TEFL Success Stories – Part 70

Simon – China

As a group, foreigners (that’s teachers abroad) can often be a little bit hit and miss. As you can imagine, when you’re one of only an handful of aliens out of a population of 500 000, having someone you can relate to or just enjoy a little bit of banter with over a beer, is a very important thing indeed. In some cases it can alter your entire experience of a country. On the whole, to an outsider, these makeshift international communities can look an incredibly disparate entity. They violate cliques and preconceived social strata. People you may not necessarily have associated with back home or at the very most said a passing hello to due to age, fashion or skin diseases, are now your best buddies. Everyone realises the unspoken importance of this entity. This crew each have an integral part in maintaining the life raft that is your sanity abroad, with one dysfunctional member (in so many senses of the word) able to pick apart the rigging, and leave you drifting alone.
But, first off, lets start with why people may chose to leave The Mother Ship and form part of a foreign community in the first place. From speaking to my fellow detainees this can cover a whole gamut of reasons ranging from boredom, the fulfilment of a life long dream, the desire for new experiences, to test, find, or lose themselves, to procure a wife (popular one, that), right through to avoiding Pop Idol and Big Brother XXXII. Personally, while the latter were a big driving force (although I did get addicted to The Salon – predominantly due to the twin masseurs), I was bored with my job and felt I’d learnt quite enough about getting beaten up by people with learning disabilities. So, I thought what better way to ‘love myself’ than to volunteer to get beaten up for three months by orphans in Mongolia. After many many adventures in what shall forever be lovingly referred to as The Mong, I decided to travel down to China because, in the words of Edmund Hillary, it was there. After travelling for a month with the population of Israel I found myself staring at an advertisement in a hotel lobby asking for foreign teachers and began teaching a week later. Magical. Yes, I had fallen in love with China but my reluctance to return to blighty was also because I knew what was there. There are days when I can both love and hate China but it will never cease to surprise me.
Anyway, back to the point. With some foreigners you get the distinct impression that they didn’t so much ‘exit’ their country of origin as ‘get pushed’ without a parachute. My friends have even gone so far as to postulate that they left because they couldn’t function or fit in in their own country. Now, this is a sad thing, and believe me, I’m not taking the piss here. Maybe just a little… What I’m trying to say is that I understand that nobody is perfect (although in a universe where Ken Dodd exists there has to be an exact opposite, right? We’ve all seen ‘Unbreakable’) and my friends and I are not sat atop the Tower of Well Adjusted pointing accusatory (yet impossibly well manicured) fingers at the masses below. We all have or have had problems. We’ve all woken up not knowing where we are only to be sat in front of a class of expectant looking children with their books open, right? Good. Glad you’re with me on that one. The real problem arises when your personal problems begin to effect those little bundles of joy the parents and school have entrusted you with. I think it’s then you really need to take an honest look at yourself and ask ‘will I be doing more harm than good here, for myself and others?’. Preferably, though, for all those concerned, this thought process should take place before you book your flight ticket.
This article kicks off with a couple of individuals my friends and I have met through the international community and in our daily working lives. These guys, whose names shall be kept anonymous, had a few personal character quirks which I feel you may find amusing, predominantly because their effect on others was minor or simply baffling. I will then give you a far too recent example of when a boundary is crossed and others too young to protect themselves are left exposed, taking us to the crux of my point.
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Ron was a respectable looking gent in his mid fifties whose capacity for verbal diarrhoea was of the highest order. He was one of those strangely intriguing people you want to secretly follow around with a camera all day just to see what adventures he’ll get into. His claims to fame were tutoring Robin Williams (which, for me, quite comprehensively clears up many questions I’ve had about that actor) and going on an arson spree after contracting Dengue fever. He had (by his own admission) led a very interesting life, roaming the planet teaching English and presumably becoming ever more bizarre.
When we met him he was half way through his contract, originally coming here to improve on his T’ai Chi studies, and seemingly of a stable disposition. When I expressed an interest in studying T’ai Chi he generously offered to introduce me to his T’ai Chi group who practise in the park every morning. At stupid o’clock in the morning, – I am not a morning person. It is very obvious from looking at me that I am not a morning person. It takes me a good three hours to start stringing sentences together after I open my eyes, and these sentences invariably involve the words ‘coffee’, ‘go back to bed’, or ‘where am I?’ – with a delightful gathering of crusty drool, eye snot, and a daringly dishevelled bed-head I sat unresponsive, dead to the casual observer, at the back of the bus while Ron talked at me. But the monologue wasn’t about how crap I looked or whether he could get me a doctor, it touched on everything from how Germany as a nation would most easily embrace a drug habit to the resilience of your standard Water Buffalo to needles. Listening to him was like drinking a cocktail of David Lynch and morphine while riding a roller coaster. When we finally reached the park what seemed like days later I may as well have been wandering through something composed by Salvador Dali for all the sense the world now made to me.
