Departure

It wasn’t an easy decision to abandon the job in Xi’an and return to the UK.  I had already invested a lot in the venture and knew that I wouldn’t likely return any time soon.  It seemed that a mixture of issues left me little choice, but in the end I was not disappointed to leave, but drawn home and grateful for the excuse.

There were significant issues with the job posting (see last post) as well as peripheral hardships that were expected, but difficult to deal with nonetheless.  I considered staying on in China to find another post, though it had taken me months of hard work to sift through the obviously bad options to find this one, apparently-promising, opportunity.  I didn’t have the patients, money or will to hang around in Xi’an for another shot.  In truth, I just wanted to go home.  A year ago this seemed like one of my last few options, but certain changes in my personal life had happened and my ambitions hadn’t caught up.

Eager to get going, I moved out of my crummy apartment in the Yangjiacun district and into the old city, which is surrounded by four ancient walls.  I took up for two nights in the Han Tang Inn hostel.  I realised upon arriving that I had stayed there before, a few years ago when I last visited China.  It was a perfect haven after the difficult and emotional week I’d had.  I checked into my six bed dorm and marveled at the relative luxury compared to what would have been my home in Yangjiacun.  It felt clean, safe and comfortable.


Han Tang Inn Hostel

Han Tang Inn Hostel


 

I ordered some comforting grub and a cup of tea and mapped out my next day and a half.  It says something about my experience that I’d felt extremely nervous about lugging my baggage out into the street to hail the taxi that would bring me here, and that I was reluctant to go outside.  I wanted to stay where I was protected.  This was a far cry from my attitude in 2012, when I flew out with my then-girlfriend to explore India and Southeast Asia and bounced from plane to taxi to train without batting an eyelid.  That trip was a breeze with barely a worry in the world, and no compunction about hailing a taxi, or trying to buy fruit from people who we couldn’t communicate with except for the odd word and lots of gesticulating.

So that these new anxieties didn’t get the better of me, I forced myself out into the daylight.  The hostel is centrally located so I was right in the middle of the old city.  The area inside of the city walls is barely touched by the area’s notorious smog – most of the traffic and ever-present dusty construction is without – and sunlight shone down as I reacquainted myself with the ancient capital.

It took no time at all for me to remember why I’d chosen Xi’an to be my new home.  The city, like any in China, is horrendously crowded, but provided one isn’t in a hurry there is little to get wound up about.  The crowds stroll along and the traveler strolls with it, up to the lynchpin of the city, the old Bell Tower, and beyond to its partner the Drum Tower, on through the Muslim Quarter to barter for trinkets, out towards the Temple of the City Gods.  I was out until dark and then headed back.  But even the trip out into the clean, well-maintained centre of Shaanxi culture didn’t make me regret my decision to buy that flight home, though it served to balance some of the disappointment of my experiences.


 

The Bell Tower

The Bell Tower


Temple of the City Gods

Temple of the City Gods


 

That night I suffered the bane of the backpacker: sharing a dorm room with a snorer.  And snore he did, that friendly bearded Swede, from 05:00 for over an hour.  I hadn’t been able to get to sleep, but just as I was drifting off I was treated to that pre-dawn sonorous honk.  After a failed attempt to sleep in the common room, I dug deeper into my overdraft for a private room.

Blessed peace!

I took a similar wander the next day (the inner temple was closed the day before).  I met a few interesting locals, watched arguments over a game of Chinese chess, and was asked to have a photo taken with a group of local students.

Soon it was time to head to the airport.  This time the route was via Hong Kong, and I would get a train from London via the Tube rather than fly to Manchester.  It was 30+ hours of sleepless travel, but I was immensely grateful to be back home amongst the loved ones I’d missed so dearly, even after only a week.

Returning so soon is disappointing and embarrassing, but these are short-lived emotions.  The sensation of peace upon finally climbing into bed in the house I grew up in clarified a lot of thoughts and feelings for me.  For now I’m very happy to be home!

— db

 

Dispute

I had to be up at 6:30 for a medical the University wanted me to take for insurance purposes.  After finally getting to sleep at 3:30, I was roused by the numerous and loud alarms I had set for myself to avoid oversleeping again.

