The Christmas that Almost Ended it all: 2007
I first came to Yichang, as part of a plan to teach IETLS to high school students. The apparent arrangement worked like this. A New Zealand college had an office in Beijing that hired foreign teachers to teach at high schools around China. The Beijing office would hire, train, place, and pay the teachers. The teachers would teach IELTS to the students with material provided by the Beijing office, and once a year the students would take the test. What this meant in reality was that foreigners were hired by some the company, attend a two day overview of the teaching program while the administration figured out which teachers to farm out to which schools then sold. They also had to size up the personalities of the teachers to decide which teachers could possible work as teams over the duration of a year.
The HR had to task of creating the illusion that they had any passer in fixing any problems. Their run around worked like this:
- Don't worry about so and so. Everyone is settling in and everyone deserves a little time getting used to the situation
- Listen, there is a golden week holiday in October. Take time to cool down and then the semester starts flowing
- Look, weather is getting bad and Christmas is close. It is understandable that so and so is a bit down. Most teachers request Xmas off. You can too. For Xmas and New Years.
- The spring festival holiday is just around the corner. Testing is two weeks before and the schools don't need any of the foreign teachers on the week before the holiday while the kids are testing. Hang in there.
This is how they wrangle you over the first half of the year.
The second half is easier...if you actually manage to come back. March, April, May, and June all have short holidays. Before you know it the school year is over. With a resigning bonus, eight weeks free with money in your pocket, it is easy to fall in the trap of repeating the cycle. Spring had a way of inducing amnesia, if you are not careful.
The teachers answered to the Beijing office. All the while, the school thought the teachers answered to them. In a way, the teachers answered to both. In another way the teachers answered to neither.
I was tasked with being the team leader. I liked the idea that I got paid a couple hundred more a month. I had to meet with the school liaison, who usually was the school's head English teacher. The head teacher shared school information, like schedules and took note of anything the teachers needed for their school supplied apartments.
I took the position seriously but the school was mistakenly under the impression that the other teachers saw me as an authority to be obeyed. They also failed to understand that messages I relayed we not viewed by the teachers as dictates. The teachers had to be roused from their beds to come to morning meetings which started shortly after my 9 am meeting with the liaison ended.It was strange that the liaison assigned to me was a head biology teacher who seemed inept and picking up on cues. She was often heavy handed and misunderstandings often meant that I was blamed for teachers not doing something. Teachers from previous years all had their stories about this school. The year I worked at that school would be the last year the Beijing office partnered with them.
I believed in serving the school, helping them how I could, and was willing to work hard. This enthusiasm could not be maintained for very long.
What made it worse was the foreign teachers were given teaching rooms in a spare building which high ceilings. I have never taught in a room with such an echo. And with students' speaking in mumbles anyway, listening to their spoken English was near impossible.
The students in the program were mostly students who were looking for loopholes in the system. They were not smart enough to master the national college entrance exam. But they had wealthy parents to pay for the program and later afford study abroad. If only the under achieving student could pass the IELTS exam. That is what I was there. Students can e late. Got excuses to attend a basketball competition, and came late. I would arrange the room to my liking before they arrived. They shuffled into the room and moved the chairs to sit with their friends in the corners away from the board. Ten years later, I still see the fave of "no pen" Ben, the boy who was a hero to his class for having the balls to do in my class what he would be criticized for in any other class.
On the other end of the spectrum, there were students who weren't trying to find an easy out. They really wanted to study abroad. They were smart, good at English, and so sick of the bullshit of school and the mind numbing path ahead of them, that they were willing to put up with this hurdle in order to get out.
One of these students was Wendy. She was really smart. Years later I got a message on couch surfing. It was her, she was a masters student in Manchester studying economics. I was really proud of her and we followed each other on Facebook where I saw her photos of milkshakes, French toast, and selfies with the cute German boys she dated.
I remember one day after class in the spring, she stayed after to ask me what I thought about the financial crisis that was unfolding in the US. I was a little surprised and not sure what to tell her about it. She said something like, " it is ok, the US can just print more money."
Ah ha, that was something I could respond to.
I told her, that that was a bad idea because it would cause inflation.
She said, yeah, I know, but the US will just give that problem to the world...it's true.
Then she turned around and left with me standing there in shock.
She was right of course.
But the school did little to make a foreign teacher feel welcomed.
Christmas Day landed in a Tuesday in 2007. This was the day of our weekly meeting and there was no reason to put off the meeting simply for Christmas.
On Christmas Eve I had gone out to meet some friends and a popular bar. I remember feeling down as I walked there.
Vieux francais that was bought by an Australian couple and renamed Dragon Bar. It was warm and everyone was happy. I had first gone to the bar a month prior when I met the Chinese owner by chance at a restaurant.
There was a group of French Canadians at the bar. They were university students who were in Yichang for some program. We befriended them and took the party to number 16 bar on er ma lu. We had a few rounds but I kept my eye on my watch. Just about the time I said my goodbyes, some placed a bottle of olmeca tequila on the table. I laughed and wished them well.
I walked home and noticed the young guard who would often squint at me wasn't there. I went to bed so I could arrive to my meeting the next day.
When I arrived to the meeting at 9 the next morning, Long Hua was visible angry. Before we got a chance to discuss anything she began lecturing me about being responsible and not embarrassing the school. I had no idea about what she was talking about.
My denials only sealed my guilt as any drunk would lie through his teeth so to not own up to his weakness. The situation was so ridiculous, I had to just walk out. I called the boss in Beijing who was in bed on Christmas. His reply was, " so what if you were drunk?"
I had never been around so many habitual drinkers before coming to China. It never occurred to me to drink after work for no other reason than work is over. I understand celebrations and pushing the boundaries once in a while, but none of this became a thing before coming to China where degenerates and given respectable roles and lots of free time.
I later learned that at around 3 am the party ended. The Canadians couldn't go back to their dorm as the doors were locked at 11. They were terribly drunk and so John invited them to sleep at his place, across from me, in the apartment block run my the school, the squinty eyes guard was back. When he was one of the men with dark hair vomiting by a tree, he could easily assume it was me. It was dark, he had my build, and the guard had bad vision.
I could never bring myself to be really angry at this liaison. The terrible misunderstanding actually makes for a funny story. That is, you you can call mildly frustrating funny. Also, she introduced me to Green and her training center. No matter what bad blood there may be between me and Green now, I did work for her for 8 years. Those years were filled with lots of joy, learning, and experience that make up the bulk of my writing inspiration. That definitely counts for something. That liaison also introduced me to the primary school that would begin my passion for working with young learners.
Sometimes terrible situations lead to fortune and sometimes terrible people introduce you to great things. This is the wisdom of the Chinese and is something that I take to heart. I stayed in Yichang for so long because if I left angry, I would have been left with that. I would have missed out on the good that emerged. I spent that time developing my teaching, my photography.
It is still amazing to me how all of that experience could have not happened because of that one bad Christmas.