Wednesday, March 01, 2006


I've been in Zhangye less than a week now, but I already like it enough that spending a year here sounds perfectly fine. When I've told people who know a little about China that I've taken a job in a small city in the northwest, the usual reaction is a long pause followed by "well, good luck". I have had my doubts: spending a year in a city with about 12 other Westerners, being surrounded on all sides by vast stretches of desert (look up the satellite image of "Zhangye China" at, signing a year's contract in a country I've never been to, and teaching university students after no more than 4 weeks' training. But now that I'm here, it's actually right up my alley: lots of opportunities to learn the language, the other foreign teachers are extremely helpful, the food is excellent, cost of living is minimal (I make the equivalent of $365 a month, and expect to save two-thirds of that for traveling), and the Chinese are unfailingly generous, interesting people. It's a small city, manageable by foot and especially bicycle, but very compact and with character, with loads of stores and restaurants lined up next to each other. I think it would be vaguely like coming to America and going to a place like Ithaca, New York instead of a big city. That is, if Ithaca was a bit smaller and had more than 200,000 people, and had buildings that were 500 years old.

The train ride from Beijing to Zhangye (pronounced roughly like "Jong-yeah") was 30 hours long, but I had my own bunk for sleeping and it wasn't boring, especially at the end when we reached my province, Gansu. There are immense stretches of no civilization at all, but the landscape is beautiful to someone who's never lived near the desert or mountains, a bit like a new planet just beginning to be colonized. Even though our conversation was no more than 3 or 4 sentences I could manage in Chinese, the man in the bunk across from me gave me his business card and told me to call him if I'm ever in Beijing. I was picked up at the Zhangye station by the woman from the Foreign Affairs Office with good English who is my waiban, basically your boss in China but in a farther-reaching sense than in America (your employer is "like your mother" as it was described to me, and I have to tell her when and where I want to travel). I was then shown to my apartment. After so much traveling with such excessively large luggage I would have been happy to call any dinghy apartment my home, which is mostly what I was expecting, but as it turns out my apartment is quite spectacular. A living room with tv/dvd, two bedrooms, a separate kitchen and dining room, computer room with internet, bathroom with washing machine, indoor balcony, and a strange little room full of cabinets, all spacious and seemingly new, are for me. It would go for several thousands of dollars in Manhattan; here it and the expenses are free. As it turns out I am in the building with all of the Communist Party officials, with the nicest rooms on campus; they are renting it out for me because they didn't have anywhere else to put me, and I have to move to a more reasonable apartment next term.

I was taken out to dinner by Mao Ai Li, the waiban, my first night, as well as breakfast and lunch the next day, and the eating here is fantastic, well beyond where I was in Thailand and even cheaper. A favorite for a nice meal out is hot pot, in which the tables have a burner in the middle and a pot of soup and various sauces is boiled while the meats and vegetables are added over time. When eating a normal meal at a decent restaurant it is standard to order a number of dishes and share them; a large meal of 4 dishes with beer will cost about $5 between two people, which is not even that cheap, as the little noodle shops all over town offer a filling meal for about 40 cents. The beer is good and comes in large bottles for about 40 cents, a little cheaper than the bottled water. Meals are often quite spicy, and the little noodle places will only have hot tea if anything to drink with it. I have gone out to eat several times with Andrew, another foreign teacher from Scotland, who is an excellent insider as his Chinese is amazing after only six months, and he has extensive conversations with the locals and talks to our waiban only in Chinese. I went to eat with him and a friend he's made who owns a restaurant, who fed us for free and then insisted on also taking us to a classy restaurant and paying for it, while they had an hour-long conversation in Chinese about his marriage problems. There are teachers in bigger cities who leave China knowing nothing more than ni hao (hello). I have mostly talked to Andrew and Phillip, another teacher who just started working at Hexi University (pronounced like "huh-shee") through the same organization as well and is experienced in China and very helpful. I don't really feel the need to meet many more Westerners, and hope to quickly improve my Chinese.

Today was my first day as a real teacher, with my first two classes. I have 7 classes, but each class is actually two 50-minute blocks back to back with a 10-minute break, so just 14 teaching hours a week. I have lesson planning and probably some office hours and other duties, but I don't expect the job to occupy more than 25 hours a week. The first class is spent simply getting to know your students and getting a grasp of their level and how you should plan future lessons, and they went fine. As a foreign teacher in China you have almost absolute freedom; when I asked Su from my placement organization how much guidance I can expect from the school, she said "none" before I even finished my sentence. My timetable of classes and textbooks weren't ready until the day before classes began, and when I asked the English Department about the office hours and co-teacher I was told about, they looked confused and told me to come back in a few days because they didn't know. Also, I was surprised to learn I am teaching Reading and not Oral English. One of my two textbooks in particular is amazingly dull (one story is about a man who makes a living by having his laughing recorded), and I expect to find a lot of my own materials for the students to read. The idea of making up my classes as I go along is a bit daunting at the beginning, but I think overall it will be more interesting than having to strictly follow the school's guidelines, especially stories like "The Left-Footed Thief".

The students themselves, though often quite shy and nervous about speaking in class, are fantastic to be around and very kind and endearing. The level of English is not always as high as you might assume, but sometimes they are quite good and can be very amusing and surprising in what they say. They learn all number of grammar rules and such from their Chinese English teachers, but don't get much practice with real English speakers, and thus they hire us. They are more sincere and younger at heart than American students; when I told my second class I would be taking all their pictures to help me learn their names and that the classroom was so dark (this is not a rich school and I think they turn all the lights off when it's bright enough in the morning) that we'd better go outside, they erupted in cheers. Class size is around 35 (middle school classes are usually 60-80 by comparison) and the classrooms are very simple and tightly packed together. When I started my first class there was no chalk or eraser anywhere in the room to be found, and finally a student got some from another room. I had a number of activities planned but essentially what we got through in a 100 minute lesson was me introducing myself and passing around pictures from home (this causes quite a stir, especially family pictures), having students get in pairs and tell the class their partner's name and three things about them, having the students write out a sheet for me with info like their English names (they all have them, most are typical but there is a Snow and a Fish etc.) and what they want to learn in class, and then taking pictures of each student outside. In a remote city where Chinese outnumber foreigners by more than 20,000 to 1, the foreign teachers are a cause for much excitement and interest, and they want to know everything about you. They always ask if I have a girlfriend and say I'm handsome, and then giggle as the class laughs; socially, especially in dating, China is often much more old-fashioned and innocent than the West, which I love. I get the impression that not all that many of them at this age have dated someone. My second class asked me to sing an English song at the start of class, and said I was too shy when I wouldn't. I was also told I looked like I had a lot of money, and a male student after a long thoughtful pause told me that I was very beautiful.

Life is very different here and therefore very interesting, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the year. It is impossible to find a job as comparatively good in America with a bachelor's degree like mine, and I'm surprised I only heard of this field so recently. Of course, there are a lot of negative stories to be found, but I suspect they are often from people who either didn't do their research or came for the wrong reasons. I will continue to update this page every so often as the year goes on, and hope that everyone at home stays in touch.


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