Today has been a day of technical difficulties. Our water heater is back to its old tricks again. After the maintenance lady came and “fixed” it, it gave us several days of showers so hot we felt like we were being cooked rather than cleaned. Then yesterday, it again exhausted all of its heating capabilities and went back to giving us cold showers. My shower was kind of lukewarm this morning, so I took the much-needed opportunity to shave my legs. Then, after I’d finished with just one leg, the water suddenly stopped running (before I’d had a chance to even rinse the soap)! I managed to get the water to come back on again a few minutes later, and got water so cold I was experiencing the other end of the spectrum—I felt as though I were getting freezer burned. Teeth chattering, I barely managed to shave my other leg as I didn’t want to walk around town making a spectacle of myself (more than I already do, just being a foreigner). I guess it’s time to call on our friendly maintenance lady once again.
The other technical difficulty I experienced (all before lunchtime!) was with the washing machine. I washed a single sheet (at all of the places we’ve stayed in China, they don’t provide a sheet to cover with—just a single sheet to tuck around the mattress and a blanket/bedspread to use as a cover) and four pillowcases. When I went to check on it about an hour later, I was confused to see that the tub was still full to the brim with water. For whatever reason it skipped the drain and spin cycle and it was just sitting there. I pushed one button that had an image next to it that looked like blades on a fan spinning, hoping that would do the trick. All that managed to do was get the machine to start pouring more water into the tub. I was already late to meet Justin for lunch so I just left it like that, hoping that we wouldn’t return after lunch to find our entire apartment flooded with water. (We didn’t.) After lunch, I was still unable to get the tub to drain, so I just pulled out the sheets and wrung them out by hand and hung them to dry. China is always full of surprises—it seems like we never have a boring day.
Speaking of surprises, Justin and I got quite a surprise on Wednesday earlier this week when we agreed to do some extra work for our school. The other English teachers at our university explained that they work with many organizations and businesses within the community, and one of those happened to be a language school that was looking to acquire some foreign teachers. They were hoping that we’d be able to take on as many as four extra classes each at this new school and told us that we would be paid the agreed hourly overtime compensation amount that was set in our contract. Right now, Justin and I have very light teaching schedules. I teach only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Justin teaches Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Each day when I teach, I do three classes that each last 90 minutes. Justin teaches two morning classes on Wednesdays and Fridays, and three classes on Thursdays (which adds up to one more class than I teach). We also jointly lead the English Corner on Wednesday afternoons, which is much more like a club than a class. It’s a group of Chinese students who come together to practice having conversations in English (and ask us questions about what life is like in America, of course). Teaching 10-12 hours a week for full-time pay is a pretty sweet deal, seeing as we’re accustomed to working 40+ hours a week in America, and we weren’t too keen to start filling our free time with extra classes and responsibilities. However, the English teachers didn’t force us into anything; they simply asked us if we’d be willing to help them out. We know that our contract states that we will be “occasionally” required by the school to take on extra responsibilities (attending school events and functions, judging English speech contests, etc.), but this seemed more of a consistent extra responsibility than an “occasional” one, so we compromised by saying we would try it. We agreed to go and teach one class to see how we liked it, and then we would let them know if we wanted to commit to doing it weekly. The English teachers were ecstatic, so they called the headmaster of the other school and made arrangements for us.
The details of this language school were a bit of a mystery to us. Justin and I tried to ask the other English teachers about the school, and they didn’t seem to know much about it themselves. All they were able to tell us was that the classes meet at night, from around 6 PM to 9 PM, and that we would not be teaching young children. Justin suggested that maybe this was some sort of night school in which adults could enroll (like American community college) and pick up a class or two to learn a language or learn a trade. But we really had no idea what we were getting into when we received a text message from one of the English teachers on Wednesday night instructing us to be at the front gate of our college at 5:45 PM to be picked up by representatives of the language school.
