Leaving the US
Just before Halloween
1995, I left the security of my home in the deep South to travel to
a country that has fascinated many around the world - the People's
Republic of China. Apart from traveling to Montreal, Canada, I
had never been anywhere outside the United States without a
"safety net" of friends or family. My reason for
going was under the guise of teaching English. I had
just graduated from college where I received my second and third
degrees and wasn't quite ready to settle down to a "real"
job. So it was with excitement and trepidation that I
set off for the experiences waiting for me in China.
Before going to the
place of "the Forbidden City," I had to fly to Hong Kong
and get a work visa to teach English. It wasn't an immediate
process and I ended up waiting in Hong Kong for about a week.
During that time I explored, with another teacher about 20 years my
senior, the sights of the city. The bright neon lights
screaming for attention reminded me of a trip I had taken to Las
Vegas, and the traffic was something I had only briefly experienced
in Los Angeles. From Victoria Peak to Stanley Market we
went enjoying the sights and the food the city had to offer all the
while taking the two-story buses that wildly careened around curves.
It was quite a start to my adventure in another land!
Airport in Beijing
The time finally came
for me to pack up my belongings and board the plane for Beijing,
China. The flight was uneventful and the time passed with my
stomach churning and my mind racing with all the possibilities of
things to be. As we started our landing process, I was
dismayed at the sights outside my window. All I saw was brown
everywhere. It was nothing what I had imagined in my mind - no
beautiful lush, green fields. Small bits of fear
starting gnawing at my insides, as I was beginning to wonder if I
had agreed to something that was quite out of my element and
Once I deplaned and
was dealing with the craziness of the airport and customs, I was
totally unprepared for what was about to happen. I met with
the representatives from the language institute and we went to put
my luggage in a taxi, which was actually a miandi. (A miandi is a
small van, sometimes referred to as a "bread box.")
Realize that I was always the type of person who wouldn't touch
doors in stores because of the "filth," so I was
horror-stricken at the sight before me in this van. The seat
covers, which had been white at one time were a very dingy brown and
the windows were equally filthy. I wondered if the
representative had made an effort to find the dirtiest van around to
test my reaction, so gingerly placed myself on the seat and vainly
attempted to keep clean.
Getting to the
On the way to the
university where I would be staying I was shocked by the lack of
color around me. Everything seemed to be brown or gray - the
buildings, the streets. We finally arrived at the
university and I was introduced to the other teachers - everyone
seemed so young! I was 24 at the time, a college graduate 2
times over, while most of the others were sophomores or juniors in
college! After the initial introductions, I learned I didn't
have a place to stay and would need to stay in a hotel. It was
then that I also learned I might not be staying in Beijing, but be
sent to a remote city near the North Korean border, Yanji.
Since all the other teachers were established, it was a
"lottery" for the other new teacher and myself. As
the other teacher was from the Caribbean and detested the cold, I
knew I would be the "lucky" one.
The time came for me
to be assigned my teaching location and I was stunned to find out
that no one was going to Yanji. I had been assigned to two
schools in Beijing. One at a university in Beijing and another
university in the Haidian district of Beijing. This meant another
obstacle for me to overcome, but I didn't care - I would be in
Beijing! I would be living in an apartment on the Beijing
campus with the other teacher - the one from the Caribbean who was
twice my age.
Since it was
registration time, that is time for a new term, I was required to
help register prospective students at both universities and place
them in an appropriate class level (with "1" being the
lowest level). I felt overwhelmed with this task, as I
considered myself to be ill-prepared for proper classification.
Since to deny interviews with the students wasn't an option, I
blundered my way through to the last student! It progressively
improved, but would still never be my favorite aspect of teaching.
Traveling to Teach
In view of the fact
that I would be teaching in Haidian in the mornings and returning to
Beijing to teach more classes at night, I had to learn how to get to
the other campus. The first week or so, someone from the
institute hailed a taxi and took me to the other school, so I was
relieved. After I was familiar with the route, I was given a
map and told I would need to get my own taxis from that point on.
