China and life and stuff

          I first left for China back in February of last year so early on a Wednesday that the sky was still cold and black when I left for the airport. I was not well rested, having used up most of my energy those last weeks saying goodbye to the people I love most in this world, late into the night and long past practical bedtimes. The packing I had left, of course, for the last minute, as usual, and had managed to get in only a few hours of sleep before it was time to get up.
          The entire trip would take two days, three planes, one bus, and an overnight’s stay at a hotel in Narita, Japan to complete, but I didn’t mind the transfers and complications. I enjoy the process of traveling almost as much as I like traveling: I like the personal challenge of packing as light as possible, I like leaving hours in advance for the airport, I even like going through the security checks, and after having gone through them, being left luggage-less with hours to idly pass in the airport before my flight. I like the way airport terminals feel – the insular airless quality to them, the way white light permeates through the walls and makes time feel irrelevant, disorienting familiarity and routine. 
          I landed in Vancouver from San Francisco with a few hours to spare before the next flight. I knew there were seven other new teachers who like me were arriving to the school mid-term and who were going to be on the same flights as me from Vancouver onward, and I spotted them one by one as I wandered around the airport. I could tell who they were by the careful way they conducted themselves, and as they discovered one another, by the congenial, circumspect way they conversed with each other, the way people do when introducing themselves to a new colleague with whom they’re about to spend a lot of time with. What I didn’t realize was that they were all Canadian and that I would be the only American there, though I suppose I should’ve known, since the school is a private Canadian boarding school, and in fact almost all the foreign teachers at the school are Canadian, with the exception of a few.
          I considered introducing myself to them and joining the growing group, but after some thought decided against it, took out a book, and put my headphones on. Later, after we had all become good friends, they joked about how antisocial I had been during those first two days on the plane, but fact is that once you introduce yourself in situation like that, you can’t just press pause on your new relationships and go do your own thing anymore: you’ve bonded with the group and you’re now more or less obligated to interact with your new friends for the rest of the journey, overnight stay at the hotel included. Which is fine when one is feeling up to it, but I was socially spent, tired, and nursing a swollen ankle that I’d sprained just a few days earlier, and two days is a long time to commit in social situation of such confined spaces.
          Dalian is a fairly large city in China, but the school is in another town about an hour away, so after the plane landed in Dalian, there was a bus that took us away from the tall grey-black buildings and the throngs of pushing, shouting people on their rusty bicycles and scooters and on foot and on big dusty motorcycles, weaving in and out of darting cars, farther and farther from the city until tall buildings became scarce and there were no more people on the streets, and after a while, there were only long stretches of dirt fields littered with patches of old tattered trees and abandoned construction sites pitted with holes and piled with tall mounds of mud and earth and broken blocks of cement. We drove past small towns and huddled little communities that looked as though they were all made of the same homes made of the same crumbling grey stone, and every now and then, towering above everything else, there stood columns of newly built apartment buildings, empty and silent, their long dark glass sides streaked with black lines of exhaust and grime and the earth around us looking tired and barren.
          As we got closer to the school, the roads and accompanying scenery began to look a little more organized, more kempt, and clean. Tidy rows of young tender trees began lining the bare streets, the buildings looked newer and whiter, and even the sky became more clear and blue, and on and on we drove until it felt like we’d reached the end of something before finally stopping.
          The school is large and one of the focal points of the little town, but the main attraction is the beach, the town being so close to the sea that you can almost taste the salt in the air on days when the fog lays thick. Living is quiet here. It’s winter now, but I used to go for walks in the mornings when everything was still awash in sleepy blues – long and leisurely ones that brought me to the ends of roads and high up into hills that feel like mountains because you can see everything from the top of them: neighboring hills, the town, the school, the tiny old wooden boats scattered on the water with moving dots inside them fishing not for fish but for dark green slips of seaweed, and the twisting winding cliffs that curve and hug the edges of the blue, blue sea below – and I remember the first time I was up there, thinking that it was all quite beautiful, something I didn’t expect I would feel in China. It’s especially lovely in the autumn because the trees that cover the hills turn all different shades of orange and red and gold and blanket the ground with a golden red light under the sun.
          When I first arrived, it felt like there was really only one strip of road that had small restaurants and shops, and although this isn’t true, it may as well be because everything else feels too far to walk to on weekdays when you’re tired and want a quick dinner.
          As for the whole teaching thing, being in front of a real classroom is easier than I thought, but teaching is more difficult. Being a really good teacher, I mean. It’s not difficult to be a mediocre one. (Then again I suppose it’s not difficult to be a mediocre anything and by that same token, difficult to be a very good anything.) Anyway, this is not to say that I wasn’t nervous on my very first day of teaching. Ten minutes before the start of my first class ever, I stood just outside my classroom and was struck by a wave of coldness so fierce that my teeth chattered and my hands shook. But then the bell rang, and I walked in and stood up there looking at the 33 kids looking curiously back at me with their small open faces, and I smiled at them and the smile came naturally, and it really wasn’t so bad after all.
