A short summary of my year in China
20.09.2011 - 29.06.2012
I must admit, its taken me far too long to actually start this blog. I have been teaching in China for ten months and traveling for another two. However, I have done my best to keep track of where I have been, the amazing people I have met and the things I have experienced. While this blog really begins in Vietnam where I started backpacking I would like to touch upon when the whole adventure started with a kindergarten position in China. Eventually, I will try to compile some 'update emails' that I sent my family during my time in China into a blog entry on China but I only have so much time and the internet in southeast Asia is slow. So, I will save that for another day. For now, I will try to remember the basics.
I was offered a position to teach in China immediately after finishing my studies last semester. I had always planned to visit China someday but I did not expect an opportunity to come so soon. After a short deliberation period I decided to go for it. I was assigned to a coastal city near Korea called Yantai. While this city is considered small by Chinese standards (and certainly felt very small at times) it actually had a population of over six million. Its a very authentic city with barely any foreigners. Its got a beautiful downtown area which is a popular destination for domestic tourists in the summer but it also gets quite cold in the winter. It sports a few decent beaches, some fantastic street food and a very kind population who will take any chance they get to practice their broken English with you.
After a long trip from Canada, I arrived in Yantai late on September 20th and was quickly introduced to my roommate to be for the next ten months, Yahia. I must admit, I was a little intimidated by this 6'2" 250 lb middle eastern giant when we first met. However, it quickly became apparent that the 'beast from the middle east' (as he is called back in Halifax where he played football for St. FX) is actually a gentle giant and one of the nicest guys I've met in a long time. Despite coming from very different backgrounds (Yahia is a Palestinian college football star, I am a Canadian arts geek), it was clear from the beginning that we were going to get along well. To be honest, I don't think I could have made it through the first couple months in China without him. Since there were really no other young foreigner in Kai Fa Qu (our district in Yantai), we had to stick close. By the end of the first two months, we were like an old married couple who did absolutely everything together. But we always got along and, I must say, I couldn't have asked for a better roommate.
Upon entering Canadian International School for the first time I also had the pleasure of meeting the rest of the staff. There was Roger, our crazy old principal who typically had no clue what was going in the school, Mike, a young Pakistani doctor who could speak five languages fluently, Bruce, our veteran math teacher with heart of gold, Linda, our middle aged Arts teacher who was an expert and finding literally anything to complain about and Catherine, our moody grade one teacher who, despite the fact she was Greek, spoke with an British accent and was always at war with at least one of the other teachers. It was an interesting mix which made for a lot of drama but I will save you the details. My mom later commented that the school had the perfect makings for a comedy sitcom. After the craziness that would eventually unfold, I am still considering the idea.
Before beginning my work I was under the impression I would be just an assistant teacher for a small grade two class of about six students. Upon arriving, however, I found out that I would be the full teacher of a kindergarten class of primarily Korean and Taiwanese students. I also found out that the school was in its first year and had no books, practically no materials, and definitely no curriculum for my classroom. I was thrown out to sea with boatload of six year olds who had mothers with high expectations. In fact, it was apparent in the beginning that the mothers were not pleased to see some 23 year old male teaching their kids. After all, I was probably the only male kindergarten teacher in the province and most likely the youngest.
Luckily, I was also given a fantastic Korean assistant who I could not have survived without named Spring. Spring had a daughter in the school and was just as surprised as me to find out she was assigned to a kindergarten classroom. We quickly started compiling a curriculum to teach the kids while learning ourselves the ins and outs of teaching four to six year olds. Since the school was in its first year, there were little to no resources available. As I had never taught kindergarten before and was not a trained teacher, I was very overwhelmed during my first couple weeks trying to fill six and half hours of class time five days a week with lessons and activities. While teaching kindergarten sounds like an easy gig, I assure you, its not. Especially when you are teaching students who do not understand you and have parents who have been raised in a culture in which education is paramount, even at the preschool level. Many of these students had been studying since they were three and I was fully expected to improve their English to a suitable level for them to enter a grade one classroom where they would not be able to use their native tongue. I was stressed to the limit and there were certainly moments where I thought I could not do it. But after a month or so, I really started to enjoy having such complete freedom in my classroom. I split the day into periods and focused on English, math, science, crafts and physical education. I found several good lesson plans on the internet and began coming up with activities to keep the kids interested. Spring handled the arts searching and designing three or four crafts a week to compliment the lessons. Without a curriculum, Spring and myself were really able to teach them whatever we wanted. Whether we were teaching the animal kingdom, phonics or how to sing "Don't Worry, Be Happy" by Bobby Mcferrin, I started to realize that these kids were like little sponges, and that the content of the lessons did not matter as much as them simply being engaged in learning. In short, I was helping them learn how to learn and the most important thing was to keep them interested.
