Teaching C this summer

I mentioned my student, C, before. He’s nearly 18 and has some challenges understanding what’s appropriate and what’s not. This summer I was teaching him GCSE Geography. Here is a selection of the conversations we had during our classes.

C thinks dinosaurs still exist, some of them at least.

C thinks young ladies shouldn’t go camping in case they have their period.

C also thinks young ladies don’t eat at McDonald’s.

“Miss, what would that teacher over there do if I punched you?”

“20% of people in China are lazy, 40% of people in the UK are lazy and more than 50% of people in France are lazy”

C asked if I’d ever stayed in a 5* hotel, and when I said yes, he asked how I’d paid for it. “But miss, you’re not rich, you work here!”

“America lost the Vietnam War because the soldiers were lazy and ate too much fast food”

“People deserved to die in the tsunami because they shouldn’t live in silly places”

“I think it would be too hot to live in the centre of the earth, I’m glad I don’t live there”

“Global warming will make Africa warmer but nowhere else”

C wanted to know why he wasn’t allowed to refer to another teacher, who is black, as “that dark man”, even behind his back.

“Miss, you are lucky you live in China because no one will punch you for being a lady. Five years ago this wasn’t the case, in Yunnan you would get punched for being a lady, now it’s fine though”

“Only China sent aid to Haiti after the earthquake”

C got angry with me for showing a video made by NASA and not the Chinese space agency.

“Miss, your skin is pretty and nice”

C was talking about responsibilities, and said that his responsibilities are to help ladies carry their bags and and their babies. When questioned about this he said that he would only offer to carry someone’s baby if they had two or three babies on their hands.

“The government of Africa is rubbish. I’m sorry to use such a strong word, miss, but they are rubbish”

C is adamant that the population of Canada is 2.4 billion.

“Urbanisation is bad because you then have to build a drawbridge for all the people”

“If you were my wife, I would protect you when you went swimming”

C thinks volcanoes are man-made.

“Miss, will you sleep with me in a hotel?”

How was your week? (the child edition)

(Names have been changed but the student has chosen his own name, but got confused about which letters to use and given himself a very feminine name. This is his second name, he used to be called Car (because he likes cars). He is 11 and weighs significantly more than me).

Me: How was your week?

Anny: I got in a fight at school. One of the students is taller than me and stronger than me, and he attacked me for no reason at all. Once he attacked a teacher with a chair leg and broke the teacher’s leg a little bit. He attacked me for no reason at all, we fought all the way across the classroom, from the front to the back. He hit my head and I picked him up and threw him against the wall. He is strong but he only fights with his arms and legs, not his head. I have a bruise on my arm and my head is a bit sore.

Me: Did you win?

Anny: No one won because the teacher arrived.

Me: That sounds like a good thing, the teacher must have been very angry.

Anny: The teachers are scared of him. Once Jerry brought a knife to class and he held it to my friend’s face. My friend told his mum and his mum came to the school. The fighting student, Jerry, his mum came to the school too and the two mums fought and my friend’s mum got hurt and now we don’t complain any more. The headmaster doesn’t want to help and we can’t report Jerry because if he knows it’s us then he’ll fight us.

Me: That sounds terrible for everyone.

Anny: His dad is a soldier but I don’t want him to grow up to be a soldier because then he could fight the whole country.

Me: So do you remember that we have been thinking about good decision making skills and poor decision making skills? What would you say were good decisions and what were poor decisions?

Anny: I shouldn’t have attacked him back. My mum said it’s okay to hit people if they hit you first but I should have gone to get the teacher. So I think no one made good decisions.

 

Anny for president!

If that ain’t love…

It’s Wednesday 14th February, which can mean only one thing. It’s the day after Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent and the day after Pancake Day? Well yes, but that passed me by. It’s the day before Chinese New Year’s Eve? That certainly hasn’t passed me by, but that’s something to write about some other time. No, silly, it’s Valentine’s Day.

As a History teacher, I could tell you the genealogy of the Roman god we use as an emblem for this day (who didn’t have his own festival during the Roman era). I could tell you that in China we have several Valentine’s Days, because (massive generalisation alert) Chinese people love romance. Oh yeah, and commercialism.

I could tell some stories about dating in China, but I won’t, because I’m a paragon of discretion, and also some of the stories aren’t mine to tell and I’ll get in trouble if I spill the beans. And I need to hold something back for the book I’m one day going to write and make millions from (teaser: a former colleague once wept as he clutched at a woman he’d met online, sobbing “I don’t care how old you are, can’t you see I really NEED this?”).

There are many types of love. Eros, agape, philia, storge.

But let me tell you about love in the workplace.