The medical was interesting.  I was very anxious that the health centre would turn out to be some dodgy back-alley affair, but thankfully it took place at an international health centre.  The impressive building and wide open interiors were sparkling clean.  It made me jealous on behalf of my shithole apartment.  The usual queueless rabble crowded the front desk and my guide did the appropriate shoving and waving to get me seen to.  I watched the people behind the desk: one man in a lab coat stood up from his computer, opened an official looking locker, and took out an encrusted saucepan to drink from.  Soup, hopefully.

Sleep-deprived and anxious, I was led through a battery of tests.  The first was a dreaded blood sample.  I was horrified to see that I would have to sit on a stool and stick my arm through a window in a pane of glass for the nurse.  I have an embarrassing habit of going grey and falling over when I have blood taken.  I warned my guide, went through the painless sampling, and draped myself over two chairs to wait for the tunnel vision and cold chills to dissipate.  The other tests seemed odd or excessive: an x-ray (alarming), an ultrasound on my stomach (“He should work out more,” the doctor told my guide), blood pressure and some kind of body water/conduction test with electrodes.

By the time I was dropped back off at the University, it was only 09:30.  I was starved and shaky, so resorted to McDonalds again, my oasis of Westerness.  I was still experiencing what I assumed was culture shock.  Nevertheless, I had plenty of time before a meeting with the Assistant Director of Studies at 17:00, so I went home for a nap.

Unfortunately the meeting was not a success.  I had already discovered that the school was not part of the University, but a private school renting office space.  I’d already had clues that they wanted me to teach IT as well as English, which wasn’t what I was there fore.  Before the meeting I was taken to a room to sign the contracts.  It seems typical that the employment contracts school are required to send to the government are different to the contracts that the employer-employee have.  “Which one is legally binding?” I asked. “They both are,” was the spurious reply.

The government’s version of the contract omitted a schedule of amendments, which included all my negotiated changes as well as my salary.  The government caps the limit of a foreign teacher’s salary, presumably to keep China self reliant – at half my agreed wage.  It’s to my benefit, but the dishonesty was off-putting.  Apparently I was also to be put on a three month probation at a reduced wage.  Payday is the 10th of each month. “So on 10th of December, I’ll be paid for six weeks?” I asked. “No, just four,” was the reply.  So was I to work for free?  The questions was to go to the accountant, and meanwhile I was to sign…

The meeting took things a step further.  It transpired that now I was to be hired as an IT teacher, not to teach English.  The responsibility was pawned off on me by my predecessor, who hadn’t wanted it either.  I had also been promised that I would teach adults, but all the students I’d seen so far were undergraduates.

I asked the ADOS to reconsider the changes to the agreement.  She would take it to the Director, but any compromise seemed unlikely.

I had gotten in touch with another teacher who had worked with the school.  He had nothing but nightmares to report: refusal of personal leave, lengthy enforced overtime, sly games with his housing agreement, being screamed at by the Chinese staff.

I’d done plenty of research about the pitfalls of accepting teaching jobs in China, and had rejected a dozen offers before settling for what I thought had been a trustworthy company, a University school.  Now, I’d learned that I’d been lied to about the nature of the school, its students, the job and the salary.

These practical things are easy to describe.  Harder to expound upon are the nebulous emotions and thoughts that fueled my decision to walk away from the job.  I’d felt ill at ease – at best – since I arrived.

Two fortuitous things happened that same day.  The first was that my lost luggage had been found, abandoned at Heathrow by Virgin Atlantic.  It was battered and there were some damaged contents, but nothing serious.  I tipped the delivery guy generously for reuniting me with 80% of my worldly possessions.  The second thing was that I’d been given my passport back by the school.

I booked a night at a hostel in Xi’an’s tourist-friendly old town, then started looking for flights home.

—db

Arrival

[Continued from previous post…]

The fun didn’t end there.  That was your basic, everyday long-distance-travel hell.

