During the period spanning September 2013 to July 2014, I was living in China teaching English. It was in a backwater town located in Hunan Province called Yongzhou. If you haven’t heard of it, don’t worry. There’s nothing there.
To be honest, it was one of the most difficult times of my life. I regretted my decision the moment I set foot in the town. Don’t get me wrong – the students and staff at the college where I taught were all great. In fact, they were the saving grace. What I struggled with were the living conditions of a town less developed than I was used to. No Western-toilet, frequent electricity and water outages and just nowhere to go once the sun set.
With that being said, I did have my share of good and bad experiences, even if I did breathe a massive sigh of relief when I left that town for good. Here are six memorable episodes from my 10 months or so in Yongzhou, China.
Sign Clearly, Please
Shortly after I arrived, my supervisor took me to the bank to get my account set up. Thankfully, it was pretty quiet there that day, so we didn’t have to wait long. But it was obvious that the people working at the bank had probably never encountered a foreigner, much less have any idea on how to set up an account for one.
Firstly, my supervisor asked one of the staff to photocopy whatever necessary pages of my passport they needed. The girl she passed it to flipped frantically through my passport, obviously having no idea of what she was supposed to copy. She eventually called over a male staff and he joined her in the flipping. I watched them for a few minutes, rolling my eyes, then went over to help them. They had stopped on the page with my (old) Japanese work visa, mistaking it for China’s, like I knew they would.
“It’s not this one, this is Japan’s”, I said in Chinese, feeling a little annoyed at their ignorance. I grabbed my passport from their hands, and flipped to the page with the China residence permit. “It’s this one.”
Before I could guide them any further, my supervisor suddenly came over and pulled me into the room with the teller tending to our application. She told me to sign a few forms she had filled out for me, so I did, and we slipped it to the teller.
The teller looked at the forms for a moment then said, “the writing is too messy, can you do it again?”
“What, even this is too messy?” my supervisor said, referring to the parts she had filled in for me.
“No, I’m talking about the signature,” the teller clarified. “I can’t read it.”
I just stared at him. “It’s a signature,” I said in English to my supervisor. “You’re not meant to be able to read it.”
”Yes, but he says it’s too messy and wants you to write it so he can read it.“
“Okay…” I said. “So he wants me to print my name, not sign it.”
“He just wants you to sign clearly.”
I could see this was not getting anywhere, so I just printed my name in block letters under my signature, saying, “in English-speaking countries, you’re not meant to be able to read one’s signature…”
“I know,” my supervisor said. “He doesn’t know about other countries.”
Next, he started inputting the information on the form into the computer. He stopped and asked what country I was from. My supervisor told him Australia. He then asked her if she knew the country code for Australia, which she in turned asked me.
“You mean the telephone code?”
She relayed the question to him in Chinese, and the answer back into English for me.
“No, just the country number for Australia.”
“Uh…I don’t think countries have a number; the number is probably one this bank’s system uses only, so I don’t know,” I said.
The teller scrolled through and finally found it.
“It’s 392,” he told us.
“Okay,” I said.
After all this, we finally got the bank account set up, so it was a success. But I had to return there to set up internet banking, because I wasn’t able to do it on the same day. For some reason I didn’t understand.
The Best Sort of Christmas Present
On Christmas Eve, I held classes as per normal. As I was dismissing the class and wishing everyone happy holidays, one of the more enthusiastic students, a cute girl from Changsha, said she had a present for me. I smiled and welcomed her to give it to me.
She reached into her bag, and looked around at the class.
“Eh? Why are all of you guys still here?”
“We want to see what you’re going to give the teacher,” the rest of the class replied, grinning.
She shrugged, stood up and walked over to me, presenting me with a bag of dried beef granules and a small card.
“This stuff is really nice” she said explaining the food. “And read the card.”