By late October I started to get the swing of things in the classroom and, after a few weekends of exploring, the city as well. Yahia and I started making a few weekend trips to neighboring cities like Qingdao and Penglai which turned out to be alot of fun. I also began teaching myself Chinese after class but was slow to see any results. The language is not an easy one to learn. As weeks passed I was becoming more comfortable in China and enjoying the experience more. Then the cold set in.
Now I am from Calgary where its not unusual to face consistent -30 days in the winter, but I had never experienced the type of cold that Yantai had to offer. While the temperature only sank to about -5 or -10, the air was still quite humid and the winds off the sea were bone chilling. I had a lot of trouble adjusting to the winter as it made moving about the city much more difficult. Our school also did not have central heating, only individual heaters in each room which had to be turned on and off at the beginning and end of each day. Thus, a thick sweater was necessary in the classroom and a full on winter jacket in the hallways. My poor kids would arrive bundled in all sorts of adorable winter clothes and had to stay bundled until well into the morning when the classroom would finally warm up. Christmas break couldn't have come at a better time. Yahia and I took the opportunity to head as far south as possible in China (literally). We went to the southern tip of China's only tropical island to a beach resort town named Sanya. We met a great group of travelers and teachers there and partied it up on the beach for a week. We then spent a crazy new years in Hong Kong before returning to China's cold northern winter climate.
Due to some ridiculous scheduling, I only had two weeks of class before I was given another week off for Chinese New Year. I was lucky to have my mother, brother and sister visit for a few weeks. They traveled up from the south and met me in Shanghai where we spent a week in a city that was nearly empty (most Chinese return to the countryside for Chinese New Year so the cities are abandoned). We had a fantastic time exploring the city and sampling the fine cuisine in Shanghai's hip international restaurants before heading to Qingdao and Yantai. My mother was able to spend her birthday in my little Chinese city meeting my kids and the school staff who I had become very close with. An awesome experience that I will never forget. After my family left for Beijing, however, I was back to school. It could not have been more of a stressful environment to return to. Since most of the parents had made a turn around and begun to like me and my program, we immediately received another 15 kids in the second semester, a number that would continually grow. I was dumbfounded when Roger told me that I was expected to teach them all. I had already brought the kids that I had from the beginning of the year up to good level of basic English and math and was expected to do the same with the new kids while continuing to teach the original class something new. Not to mention my classroom would have well over twenty students in it, a ridiculous number for an ESL kindergarten class. Essentially I was being asked to teach two classes. I told them that unless they found a new teacher within two weeks I would quit. In the meantime I heard from my cousin Emily that a friend of hers was in China and looking for work. I emailed her immediately and gave her a rundown of the situation (the good and the bad). The same day she was being interviewed by Roger and, by the end of the week, Amanda was our new kindergarten teacher. I went to Beijing that weekend to see off my family and was given the difficult task of dividing the class for Monday.
Things began to improve after that ordeal. We had a few new teachers on staff; Amanda, my new kindergarten team mate who I got along with very well. In fact, we had far to much in common not to become instant good friends. Matt, a 26 year old Aussie motorbike enthusiast who was saving for a bike trip around northern china and definitely new how to have a good time. Jim "Bodidley", a middle aged west coast Canadian of Irish descent who, due to his fun loving and young personality, quickly became part of our downtown weekend party group. And lastly, Gary and Lorraine, a proud middle aged couple from the Toronto area who were a lot of fun and generally impossible not to get along with (unless your Catherine I guess).
Before the new teachers arrived, Yahia and I always had fun going out to play pool and chat up locals in the clubs. But now there were five of us who were in our twenties and Jim to go out with on the weekends which made things a little more entertaining. We really had some fantastic nights out in Yantai, where, as a foreigner, you are treated like a local celebrity. When spring arrived, we started making trips to other cities as well. First, Amanda, Matt and I went to Weihai (about an hour from Yantai) for a weekend to discover that the beach is far nicer than Yantai's and that the city smaller but better developed for tourists. We had a great couple days there. During spring break I took a solo trip through Shandong province to climb Taishan (China's most sacred mountain), visit the Confucius temple and wonder the capital city of Jinan. An awesome experience which has made me very excited to return to China and travel. When summer started to set in we took a weekend trip to Beijing so that Yahia could see the great wall. My university roommate who was working in the northern city of Dalian also joined us and we had an awesome weekend exploring Beijing's sites and eclectic night scene. After that, trips to Changdao and Qingdao were in order, both of which are great stories within themselves. But, of course, I don't have time to tell them all.