I met my guide in Xi’an and we took a taxi to the apartment.  Bleary eyed, I followed her across the road, around the corner, up to the building.  In China and Hong Kong, apartment buildings are called ‘mansions’.  The mansion looked okay from outside, even though we’d passed through what looked like a red light district (most Chinese cities look like red light districts at night – because of all the red lights, natch).  So far this part of the city, which I’d been warned was a little shady, seemed quite hostile.  I put it down to the lack of sleep and onset of culture shock.  The apartment building lobby echoed with coughing and footsteps on the hard floors.  We waited for lift from the centre of a crowd of other tenants who were decidedly scruffy looking.  What kind of a den was I walking into?  I was reminded of Chungking Mansion, the notorious Kowloon “melting pot” which has been compared to the smugglers’ cantina in Star Wars…


 

hem-dazon-at-mos-eisley-cantina


On the 24th floor was my apartment.  The door failed to open on the first few tries, but admitted us begrudgingly.  Spacious but spartan, the one-room place did not fill me with a warm homely feeling.  There was a metal rack against one wall, supposedly for hanging clothes but would have been better placed in a warehouse.  A bed with a broken headboard jutted out from the cold tiled walls.  Plastic lawn furniture comprised my dining area, with a small gas stove and fridge filling one corner opposite a top-loading washing machine.  A filthy wetroom toilet with a shower head gave out a pungent aroma that presumably originated in the waste pipes of the 100 other apartments in the building, or else the sewer itself.

To many people in China this might be a half-decent place to live.  To my pampered Western eye it looked like a bed in the middle of a kitchen.  It had a drain in the middle of the floor, just in case I wanted to commit a bloody murder or slaughter a pig.  There was a distressing amount of anti-rodent and -bug artillery around the place, kindly abandoned by the previous teacher.

The previous teacher.  I still haven’t gotten his full story.  He exists as a legend spoken of only in whispers.  Some say he was Russian.  Some say he took a Chinese wife.  Papers found in a plastic wallet on the metal racking suggested he was an artist and perhaps a student of biology.  He worked at the university for three years.  He worked at the university for three months.  He retired because he wanted to start a family.  He was fired because he was emotionally unstable and immune to reason.  The truth eludes me still.  If he is still alive, I wish him well.

I had little time to admire the place that would be my home for the next year.  The bed had no bedding, and so my guide offered to take me to the supermarket to pick up sheets and supplies.

We ventured out into the manic night-scene of the street.  Side-stepped traffic and smokey roadside vendors.  Crossed the road when a green light appeared, but dodged speeding cars and scooters that ignored the signals. “I don’t get how the crossings work,” my guide admitted.  It’s because people cross even if the light isn’t green; it’s because traffic mows through pedestrians even if the light is red.

We caught a bus.  The buses are crowded and have two doors.  Get on by the driver, get off further down via the second door.  Don’t expect passengers to make way for you as you try to get to that exit.  Just shove, there’s no other way.  The crazy people won’t mind.

The supermarket was in the basement of a shopping centre.  Likewise hectic.  My guide asked where she could find bedding; a kettle; bottled water.  The shopping assistants were appalled that she should ask questions.  They wished not to be disturbed.  All the duvets were in different styles.  Each style came in one colour only.  One may have the style one prefers, or else the colour one prefers.  I picked a duvet of adequate thickness (incidentally, pink).  I found sheets and covers, and a pillow, and the other stuff.  This came to RMB 400, about £40.  We paid, carried everything by hand because bags are not provided.

Back on the bus.  I sweated inside my coat.  The water bottles were slipping from under my arm.  The duvet, in a box with a wire handle, was weighing down and the handle cut into my fingers.  My guide shoved to the exit door.  I stood where I was.  Every jolt of the bus made me half-fall.  I dropped the bottles, picked them up.  I had to relinquish my hold on the duvet box for a minute.  I must have looked like a humour, hairy, toppling clown.  I gathered everything as we approached my apartment.  I had a giant box and other things and people would not move.  I lifted them above my head and shoved.  My guide alighted; the doors closed in front of me.  My guide shrieked to the driver.  Eventually the doors opened.

I got back to the apartment.  We ran over basics, like paying for utilities (there is a small office in the lobby downstairs).  Then she leaves, saying she will see me at 1pm tomorrow to show me the university.  I am relieved to be alone.  It’s 9pm and I haven’t slept for about 30 hours.

My new duvet covers are not a set.  They are a single sheet.  I put it on the bed.  The pillow and duvet go uncovered for the night.  I have a quick shower in the disgusting wetroom.  I send a few quick messages to loved ones and then try to sleep.

Sleep does not come for four hours.