I smiled and thanked her. As if on cue, the rest of the class jumped up, some of them leaving, while others swarmed around the computer desk for photos. Another female student posed in a faux kiss-on-cheek shot with me, causing others to squeal and screech. The cute Changsha girl who gave me the presents protested loudly and pulled the other student away in friendly aggressiveness.
She then turned to me and said “I have one more present for you.”
And then she leaned in close, and kissed me on the cheek.
I laughed and couldn’t help but blush a little. Best present a student has ever given me. And there wasn’t even any mistletoe.
The Broken Egg
I was in a particularly pissy mood one winter day, and being surrounded by abrasive country bumpkins in the supermarket didn’t help. In one part of the floor, there was a fairly significant groove, where a stretch of metal plank connected two large pieces of the floor. If one were to drive their trolley over it, it would get bogged, so most people carefully edged theirs over it.
I, however, being in a particularly pissy mood, decided to drive my trolley over it full speed. The trolley hit the groove with a loud clang, and I watched as everything inside my trolley jumped 15cm into the air and crashed back onto the metal spokes below. This would have been fine, and I even derived a sense of guilty pleasure from the recklessness, except for one thing: I had eggs. The carton flipped open, and half of the eggs bounced out and fell onto the trolley. By some miracle, only one egg actually broke, and my attempts to salvage it only caused it to drip its entire gooey yellow contents onto the floor below. Not wanting to create a scene, I quickly steered my trolley away. I felt a little apologetic for the mess, but was a lot less sympathetic than usual.
Now for the moral dilemma.
I hovered around the egg section, wondering if I should swap my broken egg, now just a shell, for another new one. My first thought was that it was what any Chinese person would do – they would have swapped it without the blink of an eye. But that put me off even more; I didn’t want to be like them – I wanted to do what was right. To me, it wouldn’t be fair if someone else unknowingly picked up a carton of eggs that had one broken in it because someone else had swapped it in. Secondly, it sort of was my fault the egg broke. True, the supermarket shouldn’t have such a hazardous floor, but I was the one who deliberately drove recklessly over it in my sullen mood. So it wouldn’t be fair to make the supermarket pay for that.
In the end, I kept and paid for my chosen egg carton, broken egg and all. And deep down, I know it was the right thing to do.
I Get Paid For This, But It’s Not My Job
There are a lot of nice people in China, so I don’t want to generalise and bag on everyone, but seriously China has some truly sh*tty customer service. Especially in the sticks, where it is exacerbated by sheer laziness and general lack of knowing how to do things properly.
I needed to go to the closest China Post to send some stuff back home in preparation for leaving, but I remembered how unhelpful and incoherent (she only spoke the local dialect) the woman who worked there was. So I asked one of my former students, one of the best in English, to accompany me to help interpret. She happily agreed and so we went together.
We get there, and tell the woman (same one) that I wanted to send some stuff to Australia, waving to the suitcase I had packed to lug to the post office. She curtly asked what it was I was sending; we replied clothes.
“Clothes?! Unless the clothes are brand new, it can’t be sent,” she barked in a thick accent I only just managed to understand.
My student and I looked at each other, like WTH?
“That can’t be right,” I said. “The Japanese teacher told me she has sent some clothes back before from here.” I had a strong feeling the woman was lying simply because organising a package to be sent to Australia was too much trouble. Even though it’s her damn job.
My student asked again, asking if the woman was sure worn clothes couldn’t be sent.
“It’s a pain to send things to Australia!” she spat, waving her arms about as she explained all the forms, procedures she would have to do. “The package will get opened by customs and you will have to pay extra.” Beside her, a male staff sat smoking a cigarette, half watching our conversation, half swiveling in his chair towards his computer.
I was starting to get annoyed at her obvious lies and told my student, “If it gets opened by customs, that’s my problem, not hers. Just tell her to give me a box and send it.”
My student relayed this message, and the woman, realising that we weren’t going to give up, slid a set of forms over to us and brought out a box, still saying, “Customs might reject the package and it will just get returned here.”