This was fine because I knew where I was going and I could speak
some directional Chinese if there was a problem.
taxis who passed me every morning without stopping didn't realize I
knew where I was going and that I had a map! Although
for the most part, I would have a ride within 5-15 minutes, there
were a few times when I stood out in the cold for almost 30 minutes
before I was able to flag down a taxi!
The Haidian branch of
the language institute was a relatively small one and I was the only
teacher in the morning. I had three classes every morning and
two every night. My first class was of level one students,
these students had very little grasp of the English language so the
class was very little discussion but repetition from the textbooks.
The second class was a level two class and comprised of those who
could speak very limited English, but a small conversation was
possible. The last class at this campus was filled with level
three students, those who could speak relatively well and have
fairly good conversations, but aren't fluent by any means.
In comparing the two
branches of the institute, I much preferred to be in Haidian, as it
had a mix of students. Instead of just Chinese students, like
the Beijing branch, the Haidian classes filled with Korean students
from the Beijing Language and Culture University. I enjoyed
getting to know my students and went on excursions with them.
One of the first places I went with them was to the Fragrant
Mountain (Xiangshan), which is about 15 miles north of
Beijing. We had a lot of fun hiking up the mountain and taking
photos of each other. Another excursion took me to what would
become my favorite place in Beijing - the Summer Palace (Yiyeyuan).
The beauty of the place is almost overwhelming and a person could
literally spend all day there - which I did many times.
When it came time for
the Christmas holiday, three other teachers and I decided we would
experience other parts of China. Our plan was to take a train
from Beijing to Xian in the west, spend a day or so and then go to
Guilin in the south and spend several more days. Fortunately,
one of the other teachers was relatively fluent in Chinese and was
able to purchase our train tickets and get us a hotel for the night
in Xian. We visited the Ming Tombs, bargained for a Sichuan
blanket outside the gates and watched street vendors stretch noodles
for ramen. It was a cold but thrilling experience!
After we saw all we
wanted to of Xian, we took the train on Christmas Day to Guilin.
Since Guilin is in the southern part of China in the Guangxi region,
it took us almost all of Christmas day and I believe part of the
next day to get there.
We didn't mind since we were traveling in luxury - soft sleeper!
The train has four options available, hard seat and soft seat (they
are self explanatory) and hard and soft sleeper. The soft
sleeper was a small room with two bunk beds, one on each side of the
door - it was cramped, but private from the rest of the train.
Wearily arriving in
Guilin, we were swarmed with the locals telling us of
"wonderful" places to stay. We bypassed them and got
on a minibus that took us to Yangshuo. Yangshuo is about 75
kilometers south of Guilin and on the minibus, there were a lot of
stops, so it took us even longer to get there. Once we reached
the town, we knew it was worth the wait. There were people
everywhere and it was very tourist friendly. A lot of
backpacking foreigners were in the town and many of the restaurants
had English on their menus.
Our glee upon
choosing Yangshuo quickly turned to dismay when we realized there
were no hotel rooms available. We didn't have to wait
long to find a room, although it wasn't what we would have normally
chosen, as a hostel had a room available. A room that didn't
have any heat or hot water!
With all the sights
to see and the busy markets to explore, even though we were
exhausted, another teacher and I went around the town. Since
renting bicycles was so inexpensive, we decided that would be the
best way to explore the area. Over the next day or two, we
rode our bikes all over the countryside from one little village to
another. We rode to the Green Lotus Peak, and rode to the
several hundred-year-old banyan tree as well as to Moon Hill (Yueliangshan).
The scenery was breathtaking and worth the sore muscles experienced
After living it up in
Yangshuo and breathing free country air, we resigned ourselves to
heading back to the city. We left Yangshuo with heavy hearts
which became even heavier upon arrival in Guilin. We went to
the ticket office to get a train ticket, but we were told they were
sold out. We couldn't even get a hard seat back to Beijing!
We were horrified since we had to be teaching in a few days and knew
that if we didn't get a seat, we were stuck until a seat became
available for us to purchase.
