Thursday, 12 March 2015

Challenges and Celebrations in China

PROJECT: Teaching
WRITTEN BY: Robert Meek

I'm writing on Monday, the 23rd of February, 16 days after the program started. Fireworks are going off relentlessly outside my window on what is hopefully the last day of New Year's celebrations; there are only so many fireworks you can take before it's just noise and light, like a week-long hangover.

Don't get me wrong, China offers plenty of opportunities for hangovers, alongside many opportunities I'd never have experienced in the humble suburbs of Australia. To kick things off, here's a quick list of some of the more outlandish things I've done in only 2 weeks:
• Eaten three whole scorpions
• Had my outdoors Tai-Chi lesson interrupted by a McDonald's home delivery man
• Climbed to the top of a section of the Great Wall of China
• Set off fireworks in the middle of a road that was still being used by vehicles
• Mastered the art of crossing the road (the trick is confidence; Chinese drivers can smell fear)
• Had a beer with my schoolteacher
• Walked on a frozen river
I live in one room with my roommate Hugh, the only Kiwi on the trip. All 50 of us live in similar conditions. It's cramped and frustrating, but we don't spend much time there. I am a member of a vast minority of monolinguals (all from either Australia, England or Scotland). Everyone else is at least bilingual, and some can speak 4 languages (not including Mandarin). Most interns are from Denmark, but many are Swedish or Norwegian. After some deliberation with colleagues, we established the final list of the collective spoken languages among us:
• English
• Mandarin
• Dutch
• Danish
• Swedish
• Russian
• German
• French
• Norwegian
• Korean
• Spanish
• Portuguese
• Albanian
Surprisingly, all 50 of us get along perfectly. After a week social groups formed based on either your native language or whether or not you smoke. The school schedule has been increasingly hectic with the arrival of Teacher Practice (TP) week, but generally sticks to a High-School-esque period schedule, with three 90-minute lessons a day plus Mandarin classes after school. So far we've handed in four big assignments with the due date for the fifth rapidly approaching.

Tap water is unsafe to drink, so drinking water is purchased at the local supermarket and/or liquor store for about 10 kuai (aka Yuan or Renminbi) for five litres. It has to be said that the hotel food has the potential to be atrocious (today's broth contained entire chicken feet and possibly its' Aorta/Femoral arteries) and so, with no communal kitchen, a trip to a local restaurant or vendor is sometimes necessary. Luckily food is cheap and everywhere. The local dumpling shop has saved many of us from starvation, and if you're really homesick the local McDonald's delivers straight to your door.

Beijing is a filthy place, but entirely devoid of litter. These kinds of compromises have become commonplace on our various expeditions into different avenues of the culture. There are no Chinese Bars/Pubs, but every restaurant, cafe, supermarket, corner store and lemonade stand sells alcohol. The roads appear to be a chaotic hell at first glance, but there is a method to the madness of the streets. While the Chinese cannot be called "good drivers", there is absolutely no doubt that they are "good at driving".

The process of learning Mandarin is excruciatingly slow, but can be attributed to the enormous workload and being always surrounded by English speakers. I expect my Chinese to improve when I get to my placement.

The responsibilities of schoolwork and the inevitable culture shock are balanced by the intelligent, interesting people that surround me every day. The freedom to explore China and its' weird and wonderful ways is secured by the support of the in-country partners and the Antipodeans staff. And the brain-melting early starts are combated by the knowledge that every day will present some wacky custom or ridiculous challenge or life lesson to wrap your head around.

Living in China is not easy, and I already feel better for it. I wouldn't pass up this trip for anything, and I still have 5 months left!

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