Spots of Time

June 01, 2004

Cangzhou, Sweet Cangzhou

China made me cry within four hours of arrival. This might be a new record for me in my international adventures. But, I will get to that in a minute.

I currently live in a modern, western-style apartment building in the city of Cangzhou, about 3.5 hours from Beijing in Hebei Province. Cangzhou (pronounced "Tsang-joe") is a "small" Chinese city of about 3 million people and not on the tourist track. My guidebook to China does not even mention the city, except to show its location on one map of Hebei Province. Needless to say, I am the ONLY westerner in the city, and just walking to the store draws quite a bit of attention.

I live with the headmistress of a small private English language school, and her family. Her husband does not speak any English, but is friendly, smiles a lot, and dresses in black from head to toe, mafia style. Their son, whom they call Lung Lung (which means "little dragon") is a typical only child teenager, which means he is a bit rebellious, a lot spoiled, and spends most of his time on his computer playing video games. Or, complaining about his tortured life. It seems teenagers are the same everywhere, doesn't it?

I teach 24 hours per week at the school, which is located a two minute walk down the street from the apartment. My kids are between the ages of 8 and 14, though most are 11-13. They have been studying English for about two years and have 1000-2000 English words at their disposal - at least the best students do. Some of the less gifted might have less than 500 words.

As most of you know, I am not a trained teacher, but this is not a problem. I have been hired primarily for my accent - that is, the accent of a native English speaker. I'm not sure you can consider what I do teaching, for while I try to teach the kids new words and phrases, mostly I play games with them, read them stories to improve their listening comprehension, and assist them in their pronunciation of words they already know. I create lesson plans, but they are at the mercy of the headmistress, who often says, "More stories! More riddles!" Clearly, there is a system here, and I am paid to follow the system.

That said, teaching is a lot harder than I imagined it would be. The latent insecurity that bubbles to the surface of even the most confident person when confronted with a classroom of pre-teen children is significant. The blank stares, the lack of comprehension and even the occasion yawn is enough to make me want to walk out and never come back (on a bad day). But, the excitement of understanding a new word or phrase, the laughter when I make a fool of myself trying to pronounce Chinese, or the appreciative clapping after I sing them a new song, makes it kind of fun, and on these days I don't mind my isolation and daily culture shock.

I never thought I would travel to China. Sure, it was on the list, but pretty far down to be honest. From what I had heard from other travelers, it was a bit of a nightmare. It's hard to get around, it's expensive (for a budget traveler), and outside the two major (mainland) cities, it's almost impossible to find anyone who speaks English. All of these things are true, and yet I came anyway. Which brings me back to my tearful entry into the country.

I arrived in Shanghai from Bangkok, on a hellish overnight flight during which I did not sleep at all. Upon arrival I found that I had to transfer to a different airport for my "connecting" flight to Beijing - obviously "connection" means something different in China. When I arrived at airport number two I found that I had missed my flight. The Shanghai to Beijing route is frequently plied, so I did not worry too much and simply asked to be put on the next flight. I was told that was not possible, as it was booked, but I could wait standby. The fact that it took me three lines and forty-five minutes to get this information was annoying, but not overly so.

That is, until I did not make it standby on the next flight. Or, the next one. Or, the next one. Did I mention that many, many Chinese did manage to secure positions on these flights? Or, that two teachers from my school were waiting for me in Beijing and I had no phone number with which to contact them? And, that Shanghai International had NO Internet terminals for me to email the headmistress? And, when I thought to have the teachers paged in Beijing, I realized all I had was the names Mr. Wang and Mr. Li. When you consider Mr. Li is the second most common surname in China, and Mr. Wang is number 5, it would be like paging "John" or "Jennifer" at Chicago O'Hare, or telling someone in Chicago you were suppose to meet a friend at THE McDonalds and asking them to point you there. Needless to say, I was beginning to question coming to China in the first place.