We tried combating the torrent of dejecta with a few firm slaps in the face from Mr Logic but they were casually redirected (curse that T’ai Chi) down the well trodden road labelled ‘Tangent’. The only means we had of defending ourselves was to write his pearls of wisdom down on a few pieces of paper so that hopefully, when some alien species comes to defrost Haley Joel Osment they may be able to make sense of them. Alternatively, they may stare at the paper with their 3 eyes and superior mental functions and think ‘What the f-?”. He talked at length with the utmost conviction about subjects which upon further questioning he clearly had no idea about, made a plethora of Bushisms, and never listened to anything you said. At one point, after searching for what seemed like an eternity for the correct word, he suggested one of our friends use a seismograph to check on the progress of his unborn child. Quite how big he expected the child to be is anybody’s guess but I wouldn’t want to be around for those labour pains.
Being the well-travelled soul that he was you would expect him to possess a range of people skills allowing him to blend seamlessly into any culture he may find himself. Hell, no. When one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet politely asked him whether she may borrow the foreign teachers office key so she might use the only computer on that floor, he simply replied, and I quote, “I would lend them to you but things might get stolen”. It’s light banter like that which failed to ingratiate himself into the hearts of the Chinese teachers, in particular Amy, our Chinese guardian and problem solver/causer. The atmosphere between them was uncomfortable to say the least. At Ron’s last supper before leaving China he tried (to his credit) to paper over the fault lines of his movements over the past year by approaching Amy with arms open wide and declaring “In America when we say goodbye we like to give a great, big hug!” The rest of us looked on horrified as Ron threw his arms around Amy who did an extremely convincing impression of Pepe LePew’s reluctant object of desire. It was a Hallmark moment. Yet Amy’s trial wasn’t going to end there. In the bus back to the school Ron turned to her and gazing deep into her eyes said “You remind me of my sister in law. She’s Japanese, you know.” Needless to say, the rest of us were wearing the same expression I was modelling when I accidentally put a peppermint flavoured condom on the wrong way round. Given the fairly ubiquitous opinion felt towards the Japanese after the Nanjing massacre (at least the Chinese in this area) this was probably not the most intelligent note to leave on…
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The other foreign teacher I’d like to tell you about was Mark. Mark was a cool guy and we got on really well. His only fault, bless him, was that he made really really bad decisions. His mother from Nigeria, his father from London, he was entirely the wrong colour for this sheltered part of China in the same way that I am entirely the wrong hew to spend a life in the desert. Given that the only exposure to black people these people have had is through dated movies: drug dealers, and sport: Michael Jordan, Mark found himself with quite a few high expectations to live up to. To his credit he single-handedly managed to shatter these stereotypes as if it was a mission from God. He did not smoke or drink, carry a gun or slap his beyatch* if she interfered in his bidness*. Big fat disappointed Chinese cross against drug dealer then. OK, what about Basketball? You have to be good at Basketball, right? Mark was a strapping 6’2” and looked like he could quite comfortably emerge from a Pro Football game with a feral roar as he casually brushed off another man’s intestines from his shoulder. Mike’s favourite sport was ping pong. And he hated Basketball. Fine, then. Singing. You must be good at singing? Mark was one of those people who wears headphones, privatising his musical experience, but then shares what he’s listening to by singing it right back at you, raw, in a way that would make the original artist hang up their vocal cords as a favour to mankind. There’d be no making sweet love to that. Unless, of course, it was to yourself… And before you start thinking ‘what’s so good about your voice, then?’, I will reiterate a point I made in an earlier story: absolutely nothing. My singing voice is terrible – but I’m comfortable with that. I don’t think I need to prove it, word of mouth should have taken care of that for me by now. I only feel the need to unleash it when I’m feeling threatened, like a rather benevolent skunk.
* Editor – Try the urban dictionary for definitions.
Anyway, I was trying to make a point about really bad decisions. Now, Mark was a bit of a lady killer and one of the reasons he came to China was to ‘get familiar with the culture’. OK, it’s not morally correct, but lots of foreigners do it. True, they’re usually 400lbs and set the whole thing up over the Internet in their parents’ house, but that’s beside the point. Mark decided he would start early, and on the train journey to his current job placement, randomly phoned Amy and asked her, quite out of the blue, if she was married. And then presumably the conversation kind of died off. Strike one.
A month later, Mark came to the grade 3 office where I was doing lesson plans, and asked if he could use the Internet there. Sure, no problem. After a while he woke me up to show me something his mate had sent him. He sat down at the computer and clicked on the mouse, only to reveal well-known hip-hop stars ‘tackle-out’. As I’m stood there trying to focus (while simultaneously wondering a) why he’s showing me this, and more importantly b) why I’m still looking), it is at our most beautiful moment together that a Chinese teacher enters the classroom, a person who would invariably be described as a little door mouse. Rather than assume the defensive position in this situation and close the window, Mark chose to hypnotise her by dragging the window rapidly up and down giving the impression of a novelty pogo stick. The window finally, predictably, settled dead centre on a picture of Snoop Dogg demonstrating to a friend what I can only assume was which direction you need to look to find the North Star. The door-mouse did a picture book double-take, made a mental note of the direction of the North Star, and then proceeded to give me an unsettling ‘knowing’ look for the rest of the term. Strike two.