  • There’s my boss, who’s exactly my age and half my height. She invited me out for dinner, grabbed my boobs and bit my arm so hard she left a perfect ring of tiny teeth marks for a week.
  • There’s my line manager, who gives me brutally honest – both good and bad – feedback on my looks (“if you’d looked like your passport photo when you came for the interview I would have kicked you out” along with “you have a hot body”). She is super sweet and buys me little treats, although I suspect she has nefarious intentions in trying to up my caffeine intake. After the triple-espresso incident I don’t let her make me coffee anymore.
  • There’s Liam, my oracle and twin. Maybe he’ll get his own blog entry someday.
  • There’s my little family, my colleagues. Most of the company work on a different floor to us and we accept this daily snub with glee, caught up in buying ever-more extravagant gifts of fruit for each other.

And then there are the students. They’re generally bright kids, rich beyond my dreams and somehow also beyond their own as they’re singularly lacking in the awareness to understand their incredible good fortune. Some work hard. Some don’t. We teach them one-to-one, for blocks of two hours at a time, leading to the sort of situations where I can spend 10 hours a week in a tiny room with one kid, more time than I spend with any of my friends. This often ends up in a Stockholm Syndrome where despite me shouting at them (“do you have a brain? is there something wrong with you? how can you have forgotten this?”) they profess their love, telling me they hope they can spend MORE time with me, telling me about their secrets and their friends and their friends’ secrets.

Exhibit 1: E

E was 12, with arms and legs slightly too long for him. He wore a retainer on his teeth that he liked to take out in class. He thought I didn’t realise that he was playing computer games in the loo for 25 minutes at break time. E believed firmly that the Great Fire of London was in 1966, that a thousand and a million are the same thing, and that the KKK is a one of the three monotheistic Middle Eastern religions (turns out he had confused it with Judaism, as you do). He tried to tell me that the Holocaust didn’t happen, so I made him look at so many pictures and read so many accounts of it that he cried, “teacher, why does history have to be so disgusting?”

I bought him some Christmas candy (yes I speak American English now, yes I hate myself for it) and his eyes welled up. He took selfies of us together (with the rabbit ear filter on), telling me he’d never forget me – which I have to say I’m sceptical about, given that after three months of intensive lessons he could still only sporadically remember which decade either of the World Wars took place in.

Exhibit 2: C

C was 17, at school in the UK because neither his school in China nor his parents understood how to deal with his Aspergers Syndrome (his dad left, his mum complained “I beat C but he doesn’t get better!”). He told me he was studying A-levels in History, ICT and Shipping Logistics, which is certainly an unexpected addition to the A-level offering. Over Christmas we met every day to revise what he’d been studying in History lessons.

C would come to class every day and open his rucksack. Out of it, he’d take a toy car, his notebook (where, on every page, he’d write his name in English and Chinese) and two bottles of water, one for him and one for me. He would pass one over to me and when I’d thank him, he’d say that it was 2-for-1, and I’d tell him once again that it’s usually best to just smile and nod in this situation.

C likes to ask the same questions over and over. Every day regulars include: which do you prefer, Airbus or Boeing? which do you prefer, British Airways or Delta? which do you prefer, Jaguar or BMW? what do you think about Donald Trump? why can’t I use ‘swearing language’ in my history essays?

C doesn’t talk to people he doesn’t like, which is most people. He called my manager a prostitute once. Being a 17 year old boy with poor social skills, he doesn’t have a great deal of interaction with girls. Once he identified that I was someone who would answer his questions (or at least try to give some sort of answer, even if that answer was to say that it wasn’t an appropriate question), the questions came in thick and fast: do you prefer to drive or have your husbnd drive you? do you prefer to look after yourself or have your husband look after you? why don’t you have a husband? do you have a boyfriend? could a man and a woman of different ages get married?

I think you can see where this is heading.

At the beginning of January I asked C if he had any new year’s resolutions. He nodded enthusiastically. “This year I’m going to be an adult!” he told me. Yes, 18 years old, are you going to learn to drive (C believes that the UK age of driving (17) is irresponsible and that China has chosen a better age (18))? He looked straight at me. “I’m going to be an adult. We can get married!” He reached out to stroke my arm as I edged away.

If you open my desk drawer you’ll still find unopened bottles of water (come on, you think I drink anything other than hot water?).

How to change jobs in China

First of all, a disclaimer that is a long post and may be out of date already (things change quickly), and may also be specific to Shanghai – but I thought it might be useful to document the process of changing jobs in China, and to let you all know what I’ve been dealing with, work-wise.

