Tales of an ESL Teacher – Part 2

October 12, 2009

A Canadian in China

First Impressions


This is the 2nd part of “Tales of an ESL Teacher”. You can read the first part here

When I was a child my mother used to tell me, “Eat your carrots. Think about all the starving children in China.” I honestly believed that if I ate all my carrots, other kids wouldn’t starve in that very strange place I could reach if I only dug harder and deeper in the dirt beside my house in Saskatchewan.

It must have worked, because so far I haven’t seen any starving children and – if I use the metaphor of digging hard and deep as a life journey – I have finally reached the other side of the globe.

Coming here to live is far different from being a tourist. My husband, Roger, and I have come to work, to set down roots for a year. We need different things. We need things for cleaning and cooking. We need work visas. In our job as English teachers at the university, we need to learn how the administration works, how to complete paper work, how to use the equipment, what to expect from the students. Perhaps most importantly, we need to learn about modern Chinese culture.

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We are living in Nanning, which is the capital city of Guangxi province in south western China, approximately the same latitude as Cuba. The city of Guangxi used to be called Canton, so the regional language and the food is primarily Cantonese, although most people also speak Mandarin, the official language in China. As we speak neither, we have been assigned student assistants who have volunteered to help us find our way around the city and through the myriad of paperwork and bureaucracy. Their English names are Plato and Tracy.

Plato met us at the airport with a gleaming smile and holding a big sign that said “Welcome Roger and Judy!” He helped us pack our luggage into the car the university had hired for us, and we set off to our apartment. The trip from the airport to the university campus and our apartment is a haze: after travelling for 30 hours, one wants only to find the nearest bed and stretch out on it.

We were surprised to discover that our apartment is amazingly large: nicely furnished 2 bedrooms, living room, dining room, functional kitchen, and large enclosed deck overlooking a pond surrounded by flowering bushes and trees. Our assistants had thoughtfully stocked the fridge with bottled water and sweet rolls for breakfast; we had thoughtfully brought packaged coffee for the first morning. It is very peaceful in our new home; fortunately, every room has an air conditioner.

It is warm. Temperatures have been beyond 40 with 60% humidity- the kind of heat that makes you drip, drink copious amounts of water, and take a couple of cold showers a day. It’s great for one’s skin, and the loss of body fluid coupled with the fact that there are no elevators has helped me to lose quite a few unwanted pounds already!

The morning after our arrival, we set out with our assistants to buy food, a coffee machine and coffee. Plato and Tracy are in their 20’s and are in 3rd year university; they have been studying English for 2 years in college and have volunteered to help us in exchange for practicing their English and learning about Western culture. They are enthusiastic, cheerful, considerate of our needs, and have obviously undergone extensive training for their roles. Tracy thinks we can find a coffee machine at the large supermarket, “Hualian” which is within walking distance from the campus.

The first obstacle is crossing the street outside the university gates. There are actually 3 streets to cross with traffic converging from 3 different directions. The walk lights and traffic lights do not apply to scooters, motorcycles and bicycles. The biggest vehicle has the right of way. Buses and trucks careen through traffic lights and fully expect everyone to get out of their way. Scooters and bicycles weave in and out of streets and sidewalks, heedless to the direction of traffic. Pedestrians, being the smallest objects, must give the right of way to everyone else, including bicycles. Although crossing the street is a death-defying act, the traffic moves astonishingly smoothly, since everyone abides by an unspoken law of the road.

I can now understand why it is impossible for me to get a driver’s license in China.

Following along behind Tracy and Plato-I feel like a child clinging to my mother’s skirt-we safely arrive at the supermarket, only to find that they have neither a coffee machine nor coffee. All the coffee is instant or pre-mixed with too much sugar and plastic cream. Plato thinks we might find a coffee machine in Wal-Mart, so off we go by bus to find the Wal-Mart store in Nanning.

I think, “Is this crazy, or what? Our first day in China and we’re going to Wal-Mart.”

On the bus to Wal-Mart, I experience Chinese courtesy for the first time, and I am surprised. I had expected China to be like Chinatown on a Saturday afternoon: crowded and noisy, aggressive and pushy shoppers. The bus is crowded, but as soon as we get on, a young women stands and, smiling and gesturing, insists that I take her seat. People standing adjust their positions to make room for others; there are not many people talking or otherwise making noise. It is a pleasant ride and when we get off the bus at the MacDonald’s golden arch, the driver kindly waits for me to step down.

As in other countries overseas, I am very careful when walking or stepping down from a bus: my life as I know it would be ruined if I fractured a hip or even twisted an ankle. These streets and sidewalks are in no way wheelchair friendly.

Wal-Mart does not have a coffee machine or coffee either and we resign ourselves to drinking instant coffee until we can find the Western Store that we have heard about. While Roger and Plato shop for food we know we can’t get elsewhere-cheeses, bread, marinated meat, salmon steaks-Tracy and I search for household goods: a dish drainer, laundry soap, cleaning products, soap dish. (It will take me 3 weeks to find a soap dish.) I want to get a set of sheets for the second bed, but am not able to explain “fitted sheet” to Tracy or the clerk. The phrase book I have is for tourists, and tourists want to be able to order beer at a restaurant. They are not likely to want to buy a fitted sheet or soap dish.

Instantly I experience a feeling of utter exhaustion. This is what happens with jet lag: you have a window of high energy where you’re excited about being in a new country and want to do and see everything and then, suddenly…crash!

Appropriately, I crashed in the linen department of the Wal-Mart store in Nanning, China.

Continue reading the 3rd part of Judy’s series Eating in China

About the Author: Judy Smith is the author of Native Blood: Nursing on the Reservation (Oberon Press). She is teaching English at the Sino-Canadian University in Nanning, China. The program is affiliated with the University of Waterloo and was initiated by Prime Minister Chrétien during the trade talks with China. Staff and curriculum are provided by Canada; facilities are provided by China. The university is always looking for qualified teachers, especially retirees.

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