          I’m about the same size as half of my students, shorter than the other half, and I look not much older than some of the older-looking students roaming the halls, and it took awhile to get used to the idea that all these little strangers sitting there were there to listen to what I had to say. There’s a feeling of gratefulness to it, and I suppose that sounds bad but it’s the truth. I still find myself feeling grateful when they listen, and when they shush each other when I start talking, and I still feel grateful when I can tell that they like me and want me to like them back. But I hide as best I can this gratefulness I feel, and instead, try to act like it’s no big thing that I am now in this role of authority.
          I also hide from them the fact that I know Chinese. When I first told my kids that I couldn’t speak or understand Chinese, it seemed unfathomable to them – Impossible! Ludicrous! Ridiculous! – that a person with “Chinese face,” as one of them put it, couldn’t speak her mother tongue. “But teacher, you are Chinese!” they would say, their voices loud and shrill with excitement, and I would just shrug and they would laugh and laugh and I could hear them saying to each other in Chinese, “Do you think she really doesn’t know Chinese?” Then someone would explain to the skeptics, “Teacher says she was born in America, that’s why she doesn’t know Chinese.”
          Teacher is what a lot of my kids call me. In China, students often call their teachers, “lao shi”, which translated directly literally means teacher, and when they call for me it always makes me think of Buster in Arrested Development where instead of calling his siblings by their names he calls them by their biological titles: Hey brother. Some students simply call me by my first name, Helen, which my friends who teach at the high school find disconcerting, but I teach at the middle school, and things are different there.
          It’s been so long since I last wrote in this blog that I’m already nearing the end of teaching my second school term there. My first term, I had five classes of eighth graders and two classes of seventh graders. Now I have six classes of seventh graders and one class of sixth graders. The difference between my seventh and eighth graders last term was dramatic. The seventh graders were orderly and sweet. I would walk into the classroom and they would look to me with attention. They would be engaged and eager. They quieted each other down when they thought I was about to speak, and then would listen so attentively that I sometimes felt apologetic that I was merely explaining to them the rules of English grammar and wished that I were instead telling them all the things I’ve learned from the decade longer that I’ve been alive on this earth, and I would too, if only there were the time, and if only I knew that the lessons I’ve learned were the right ones.
          The eighth graders are more work. They make me work for my affection for them, and though the affection is there, so is exasperation and frustration. They’re big and loud and rambunctious and so full of drama and nerves and energy and life that they’re sometimes literally bouncing off each other like giant rubber balls. I wonder what happens in that summer between seventh and eighth that transforms them from docile children to the wild, sullen, moody, frenetic group of teenagers.
          The week before I started teaching anything at all, I finished reading Black Swan Green by David Mitchell Green, a book about a 14 year old boy growing up in England and working out what it takes to be the kind of person you want to be in spite of the world you live in, and it was such a good book about a person finding his way into adulthood and about the complex interior lives of prepubescent boys and delicate social webs they wrangle that the moment I finished I was tempted pick it up back up and reread the whole thing again right away, which is something I always feel after finishing a book I really like. I’m going to remember this feeling, I remember telling myself, I’m going to keep the complex interior worlds of teenagers in mind when I start teaching.
          Reality checked in after about a month of dealing with roomfuls of 14, 15, 16 year old boys and girls on a daily basis. As it turns out, keeping the complex interior worlds alive for each of the 210 kids you see every week is one of those things that’s easier said than done. And when one of those complex interior worlds keeps acting up, there’s only so much you can take before you just want to tell that complex interior being to sit down and shut up.
          I was chatting with another teacher about the difficulties of classroom management, and he told me that he’d once said hello to a former problem student and that the student had been surprised – “You still remember me?” the student had asked, and the teacher said that he’d thought to himself then, ‘Of course I remember you. I used to have dreams of strangling you.’
          “But I didn’t say that to him, obviously,” he told me.
          I laughed.
          Anyway, experience has a lot to do with it, and this newest school term has been easier and better than my first try in February, in terms of almost everything. It’s nearing a year that I’ve been teaching and living here in China, and I have to say that it has been good. It’s been a good year.


6 thoughts on “China and life and stuff

  1. Nuno says:

    I really like how palpable you’ve made the airport awkwardness but I completely understand the lonely two-day ritual when going into something completely new. Your words gently transmit how rewarding this experience must be for you. And very nice pictures, by the way.

  2. Greetings from Idaho! I’m bored to death at work so I decided to browse your website on my iphone
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    I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyhow, superb blog!

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