  • Hand in notice (8th July)

Almost four months into working at EF I’d had enough. It was a terrible place to work, and I was fortunate to be offered an interview at a much better company. I jumped at the chance, they offered me the job and I resigned from EF. Chinese labour law stipulates a one-month notice period, but EF wanted me to work for two months, claiming that they have an agreement with the police here. I have no doubt that this is a lie.

  • Get documents notarised by the Chinese embassy in the UK (July/August)

When I applied for my work permit for EF, I needed a police background check and scanned copies of my degrees. The rules have now changed and I needed to get all these documents notarised by the Chinese embassy in the country that issued these certificates – which meant applying for a new police background check (they’re only valid for six months) and FedExing all the documents to an agency in Coventry, who could deal with the whole process for a hefty fee. They then said that the Chinese embassy wouldn’t be able to notarise my degrees as they don’t state my middle name – a new rule, another hurdle to jump through. Eventually this got sorted out by a solicitor writing a statement to say that I am me, middle name or no. Finally, the documents were sent back to China, notarised and ready to be used in the application for the new work permit.

  • On final day at your old company, get a release letter (5 September)

One thing to remember is that foreigners can only work in China with a work permit, which is for a specific employer only. Your employer basically owns you.

If you leave a company, they have to cancel your work permit so that your new company can apply for a new work permit for you, armed with an official ‘release letter’ from the old company. What your old company DOESN’T have to do is cancel your residence permit – the page in your passport that allows you to stay in the country – but my previous employer did this. My residence permit was replaced with a 30 day ‘humanitarian stay visa’, which was backdated to a date in August, giving me 14 working days from when I picked it up (oh yeah and I had to pay for this new visa). This was the most stressful thing, and totally unnecessary – your old company doesn’t need to do this! However mine wouldn’t give me the release letter without handing over my passport to get my residence permit cancelled.

  • New company can apply for a new work permit (5 September)

Your new company needs to already be registered on the system to start this process, which apparently takes a week or so, so ought to be done beforehand. The work permit application process takes minimum 15 working days – five for the online check and then ten for an in-person check. Remember how I said I had 14 working days…

Two weeks after applying for the work permit, the HR guy at my new company called me to say the application had been rejected. It was still at the online stage and had taken this long as the whole computer system had crashed. My application was rejected because one of the forms had printed over two pages and they wanted it one page. I was in a hotpot restaurant with a good friend and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The next day, 21 September, we submitted a revised application. My visa was due to expire on 24 September, so I flew to Hong Kong that weekend. It was lovely to be in HK and great to see my uncle, but quite stressful to leave my home and not know if I would be allowed back in the country. I applied for a new visa while in Hong Kong, and picked it up a few days later, flying back to Shanghai later that week, and feeling extremely relieved.

The following week was an 8 day national holiday so nothing could happen with the work permit application – leaving me worried that I’d run out of time on this visa too.

  • Physical health check (18 September)

This is necessary to get a residence permit, and involves going to a health centre out near Shanghai Zoo and doing a whole bunch of checks: height, weight, chest x-ray, ultrasound, ECG, blood tests, blood pressure, eye test. Basically they’re trying to make sure you won’t die while in China and that you don’t have HIV.

My results were sent directly to my new company and HR sent me a message to say they had the certificate. I was intrigued to see what the notes said – I’d passed the test but it said I had a heart abnormality, which freaked me out a little bit (I’m fine! I checked with people who know more about this kind of stuff and it’s okay!).

  • Apply for new residence permit (25 October)

Finally, on 24 October, my work permit was ready. I went to the Entry-Exit Bureau in the depths of Pudong with my HR colleague to apply for the residence permit. This allows you to live in the country, and it takes seven working days to process. I finally got my passport back last week and am so happy to feel settled once again in this crazy old country.

I’ve actually left out a couple of things from this long-winded tale, because they’re specific to my application. Happy to answer any questions about it.

Conclusion

Changing jobs in China is hard. There are a lot of hurdles to jump through. Even though I’m highly skilled and experienced, there’s so much paperwork and confusion, and changing rules and regulations. It had to be done, however, as I couldn’t have stayed at my old job. And now – nearly four months after resigning from my old job – I’m happily working at my new company. Long may it last!

Costs

Document notarisation: £500

FedEx documents to the UK for notarisation: 300 RMB (£35)

Humanitarian visa: 160 RMB (£18)

Health check: 461 RMB (plus 15 RMB for posting results) (£54)

Flights to Hong Kong: 1500 RMB (£173)

Visa in Hong Kong: 750 HKD (£73)

(most of these costs I can claim back from my new company, but it’s certainly caused some temporary cashflow issues!)

