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I Can Hardly Believe

By: Sylvia Charles
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

I can' t believe I made it through my first week teaching ESL to university students in Wuxi, China (1.5 hours by train..if it' s on schedule) from Shanghai. The students are to die for, but the conditions are killing me!

Along with 5 other retired Ontario teachers we are “foreign experts” living in a dorm about 25 minutes by bus from the Southern Yantze university campus. As a seasoned traveller, I can cope and so I am here by myself for 5 months. But nothing (even advice from former colleagues ) has prepared me for this extreme culture shock!

After arriving in Shanghai (2 flights totaling about 18 hours)we were driven to our dorm by unheated bus along pot- holed roads for a mere 2 hours until we landed at our residence and filled out ID papers and received our envelopes with a room key and 200 yuan ( about $30Cdn) in salary advance.

Our connections in Ontario had told us to expect basic accommodation and the mention of a Western-styled toilet with heating and air-conditioning, our own computer, fridge and Tv was quite euphemistic for what we got. There' s a shower curtain on a flimsy rod with a drain in the middle of the bathroom so you have a major flood if you turn it on. I am short and can' t reach the hook to hang the shower handle on. There' s 1 grayish towel, the bed is rock hard. The water comes on hot only at night, if there' s no shortage. You can' t drink the tap water, necessitating buying a water cooler/heater apparatus. One of the 2 cupboards is fake. The walls are peeling, filthy and the floor is cold tile and hasn' t been washed in years. My lock fell off the inside of my door the first day and no one has come to re-install it.

On Saturday, we got to sleep in were whisked to the campus for a 1:30 p.m. meeting where the president gave us vital statistics (through an interpreter). There are 20,000 students at this university, 3000 faculty and 15 overseas faculty members. We will get a week' s holiday May 1 but there is a condition to that. We must work the weekend before and after it.

They asked us to do a favour for them by re-testing orally a few students who had failed and we were given 15 yuan ($2 Cdn.) for the extra 1.5 hours it took us to do that. Most of us teach 24 hours /week.. for about $800 a month.(which is a princely sum in this part of China, I have been told) The accommodation is free and there is a food allowance of $80/month.

There is no curriculum as such . We received our books in paperbags, some courses were switched on the spot. We started on Monday. Only notebooks, an eraser, 2 pens were handed out. No guidelines about anything and the co-ordinator of the program can' t answer questions about curriculum because she has no experience in teaching ESL.

On Monday I put on most of the clothes I had brought with me because the school is unheated and it' s about 0 degrees Celsius. We arrived 5 minutes before the students and had to wait for the doors to the classrooms to be opened. There' s a chalkboard and some chalk that breaks as soon as you touch it, but I had a chalk holder which I brought with me, except that the chalk doesn' t fit into it. There are primitive wooden desks and benches in the classroom, and the teacher has as lectern, (sort of) but no chair.

My students range from 19-21 years and they come from all over China to attend this prestigious institution. Their English is quite good; they can make themselves understood and have a fairly extensive vocabulary. But it takes a bit of effort for them to speak up. I have 2 classes (only 1 preparation) . One has 17 students, the other has 20. The Chinese names are unpronounceable for a Westerner, so they have chosen names like Cherry, Blue, Shadow, Coby , M, A. J. (initials are popular, easy to write)

We teach in 2 hour blocks with a 5-minute break. To keep warm, I grabbed a cup and filled it with hot water from the water cooler and filled a newly acquired hot-water bottle. Unfortunately, my Canadian gel pack exploded in the microwave, so I can' t use it to warm myself. At least, I can walk around the classroom to generate some warmth, but the students basically just sit there, even during their break.
The toilets are really just  troughs with some holes, not flushable, no paper, no doors on cubicles, no staff toilets,  and there' s only one sink with a cold water tap. In a word, beyond gross. My supply of hand cleaner is diminishing quickly.

Nevertheless, the students are delightful. They laugh at my corny gestures and jokes. They all want to succeed and travel abroad, that means go the West.  They are really more like Grade 10 high school students, boys sitting on one side of the room and girls on the other, rather than first year university students.

I' m really glad I made it through the first week!  After this initiation to Chinese life, I feel I can handle anything.  I' m told the weather will turn warm soon and in the weeks to come, I' ll be shedding clothes, not putting them on. Tsetse for now! (That' s bye!)


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