As weeks passed, Amanda and I started to see a huge improvement in our kids, especially the ones I had been teaching since the beginning of the year. They were starting to use English more regularly in the classroom and the nice weather gave us the opportunity to take them outside for learning activities or just for fun. We started getting more and more creative with our lessons. During my dinosaur unit I even made fake dinosaur bones and buried them in the front lawn so we could do an archeological dig and name the dinosaurs we found. A big hit with the kids. By this point I had really fallen in love with all of them, even the ones that frustrated me to my wits end. I was starting to dread saying goodbye as I new that day was coming soon.
When we only had about six weeks left, after a crazy year of constant changes, I was looking forward to a relaxed end to the semester. I was in for a surprise. I came in one morning to find Roger sitting in my chair. He quickly stated that the school had purchased a failing Chinese kindergarten and that we were to receive eight new Chinese kids of various ages and abilities on Monday. I could not believe my ears. Anyone who knows anything about a kindergarten classroom knows that to find any type of stability with the kids, you need stability in the classroom. And these kids had already faced a ton of changes throughout the year, most of which I did not bother writing about in this post. Adding that many Chinese students to a classroom of Koreans and Taiwanese with only one month left in the school year was just nuts. I was once again being asked to teach two classes at once. I also found out that the owner of the failing kindergarten, who was obviously being given the position of kindergarten head at our new school after playing no part in the establishment of the classroom or the curriculum, had flat out stolen her kindergarten from a Korean woman who started it a couple years ago. Some harsh words were exchanged on both sides and there was a lot of maneuvering, but the school and I eventually reached an understanding. Since the kids came to our school with two Chinese teaching assistants from the old kindergarten, the assistants would simply continue teaching the kids by themselves in the morning and then I would join all the classrooms in the afternoon for various activities. It was a band aid solution but it worked. During the ordeal I, along with almost every other teacher, made it clear to school administration how disgusted and unhappy we were with how the school had been run. This eventually lead to most of our visas being revoked at the end of the year. But that's another story which really does not warrant a place in this post.
With the school's ridiculousness aside, I focused on the kids and tried to make their last month as fulfilling as possible. The new assistants, Alison and Tracy were very nice and helpful. Alison, my assistant, even helped me with my Chinese (which had improved markedly by this point) and really made a positive impact on the classroom. We all took the kids to the zoo and Penglai aquarium (one of the best in Asia). Two fun filled days. We often went outside and even to took our classes to the beach on occasion. Despite the difficult circumstances, the new kids adjusted well and I really came to enjoy having them in the program. That's the difficult thing about receiving new kids in kindergarten, you know your going to have to put in a lot more work and you also know once you spend a couple weeks with them, your not going to want to say goodbye. Its a double whammy.
The year concluded with some celebrations which were both heartbreaking and a ton of fun. We had our grade nine graduation during which Amanda and I played a bluesy version of "Summertime", her on the vocals and me on the guitar. Then our kindergarten graduation where we invited the parents to watch as we handed out kindergarten diplomas and candy to the kids then supervised the sugar-high ridden mayhem of a party that ensued. The parents also held a large banquet for the teachers as a thank you for our hard work. They prepared a delicious Korean meal and translated some heart moving thank you speeches into English for us. They finished the night by singing us 'You are my sunshine', so Korean. Then there were our teacher celebrations which involved dressing up and hitting up the town hard for a couple nights of fun before we all parted ways. Those are nights which I won't soon forget. By the final day of school, everyone was ready to head down their own path. Yahia was returning home to find another teaching post. I just found out he is starting a job in Qatar this September teaching gym. A perfect fit for him. Matt was embarking on a motorcycle journey into northern China for the summer. Jim was going to Chengdu to meet his new Chinese lady friend. Gary was heading home to search for a new job in China while Lorraine was heading home to take care of the house and kids. I just found out that Gary found a job at Yantai university. Good on yeah buddy! Linda was getting the hell out of the country likely never to return again. Mike was staying put to run a summer program at the school. And Amanda and I took off to Shanghai to spend a couple days before we began our travels, her in Mongolia and me and Vietnam.
Looking back now, it really was one hell of an experience which shattered my expectations. I was completely immersed in a very Chinese city with little access to western niceties. Yantai is definitely no Shanghai. It was not an easy place to live and I certainly had some very difficult times to go along with the great ones. But I wouldn't change a thing. I learned a lot about Chinese culture, which I love, and Chinese business, which I don't. I met a great group of travelers and teachers who I will always keep as close friends. And, last but not least, I met a fantastic group of kids who I brought a broad smile to face my every morning for an entire year. Its them who I miss most and I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to be their first teacher.