I ignored her and reached for a pen to fill in the forms. My student, who had had the good sense to find out the number for the China Post service line, said she would call and check the rules about sending clothes. She returned shortly after, and informed me that there were no such rules about sending worn clothes and it was fine. I suspected that already, and smirked as I finished filling in the form.
My student confronted the woman, saying she had just called the China Post service line and they had told her no such rules about clothes existed. The woman then changed her story and said, “Oh I had to warn you just in case it got rejected and returned. Otherwise you might blame me and say I never warned you.”
Inside I was thinking, “Pfffft. You didn’t warn us, you outright told us we couldn’t send clothes.” But I let it pass; after all, I still had to trust her to actually send my box away and not dump it into the bin somewhere.
We filled the box with the contents of my suitcase, and the woman, who was now resigned to the fact that we would be sending it to Australia, helped us to tape it up, weigh it and do whatever the hell she was actually supposed to be doing as a post office clerk. I paid for it and said, “好的，谢谢！” (Ok, thank you!) as loudly and cheerily as I possibly could, half in sarcasm, half hoping she would at least be a little remorseful for being so damn rude and unhelpful when we first came in.
She was facing the computer, already tending to the next customer, but I thought I heard her grunt in response. In these parts, I’ll be positive and take that as a “you’re welcome.”
On Fire? Who Cares
Sometime towards the end of tenure, some students invited me to eat with them. They took me to one of the rundown “mum and pop” places where you buy ingredients and get to cook your own meal there.
While I was waiting for my students to cook, I watched some of the others. There was a girl nearby who was boiling some cabbage and tofu soup above a makeshift stove – essentially an overturned tin barrel. As she was stirring the ingredients, a semi soup-filled bowl in the other hand, the cloth that was wrapped around the wok handle suddenly caught fire.
“完了” (“I’m dead”), she said in a completely flat, disinterested voice that almost seemed to betray her words.
She proceeded to blow lightly on the tiny flame on the cloth, but it did nothing. Using her free hand, she then gingerly unwrapped the cloth and threw it onto the floor, stamping out the flame. When it had died, she returned to stirring the soup as if nothing had happened. While holding the bowl in her other hand the whole time.
Even though the flame was only small, I was admittedly impressed at how calmly she handled the situation. I wonder if the people here are just so used to malfunctioning equipment and things going wrong that they hardly bat an eyelid anymore.
More Than a Teacher, Less Than a Friend
Also near the end of my tenure, some students invited me to travel with them for the long weekend. Had this been earlier in the semester, I would have probably refused, on the grounds that it seemed to overstep the boundaries between teacher-student. But since I was almost done anyway, I thought, why not? It was better than being stuck in my apartment, bored.
So I went, and it wasn’t bad at all. We visited the home of 女书 (Women’s Language) in 江永 (Jiangyong), which was also the hometown of one of the students. The incredible 女书 script was said to be invented by one of the then Emperor’s concubines many decades ago, as a way to communicate without letting men know. You can see how the script was derived from traditional Chinese characters in the picture below.
At night, we went to watch X-Men: Days of Future Past, which had just opened in the cinemas that year (2014). We stayed in a cheap motel, two to a room, and to be honest I felt a bit awkward sharing a room with a student. But whatever, at this point the semester was almost over and I didn’t feel there was any gap between us, besides one of age (and language). Oftentimes I could camouflage myself amongst my students, and no one would know better.
When I look back on my experiences living in China, I am filled both with pain and gratitude. I both cringe and smile. It was a difficult time in my life, and while I was there I questioned the decision I made to live in that particular town everyday. Now that it’s many years in the past, I still think I made an unwise decision, but I am grateful for everything it taught me. It was a valuable life experience and allowed me to see firsthand how people live on a Level 3 income level. Plus I got to learn about China and mainland Chinese culture in a way I would otherwise never had been able to. So no regrets, only memories tinged with the bittersweet aftertaste of consequences.
For those interested in more stories from my time living in China, also check out: