The sound of chanting voices would often float up into my flat through the living room window. Below, groups of students would be there, standing in circles, chanting the same words over and over again. Sometimes while walking on the street to class or out for lunch, students would be alone, walking back and forth, muttering some words ad infinitum.
The Chinese education system favors a form of rote learning, which means drilling the same question and answer until the answer has been memorized, with the aim of getting good scores on exams. Exams in China are almost entirely fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice, meaning that as long as they're provided the correct answer and have time to memorize it, they can pass a class or exam. It's considered a very traditional part of Chinese culture and education, whereas in the US we might stress critical thinking skills and essay writing. What that means for students of English in China is that they repeat words, sentences, entire speeches and poems over and over again to perfect their pronunciation, but it's a habit that has to be de-emphasized for productive language learning. My poor beginner students had been "studying English" for 5+ years, but when I first came they had no idea how to respond to "How are you?" or how to properly introduce themselves. Evidently, they'd only learned to read and write and pronounce English without ever putting it into practice. It's important to reiterate that I was the first or second foreigner that most of them had ever met, let alone learned from.
"How many sentences can be made in a language?" I asked my advanced English students. A moment of thought, and then a response.
"There is no limit."
"Right! Can you memorize an infinite number of sentences?" I asked. They shook their heads. "Alright, let's talk about the pros and cons of rote learning and language."
Unfortunately, that lesson had the unexpected consequence of making one student visibly upset. While eliciting the disadvantages of rote learning in ESL, he treated it as if I was attacking his country and culture (which of course was not my intent). He never returned to the class.
Kids in China are under enormous pressure to succeed in school. Many of the students I taught were taking extra classes on the weekend, involved in various clubs and sports teams, and regularly saw tutors. My five-year-old private student was already learning to play piano, and I was teaching her Spanish six days a week for two hours a day. It was her third language. A seven-year-old private student of mine had extra classes every day of the week after school in addition to going to my lessons in the evening, and his father expressed concern that he wasn't having enough fun.
"It's very difficult for children in China," his father told me. I listened intently as he drove me home, burning piles of trash and littered fields whizzing past. "If children do not do well in school, they have no ability to be successful in life. When I was young, it started to be like this. But I think my boy does not have enough time to have a childhood. Maybe it's not good for him." I tried to imagine what it would be like to be in competition with 1.4 billion people your entire life. "But he has had good grades especially in Chinese and in math. I think he will be able to enjoy his life later," he concluded, handing me a few oranges to snack on.
I remember looking out the window and feeling entirely too privileged. The whole city and countryside was clouded with a choking smog that made me feel constantly sick. It was common to see men and women walking down the street covering their mouths with their hands as if it helped block polluted air, or wearing a cloth or basic face mask to the same effect. There was no real green to speak of; trees, bushes, and grass were all veiled thinly by a layer of dust, and there was almost no space in the entire city or countryside that wasn't mixed up with piles of trash (burning or otherwise).
The area was undergoing incredibly rapid urbanization, and people simply didn't know what to do with all the by-products of unfettered commercialism. The land was a giant, poisoned trash can and we were all surviving in it together. I feared this was a portent to what would happen to my own country, and reminded me of some residential areas I'd seen in the rural Midwest.
Here are some examples of what the air quality was like:
This was the view from my window one afternoon.
Speaking of things that slowly destroy my ability to breath and function normally, Donald Trump. On the day of the election, the results were too depressing to bear. My students had no idea why I was so sad that Trump had won.
My election-watching kit. Pork meatball steamed buns and baijiu ("white alcohol").
"He's so handsome, and his wife is beautiful!" they said. "He was on TV, so cool!" I hung my head for several days, feeling defeated.
My Canadian neighbor, Steve, caught me while I was walking up to my flat a couple days after the election. "Hey!" he called. "My guy won!"
"Oh, that's interesting," I said despondently, my face growing hot.
"Get ready for the wall, baby!" he laughed.
You're Canadian and you live in China, I thought angrily. What could you possibly gain from a bigoted US president?
I wanted to lock him in the school's horrifying bathroom facilities. And after returning to the States, I found this piece of gold on his Facebook wall:
Julianne had me over for dinner one night to discuss the insanity of China and now apparent nightmare that was the US. She had injured herself stepping down from the minibus on her way home and was scheduled for surgery, so I'd brought her a bottle of wine.
"Well you poor thing," she said, "you must be buggered." I was still getting used to her dialect. "Here." She poured me a third glass of wine.
"Have you ever been through something like this in Australia?" I asked.
"Everyone's got shit politicians, darling," she began, lighting a cigarette and cracking the window to her right. "And he's so clearly an egomaniac. But you lived through Bush, you'll live through this guy." I frowned.
"I know I'll be fine. I'm not so sure about the other people that are more vulnerable." Her gaze fixated on my rainbow wristband momentarily and she pursed her lips.
"That'd be right." She chuckled and continued, "But look where you are! You're in the fuckin' woopwoop now. Guess we should just stay here til it's all over!" I made a horrified face and tipped back with my wine, coming back down with a smile.
"Yeah, it's paradise here."
"Oh, you know Steve right?" she asked, and I met her question with an exaggerated eye roll. "I finally met up with him the other day, and--" she whistled, "what--a--prick!" she finished, jabbing her finger up at the ceiling with each pontificated word.