We were happy, at least, to see Zoe waiting for us at the gate. Zoe is our favorite office assistant who allows us to use her personal computer to print documents, and puts in copy orders for us when we need them. She waited at the front gate with us to make sure that we got into the right car. Every time a car would drive up and stop at the front gate, she would run over and start speaking to the driver in Chinese. Several times she came back saying, “That is not the right one.” “You don’t know the people or the kind of car we’re looking for, then?” I asked. “I have no idea,” she said, shrugging, which made me feel a bit uneasy. We waited for a few more minutes, as the last bit of sunlight disappeared from the sky and the dim streetlamps became the only sources of light on the dark road. A van pulled up and Zoe ran over to it to speak to the driver. It seemed that this was the correct car, so she beckoned us over there. We exchanged an awkward greeting with a woman sitting in the passenger seat, and then opened the door to climb into the back of the van. Justin had the good sense to ask, “When will we be coming back?” Zoe translated the question into Chinese for him, and told us that the driver’s response was, “It should be before 9:00.” Nine o’clock?! We thought we had signed up to teach one class as a trial…surely that class wasn’t going to last for more than two hours? But we really didn’t have time to protest as Zoe slid the van door shut and waved goodbye to us from the sidewalk as the van sped off into the darkness.
Another thing that Justin and I hadn’t thought to ask was where exactly this school was located. The English teachers told us that it was within Huzhou city limits but too far to reach by walking. After only a few minutes of driving, the van took a series of turns and we found ourselves traveling down unfamiliar streets, feeling completely lost. Asking the driver where we were headed didn’t seem like an option; during the entire trip the driver and the female passenger spoke with each other in Chinese, and neither made an effort (or had any ability) to converse with us in English.
We arrived in a dark alley that looked to be residential. We seemed to be on the backside of a couple of six-story apartment buildings, and using the light of the dim streetlamps I could just barely make out a couple of stray cats scavenging through some overflowing trashcans on the street corner. “We’re here,” said the female passenger, who apparently did speak a little bit of English. I wanted to say, “You’re joking!” but I obligingly stepped out of the van and kept my mouth shut. She ushered us inside of a nearby building and into an elevator. She began telling us a bit of information and history about the language school, but I was too distracted to listen, too busy nervously wondering what exactly would meet us when we arrived upstairs. Sharing the elevator with us was little girl with her hair in pigtails, maybe seven years old, who was staring at Justin and me wide-eyed with her mouth gaping open. She started urgently tugging on her mother’s sleeve, chattering in Chinese and pointing at us as if to say, “Look, Mommy, look!” Her mother glanced as us briefly and then admonished her daughter, possibly telling her that it was rude to point, because she stopped pointing at us. But she continued to stare at us in amazement until we reached our floor.
As soon as the elevator doors opened, it was chaos. The woman acting as our tour guide continued to speak to us, but it was difficult to hear through the cacophony of children’s voices talking and laughing and the little footsteps running through the halls. The little girl with the pigtails was apparently very quick to tell her friends that some foreigners had arrived, because a group of waist-high sized children bombarded us, chattering excitedly in Chinese. Their teachers emerged into the mix and started shooing them away and attempted to introduce themselves above the noise. I was really having a hard time concentrating on hearing the names and was confused about why there were so many children. Justin and I had been told that we would have older pupils, so maybe we had arrived on the wrong floor or something. The teachers thrust some post-it notes into our hands, and explained that Justin would be teaching in Room 2204, and I would be teaching in Room 2210. That snapped me out of my stupor. “Wait…Justin and I thought we’d be teaching in the same room, together,” I protested. “We only brought one set of materials to teach from.” The teacher looked at me apologetically and said, “Sorry for the confusion. Come with me, this way…” I looked at Justin, and he looked just as confused and worried as I’m sure I did, as another English teacher took his arm and escorted him in the opposite direction down the hallway full of children.
