a room with a view

Jul 24, 2002 8:24pm

As someone recently remarked to me, people are the same wherever you go. At least, they share a fascination in shaved heads. Every morning as I leave my apartment for work an old man sitting outside feels his bare pate and exclaims in Chinese: “You have a bald head!” My Chinese isn’t that great, so maybe he’s saying something else, but I know that the universal thumbs-up means that, whatever he’s saying, it’s a good thing. So I smile and say “Nihao”.

Nihao. I’ve been getting emails asking if I’m alive for five weeks now, so I figured it was time to communicate.

For a city no one’s heard of in the industrial east of China, Jinan isn’t too bad. It’s a city on the move; toilet paper arrived 5 years ago. It’s still not very fashionable though. There’s never any paper in the toilets, and the plumbing can’t handle it, so there are little baskets in the cubicles for any offerings. It’s a bad idea to forget to take paper with you; even worse to forget where the paper goes…

We – the teachers – live in a compound about 15 minutes walk from the university campus where we teach. The school is on the 7th floor of the Business & Administration Building. The elevators don’t work (and when they do, they often break down with people inside, or stop a couple of metres from the top and people have to be boosted out) so we daily climb a dozen flights, twice if you go out for lunch. Good exercise, at least… but more about that in a minute.

The school is much like you’d expect: classrooms, a computer lab, admin offices, closed rooms with medicine men concocting Chinese herbal remedies, a staffroom, library, and so on. The other teachers are generally easy to get along with, which helps when you spend most of your waking hours around them. It can be an interesting exercise to puzzle out why different people are here – the night I arrived I was whisked out to the foreign watering hole to meet some of them and was informed by one that Jinan was a good place to be if you’re “running away from something”.

The apartments are luxurious by local standards and pretty decent by international ones. You’d think that being in the city the compound would be devoid of life, but we have a rooster who crows every morning at 6am … and 9am, 3pm, 6pm, 9pm and 12am. I haven’t been up at 3am yet, but he probably crows then too. You can’t really blame him though, since it is hard to tell when the sun is up. I hadn’t mentioned that Jinan is one of the top 10 polluted cities in China, with air ‘quality’ 400% higher than WHO standards, had I? Funnily enough, neither did the orientation material. No, wait, here it is: “Jinan is a little bit polluted, but it’s really not that bad.” Let’s just say that when kids say the sky is white and the sun is red, you can’t really argue with them. A week after I got here I saw blue sky; two weeks after I got here I joined a gym so I could run without getting a week-long headache; last week I saw my first star.

Since I’ve arrived I’ve mostly been teaching to teenagers and young adults, which I’ve enjoyed. Teaching appeals to my senseibilities; learning by teaching, teaching to learn. I’ve also had the pleasure of teaching kids. Grade 6 kids, to be exact. A few weeks ago one of the teachers quit (there’s a 70% drop-out rate, something else mysteriously absent from the orientation material) and I had to take over his class out at a private boarding school. A driver picked me up in a large, black German car and we shot through crowded alleyways of watermelon and tomato sellers like a u-boat through fish. As with every taxi ride, I spent my journey in a state of mild panic, watching the driver narrowly avoid a head-on collision with a bus every 30 seconds and reflexively reaching for a seatbelt that wasn’t there.

Then, into a classroom of 35 twelve-year-olds without pens, one fan on a 40’C day, one translator who couldn’t translate and six hours to go. Heaven. I’ve concluded that teaching children is a bit like surfing a train wreck: control is an illusion and there’s lots of noise. If the classroom had rafters, these kids would have been swinging from them … silently. But I survived.

Anyway, more next month. The photos aren’t the best, but between me, the photo lab and the scanner I don’t think much more could go wrong. I’d post more to my website, but Yahoo Groups is obviously a hotbed of splittest intrigues because it’s one of several (mostly news) sites that appear to be blocked. So much for the convenience of a mailing list.

I’ll leave you with an exchange from one of my very first classes, when I met Jesus, a transexual who loves Him, but prefers to be She.

[A hot day in Jinan, much like any day. Our hero is trying to impress 25 new students who have paid an arm and a leg to attend a prestigious English school with experienced teachers. He is assigning them English names and everything is going well…]

Me [deep masculine voice]: What’s your name?
Vivian [husky feminine voice]: Wibian.
Me: Wibian?
Vivian: *Wibian*.
Me: Wibian. Wibian. Oh! *Vivian*. Right.

[Thinks: OK good, she must be a girl]

Me: Well we have two Vivians in the class. Can you think of another name
you’d like to be called?
Vivian: Mark.
Me: Ummm. Mark’s actually a boy’s name.
Mark: I *am* a boy.

[Pregnant pause]

[Thinks: Quick, say something! Act nonchalant]

Me: Oh. Riiight.
Mark: Yes.
Me: Ummm… right, well we have two Marks, but that’s OK.
Mark: Then I want to be called Jesus.
Me: No no, it’s fine, really, we can have two Marks. Easy.
Jesus: I want to be called Jesus.
Me: Jesus.
Jesus: Yes, Jesus.
Me: Right. Ah… do you know who Jesus is?
Jesus: Yes. I love Jesus.
Me: OK. Well we don’t usually call people Jesus.
Jesus: But I love Jesus.


Me: O-kay. *Jeezus*…

[Marks roll]

Me: Jesus is present.


“This is the most comfortable notebook you have ever run into” – cover of a notebook sold in the local supermarket

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