Thursday, 30 April 2015

A Laowai's life in Liaoning

PROJECT: Teaching Placement
WRITTEN BY: Robert Meek

It's been two and a half weeks since my placement at the North Yucai Bilingual School in Shenyang, Liaoning. My spacious dorm room is on the 3rd floor of a residential building on the campus of a sister school right in the centre of the city. My window looks out over an enormous park which facilitates early morning Tai-Chi, social dancing, community exercise sessions and plenty of space for sitting, reading, singing, playing and jogging. I have my own room and bathroom and share the hallway with 4 other teachers, a sweet old Japanese lady and the maintenance husband/wife duo. My food table holds a big bag of oats and some instant coffee; my fridge contains ice-tea, milk, beer and baiju.

Much of the furniture and many of the appliances were stolen over the holidays by workers (microwaves, shelves, sheets, lamps) and so my room is home to two brand new flat-pack clothes stands bought from the local WalMart, as well as an inflatable mattress bought off TaoBao (effectively Chinese Amazon). The mattress was not replacing a stolen one, it was simply a necessary addition to the piece of plywood that served as my original mattress. My colleagues are all very jealous of this.

My school is an hour's bus ride away from my dorm which demands a 5:45 wake up for a 6:50 coach to school. My getting ready routine inevitably involves buying an extremely delicious breakfast wrap from a stall conveniently placed between the gate and the bus. 5 kuai (AUD 1$) for a big doughy eggy wrap filled with lettuce, mystery meat and some kind of mouth-watering sauce. I have to admit that at least once this wrap has been the highlight of my day.

I arrive at school just before 8am every morning and check into the office. At this time the students are up, dressed and jog-marching in perfect squares around the grounds to patriotic marching-band music blasted out of low quality speakers. Classes at every age practice marching frequently; it is not uncommon to walk past lines of 6-year-olds marching behind a whistle-blowing teacher.

I have 18 classes a week. 8 are grade four and 10 are grade one or two depending on the week. This means I only have to plan two lessons a week and get to practice them and improve them with each new class, a very good set-up for a teacher-in-training. My grade fours are able to hold a conversation with lots of thinking time, but grade one and two often rely on my assistant to have my instructions translated. They all have their own local English teachers; it is my role to activate the vocabulary and get them speaking.

The school is a fine establishment, despite being in the middle of nowhere. North Yucai Bilingual boasts a huge gymnasium, a football field and grandstand, an enormous lecture hall that doubles as a performance hall. There is a music/arts department, but those subjects aren't taken seriously compared to languages and mathematics.

Classes are difficult at first, but get easier as I modify my lessons. My first week of lessons consisted mostly of introducing myself and Australia and having the students create name-tags, a source of endless amusement. Chinese names always double as actual words in the language, so left to their own devices Chinese kids will name themselves "Dragon" or "Spider" for the boys and "Flower" or "Princess" for the girls to give a few examples. I was delighted to meet a "Major Tom" in grade two.

I always have lots of free time at school, sometimes up to 4 hours at a time. I used this free time over the last two weeks to watch TV shows on the net, but plan to use this time in the future to practice Chinese, read books and play basketball.The length of the work day leaves me with very little time to pursue any kind of afternoon activity as I get home at 6 (on a good day) and am usually exhausted. This usually warrants a trip to the food court of the local shopping centre for dinner and a bed-time of 8:30pm. The weekend is of course a different story. After some exploration and trial-and-error with address pronunciation at the expense of frustrated taxi drivers, we've come across plenty of expat bars and local nightclubs hidden away between the countless Karaoke bars and restaurants. A typical Saturday night will end at 3am with us arriving home by taxi reeking of second-hand smoke and our wallets mysteriously empty. A typical Sunday is spent recuperating, doing laundry and planning the next week of teaching.

Living conditions are very similar to Beijing. Tap water is still a no-go, pollution levels rise and fall daily, alcohol is still cheap and there is still no end to the relentless staring, pointing, and giggling at my slightly different facial features. As a non-Asian, I and all my colleagues are considered "Laowais" (foreigners). Laowai literally translates to "old person" and is appropriate due to our hair colour, as native hair is only ever anything other than jet black when it starts to go grey with age. The "Laowai Treatment" as coined by expats before me is a two sided coin.

On one hand, Laowais are often respected and revered for our heritage and use of English. Making friends is easy as everyone wants to practice their English with you. Bar owners have given us free drinks before (possibly trying to get us to bring more laowais). Random people on the street will shamelessly ask to take a photo with you; the red carpet treatment has often put a spring in my step. Everyone is nice and polite and usually do their best to overcome the language barrier that looms despite our best efforts to learn the language.

On the other hand, being the subject of amusement of an entire society can quickly get under your skin. The more sensitive expats call these incidents "microaggressions" which includes the pointing and giggling, the "ha-lou"ing and (rarely) being refused a taxi ride. We have often been used as a marketing tool to draw in more local customers (another reason for the free drinks I suppose) and some vendors will quite openly mock us while we purchase. Of course a lot of this is probably due to the language barrier which is our own fault. In the history of mankind, this rates insignificantly low on the racism spectrum, but it's part of the culture shock and while it gets on my nerves now, I'm sure I'll learn to appreciate the attention and get used to it.

At the moment weekdays are bland and uncomfortable and the respite of the weekend is short-lived, probably due to the struggle of settling in and adapting to such a wildly new routine. However I sense a change approaching with the impending Summer season. Shenyang has been referred to as a city in hibernation and I'm certain that some heat will breathe new life into this place. I can feel the settling-in struggle period coming to an end and a routine forming. I'm focusing on using my time to learn as much Mandarin as possible and utilise the free gym across the road. One day I will conquer the art of surviving this crazy country!

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