I arrived in what looked like an elementary school classroom. Little children who looked to be five and six milled around the door, excitedly talking in Chinese to each other and waiting for class to begin. There was a teacher already inside the room and she introduced herself to me (though I’ll never remember what her name was). “Do you have a lesson prepared?” She asked me. I did prepare a lesson, very similar to the one that I’d used to start my college classes. “I did….” I said, hesitatingly, “But it’s really too advanced for little children. How old are these children, anyway?” She told me that they were eight, nine, and ten. That was surprising to me, considering I had guessed that these children had just graduated toilet training. I should have realized by now that Chinese people are always older than they appear to be, and I guess that rule applies to children as well. The teacher thrust a lesson book into my hands and said, “Since you have no other plans, you can teach lessons four through nine from this book, okay?” I flipped through the book, which was filled with lessons about the English alphabet and the sounds that certain combined letters make. I am an English teacher, but I have absolutely no training in teaching such elementary principles, and I started to panic. Suddenly, a bell rang, and all of the children started filing into the room. The teacher turned to leave, and I gripped her arm to stop her. “You’re not leaving me here, are you?” I asked, the note of panic rising in my voice. “I’ve never done this before. I need your help!” She smiled, looking a bit concerned and confused about my question, and said, “Of course not. I’ll be sitting here in the back of the room in case the children need me to translate into Chinese.” Only mildly comforted by her words, I looked down to see all of the students sitting quietly with hands folded across their desks, smiling up at me. The teacher was still at the front of the room and told me in English, “First, we start class by singing.” Then she instructed the children in Chinese and they stood up next to their chairs, took out little blue song books, and started singing in unison. The song seemed to go on for a long time, maybe five or six minutes. One girl I noticed was quite arduously picking her nose, and had neglected to turn the pages of her song book or sing along with her classmates. However, one stern look from the teacher had her back on track again. Later on, I took a look through these song books and saw that the Chinese words they were singing were accompanied by an English translation. I was surprised to see that they appeared to be singing the rules. They had been belting out lines like, “Don’t push and shove,” and “Always wash your hands after using the restroom.” As I flipped the pages, I saw that towards the end, the song developed from simple rules into life principals such as, “Always speak loudly and clearly when addressing an elderly person,” and “Never do anything that will bring shame to your country and its government.”
All too quickly, the song ended and the teacher took her seat in the back of the room, indicating that it was time for me to start my lesson. The students all took their seats and looked up at me expectantly. And the next hour crawled by like a scene out of one of my nightmares. The teacher’s lesson book appeared to be an exact copy of the students’ lesson books (without any of the helpful teaching tips and reminders that I’m so fond of in the teacher’s edition textbooks in America), and many of the instructions for the activities were very unclear. I was constantly at a loss for words and looking to the back of the room for guidance, and the teacher kept feeding me lines, saying, “Now tell them this….” I felt like a complete idiot. I kept waiting for someone to jump out and tell me that I was being Punk’d, but then I remembered that I was in China, and Ashton Kutcher and his camera crew were many miles away, on the other side of the world.
