Last Monday, we began our first week of classes. We had spent our first two weeks in China trying to get settled, and meeting a number of obstacles along the way. Before long, we learned that things are done differently in China, very differently, especially when it comes to the school’s administration. There are a number of people working in the administration who are responsible for helping the foreign teachers, but convincing them of the urgency of timeliness is another story. It took a week to secure an apartment in the building we wanted (the same building they intended to put us in) and another week to get the broken refrigerator replaced. The first two apartments they tried to put us in hadn’t been occupied in so long that the layer of dust on the floor was so stratified that it could have recorded geologic time.
Other teachers had told us about an apartment that had only been vacant for a couple months and that the previous occupant was very clean. He had even done some renovations to make it more comfortable, like enclosing the foyer from the outside elements. We then had to convince the administration that this apartment was the best option for us. Once they were able to locate the key, we finally stepped foot into the place where we will be living for at least a year.
The foyer of our apartment.
Almost all of the furniture is broken and the hardware, such as the sliding glass door to the balcony, was installed improperly, letting the noise, dirt, and wind freely flow in through the cracks. Other teachers told us that all the things we found wrong with our place are what we will find wrong with every place, and the only way to fix it is to fix it ourselves. Luckily, labor and materials are cheap. Furthermore, we can watch them work to ensure it is done correctly.
We had wanted to move into and get settled before classes started but only got the key last Friday. And, of course, the place needed to be cleaned. We enlisted the help of Lucy, the Chinese girlfriend of foreign teacher, Damon. She spent 5 hours scrubbing our apartment from top to bottom, and admitted she could have spent 5 more hours cleaning it if she only had the time. By Sunday morning (the day before class), we were able to bring our luggage into our apartment, and finally unpack for the first time in six months.
Shower and Squatter Bathroom.
We made the place as organized as possible before spending the majority of the afternoon preparing our first lesson plan. We are basing our lesson plans on Kelly’s dad’s from previous years but they now require major alterations as the school has advanced from a third to a second tier school so the students are much more proficient.
Kelly on her first day of school.
Our first impressions of the students are that the vast majority of them are enthusiastic, ready and willing to learn. They are so excited to have us as their teachers- we are the youngest foreign teachers and being from Southern California has earned us instant fame. They repeatedly announce their good fortune of having us for teachers and greet us with glee every time we see them around campus. They treat us like rock stars and call us “Hollywood” to their friends and other teachers. In each class, as soon as one student pulls out a camera phone to ask for a photo with us, we are surrounded by camera flashes. We’re sure there are now dozens of photos of us posted on QQ, a Chinese social media website popular with the students. The Lady Gaga song “Paparazzi” often comes to mind.
Their exact level of English speaking and comprehension is at this point difficult to gauge but it is higher than we had anticipated. Some students are extremely talkative and have a wide English vocabulary and, even though they admit that their English is “very poor,” we had come to the school anticipating blank stares and zero comprehension. Mi has a greater ratio of girls to boys in each class, with only three or four out of about 25, while Kelly has a more balanced ratio.
On the second day of classes, Mi was woken up in the middle of the night by stomach cramps. Within a few hours the cramps were accompanied by a slight fever and gastrointestinal distress, which ultimately lasted for a day and a half. This made going to class uncomfortable, especially as the first one was at 8 that morning, but it was important not to miss class during the first week. Thankfully, Kelly’s mom had given us the package of some medicine (all in Chinese) to show to the merchant at the school pharmacy in case of stomach trouble. It helped tremendously, whatever it was.
The week was progressing well until Wednesday night when we got a call from Michael, the bass-voiced foreign affairs assistant, who informed us that the medical checks required by the school would be conducted the next day in Chengdu. He instructed us to begin fasting for our blood test and to meet him outside the hotel at 7 the next morning with three ID photos. Mi, who had only managed to keep down a few slices of watermelon throughout the day, was especially miffed by the prospect of prolonged fasting.
The next morning we, and new foreign teacher Amanda, met Michael and the driver who would be chauffeuring us to Chengdu, about a 2.5-hour drive away. We were bummed to hear that Michael would not be joining us, but rather we would meet Shirley at the International Hospital. We arrived at the hospital late due to the highway being closed, and then sitting in traffic on the congested Chengdu roads. Once we finally got there, the shuffling began.
On the way to Chengdu.
We filled out paperwork and turned it in at one desk, then were asked to go verify the paperwork at another desk, only to be sent to a third desk, the cashier, who collected our money for the procedures. We were then instructed to go to the 3rd floor for urine and blood tests, but the lines were very long. We were told to skip the 3rd floor for the time being and were sent to the 2nd floor to see 3 specialists. The first took our blood pressure, weight, and height, and pushed on our stomachs a bit while asking if we ever had major surgery. Once she signed off, we were told to go get our EKGs, but no doctor was in the room, so we were rushed down the hall to get an ultrasound on our liver and kidneys. A few uncomfortable minutes later, we climbed back to the 3rd floor to fill cups with urine in an unsanitary squatter bathroom without toilet paper or soap – common for WCs in China but surprisingly ill-equipped for an international hospital. Luckily, we brought the toilet paper and Amanda brought hand sanitizer. We then waited in line to get our blood drawn.