 

 

Slugs and snails and puppydogs’ tails

Little boys are horrible. Six year olds, specifically. Snot, fighting and being awful to each other.

Little Raphael is a case in point. When he’s not paying attention, or when he’s paying too much attention, he blows spit bubbles. It’s my least favourite thing of anything my students do, which is impressive as they’re often quite repulsive. Every time he does it I tell him to stop and tell him I won’t give him a sticker at the end of class. Sometimes this goes in and sometimes he just stares at me, spit bubbles ballooning out of his chubby face. Then I say “goodbye sticker!” and out of his unfortunately slightly gormless face comes a confused and slightly wronged face – what did i do? He reminds me of a small drunk, a miniature McNulty, barrelling about agape at the injustice in the world.

Raphael would love, more than anything, to be one of the cool kids in class. He tries so hard to be part of their gang but never quite manages it. Recently we were discussing dinosaurs and we all agreed that dinosaurs are very cool.

“When I grow up I want to be a scientist!” announced Raphael, proudly. “I want to discover things about dinosaurs!”

One of his classmates started laughing. “As if you could ever be a scientist!”

And all the other boys laughed.

This class are off to primary school this week. Chinese children start school at 6 years old and are often extraordinarily ill-equipped for it. A nation of only children brought up by their grandparents, these children are fitted on from a young age. The parents work and the grandparents (sometimes 4 to 1 child) give their little precious everything they never had. I see children being fed like birds, opening their mouths and waiting for grandma to stuff more food in. I see grandfathers trailing their grandchild, praising every tiny thing. “You’re the best! You’re number one! You’re better than all the other children!” (about being number one… I’ve had fights break out in my classroom over it, and every child I’ve taught would rather rush their work and finish first than do it all correctly). I very frequently see 4 or 5 year olds being carried like babies. 

Chinese children spend six years being told how amazing and special they are, allowed to rule the roost (bar the occasional violent beating), running around causing havoc in restaurants almost as bad as in middle class parts of London, unable to feed or dress themselves. And then… primary school.

40 or 50 students per class, intense competition and years of rote learning lie ahead.

Raphael, of course, doesn’t know quite what his future holds. He’s always seemed slightly carefree, either impervious or (more likely) oblivious, confident that he is NUMBER ONE despite any evidence to back this up. He looked puzzled when my Teaching Assistant stopped the other boys laughing at him by saying that everyone is allowed to have a dream, like he’d suggested he wanted to grow up to be a panda instead of the number one scientist…

At the end of class I gave all the students lollipops and wished them well at primary school. They rampaged about one final time while I led them out of class to find their parents. All the children scampered off until I was left with just Raphael. His grandma hurried forward and checked he wasn’t cold (grandparents fight an endless battle against their grandchildren being cold, even in the Shanghai summer) and asked him how class was. He showed her the lollipop, clasped in his sweaty little hand. 

Then the smile fell from his face. He stood completely still. Grandma asked him what was wrong. He appeared to get smaller by the second, then turned to me, his face hardened by resolve and sadness. “I’m not allowed sweets anymore,” he told me. “Mum says I’m fat.” He handed back the lollipop and, downcast, walked off, ignoring Grandma’s pleas that he was just perfect.

Welcome to the end of your childhood, Raphael.

Adventures at the nuclear facility

My colleague went on holiday for 3 weeks so I was asked to cover his classes. Sure, I said. Then I remembered that one day a week he goes to a town outside Shanghai to teach, setting off from our school just after 7am, but by then it was too late to say no.

On my first week I woke up at 6, showered and dressed and left by 6.30am. Matt had bought me an iced coffee so I grabbed this from the fridge on the way out and took the metro to work.

Outside the school was a grey KIA, and I got in. One of my colleagues was inside and the other turned up a few minutes later. We sat in silence and the driver set off. Both my colleagues were soon asleep but I was full of coffee and rage at driving almost directly past our flat.

An hour and a half later, we arrived in the town of Haiyan. According to the font of knowledge that is Wikipedia, 300,000 people live in Haiyan. That makes it basically a village.

We pulled into a complex and drove to a large, empty building. This is the community centre and is where things like English language lessons, pensions and sterilisations are carried out. 

We had two classrooms on the 2nd floor. The whole place reminded me of the Huntingdon Regional College, where I had music lessons on a Saturday morning as a child. Just like here, classrooms were requisitioned at the weekend for teaching children, pretty child-unfriendly places really. I remember being fascinated by the endless corridors with darkened classrooms housing strange machines. As a child with a vivid but unhappy imagination, I saw death and danger behind every door as I wandered up and down, frequently lost and often in the dark. And now here I was in a bone fide nuclear facility.