The Chinese (at least in this area) have a very distinct and antiquated idea about what you should look like if you belong to a particular nation. If you have dark or brown hair and are loud then you are an American. If you have a string of onions around your neck and a baguette under your arm, you are French. If you talk about the weather and wear a bowler hat at all times then you are British. True, while I possess the finest rag head of blond hair placing me firmly under the German section, I also possess a passport which states clearly that I am a British citizen and have no genetic penchant for David Hasselhoff. Unfortunately, in the skewed world that I now voluntarily live, Black = African. And if you delve further into the handbook, African = No speaka the Engleesh. Not to worry, any doubts that Amy may have had that she’d hired a British impostor would easily be cast aside by the shining ray of truth that is a British passport. Ah. Before Mark came here he told me that he had to renew his passport. Option A was to get a new Nigerian citizenship passport. Option B was to get a British citizenship passport. What was Mark’s decision ultimately based on? The queue was shorter for the Nigerian passport. Strike three.
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Despite our trying to convince Amy that Mark was British, he fled the school (after further problems) under the cover of darkness without a word, only to e-mail us a week later to tell us he was still alive. In retrospect though, he was doomed from the start. Mark was Phillipe’s flatmate. Poor bastard.
OK, so those were the kooky examples, nice enough people with a little bit of spice to pep up your daily life. No harm done (although I’ll never forget which direction the North Star is in). Now, every teacher has bad days. Sometimes its your fault (poor lesson planning), sometimes – heaven forbid – it’s the kids’ fault (demonic possession), sometimes it’s a combination of both. But sometimes it’s none of these, which is even worse. If this next story was a TV programme it would be aired under the title “When Foreign Teachers Go Wrong’.
The school I am about to start a fresh contract with (long story) presently have no foreign teachers working for them which, for a school as successful and with it’s reputation, is a little unusual. Apparently they had three, but for reasons I am about to explain, they all disappeared. I have only Amy’s version of events so obviously, this is not the complete story. It appears that, for whatever reason, the relationship between two of the foreigners living together broke down. They then began communicating with each other with post-it notes or, if the mood took them, long, meandering letters involving the words ‘kill’, ‘spit on mercy’, and ‘beat you to death’. While initially who was the victim and who was the aggressor was never made particularly clear, when the final letter stated ‘I will kill you both the next time I see you’, rather unsurprisingly, particularly with Amy’s failure to do anything practical, the two foreigners left. This left the only foreign teacher working with primary school kids as someone who felt so out of control with a situation that he deemed it necessary to threaten two people with death. And according to the other Chinese teachers, he had a ‘temper’ problem – given the Chinese’s uncanny knack for understatement, I’m sure to the extent that Hitler felt the Jews were rather annoying. Sensing any problems coming up here?
I like to think of myself as a fairly patient soul and rarely let my temper get the better of me (the exception being when old people conspire to magically appear wherever I need to be when I’m in a hurry – a watertight case for justifiable homicide I’m sure you’ll all agree). Kids are a demanding crowd and can be trying on the nerves to say the least, so every now and then you need to ‘punish’ them. However, the idea behind punishing them when they step over that line is that the punishment fits the crime. Doctrine of Proportionality and all that. The child needs to understand what they did wrong, why it is wrong, and must feel that the punishment fits the crime otherwise they don’t learn anything and start posting poo through your letter box along with the Sunday supplements. Baring this in mind, I’m sure you can only imagine their surprise and horror when, after pushing this guy’s buttons a little too much, they found themselves at the front of the classroom with their trousers and underwear around their ankles. These children were 9 years old. Fortunately, following this moment of madness, Mr Glitter’s protégé was fired and later escorted off the premises by the local police after a host of other, I’m happy to say, non-child related incidents.
This brings me swinging back round to the point of this article: however antiquated we’ve seen how China can be, it is in some respects extremely naively accepting. It quite openly welcomes in foreigners on good faith. The good faith that that when you come to work here you are both mentally and emotionally fit to do so. It doesn’t have the police checks and constant monitoring of the West. It is poorly equipped to deal with these problems which means if you do have them you are very much, in every sense of the word, on your own out here. Being a teacher is about being responsible for your kids and the only way you can truly do that is to be responsible for yourself. If you really care about kids then you make sure they are safe. We all have our quirks – the kids love the fact that I pretend I can’t teach – but if you feel you have a problem which may affect your ability to do your job and more importantly, lead your life, then get professional help while you can. China is not going anywhere (plate tectonics is about dinner ware, right?) – it will still be here if and when you feel ready. As self proclaimed Master of Mime – that suspected hernia was a tough one – I can imagine going to a hospital and miming paranoid schizophrenia may be a tad difficult. Our actions influence the lives of these kids, however little attention you think they’re paying to you, and it’s this impression of foreigners and the West that they’re going to grow up with. At the moment this country, with a third of the world’s population, trusts us. I know of three 9 year-olds who will now grow up thinking otherwise.
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