Teach and Travel China (TTC)

”One of my students realized he could clap too, like I do when I want them to be quiet. That was the moment the line between student and teacher got wiped out… This kid… His face… It was like he… like almost FERAL.”
– Joshua Cremer

How do I sum up five months living and working in China? I don’t even know where to start…
I can sum up one night of work Rachel and I had to do, where the Chinese aid told us:
“You have to go on stage and maybe teach, maybe singa song, maybe teach animals. We have cards with colours, maybe sing a song, maybe Baby Shark, maybe? All foreign teachers sing Baby Shark, maybe we have cards for colours and cards for animals and maybe ten minutes before the play you sing a song…”

Teaching English in China was first placed on my bucket list November 12th 2008 and has remained there ever since. It’s another one of those things I thought “that would be so awesome”, but deep down I didn’t really expect I would get the chance or make the time for it. Even when my “round the world”-trip was decided I elected to not put it on there because I wanted to free up time and money to travel around, not stay in one place for that long. But then Eystein died… I needed to go home. I needed to go to the funeral. And while trying to deal with all of it I realized I needed a time with more routine. That’s when I decided to add my two “longstay” bucket list items: Learning French in Paris and Teaching English in China. After staying in Paris for four months I booked a flight to Beijing to start the epic and slightly harrowing adventure China turned out to be.

Rachel: “Shemme Shemme Shemme Shemme Shemme Chameleoooooon!”
(Chinese people say “Shemme?” when they ask “What?”)

My organization in Norway, GoXplore, worked with ImmerQi in China. (This partnership dissolved while I was in China, but GoXplore stressed this would have no effect on my trip and that they would very much be there for me should I need them). ImmerQi is the kind of organization I am ultimately unhappy with, I’ll try to explain why…

First things first: I landed in Beijing, picked up my luggage and met Julia and Denis from Germany, two other TTC’s (that’s what the interns (us) teaching in China are called). We wandered about a bit trying to find the bus to take us to the school where we would be staying for two weeks before we got out permanent placements. (Later I found out that others had been waiting at the airport Starbucks for seven hours(!) before we all finally got there so the bus could take us in. Item 1 on the list of idiocies by ImmerQi).

Our two weeks in Beijing consisted of:

  • Classes/learning how to teach (we didn’t really)
  • Calligraphy class (5 min where the old dude supposed to teach us talked in Chinese for 30 of them and the translator didn’t do the best job of translating. Then we drew a straight line for 15 mins and that was it)
  • Tai Chi Lesson (this was relatively ok, 45 mins of a dude doing a routine with us)
  • Three full days of training in a school (this was meant to “evaluate us” and consisted of basically passing us so long as we didn’t throw the kids out the window. It was also the least organized, least prepared crap I’ve ever done, or so I thought. I came to learn, this is how China works…)
  • A visit to the Forbidden City (was pretty cool, except the Chinese guide spoke really low and we had to crowd in close to her, but we were too many to do that, so I gave up on the guide in the end)
  • A visit to the Summer Palace (same problem with the guide here, but the place itself was lovely)
  • A visit to the Great Wall of China (I can’t stress enough how ill prepared this day was. We drive to the Great Wall, they tell us we have 1-1,5 hrs there before we have to be back down by the bus because we have another place to go as well. Turns out after the Wall, we were going to Huan Lake. Which is a frozen lake in Beijing with markets and stuff. So, just to put some emphasis on this: We are cutting our time at THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA short so we can go see a market and a lake which there are about a dime a dozen of pretty much everywhere. I was pretty pissed about this. The trip to the Wall itself was nice, I got some alone time contemplating the history and what is might’ve been like back in the day, but the time constraints were nothing short of ludicrous and guaranteed that most of us wouldn’t make it to the top from where we started. Meaning missing out on the iconic “stretching out of the wall as far as the eye can see”-thing. Insanely bad planning.)

Our time in Beijing passed by both quickly and slow. The feeling of the group in the end was like we had gone through a tumultuous experience and bonded over mutual frustration and exploring. No surprise there, for many of the people in the group this was the first big step far away from home. But I was surprised at how frustrated I was getting these two weeks.
I had already travelled for two years experiencing waiting for minibuses that “left when they were full”, trains derailing as a standard, language barriers, pointing to menus hoping they brought me something that wasn’t too spicy (regardless of what it actually was) etc etc. I found myself actually getting quite angry several times during the introduction. However, I was classed as pretty chill, adaptable and flexible by the people taking care of us (at least, that’s what Lorcan told me) so where was the middle ground and truth here?