Class finally ended and the children all ran into the hallway again. My escort arrived, waiting to take me to my next class upstairs. She told me that this class would have eleven, twelve, and thirteen-year-olds. When I arrived, I saw that the teacher appeared to be handing out graded homework as the students all crowded around her from every side, hoping to receive their paper first. However, as soon as I walked in the door, the crowd of students ran from their teacher to ambush me from every side. They were all excitedly chattering in Chinese and a few of them were trying to ask me questions in English. The teacher managed to shoo most of them away and into their seats again, but a boy named Tony kept desperately clinging onto my arm, wanting to know where I was from and whether I could speak any Chinese. The teacher had to strongly admonish him in Chinese before he let go of my arm and reluctantly dragged his feet towards his seat. I decided to stick with my original plan for this group, and I gave them a thorough introduction of myself, showing them pictures to go with my words, such as, “In America, I am from Flor-i-da. See, here is a picture of Flor-i-da.” I showed them pictures of FSU, my wedding, my parents, the Fonz (my cat), and pictures of my former school and former students in America. The children all “oohed” and “ahhed” over each one, and little Tony couldn’t help but jump out of his seat to get a closer look each time I came around with another picture. His teacher apologized for him, explaining, “When he loves someone, he gets very wild.” After I introduced myself, I wrote fill-in-the-blank sentences on the board so that the children could introduce themselves. For example, “My name is________________. I am ______ years old. I have ____ brothers/sisters. My favorite subject in school is ________________. My favorite food is _____________. ” I also asked them, just for fun, whether or not they plan on traveling to America someday. They stood up and introduced themselves one by one, and all promised me (whether truthfully or just because they wanted to impress me) that they planned to travel to America someday. This activity did not take the entire class period, however. During the final half-hour I reviewed a lesson with them out of their book, and had them write me a paragraph about a fun day trip that they went on one time. This class was much more enjoyable than the last one, as these students were much more proficient in English, and seemed much more like the age group that I’m used to teaching. In fact, one boy in the back of the room picked a silent moment during class to pass gas, which had half the class erupting in laughter and the other half of the class (nearest him) gagging and pinching their noses. Not a day went by without something similar happening in my American classes, so that made me feel right at home. However, I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to commit coming to this school weekly, especially if that meant continuing to teach the younger students.
While the students were quietly working on writing their paragraphs (I kept catching little Tony stealing furtive glances at me, completely distracted from his work), the teacher started a conversation with me in hushed tones. She apologized for the behavior of her students again, saying, “I’m sorry that the students are so overly excited today. They are very happy that the foreign teacher is finally here.” Something about her word choice seemed a bit strange to me, and I asked, “What do you mean finally here? We just heard about this opportunity a few days ago.” She informed me that the headmaster of the school has been promising the parents (who have been in turn, promising the students) that they would have foreign teachers for English. She got out her grade book and started showing me dates, going back all the way to September first. “Every week, the students come in and say, ‘Are the foreign teachers here today?’ and I say, ‘No, not yet.’ The next week they say, ‘Are the foreign teachers here today?’ and I say, ‘No, not here.’ So you can see why they are finally so excited to see you. It’s almost too much for some of them to handle,” She explained, as I made eye contact with Tony again and he quickly looked down and pretended to be reading his book. And I immediately knew that this was a trap. Everything about it had seemed a bit shady, but I just shrugged it off because I’ve gotten used to saying, “that’s China,” and just going with it. But this was outright wrong. How could the headmaster promise these students a foreign teacher and just hope that we would agree to work for him? We came here under contract with the college; we have no obligation to the language school. However, now that I’d seen them and they had seen me, I knew it would be much more difficult to turn down the job. An image of little Tony’s face floated to the front of my mind. I imagined him arriving at school the following week, asking his teacher where I was, and her telling him that I’d decided not to come back anymore. The scene played in my mind like a movie—I saw his disappointed little face. He’d probably even ask, “Why? Does she not like us anymore? Why won’t she come back?” I choked back the lump rising in my throat, and I had to try to shove the images out of my mind. The teacher, unaware of the horrible turn my train of thought had just taken, closed her grade book and said, “Why don’t you ask some of the students to read their paragraphs to the class? That should take up these last few minutes of class.” “Okay,” I answered, trying to blink away tears and forcing myself to think about something else, ANYTHING else. “Who wants to read me their paragraph?” I asked the class. Several hands went into the air, and Tony, with his hand raised, jumped completely out of his chair in his effort to have me pick him first.