The nurses taking blood sit on one side of a glass wall with windows that patients stick their arms though for blood samples to be drawn. Not one nurse changed their gloves between patients, and they were touching everything around them from their faces, to the communal keyboard, to the patients’ paperwork, to the Q-tips they put on the patients needle-pricked arm. We were forced to ask them to change their gloves to serve us, and we could tell they were speaking Chinese about us, the paranoid bunch of foreigners.
We then headed back to the 2nd floor where a doctor was finally available to give us our EKGs. Once she signed off, we were instructed to head to the 1st floor for a chest X-ray. We arrived in the office to find dozens of topless men awaiting their chest X-ray, and were asked to undress from the waist up. When all of the foreign women complained about the lack of privacy loudly enough, and long enough, they finally agreed to separate the males from the females, just this once, to accommodate us. Only after Kelly insisted that we also have the door shut so the curious men would stop poking their heads in, we undressed and received our chest X-ray.
400 RMB ($75 US dollars) and a long hour and a half later, we were done. What took over a month, and hundreds of dollars (for some foreign teachers, almost 2 grand) in the US, we completed in time for a much-needed lunch.
We walked with Shirley and the driver whose name we never learned to a restaurant called Peter’s Tex Mex. We were thrilled to find a familiar fare and then instantly disappointed. In China, dishes are not brought out all at once like they are in the United States. Instead, dishes come out as they are prepared so our burritos came out one at a time. Unfortunately for our hungry bellies, the burritos we ordered had to be sent back four times because each one came out with cheese or sour cream. We were dissatisfied by the food but by that point we were just glad to be eating something. After lunch, we headed back to campus. We had all missed our classes for the day so we spent the afternoon napping and recovering.
The next day, Friday, Mi only had one class in the morning and Kelly didn’t have any so we spent the day working on the next week’s lesson plans. Luckily for us, we get to teach the same lesson to each of our classes each week so one lesson plan that we work on together will serve for 22 classes that week. Originally, we were only teaching 8 classes each but were given three more because there were not enough teachers to cover them. At least we are paid overtime for the extra classes. Plus, when we first got here, we found out that we will be earning 200 extra Yuan per month to cover the increased cost of living. So we are making more than we had anticipated which is really nice.
The next day, Saturday, we met with Steven and Joe for a day of sight seeing and errand running. First, we drove to the Water Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Mianyang. It was stunning and we agreed to go back to explore it when we had more time. Next, we headed to the nursery to pick out houseplants. Steven and Joe have green thumbs and helped us to pick out (and bargain for) three plants intended to beautify our apartment and cleanse the air. While we chose small plants that will grow quickly to fill our new home, Amanda chose two huge plants in ornate pots.
“Kelly, it’s a Kodak moment right behind me! Take a picture!” -Steven. Babies here don’t wear diapers, they just have a slit in their pants.
After that, we went to a covered food market. Markets in China are feasts for the senses. The colors, sights, and smells engulf you as soon as you walk in. We bought vegetables from one vendor and walnuts from another. Although the market may seem unsanitary with tables strewn with all kinds of meat from whole chickens to pigs’ feet to skinned rabbits, we never see any garbage anywhere. Every time we go out we see people cleaning the streets with brooms handmade from straw and leaves. Not once have we seen a piece of litter in the city. Sure, everything is pretty grimy and run down but garbage is very well contained.
Then, we piled into the van yet again and headed to the mall next to the train station. We use the word “mall” loosely here. The shopping center is made up of hundreds of small stores selling nearly everything you could imagine. By this point, we were tired and hungry so we abandoned our efforts to purchase the items on our very long list and focused our attention on finding hair-cutting supplies.
It was a long day but well-worth the effort as we are now feeling much more at home in our apartment now that there is some food in the refrigerator, the furniture rearranged, and the plants are seated on chairs by the bedside. We met the usual crowd at the usual time in the usual place for dinner (the foreign teachers have a ritual of eating dinner together at the back gate at 6 o’clock) before heading up to the garden on the fourth floor of the hotel.
There, we collected the plants that Joe and Steven had repotted for us and hung out for a bit to unwind in one of the most pleasant places on campus. It is hot and humid all day, so once the heat breaks in the evening the best place to be is on the roof, where we can sit and enjoy a few cold drinks as the night closes around us. From this vantage point we can watch the students head out for a few hours of reveling before curfew, catch sight of bats flitting through the muggy air in search of buggy prey, and see the almost nightly fireworks shows from somewhere in the distance.