One of the great misconceptions about teaching abroad is that teaching is a part-time occupation while you travel. While it is true that the earnings are enough to support yourself, save money, and travel, the lifestyle and work schedule are not compatible with the fly by the seat of your pants impulse that motivated one to live abroad in the first place.
For years my schedule required me to be at work early in the morning on weekdays and weekends. This meant that late night bar binges followed by late eats, and ending with existential conversations with pretty girls by the river or perhaps something more enjoyable would mean that I would not be ready to deal with glaringly bright school children in the morning. I also had to teach most weekday evenings from 5PM until 9PM. This schedule did not lend itself to accepting dinner invitations or a regular basis. The schedule obviously also didn't permit weekend trips. The reality of life as a foreign teacher comes to many first timers as a surprise. It is no wonder that many do it for a year or two and then get on with their lives.
Perhaps there was a time when all you would have to do was show up at the doorstep of a school to land in a teaching position with no questions asked. You sought employment by standing on the side of the road in front of cafes like a freelance day laborer. You could work when you wanted and the money was good enough. It meant that you could enjoy the cheap beer and cheap bus tickets and cheap apartments. That was never my dream and by 2005 those glory days of the hobo teacher, if they ever existed, were long gone.
With a schedule that makes having a normal social life impossible, a foreign teacher has to develop some serious personal hobbies. Some obsess over novel series like the Game of Thrones books. Others become gym rats. Still, others become heavy drinkers. I got into photography. A simple record of my day to day life was not enough. There are so many things about China that never stop being shocking that you have to look away from them if you hope to prevent yourself from being angry. I cannot deny that many bad things exist, I just made a choice of what I wished to look at. I am not really suited to be a critic of Chinese people doing superficially disgusting things because I have read and studied about China. I know some of the roots of the problems. These are things hidden from public discourse. But anyone who has read about 20th century China will understand what they see in a way that an angry American who has not read a single book on China ever will.
Then there are people who worked the system. There was one foreigner, in particular, who came to Yichang with his Korean wife. He had been a teacher in Korea for a number of years and the two of them were interested in coming to China for the experience. He would only work at the private school during the week. This allowed them to spend their weekends free. They used that time to go on short trips to the scenic spots of central China. Wudang Mountain, the Three Gorges Dam, Panda Sanctuaries, Yangtze riverboat tours were all close enough to make for an exciting weekend. With the money he made, the year in China paid for itself. I heard through the grapevine that he would often take extended weekends so to turn his 2 days journey into 4-day holidays. There was really nothing the school could do. They weren't going to fire him. He was using the school. He knew that he could anger the school and disappoint the students at no cost to him or his wife. There was no way for the school to fire him and hire someone to take his place. They could tolerate this behavior one year and then make stricter rules the following year for the new incoming teachers.
In a way, I applaud him. The school in question was not unlike most schools. They mistreated teachers in one way or another. One common tactic, I I saw after being there year after year, was changing the contract. It was the classic bait and switch. You'd sign a deal, get settled in and suddenly the arrangement would be altered. The school plays innocent. The representative, tasked with dealing with the foreigners, claims that she herself had just learned of the changes. They would delegate this to a young and relatively new teacher. This meant that I couldn't be angry with her but at some phantom body. Apologizing for the inconvenience, I was being asked to be flexible for the sake of the kids. Protesting to this "innocent" representative runs the risk of her feelings getting hurt--the highest offense in this chess-game-by-unnamed-rules. This became so common that I began to predict when it was going to happen. That is about the time when I lost favor with the school. Once they cannot ambush you, they'd rather take on someone new to the game. Well, the teacher mentioned above was new to the game. But he had his own game too. No consequences came to him. He probably strung them along until the end of his contract, claiming that he might even resign. The school had every reason to be diplomatic. Once he left, the new contracts were rewritten to prevent such delinquency on the job again. In other words, the longer you stay, the more likely you will be punished for the things that other, less committed, teachers do.
The first subjects I photographed as I was just getting started in this hobby were my students. I took photos of the kids on the play ground, sports days, field trips, and classroom candid portraits. As satisfying as my work is, I also am painfully aware that no one cares what I have done. Teaching is often a thankless job. Photography is a way to keep an accurate record when no one was paying enough attention to me to verify anything I claim to have done. Written pieces about China and teaching are better if the text is accompanied with great pictures. This has always been my goal.
But I also have a need to just get out and explore. So rather than not show up at a job that depends on me, I used the school outings as an opportunity to enjoy photography. You have to look at a camera as another set of eyes. With a camera in hand, I observe my environment differently. As a lifelong wearer of eyeglasses, I am aware of my dependence on a separate set of lenses. Carrying around a delicate set of hardware has always been part of my ability to see. The camera encourages me to look longer and with a longer appreciation for everything around me. Feeling lonely in a group is less of an issue when I am photographing. It has become my passion.
