chinese teachers. Also foreign teachers get free accommodation. The only thing we pay for is a landline, if we want one, and gas for cooking.

Chinese teachers have to pay for everything.

Then there's the fact that many foreigners appear to have difficulty understanding that they are actually being paid to do a job of work - it's not intended to be a free one-year holiday with a monthly salary thrown in for laughs.

Unfortunately, for many, this is what it amounts to.

Small wonder that the actual quality of the so-called "teaching" itself is usually abysmal.

Playing games, singing songs, watching DVDs and various other "activities" are good fun and pass the time but don't actually achieve very much.

Why does this happen and how do they manage to get away with it?

Because the organizations that employ them really don't care what goes on in the classroom as long as long as they can say that they have a native English speaker (or speakers) on their staff. It looks good. Parents like it. And if one does it they all have to do it. It's really left up to the foreign teachers as to how seriously they want to take it. With most, in my experience, the answer is, "Not very much".

On the rare occasion that a foreign teacher is dismissed you can be damned sure it has little to do with the quality of the teaching but a whole lot more to do with their "extra-curricular" activities. The students themselves seldom complain about this kind of "non-teaching". It's a welcome break from rote-learning.

By contrast, Chinese teachers have to operate under a rigid examination system where lessons are spent hammering away at grammar, vocabularly, reading, writing, comprehension and so on.

Now, if we add to all this the fact that most foreigners are the first to complain most vociferously when anything goes wrong, or if things are not to their liking, then a certain level of resentment is inevitable.

The source of many "problems" is a thing called "culture shock." Read anything about going to work in China and you'll find that this is mentioned somewhere. As far as I'm concerned it's nothing more than a ready-made excuse for when things are not going well.

Blame it on "culture shock" rather than yourself.

Anyone who thinks they can come to work in a country like China and not have some difficulties settling in is being very naive.

You're the one who has to be adaptable, flexible and ready to accept cultural differences, not them!

There are some things you've simply got to get used to. I refer to these as the three 'S' words – smoking, spitting and staring. I could add a fourth but I'll leave it at three.

Many people smoke in China and there are few restrictions. I'm a smoker so it didn't bother me. Spitting is fairly common - it is usually preceded by an enormous noisy hawk. In time I got used to this – except when a woman did it.

Dealing with the staring was much more difficult.

In the West a prolonged stare may well signal trouble. It usually means it's time to get out of the situation quick – if this is not possible then it's probably a good idea to cast your eyes around for a blunt instrument.

In China staring is normally just curiosity – that's all – no threat is implied. It's simply a cultural difference. If you are going to live in China you either learn to ignore it or you develop strategies to cope with it.

But things are changing.

This is because there are now two Chinas. Young China and Old China.

The three 'S' words apply less and less to Young China.

However, there is one thing which applies equally to both. I found it particularly striking. What I refer to here is the pride which most Chinese people have for their country. It's something which, in a large part, we've lost in the West.

In the UK we don't even know what the word "British" means anymore. No-one cares anyway. And if anyone does, they're not saying - for fear of upsetting one group or another.

Those who come to China and then start complaining, carping and criticising make themselves un-welcome. Behaviour like this is not only taken personally, as an insult to the country, but it is also never forgotten. When your contract comes to an end you can expect to move on.

I learned a great deal during that first semester.

So much newness.

The weeks began to slip by as I gradually got into the swing of things.

Shopping became easier provided I stuck to supermarkets and department stores where everything was bar-coded. If you shop elsewhere, in markets or with street traders, take a student with you – bargaining is how it's done. If you don't bargain you'll be overcharged. Sometimes outrageously so.

Before coming to China my cooking expertise extended no further than knowing how to use a tin-opener.

However, in DJK there was very little food which I could actually eat.

Western food was almost non-existent – not so much as a tin of baked beans – even the bread was different, it was sweet.

So, after about three weeks of food misery I set about learning to cook for myself

A group of students took me shopping to some fresh meat and vegetable markets. I learned from them how much I should pay – much to the annoyance of the stall-holders. I downloaded some simple recipes from the internet. I discovered that cooking a decent healthy meal was not that difficult and could be done very cheaply.

OK, it was never exactly cordon bleu but at least I could eat it.

Once I'd got to grips with the food problem my biggest headache disappeared.

There was only one thing missing – that was not having a car – but I could cope with this.

In China the rule is that people drive on the right. In DJK you could be forgiven for thinking, at first anyway, that there was no rule. I tended to avoid public transport and always walked if possible – it was safer.

I probably walked more in that first year in China than I had in the previous twenty.

Given the heat and the exercise and learning to eat properly I lost a lot of weight. I came across a passport-size picture of myself taken when I first arrived in DJK. It was more like a mug shot – of a zombie – one of the living dead. I was shocked at how terrible I looked.

At the beginning of the semester I weighed well over 90kg. Needless to say, standing at 174 cm, I was carrying a lot of extra. By the end of that first semester my weight had fallen to around 80kg.

I had not only become very fit but had also got a damned good tan in the process.

I thought of all the money people spend in the West trying to lose weight, get fit and look healthy. It's a multi-million dollar industry.

But they're doing it all wrong.

Don't go on a diet and all the rest of it – hey - just come to DJK and teach for a few months!


The first semester was drawing to a close.

The weather changed in December.

It changed from very hot to very cold very quickly.

The students continued to show a level of application which I could scarce believe.

From teaching in stiflingly hot conditions the classrooms were now freezing – I mean see-your-breath freezing. The students wore hats, jumpers, coats, scarves, boots and gloves (with the fingers cut off so that they could write).

I was soon dressed in similar fashion.

If my respect for them had grown steadily it was now multiplied manyfold.

There was not so much as a murmur – they just got on with it. Some pushed their stools together so that they could sit shoulder to shoulder to keep warm. During the break they stamped their feet to get the blood going.

I never heard a single complaint.

Yet again it's not that surprising when you think about it.

The vast majority grow up seeing their parents working like hell - living on next to nothing in order to provide for them and give them an education.

They grow up knowing that they have to be responsible and self-reliant. Knowing that if you give up you're on your own. Knowing that if you choose to do nothing you get nothing.

There are many images in that first semester which will always remain with me.

One of the most poignant was in that December, when it turned very cold. It was a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and I was walking through the campus. There was hardly anyone around.

I saw one of my students sitting alone at a table in one of the drab looking gardens. The table consisted of a concrete slab set on three concrete plinths. She was reading a text-book. I went to speak to her and sit for a while. Her face was flushed with the cold. Her hands had turned a blueish colour and the skin between her fingers was cracked. They looked sore and painful. I asked her where her gloves were and she told me that it hurt her to wear them. I asked why she was sitting out in the cold and she said that it was just as cold in her dormitory – there was no heating – it was so cold at night that some of the girls slept together.

She smiled when she said this, almost apologetically, and then laughed a little.

I almost cried.

I looked back at her. The selflessness. The quiet dignity.

For the first time since I was a child I felt my face grow warm, my eyes started to fill - I felt myself start to choke.

I made my excuses quickly and left.

Throughout my teaching career in the UK I can honestly and unashamedly say that I'd rarely felt "inspired" as a teacher.

But this was different. Here I was inspired. Almost right from the start and even more so when the weather turned cold. If they could work this hard in these conditions then I could do the same.

Christmas came and went.

I didn't miss it. ESR

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.


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