I guess I was chill and diplomatic on the outside, while I myself felt all the anger and frustration on the inside. It really is all about how you handle it… In addition, some basic things that could be a problem didn’t matter to me at all. I didn’t care much about the level of comfort as long as it’s not horrific. The fact that the showers had no hot water for our two weeks in Beijing was puzzling to me (I mean, Beijing..?), but not something I got upset about. And  I really didn’t care at all about where in China I was being placed. When I got Inner Mongolia my first thought was “cool!”. Others where noticeably disappointed and upset.

However, it’s the disorganization to the point of coming across as lies that got to me. The whole time we were there we could literally not trust what was being said to us, this reached a peak at the end where we were told we could refuse the medical check if we wanted to, “just contact us and we’ll help you communicate with the school” and then two days later we were told by the school there is no way we can refuse the check. This is just one example that didn’t even affect me because I didn’t mind the idea of a medical check, but one of the people in our group was reduced to tears and wanted to go home. This might sound hysterical, but without going into details suffice it to say that I understood their reaction and downright feeling of being lied to completely.

My room

My room at Honder Campus

Jess: “I’m counting my blessings. Imagine if I didn’t have blond hair and look this foreign? I mean… I’d be fucking fired!”

I find this is often the case in China. You bring up a problem, people don’t want problems on their hands and are generally happiest if you fix them yourselves. If you can’t fix it yourself or it’s not something they can fix easily ad quickly, the first instinct is to lob it back to you hoping you will find a way to fix it yourself. A lot of the time they just gamble it never comes up and if it does, they hope it goes away. This can be quite frustrating for foreigners in particular, because we’re not used to that sort of thinking. It infuriated me when the Western staff at ImmerQi expressed this behaviour because they didn’t even have the excuse of being Chinese. I used to say “they have adapted to the point of becoming Chinese”. When you couple this with the Chinese way of not giving notice before events or happenings in general, it is not ideal. Examples of this is when we had all been in Hohhot for three days then were called in to a meeting, the whole group, and THEN they told us one of us was to be sent to a completely different city to live there and teach. This is after they make a whole show about caring about our safety and inventing this “buddy system” (if we’re out late we should always go home in pairs etc). So now, one of us is to be “separated from the herd” as it were, and sent off on their own. No instructions about who lives in this new place (Baotou), we were told one guy who was sent there really liked it because “he was a bit of a loner” and in general it is not presented in a great way. We are told that we have an option, we could all go for two weeks or one person goes for five months. We opt in for the two weeks even though some of us really don’t want to go at all and I volunteered to go first as I felt I had a bit more experience at this point with moving on every week 😛

#ChickenWrapNChill #Pizzagloves #WhenTheCanteenShits #WhosPeter #HonderWaterThief #PowersOff #PowersBack #PowersOff #PowersBack

In the end this teacher-roulette doesn’t sit well with the school either so they get a new intern from god knows where and just lob him off to Baotou permanently. No one knew him, he wasn’t a part of our group, we saw him for sports day (another great show of face crap show everone has to go to) and he lamented the fact that Baotou was lonely. Which sounds about right, that was the only problem I had with Baotou too. The disorganization of the place was not particular to Baotou, that was rampant in Hohhot too.

All in all the 5,5 months I spent teaching in Inner Mongolia was filled with frustration, exhaustion, disease and friendly people. Sounds like an oxymoron, but I’ll get to the positive parts, I just want to do them in the end so I end on a positive note.

I’ve learned to hate the sentence “you can have a rest” because it doesn’t mean rest really. It means someone forgot something or didn’t plan well enough so what you were doing at 8am got cancelled ten minutes ago and now you don’t start teaching until 11am, but thanks for rocking up at the school at 7.30am like we told you you absolutely had to to avoid being late.

FOBR -> Fear Of Being Raided

I learned to pick my battles. Absolutely. There’s no use getting upset over everything no matter where you are, but be prepared for your baseline/threshold of what you can handle without steam coming out of your ears to move significantly. You will learn to put up with a ton more of what we perceive as “shit” in China than you are used to.

We were told by Robert, the only person to teach us anything in Beijing: “Be prepared to smile through anger and show up to a dinner you were told about half an hour ago so the school can present you and you help them “gain face” – this will gain you favour with the bosses and you will received goodwill. That vacation or office you wanted may become available now. Conversely, if you don’t that vacation is all of a sudden a bit of a problem after all, or the office mysteriously got taken by someone else. This is normal.”
While this particular vacation/office scenario never applied to me, I feel this describes the situation in China perfectly.