While trying to
figure out what we were going to do, we toured Guilin. We went
to see the Mountain of Piled Brocades (Diecaishan), Elephant
Trunk Hill (Xiangbi Shan) and Whirlpool Hill (Fuboshan),
as well as other less notorious places. Finding a hotel for
the night was another less than pleasant experience. All the
places the locals urged us to go to had ridiculously high prices, so
we attempted to find one on our own. After many unsuccessful
attempts, we finally found one we could afford. We ended up
sharing a small room and sleeping on cots, but we were warm and
With a better start
to the day, we tried again to get transportation back to Beijing.
This time we were successful - instead of taking the train - since
we now didn't have enough time to get back - we would fly back to
Beijing!! The flight left that day - New Year's Eve - so we
had to scurry to get a taxi and go to the airport. When we
were finally able to board the plane, we looked at each other in
wonder. The airplane was obviously from Russia as the exit
signs and other lettering around the plane was in Russian! We
didn't feel too secure flying in it, but knew we had no other
choice. As we were taxiing down the runway, the entire plane
rattled as if it were about to fall apart...and part of it did!!
A ceiling panel fell down just as we were lifting off!
To pass the time we amused ourselves with the trinkets the airline
had given us and chatting with each other about our good fortune in
being able to fly - without emptying our pockets too much! We
finally arrived in Beijing after dark and we hustled to find a taxi
to take us back to our apartments.
To bring in the New
Year, we went to one of our favorite American restaurants, TGI
Friday's! A crowd of teachers from the institute were all
there and we brought in the New Year in bright spirits and with
Winter in China
After the eventful
Christmas break, it was time to resume teaching. My classroom,
which had been fine during the fall, had turned bitterly cold once
winter came. It was often that I taught while wearing my coat
and sometimes even my gloves or mittens. Rarely did I wear
less than two layers of clothing. Another drawback for me -
and for my students - was a chronic cough that wouldn't leave.
It was brought on in part by the cold, very dry air and aggravated
by the chalk dust I was inhaling every day. The result was a
coughing fit after every few words that interrupted class.
This condition lasted until spring arrived, and even then it still
hung on a little.
Winter in Beijing is
bleak, gray and cold. The wind just goes right through you, no
matter how many layers you have on. When I went to Simitai (a
less commercial section of the Great Wall) in late January, I remember I had on 2
layers under my pants, 3 layers under my coat and and 2 pair of
gloves/mittens! Even then, the wind went straight through at
the unprotected parts of the Wall. Normally, I love the cold,
but this was a bitter, bitter cold that once it seeped in, it took a
long time to warm up!
Spring in China
Needless to say, when
spring arrived, it was a breath of fresh air. The birds
singing, the trees budding and the wind blowing...blowing dirt that
is! Sunglasses were a necessity while riding my bike.
By spring, I had obtained approval to move from the
university in Beijing to an apartment in Haidian. This meant
that I no longer needed to rely on a taxi in the mornings, instead I
rode my bicycle the kilometer or so to school. This was
a wonderful time, idyllic in the sense that I could get to class
when I wanted to, without the stress of getting a taxi. I'll
never forget riding the bicycle from the apartment, down the streets
and alleys, and taking shortcuts to get to the university - what a thrill!
every opportunity there were also bike trips to the Summer Palace,
Qinghua University and other picnic spots nearby, or even far away!
After moving to Haidian,
weekends were spent riding my bike to various places around the
city. My favorite location was to the Summer Palace.
Many, many days were spent in this immense palace with its beautiful
scenery and spectacular flora. A favorite place to go was a
picturesque field with its lovely wildflowers that were so inviting.
Another favorite spot was next to the lake past the Marble Boat,
very beautiful and scenic, particularly with all the flowers and
trees blooming. Picnics, reading books or just relaxing in the
sun were some of the ways time was passed in this magnificent place.
Biking in Beijing
Biking was a
thrilling experience and since many people ride their bikes, it
tended to get crowded at times on the side street. In Beijing
(and other cities) the main road is for vehicles with another road
running parallel for those riding their bikes, horse carts, etc.
For anyone not very confident riding their bike, it's not a
recommended activity, particularly in busy areas! I loved the
feel of the wind on my face and the thrill of getting ahead of the
pack of cyclists. There were times I rode with friends from
the northern part of Beijing to temples and sights in the southern
portion of the city, such as the Temple of Heaven and several
markets. It was great exercise and fun as well - and I rarely
went without my handy backpack!
Buses in Beijing
I'll never forget my
first experience on a bus. When the bus arrived to the bus
stop, there was a crush of people getting off and then boarding it.
Forget manners and waiting politely for everyone to disembark - we
had to literally shove our way on board and pay for our tickets.
There was barely room to breathe as we were packed in like sardines-
literally. I remember one of the other teachers telling me to
be careful with my money because of pickpockets. Purses
weren't recommended and I soon learned to deal with using just a
wallet or billfold tucked into an inside pocket of my jacket (when
it was cool weather).
I was always amazed
at the ladies that took the bus fare, they had to remember so many
faces and know who had paid and who hadn't. They were
constantly busy taking money, giving change and little paper receipts.
I wondered how they could keep track and if they knew when someone
was trying to get a free ride. Unfortunately for me, I found
out not too long after starting at the university that they did.
One day another
teacher and I were going back to the university (the main branch)
from a shopping excursion. We took the bus from the subway, as
we still had quite a ways to go, when all of a sudden there was a
lot of yelling going on in the bus. A passenger was arguing
with the lady who took bus fares. The bus stopped and everyone
on one side of the bus had to get off while the floor was searched,
then everyone re-boarded. Apparently, that passenger hadn't
paid for their ticket or if they did, they had lost their receipt.
It resulted in a very long wait for us, which concerned us since we
both had a class to teach soon. Finally the police arrived and
had that same end of the bus disembark and this time the other
teacher and I pushed our way off of the bus and took off for the
university which was still quite a good distance away. We
shakily made it in time to get our teaching materials and go off
again to the other side of campus for our classes. It was an
experience I'll never forget, and I never let go of the ticket stub
again - to prove my fare had indeed been paid!
Subway in Beijing
The subway system is
wonderful, but very crowded - like the buses. Even for a
person who couldn't speak Chinese, it was amazingly simple to get
around. The signs were in Chinese characters and pinyin, so it
made it very easy! My only problem was that I would get
confused as to which direction I needed to go! Fortunately,
the subway went in a circle, so if I went the wrong direction, I
would eventually get there going the opposite way!
Street Food in
Mmmm, I can still
taste some of the street food if I really try to remember it. I don't
remember it's name, but it was a wonderful snack made from a batter
that was fried into a large flat pancake. Next an egg was
cracked and spread across the cooked batter, then a spicy sauce and
finally a thick square wafer. All of this was folded up into a
nice, hot square that was then consumed with pleasure! Yummy! There
were many wonderful shops where noodles could be bought - fabulous
with a bit of the spicy, red pepper sauce in it! Fresh fruit
like slice pineapples, and melons were also available in the spring
and by Western standards, were pretty inexpensive.
Cheap Airline Tickets
National Park Guide
I thought I had it
made. Being a little older, holding three degrees, with one in
education (albeit in elementary education), I just knew it would be a
breeze teaching English in China. English was and is my native
language, I'd been speaking it and listening to it for 24 years.
What would be so difficult about teaching it? If students, who
hadn't even graduated from college yet, could teach the Chinese - I
I possessed inside! But there was the one little voice inside
me that asked why I wasn't teaching children if it wasn't that hard.
Why did I decide to pursue a degree in a totally unrelated field -
business administration and accounting? The truth was that I
was terrified of being a failure. Personal setbacks just added
fuel to my fire at going anywhere and doing something with my life,
even if it was teaching English. Teaching first graders to
add, write, and read? That was frightening. But teaching
adults to speak English? Easy! I
was soon to learn something entirely different. As the saying
goes, pride goes before a fall and boy did I fall.
Like some people who
don't speak another language, I had a superiority complex about
being American and speaking the universal language, English.
During my stay in Hong Kong and later China, I just smiled at those
attempting to speak English - broken English that is. Not once,
at that time, did I commend them on, either mentally or outwardly
express, their effort at communicating with someone in a language
other than their native tongue. Little did I realize that I
was the one who was inferior to any of the people in the world who
spoke or attempted to speak another language. Sure, I learned
some obligatory Spanish in school and there
were even a few French lessons in elementary school, but none of it
was ever enough to even have a decent conversation!
During my flight to
China and my eventual arrival at the airport, the enormity of the
task I was about to undertake struck me. I was in a
country that didn't speak much English at all, actually relatively
little. Unlike Hong Kong which had the British influence and
therefore the infusion of British English, Beijing had no such
influence. In Hong Kong, I really didn't have many worries
about going out and about. Chances were that I could find
someone to help me and point me in the right direction.
In Beijing, I had no such luxury. Arriving at the airport, I
had my first shock. Throngs of people surrounded me and were
pushing in different directions. Fortunately, people from the
language institute where I was to teach were there to help me gather
all of my belongings and get me to the school.
After fulfilling the
obligations before me, regarding interviewing students and the
registration process, my first term was about to begin. My
first class was filled with students who knew almost no English,
certainly not enough for a conversation. My task was easy, no
talking was necessary, just go by the book. Say
a sentence, have them repeat it. Say another sentence, have
them repeat it. This was the way the class went. My
second class was filled with students who could speak a little more
English, but not enough for speaking complete sentences but broken
sentences. It was a replay of the first class, but with a bit
of "talk time." The third class was one again the
same process of speaking and having the student repeat after me, but
they were third level students who were more inclined to
ask questions and have "free talk."
Free talk is just
where we talked about issues and topics they wanted to discuss.
A lot of times it was questions about America, but sometimes it was
about my perceptions of China. It was during the third
level class that I realized my arrogance and stupidity at making
assumptions about these students. I had classes off and on all
day, but it was my night class that really got me to thinking -and
cringing. I always encourage questions and would attempt to
answer them to the best of my ability. Surprising to me, they
asked questions that stumped me and when I couldn't answer them, I
could sense their disapproval. After all, they were paying a
lot of money to be taught by me.
In addition, some of my students were in the doctorate program at a
chemical university, which actually somewhat intimidated me.
I was asked such insightful, thought-provoking questions it
surprised me. They asked questions about grammar that I hadn't
thought about since grade school - and therefore couldn't answer!
Others questioned pronunciation, there were idioms that needed to be
explained. The list could go on and on - which further reduced
my sanctimoniousness about being a wonderful teacher. Quite
the contrary - I realized that I had taken my own knowledge of
English for granted and assumed incorrectly that just because I
spoke it, that was enough for the Chinese willing to pay to learn
it. I very
soon realized my ill-conceived notions were wrong - the students
weren't less intelligent because they didn't speak English - English
was just an additional language for them to learn either for self
improvement or to advance them further in their jobs. Also,
many didn't want to just learn to speak English, they wanted to
understand why we spoke the way we spoke and the rules behind
addition, many had a better grasp of English than I had of Chinese -
and some were even better at the explaining the rules of English
than I was! Furthermore, even after a year of being in Beijing, I didn't know any more than
enough Chinese to get by, mainly directional Chinese - left, right,
straight, stop. It was a very humbling experience.
Fortunately, I had
never shown this attitude or spoke of it to anyone, it was my little
secret. I truly liked my students and my students liked me as
well and we went on outings many times on the weekends together.
But my secret was there hidden deep in my heart. After
being enlightened regarding my awful attitude, I began to see how
truly they were more rounded in many areas than I was. They
would ask me my thoughts about a famous Chinese actor, Jackie Chan.
I had no clue who he was (which upset many of them). Did they
know American movie stars? Yes, they even rattled of their
favorite male and female actors. They even gave themselves
English nicknames so that we would remember their names and be able
to pronounce them - one student's nickname was Lancelot, at other
times they asked us to give them a nickname - it was a source of
pride to have an English nickname. Did I change my name when I
went to China and later Korea? No. My name remained the same.
So many times other countries change or adapt to English speaking
countries, but it seems that we, in America at least, have very
little patience for those who don't speak English, or speak it well.
If my only purpose in
going to China was to teach English and have fun, well, I received more than I
bargained for in that I saw myself for who I truly was and became a
better person for it. The experience was wonderful,
but to have gained a greater understanding of another culture was