So in January of 2014, we at the Hyde training center took some of our preteen students to Dang Yang County to visit the Pearl Spring Temple 玉泉寺庙. The Daoist temple stands in honor of the Han Dynasty general, Guan Yu. The reason why Guan Yu has a temple in Dang Yang County is a little sketchy. It might suggest that here stands the ancient hero's hometown. No, that would be modern day Shaanxi Province, north of Hubei. Perhaps a great battle occurred here and he died a glorious death befitting a feudal warrior. No, Dang Yang is mentioned only as the place where he surrendered to the enemy only after his men deserted him.
So how did this general, who seemed to have a humiliating ending, become such a highly regarded honored ancestor of China? There are temples all over east Asia in honor of this warrior god. Why build a temple here, of all places? The answer to these questions would take a bit of research. None of my students could tell me. They would suggest I read the 16th century Ming Dynasty novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Asking my students to summarize some key points from the novel or from history would be asking too much of these 12 year olds. Guan Yu was executed along with with soldier son on Xiang Yang--a city far from modern day Dang Yang--in Hubei Province in 219 AD.
But honestly I didn't care. It was just nice to get out of the city and see some cultural relic and enjoy some country air. Western Hubei Province has many historical sights and some beautiful scenery. I was not about to take extended weekends and miss work in order to experience them. So when I had these opportunities to tour, I made sure I had my camera in hand.
I was tasked, in the weeks leading up to the trip, with teaching the students some reading passages about the temple. They were supposed to take turns and give short oral presentations at the various landmarks around the temple. This is where I learned the true extent of the students negligence when it came to doing homework. A teenager's duty in life is to avoid real responsibility. Not only could they not project their voices and command attention from their classmates, the class could equally not be bothered to give their undivided attention.
This was something I couldn't fight. As their foreign teacher, there is little I could control in this situation. Their parents and a few Chinese teachers were where. None of them stepped in to teach them how to pay attention or behave. As serious as I take my role inside of the classroom, I was fully aware that this role does not extend outside of the classroom. Also, I know that the natural surroundings have a way of playing with one's senses. This day out in the open air was more beneficial than 10 days in the classroom. And I know that they are unaccustomed to enjoying a break from their desk work. They need a break from that life. But I also watched them as they clearly held no reverence for this religious site. They were outright rude to the priests. Any religious site in China has got to be viewed with the Cultural Revolution in mind. This was the mad period in Chinese history (1976-1976) when people quite literally sacked and desecrated religious and cultural artifacts, buildings, and murdered the teachers and heirs of non-tangible culture. In school, the children learn to associate everything with the Chinese Communist Party. I noticed this in particular in the year I left China when countries around the world marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2. Considering that China wants to maintain a hostile view towards the west and America in particular, they celebrated the end of World War 2 as if the Chinese communists had beaten Japan on their own. At the very least, they had a little help from the Americans. Most of the Chinese who died fighting the Japanese were the Chinese Nationalist Party which later fled to Taiwan. But that historical facts complicates the current narrative and the students are left to believe nonsense. That is also why I didn't worry about learning anything about this temple on this trip.
I could also understand why why my students walked around a temple as if they were at some amusement park and not a place of worship. Who was I to tell children, accompanied by Chinese teachers and parents, how to behave at a Taoist temple? This made it all that much easier to retreat into my photography.
Temple-goers prayed with their incense sticks. I walked around having no real context for where I was. I am generally not interested in photographing buildings but to photograph at a Taoist temple, one cannot help but notice the balance between man-made structure and nature. Even in the dead of winter, the barren trees looked so beautiful beside the old building.
The leafless trees allowed for the beautiful morning light to wash over the temple, over the gray buildings and the faded red-painted wood resulting in a glow befitting a temple.
I kept my photographic eye opened the whole day. It paid off because after lunch I caught a young girl outside of the restaurant doing a peculiar thing.
She was the daughter of the shop owners who sell incense to the devoted. As she was left alone by her parents, she found a creative way to play by herself. She used the umbrella handle in place as an incense stick and prayed to it.
I caught about 9 frames before I felt I had the image. My travel partners were all exiting the restaurant to stretch their stomachs in the sun after lunch.
Of all the years of photographing in China, this stands and only of my favorite moments. I continued to look on as she played with the umbrella.
A lot of knowledge about this temple remained a mystery. It stands to honor the revered general popularized in an archaic novel which by the way is commonly assigned as summer reading for middle school students. The students can hardly understand the antiquated Chinese and so sit on wooden sofas in their living rooms with the book opened and pretend to read. They get through about 5 pages a day. The lesson of the book emphasizes the complexity of three warring parties. One may be evil but is strong, cunning, and lucky enough to gain power. His power is respected and feared. The complexity of the story means that a layperson who hasn't got the literacy level to fully comprehend the nuance had better withhold criticism of the state. Does any one question the authenticity of the story written in the 1500s about people who lived in the 1st century and understood by people today who live in a post-Mao era?
This is the interesting question that I have and wish to explore. But this question could not be entertained by any of my fellow travelers at the temple. These are questions I could not research on the internet while in China. These are questions I could not ask a Chinese person without them getting really defensive or dismissive.
At the very least, with these questions in my mind, I wouldn't have to worry about having to decline invitations to join a party for dinner in China.