I wake up to banging.  Someone is banging on my door.  I check my phone – 13:20.  I set three consecutive alarms and slept through them all.  My guide is at the door, I apologise, she leaves as I quickly shower and dress.  There is a meeting at 2pm with the assistant director.  We catch the bus again.  Things are a little easier in the daylight, after twelve hours of sleep.  But the university campus is shabby, run into the ground.  Most of the buildings seem empty and decrepit.  My guide points to a clock tower. ‘Look, London!  Not really…’

No, not really.

Is this really a university?  The 13th rated university in all of China?  Where are all the people?

We pass a few studenty-looking types.  It’s several street-lengths to the building where I will teach.  I’ve passed onto the AD, who smiles warmly and takes me somewhere else.  The sports field.  This is a sports meeting.  What have I got to do with sports?  I’m an English teacher.

No-one is there.  The AD is perplexed.  She goes to find someone and returns five minutes later with 20 kids and some local teachers.  The other foreign teacher is not here, though he should be.  I’m introduced to the students, who jokingly present me with a shuttlecock as a gift.  I crack my first smile since arriving, but it’s short-lived.  The AD take some photos of the students and I.  I wonder if they’re going to be used as promotional material – Look, we have a white face!  Aren’t we prestigious?  I’m told it happens a lot.  One teacher asks, in broken English, whether I’m the new computer teacher?  My guide shushes him quiet.

They let me go home to sleep.  I go back to the supermarket to get some supplies.  There is a McDonalds here, which I take refuge in.  Lovely, lovely familiarity.  I haven’t stopped sweating, either because of the humidity or a stress response.  Eventually, with enough iced Coke, I cool.  I go to the bathroom.  The cubicle seems locked, but the lock is green.  Maybe it’s stuck?  I push, breaking the lock, revealing a man squatting over the hole smoking a sneaky cigarette.  He slams the door shut, I apologise, there is a tirade in Mandarin or Shaanxi dialect.  I go to pee at home.

I know that I have to be up at 6:30am to go for a medical that the university has arranged, a necessity for my medical insurance.  I put my head down at 8pm, but again sleep does not come.  A lot of things don’t add up.  The state of the university.  My brief, truncated conversation with the local teacher.  The apartment and living area are problems, but maybe fixable problems.  I’m getting paid enough, maybe I can afford to rent somewhere and still make a living?  Maybe the university will pay up for a living allowance instead of providing the abattoir apartment?

I decide that I’ll spend a few nights at a hostel for some comfort and company, and wait for my meeting tomorrow with the AD to talk about exactly what they want from me.  If things don’t work out, I can always consider staying long enough to recoup my financial losses and then leave.  Six weeks, maybe ten.  Thinking of the situation as temporary, I realise a lot of things and feel much better.

Sleep does not come until 3:30pm.

[To be continued…]

—db

Introduction to Xi’an

The city I will be living and working in next month is Xi’an (usually pronounced “Shee-ahn”), which is in the Shaanxi province in Western China (Central, if you count Tibet…).  Xi’an means “Western Peace”.  Most Westerners know it for being the location of the Terracotta Army.

I visited the city in 2012 as part of my whirlwind tour of China and really liked the feel of the place.  The bigger cities, like Shanghai and Beijing, are ultra-modern with most of their history buried under Progress.  Xi’an has been modernised and is presented as a tourist-friendly place, but still feels very close to its history.



The city is over 6,000 years old (by comparison, London hasn’t yet had its 2,000th birthday) and is one of China’s Four Great Ancient Capitals.  The Silk Road starts here and connected China to India, Africa, Persia, Arabia and Europe as part of one of the world’s oldest and far-reaching trade routes.  Unlike most cities in China, Xi’an has a thriving Muslim population as well as the usual Buddhists and Daoists (Taoists).

The oldest part of the city is still contained within the ancient city walls, but the modern city spreads out far beyond this.  The old city is known for having maintained older Chinese architectural styles (or at least modern homages to them) as well as grand towers and pagodas that are big tourist attractions nearby.  When I visited in 2012, I got the chance to bicycle the circumference of the walls, which was great fun, but didn’t have much time to see most of what Xi’an is famous for, other than the Terracotta Army and the Muslim quarter.

Terracotta Army

Terracotta Army

One of the two central towers in the old town, the Bell Tower was built to suppress a destructive dragon (possibly)

One of the two central towers in the old town, the Bell Tower was built to suppress a destructive dragon (possibly)

The South Gate out of the old town

The South Gate out of the old town

Cycling along the top of the city wall was one of the highlights of my China visit

Cycling along the top of the city wall was one of the highlights of my China visit

Shopping streets

Like most of China, Xi’an is always bustling but much more peaceful than most

Although there probably won’t be much time for sight-seeing between teaching and lesson planning, I’m looking forward to exploring the rest of the city, meeting some of its people, and scoffing its tasty, varied food!

—db

Not dead yet

Unfortunately I forgot to post this about 2 weeks ago.  Here it is, nice and late.  Enjoy —db

———————————————————————————————————————

It’s been three weeks since I last posted. In that time I had a birthday, was best man at my best friend’s wedding, appeared as a guest on a podcast – and completed the first half of my CELTA teacher training course.

They weren’t kidding when they said that the CELTA course was brutal. “Don’t expect to have time to work or have a social life,” I was warned. I’ve disappointed so many friends by cancelling plans or forgetting to reply to texts. Did I mention the disclaimer the school had me sign, acknowledging how tough it was going to be?

Tough indeed. By the end of the first day of classes I was exhausted. From 9:30 to 6 my class of 16 listened, observed, scribbled frantic notes and tried to wrap our heads around the finer points of grammar.

By day three, two people had dropped out of the course, and another was on the verge.

Day four, I’d been granted permission to miss the day and attend the wedding. After a relatively leisurely morning of drinking tea and eating pastries, putting ribbons on the car and feeling rather dapper in our wedding finery, the groom and I took off for his big day. I’ve never been prouder of the man. As for the best man, he had a speech to deliver. Standing in front of a group of people and saying actual words in a coherent sequence has always made me nervous. You might wonder why I’ve thought about teaching all these years. As it happened, it was good practice for teaching class and reminded me that it’s not something to feel too nervous about.

But there was no time for frivolity. Marriage is a serious business. Vows and speeches went without a hitch (so to speak), but after the delicious “breakfast” I had to retire to a quiet room to work. I must have looked pretty peculiar in the little “restaurant lounge” wearing a cream waistcoat and pink rouche, bashing out lesson plans into my laptop and trying not to sweat.

Day five back in class, I’d done just enough work to scrape by my first two sessions of actual teaching. Everyone else had taught their first class whilst I was stuffing my face with wedding cake and wondering how many of the complimentary marshmallows I could stuff into my waistcoat without being noticed. Now I had to catch up with Thursday’s teaching class on top of Friday’s.

The Cambridge CELTA course (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) is one of the most highly regarded TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) courses available, mainly because it provides 120 hours of learning, with several hours of actual teaching practice in front of a real group of English language learners. And so, last Friday, I stood in front of a dozen or so men and women, young and old, from countries such as Iran, China, Poland, Italy and Brazil, and tried to teach them something.

Amazingly, this exhausted young man managed to provide two half-hour classes without going dumb, falling over, or leaping out the window. Success!

The weekend wasn’t much easier. There were lesson plans to write for the following week, and the first of four 1,000 word assignments to prepare, not to mention reading and revision. It’s amazing how little native speakers think about the grammar of their language (the foreigners on my course already had a great understanding of grammar terminology, as they’d been taught much as my students will be taught – a much more structured and detailed process than simply acquiring English as a toddler).

This second week … happened, with even more classes to teach (one of which was a more standard 60 minutes long), one or two mammoth 11 hour days of class/teaching time, and two more assignments to write.

The class is smaller now, but there is an increased level of enthusiasm and even a buzz, as we all find ourselves creeping towards becoming half decent at teaching. We are into a bit of a routine, are more familiar with terminology and technique, and are beginning to think about where we might want to fly out to after the course ends. I’ll give more info on my own job hunt in another post, but for now just wanted to let people know that I’m still alive. Huzzah! The best the average CELTA student can claim to be after two weeks:

Not dead yet!

—db

Interview for the course

This week I attended an interview as part of my enrollment for a CELTA course.

I’d considered taking the CELTA course abroad. Many people choose to do this, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each option. In the end I opted to study in my hometown of Sheffield, as I already have first-hand experience of China, and this way I can save money on accommodation instead of paying for a hostel in Beijing for the duration.