Haiyan is (again, thank you Wikipedia) known as “nuclear city” thanks to the nuclear plant. The company knows that it needs to entice people to work out here, miles from Shanghai, so English classes have been arranged for the kids – so they have the same opportunities as the kids in Shanghai – and so here we were.

Except it wasn’t the same as Shanghai. In my classes in Shanghai I use a touchscreen to access all the online resources for my lessons. Here: no internet and no touchscreen. I had a whiteboard! How retro!

That first day I taught three two-hour classes. 5 year olds, 13 year olds and 10 year olds. The kids were nice, not as confident as their Shanghai peers but I had a good time with the teens especially.

At the end of the day we got back in the car and drove for two hours back to Shanghai, the traffic slowing is down a little. We arrived back at my school at 7.30pm, and then it was half an hour to get home.By lunchtime I was hungry, and we got back in the car and drove 200 metres to the nuclear plant’s restaurant. A table of food was laid out for us – Chinese dishes, three veg and three meat, plus soup and tea and rice, of course. The food was actually pretty good but it was totally surreal as I was the only foreigner in the place and we were the only people who didn’t work for the nuclear plant. We ate in silence, if Chinese food can ever be silent (slurp).

The final journey back was the most eventful, clearly the driver was in a rush to get back but we came far too close to many moving and inanimate objects. At one point I messaged Matt and told him how to contact my insurers in case of an accident. Then, because it’s China, I went to sleep.The second and third weeks were similar except I woke up later, didn’t shower and took taxis to school. On the third week some of the youngest students followed me to the bathroom and I heard them shouting in Chinese “the foreign teacher is having a wee!”.

I’m so glad I don’t have to go again.

Weekday weekends

I work in a school, but not a regular school – a school for after school. My students go to their regular schools Monday to Friday, 7am until 4pm, and when they’re done there (though not done with the mountains of homework, of course) they have additional classes. Not just in English, but in maths, music, anything, everything. China is an extremely populous country (stating the obvious, much?) and getting an edge, any edge, in the extremely competitive world that is Chinese childhood and teenage years is important. 

It’s incredibly stressful for the students. Ask a group of 10 year olds what they did at the weekend and they’ll say “study”. Maybe they’ll a have violin lesson in the mix too. But it’s a tough life for these kids. I’ve (anecdotally) heard of parents beating their child for reading a book that isn’t a school book. The pressure to do well in the Gaokao, the end of high school exam, is enormous (and you’ll do better in the Gaokao if you go to a good high school, which means you’d better do well in your middle school exam, which means you need to go to a good primary school exam, which means going to a good kindergarten… it basically starts at birth). I’ve not seen any reports about student suicide (this is China, after all…) but across the way in Hong Kong there’s a fairly well documented  student suicide epidemic – so I’d say the chances of it not happening here are slim…

Of course, I also teach children who are too young to attend normal school but are not too young to start learning English. These children can be as young as 3 and although it seems super young (and some of them really do look like little dolls!), their capacity for learning is immense and as long as it’s kept fun, I think it’s a good thing to nourish a love for learning at an early age.

This all means that my busy times are when the kids are not at their normal school. I teach classes from around 16.30 on weekdays and all day on weekends. Some of the students want to learn English (this tends to be the younger ones), some of them like chatting in English and don’t care if they make mistakes. Some students are there before they go to extra maths, extra Chinese, extra science lessons. Some are there because it’s daycare, the parents are busy and can’t spend any time with their child.

At parent’s evening, parents tell us teachers things like “you should be more strict”, “I don’t mind if you hit my child, I can write you a letter saying so” and “my child needs to study harder”. But you also get parents who tell us that they help their child study for an hour every day, they are so committed to their child’s education (and guess what: you can spot these kids easily in the classroom!). You get grandparents who don’t speak any English but who bring their grandchild to class twice a week, sitting outside the class with snacks and drinks.

I’m immensely sympathetic towards my poor overworked students, but am also aware that they’re not angels. A lot of them lack basic social skills (snatching, hitting, baring their teeth) along with the disgusting things that kids everywhere excel at (snotty faces, hands down pants, etc). Some of them are just too young, physically and mentally, to be at school. The youngest ones cry for their parents or cry because their bags are too heavy or just because.

Sometimes I look around at my students and I feel like I’m looking directly the future. These children will be the leaders of the future, possibly world leaders (these are the children of the elite, after all). They’re overflowing with potential and I want to do the best I can for them. 

But am I part of a problem? Will a generation of Chinese children end up scarred because of the incredible pressure they’ve been under, the extra classes they’ve been sent to, the weight of expectation from everyone around them. 

Time will tell.