In the end I learned to navigate working in Hohhot better and better. Obviously it’s a learning process and you have to get used to how things are. I learned to grin and bear a lot of stuff and was rewarded in turn by for example never ever having a problem getting refunds for my taxis.

I also learned that Chinese people are in fact very friendly and loving. What I will miss the most from my time in Hohhot are my colleagues at Wanjin. They made me feel so welcome and included me from day one. Mike, Sherry, Rachel, Majella, Hana, Anna, Linda, Susan… You are dearly missed ❤

Some of the people from Foreign Affairs too, among them Livia and Joy, worked very hard to get things done, with various results and I know they clashed a bit with the other TTCs sometimes… I can see why. There are cultural differences galore going on here and while they are all a part of the growing experience I do feel the adaptions were expected to be 100 % from our side a lot of the time. There were times I wanted to explain in no uncertain terms that China was not the one doing all the favours here. They were not allowing us this great adventure and we should just smile at everything. In fact, if we were not there, they would miss out on 9×22 lessons per week with an English Speaker (something the parents actually pay for) as well as our input in every other event they decide to micro manage (English Corner, Speech Competitions, etc). We are contributing quite a lot to their school – not the least of which is just plain being white. It’s a huge sell. The parents see us and immediately become more interested because they imagine their kids having access to someone who commands the English language well. Which is true. Most of the time 😉

Jess: “I’m getting Mrs. Huang a bunch of flowers… and some fiber…”

I haven’t even gotten into the fact that four of our TTC’s were deported from China because the police where they were sent checked up on the school and were convinced the TTCs were not legally there. I checked online and it says:

“You are not permitted to work on the X type visa. But part-time work and internships off campus may be authorized. You should contact you university or employer after you have settled in China to see what can be arranged.
For foreign students who work in violation of Chinese regulations or beyond the prescribed scope of jobs or time limit, they shall be deemed unlawful employment and will probably have to stop or be expelled.”

So obviously, the school or ImmerQi or both have organized it so that we can do part time work. Is what I am thinking… But even my school was unsure if I was legal. When my phone was stolen my dean and I went to the police station to get a report so I could file a claim, she got on the phone with Demi from Foreign Affairs and actually asked her if I was allowed to work at Little London and in the end they decided we should just not mention that. “I will tell them you are a friend of Mike’s and you help him a little”… (I was like “what now?”)
I didn’t get that police report, they wanted to examine my visa and I didn’t have my passport with me so we said we’d be back the next day and just never returned.

Another note on ImmerQi btw. After Amy got back her mother contacted them and was furious that her daughter had been sold an illegal program and gotten deported. They explained that “she wasn’t deported at all”, it was “a translation error”. Her passport now has the word “Deported” stamped in it with red letters… So… Yeah, we’ll trust you on that, ImmerQi 😛
It really just adds to the feeling that they will say anything to make problems go away.

Despite all this I am glad I went to China and did this internship, it was very much a growing experience. I kept saying “nothing will ever be a problem for me ever again after this” and I still think that statement is at least part way correct. Maybe not “nothing will be a problem”, but I am now chill to the point of annoying with regards to shit not working out…

What I wont miss is having my phone stolen and being sick. In China I was sick permanently, meaning I have been sick in China for longer than the other two years of travel put together by a -really good margin-.

POSITIVE PARTS: Remembering the kids at my school getting so used to me saying “Ting Bu Dong” that they yelled it on repeat when they saw me. And when I was naming the two teams competing in class one of them was always called “Team Bu Dong”.
The jokes… omg… I made some great friends, experienced working in a new country that was so different there was actually a really steep learning curve, I like that. Also, I learned some Chinese! And the lols I got from the weird crap they produce… oh my god.
The food… Mongolian tradition is strong in Hohhot and I finally got lots of potato again ❤ The people are in general super-friendly and generous. I wont have it that “Chinese people are inherently insanely rude”. There are assholes in every country, but as a whole, what you might perceive as a general rudeness is a cultural difference. Among other things they don’t have the same concept of personal space, queuing or eating that we do. If you don’t understand cultural difference then don’t criticize other countries.

I’ll miss all of the food, most of the kids, a lot of the people and some of the city – but ultimately I do not think I will be returning to China to work there any time soon. At the very least I need a really long break from it before I do.




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