Initially I hadn’t expected there to be an interview, especially for a 1 month course. The more I looked into the CELTA and similar courses, the more I realised that I should be prepared for an interview to secure my place.

Not only that, but all schools expected me to complete an ominous sounding “pre-interview task”. Mine was e-mailed to me following application. Thankfully it was only a 2-page document with a few questions on grammar, as well as serving as an early assessment of my capability to teach.

Around noon I walked into the Language Centre of University of Sheffield. The small reception area was empty but for the reception desk – I was half an hour early.   As usual I was prepared with a book to read as I waited, but it wasn’t easy to get engrossed. The lunchtime school crowd soon filled the room and adjoining corridor, bustling into the street or pressed against the glass partition, texting and chatting. Sheffield’s large Chinese population was well-represented here, with only one non-Chinese person there. He sat next to me and wrote neat Hindi script in his notebook.

I didn’t notice my interviewer approach, although you would spot him in the street. Will is not a small man, but equally apparent is his welcoming smile and open attitude. We shook hands and I was led to his office, where a neat-and-tidy couch and table in one corner was in stark contrast with the cluttered desk and busy bookcase on the opposite side. One part of the room was clearly set aside for visitors and arranged with a purpose. I wondered when I would be asked to sit at that round coffee table, and why.

Will and I both mopped our foreheads; it’s been a humid month in Sheffield with an unusual amount of sun, and apparently we were both suffering. For the next hour we went over my answers to the task and talked about my reasons for wanting to take the course. I was also given an “at-interview task” to complete at the coffee table, which testing my writing and editing skills.

Presumably I did well, because I was offered a place on the waiting list. Hooray! The courses book up fast – I’d missed the July-August course by the time I’d submitted my application – so the list is a place for accepted candidates to wait for a day or two before being found a slot. Pending that, I would need to formally accept the offer and pay the deposit.

Immediately came the caveats: a full A4 printed sheet of what the student should expect from the course. I gathered that people often underestimated how intensive the four-week CELTA course was. This was something I’d already read a lot about during research: for a whole month, you will have no spare evening. You will have no weekends. You will have no time for work or socialising. You will probably not have much time for sleep. Because of the compact and intense nature of the course, missing two or more days could put a person so far behind that they would be unable to catch up.

I discovered that the course starts a week earlier than I expected, which would mean I would have to take a day out of studying to celebrate the happy wedding of my best and oldest friend about four weeks from now.   It had been made clear to me that if any absence was anticipated that I should discuss it in advance, and so I’m waiting for approval before actually signing onto the August-September course.

We will see!

–db

Re-begin

9th July 2014

This is the day that I decided to give up on making a living in the UK.

For years I’ve been a struggling writer wading through corporate jobs and lack of literary success.   If you want you can read about that in my old blog (no longer updated):

davidbrookes.wordpress.com

In October 2012 I took off on a 5 month tour of India and Asia, including China.  If you want you can read about that too, in the travel blog I shared with Lisa Cooper (no longer updated):

overunderpants.wordpress.com

It was these travels that gave me something more to love about the world.  I owe credit for this endeavor in no small part to the ex-pats I met out there, especially in China, who showed me what was possible if I had an interest in it.

Since I returned to the UK last year  I’ve taken a sequence of crappy office jobs.  Agencies and employers are surprised to find that I have two degrees.  They wonder why I’m settling for twelve grand as a typist or temporary receptionist.  They wonder why, if I have qualifications in writing and a published novel, I’m taking two week assignments with a temping agency instead of “being the next J K Rowling”.  It’s difficult for people to understand just how screwed up the job market is at the moment (let alone the publishing industry).  To these people, I smile patiently but have no answer for them.

I’ve long considered teaching English, ever since I undertook my BA at Bretton Hall University in Yorkshire.  Unfortunately attempts to pursue this recently were less than successful, in part thanks to Education Secretary Michael Gove’s grand efforts to screw the curriculum and throttle the training of new teachers, especially in English.  I was told a few months ago that last year there were over 50 funded training slots for new teachers in the current scheme.  This year there was about 15.

The idea of teaching English as a second language abroad is one I’ve been playing with for 18 months now.

Today I applied for a place on an intensive 4-week CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) course at the University of Sheffield.

After that: the world!

—db