The rest of the class passed by quickly, and I waved goodbye to the students as they lined up in the hallway before going downstairs to be picked up by their parents. To my surprise, I saw men in green military uniforms (complete with the communist red arm band) patrolling the halls, ready to lead the children downstairs in formation like miniature soldiers. I was ushered away to an office where I was told Justin was already waiting. What I didn’t realize was that Justin’s second class had ended half an hour earlier than mine. For thirty minutes he had been locked in a small office with the headmaster of the school, being interrogated about the behavior of the students, the quality of the teachers, and his overall impression of the school. He was very eager to know Justin’s opinion, and of course Justin had nothing but compliments for everyone, right down to the janitors (how could he bear to say otherwise?). Justin didn’t realize that I was still teaching during that time. He had images running through his mind of me being interrogated in a separate room, thinking that the school administrators wanted to “divide and conquer.” He kept nervously asking the headmaster, “Where is Rachel?” every few minutes, and seemed relieved when I finally entered the room. I, of course, had nothing but the highest praise for the school and the way it was run when the headmaster asked me about my opinion. When the headmaster asked us if we would be returning, Justin declined, but I said I would need to think over whether or not I wanted to make a commitment to the school, and let him know at a later time.
Later, when we had left the school and arrived back on campus after riding in the van again, Justin filled me in on what the headmaster said to him in the office. By reading between the lines a little, Justin gathered that the headmaster had arranged for four foreign teachers to come to the school, and had advertised it widely in the hopes that he would get new parents interested in enrolling their children. Then, when it came time to process the visas, all four of them fell through for some reason (we’re thinking he didn’t realize how expensive it would be and didn’t want to foot the bill). However, when the school year started and the parents asked him why the foreign teachers had not yet arrived, he must have fibbed and told them, “They’re on their way! They’re coming soon!” So each night when the parents were tucking their children into bed, they were telling them, “Tomorrow at school, you might have a new foreign teacher.” And each week the children would show up to school in a fit of excitement, wondering if today is the day that the foreign teacher will arrive. When the headmaster found out that the local college had acquired two foreign teachers, he thought, “Now is my chance to finally follow through on the promise of foreign teachers, without having to pay all of the expenses for their travel and their visas.” He found a loophole, and he was eager to see if it would work. He doesn’t actually need any more teachers—he already has fully capable English teachers in every classroom (unless he plans on firing them). He just wanted to incorporate some foreigners into his staff to save his reputation.
The entire situation was a complete scam, and Justin and I were so angry that we were involved with it. There are many schools similar to this one, language schools that teach children how to speak English at night time (after they’ve finished with their normal, daytime schooling). There are warnings and horror stories all over the internet about these types of private schools scamming expatriate teachers, so I made sure that Justin and I got involved with a public college instead. The headmasters in charge of schools like these do nothing but lie to anyone who will listen, and they are only out to make more money at others’ expense. I’ve heard stories of people agreeing to work 30 hours a week, and instead being worked 45-50 hours. I’ve heard of loopholes in contracts in which they will only tabulate “actual” teaching time into paid hours and refuse to count the time the students spend during class completing silent seat work or working together in partners. I’ve heard of expatriate teachers who work for months on end without receiving any pay, but as long as the administrators promise that a paycheck is on the way (and because a work visa only allows a person to stay in the country as long as they are working), there is nothing that they can do about it other than fly back home at their own expense. After seeing just a brief glimpse of this particular school, I’m sure that the headmaster here is no different. I would probably be signing up to teach one or two classes, and it would turn into four, five, or six. Or I would constantly be waiting for a paycheck, but because they know that I have the heart of a teacher and could not bear to disappoint the children, they would keep putting off paying me, always promising me, “Next week you’ll get paid.” In any case, Justin contacted him and told him that we were not interested in returning to his school. He spoke on my behalf since I was still way too conflicted about it. Justin was afraid that if the headmaster got just the least bit persuasive with me over the phone, I would give in and agree to teach ten classes (and he’s probably right). However, I wish I would have turned this job down before I actually went there and met the children. I can’t help but get choked up again when imagine little Tony’s disappointed face. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to spend a relaxing Wednesday evening at home anymore without feeling guilty about the children that I’ve let down.