"Oh jeez, what happened?"
"Well, I went to his place for lunch, you know, and the whole time he was telling me about his ex-wife and how women don't know their place anymore. He went on and on--" she waved her cigarette in circles through the air, "--about his political views and all this anti-immigrant shit." She jabbed at a ceramic plate with her cigarette and propped her foot up on a stool next to me, leaning in. "And you know me, if you're gonna say shit like that I'm not gonna let you get away with it." She leaned back and laughed like she knew every secret in the world.
"What did you do?"
Her eyes widened, intensely magnified by her glasses. "I said, "Right! You're a fuckin' immigrant bud, and you're telling me that I'm supposed to know my place? I can see why your wife left you!" And I got up walked right out."
"You didn't," I gasped, but I couldn't help but grin. She just raised her eyebrows and finished off her wine, chucking the smoking ember of Steve's dignity out the window.
When living in Europe, I was used to being around people that were aware of politics and foreign news. In China, only certain stuff gets through, and even then, none of the locals I knew were even the slightest bit interested in politics. This might have something to do with them not being able to participate in the Chinese political process, in addition to the fact that the government (sometimes violently) squashes grassroots political and civil rights movements. And don't forget about the incredible level of internet and media censorship.
Of course, the literal second that Trump made that call with Taiwan, everyone in China suddenly knew who Trump was and thought he was an idiot. Like I've mentioned before, the propaganda machine is incredibly effective.
Part of what makes living in China so difficult for someone from the US is our notion of personal space. Personal space does not exist in the same way in China (or at the very least, did not exist where I was). The public transport system is really similar to what I experienced in Ukraine; people are stuffed, stuffed, stuffed into buses until it can't hold any more people. And the only way to get on the bus when it comes by is to shove people out of your way and get on. Standing in a line isn't a thing (for food, for buses, for shops, for anything), so in order to function in China you need to be aggressive and hold your ground in a blob of people. After several weeks of missing buses and vans from the university, I finally caught on. There was one day a woman literally pushed me off the steps into the bus, and I was so fed up that I yelled, "What are you doing?!" in Chinese and pulled her backwards out of my way, and no one batted an eye.
Traffic functions in a similar manner. Most drivers in developing areas of China are first generation car owners, and it's very easy to bribe officials into getting a driving license instead of taking a test. The result? COMPLETE F*CKING CHAOS. Stop signs don't exist, and stop lights generally aren't heeded. Neither are one-way streets, lanes, or really any traffic laws. It's completely normal to drive the wrong direction, speed around a car while avoiding oncoming traffic, and running into pedestrians with your vehicle. On multiple occasions, the bus or taxi I was in had to come to a complete stop to avoid a head-on collision with oncoming traffic that refused to move around us. One day, I was crossing a small street, and a man came around the corner and slowly edged up to me, eventually hitting me with the front of his car because he couldn't be bothered to wait for me to cross.
A car comes at us head-on, despite there being a whole road for traffic going the other direction on the left side.
Two cars come to a halt to keep from hitting each other by my gym.
Traffic in the city. Construction of a second subway line underway for several years.
And forget the roads-- riding the bus is like taking an off-road vehicle into a wasteland populated by enormous potholes, and you're just an egg in a package with a thousand other eggs all grabbing on to whatever surface you can for dear life, and the thin shell of your sanity begins to crack further with every leap the bus takes into the air.
To their credit, Chinese drivers seem to be phased by NOTHING. They don't yell and shout and throw the finger every time someone cuts them off. I imagine if they did, they'd have no energy left to drive. But the honking of horns literally never stops. Honking your horn in Nanchang is simply echolocation; you find your way based on sound, and drivers communicate their location to you by honking constantly. I've heard similar stories about India.
You'll notice some other stuff in China that you likely won't see in the West. It's acceptable for children to just drop their pants on the sidewalk and relieve themselves, not a big deal for people to spit loogies next to you, and create a cacophony of slurpy, chewy noises while eating (although it's not common to talk while eating). And oddly, there is a pervasive, negative attitude toward people that go to bars and clubs.
"I don't think I'll ever go to a bar," one student told me, when we were discussing places that were popular hangouts for Americans.
"Only bad people go to bars. I'm scared to go there." This sentiment was echoed by my Chinese colleagues and landlady. The international teacher liaison tried to convince me not to leave my flat after 10pm.
"Please be very careful, it is very dangerous to go out at night," he told me. "And I do not suggest you go to bars, you might be robbed. It's maybe... mixed company."
"I've been places that are much more dangerous than Nanchang, I promise I will take care of myself," I said, trying to assuage his fears. "Please let the landlady know not to lock the outside gate." And to be fair, some of my friends had been mugged in Shanghai. But in Nanchang, the bars were quite tame (albeit clouded in hookah smoke and plagued by literal buckets of fake alcohol), and I never saw anyone outside past 12.
"Mixed company" 😉
Living on campus in that environment felt a bit like living in a cage. If you're a potential ESL teacher and you're looking into teaching abroad, you would do well to ask teachers about what it's like living where you're going to be living. And if the school tells you there's a ton of foreign teachers, make sure they've understood you completely and that they're not lying to you, lest your transition be more difficult than it needs to be.