That's when the tears began to flow. I'm not sure if it was the tears that got me on the 12 noon flight, and honestly, I don't care. I was just glad to be booked on a flight - any flight. Even this flight, which while on a HUGE 747 airplane, had a total of - can you guess? - THREE passengers. I was the only female, and the only one in coach. There were two businessmen in business class, 6 flight attendants and three flight crew. I am not kidding. If I had not been so tired, and fell asleep immediately upon take off, I would have wondered what kind of airline can afford to send a flight of three people two hours away in a jumbo jet? And, just who were these other passengers?

I eventually made it to Beijing, met up with the two teachers, apologized profusely for the delay, and got to Cangzhou. By the time we arrived, we were laughing about the incident, even though I felt horrible that the teachers had been waiting for me for 6 hours!

It's been just over two weeks since I arrived in China and Cangzhou, and I have settled into a regular routine of writing, teaching and reading. I start the morning on my own, eating breakfast (an apple and some instant cereal), writing emails, and reading. Lunch is taken with the family at about 12 noon, and is usually a few common plates of vegetables, steamed buns or noodles, and occasionally rice. North Chinese people eat more noodles and steamed bread than rice, which is a more popular South Chinese staple. After lunch the family "rests." Most Chinese have a long lunch break, and it is common to take a little nap after lunch before going back to work/school. In the afternoon, after my nap, I work on my lesson plans, study Chinese language and read. At about 6 p.m. I go to the school, where I eat dinner with the teachers.

This is an experience in itself, as the food is placed out on a large center table and all the teachers eat from the common containers with their individual chopsticks, usually munching on a steamed bun or some other kind of bread. It took me a while to get use to seeing them spit fish and chicken bones right on the table (the plastic table cover suddenly made even more sense), or slurp noodles into their mouth with all the accompanying sound effects, but overall its a fun, social experience. The food is unlike Chinese food I have eaten in the US, and I am not sure if that is because most American Chinese food is Cantonese (South Chinese) or because it has been Americanized past recognition. Regardless, its pretty good, and seems quite healthy.

I teach two classes per weekday evening, from 7 until 9 p.m., after which time I go home, usually picking up a DVD from the local store to watch before I go to bed. On the weekends, my schedule is very intensive, and I have 8 classes per day, almost constantly from 8 a.m. until 7 or 9 p.m., with a three hour break at lunch time. By Sunday night at 9 p.m., my body, my mind and my voice, are shattered. Lucky for me, my day off is Monday.

There is not much to do in my city, especially for a foreigner who does not speak Chinese, so outside of teaching hours I practice yoga, read books on China, write, answer emails and occasionally make a visit to the local shopping center. They have a KFC (the only fast food chain in the city), which is quite the luxury, and few Chinese can afford to eat there. To give you an example, a small ice cream sundae (McDonald's style) is 6 yuan. Across the street at a very modern, clean and well-decorated noodle shop, a huge, filling plate of noodles with tons of veggies and sauces is a mere 5 yuan. Still, the KFC was packed, while the noodle shop was not. Pity, I thought the noodles were excellent.

According to Miss Zhao, the average Chinese family of three (mom, dad and one child) in Cangzhou gets about 1800-2000 yuan per month, which is less than $250 US dollars per month (the exchange rate is about 8 yuan to $1 US dollar). Based on the house I live in, and the nice things that the family has, I would say my family is living a much better lifestyle.

So far, despite some teaching style differences, and cultural misunderstandings, my life in Cangzhou is really quite pleasant. After having been on the road and moving around since I left my job in Australia, its nice to be "settled" in an apartment, and have some kind of routine to follow, even if it is temporary. Of course, being the only foreigner here means that most of my conversations are quite limited, and every now and again, I miss having conversations with people who can understand pop culture references or American slang. Do you know what its like to try to explain "munchkins" to a group of kids who have never seen the Wizard of Oz?

I still have 3 more weeks of teaching left, and I am bound to have some entertaining stories to share, if not from Cangzhou, then from my day off trips to Beijing. Stay tuned!