Digging an Educated Hole to China

diggingchinaOnce upon a time, my brother and I used to play ‘digging a hole to China’ in the sandpit at the bottom of the garden. Many years later, with a TEFL certificate and 9 ½ years teaching experience in the bucket, I have arrived. I am a seasoned expat in China. Since August 2012 I have lived in Jiangsu province, not far from Shanghai, teaching EAP, that is English for Academic Purposes.

Five months into my Chinese affair, I am at a loss for words. Is anything I heard or read about China before last August, since the days in the sandpit, true?

P1060529-copyMy students are 1st year undergraduate degree students, 18 year olds. I work at an International University, a 2+2 Sino-Foreign cooperative where students who pass their 2nd year courses have guaranteed entrance to a UK university. All of this is for a very high fee: three times the annual income for the average person in Jiangsu province. My students are bright, creative, and very courageous, and for the most part lack the attitude of the super-rich or the much discussed ‘little emperors’. My students deserve high praise. They have worked from dawn to midnight for 8 (of their 12 years education) years slogging away at their desks trying to pass the Gaokao (The National College Entrance Examination), the infamous exam which decides the fate of all Chinese students, to get here. They all believe that the higher the score the better the university and the better the job upon graduation, though this isn’t necessarily true anymore. The market economy has become entrepreneur-friendly resulting in certain unexpected ramifications for the educated, such as factory jobs paying more than the highly desirable but increasingly more difficult to find office jobs. Like my Omani students, the thought of doing manual labor – peasant work – horrifies my Chinese students, male and female alike. It doesn’t matter how often I tell them about the highly regarded western farmers, or that my nephew with a grade 12 education and a certificate in plumbing is earning more than I am as a university tutor. The stigma attached with peasant work is profound and deepening with the times. It seems there are many twists and turns in Cultural Revolutions.

P1060549-copyMy living conditions are the stuff of dreams. I live in an 80 km² industrial park which is the result of a joint venture between Singapore and China initiated in 1992. Deng Xiaoping was said to have remarked around that time: “Singapore enjoys good social order and is well managed. We should tap on their experience, and learn how to manage better than them.” Since then, the venture has caused heavy losses and scandal for the Singaporeans. As author Ben Dolven noted, “Conceived in the early 1990s as a model in which Singapore would show China how to take care of international investors, instead [the industrial park] became a lesson in how not to get things done in the mainland.” My apartment is in the higher educational town (HET) part of the industrial part. It is on the 9th floor of one of the four identical 15-storey blocks painted grey with a few yellow stripes between alternating floors. Beyond these four blocks, apparent only when the pollution lifts enough to see clearly, which is not often, are literally hundreds of other blocks, all concrete, all grey. There is no heating in the winter as the location is south of the public heating latitude, being considered ‘South China.’ I have reverted to the weatherproofing techniques of my London 1950’s childhood: hot water bottle, four pairs of socks, and newspaper in the windows to block the draughts where cling-on fails. Maybe this building marks the day Singapore withdrew from the project, as the construction is appalling. It is rumored that none of these buildings were built to last more than 20 years upon which time the government buys the owners out and pulls the structures down and starts again, and it shows. Looking out, it would seem that the goal is to house the entire populace in high-rises. Up and up, more and more. The idea of conservation is hard to find. It would seem that people are moved whenever and wherever if a high-rise or freeway is determined to be planted – like concrete locusts. “But teacher, you don’t understand,” said one of my wise students, “the people have nowhere to live.” Right, right, I stand corrected as I do with most of my semi-political-environmentally-friendly class rants.

P1050778-copyOn a Saturday or Sunday, weather and pollution permitting, I ride my bicycle in search of the ‘real’ China. This turns out to be about a 10 km bike ride from B1 of the HET concrete towers. The village of Cherfang has survived the last bulldozer and sits there amid a field of water taro (a kind of potato), chestnut trees and a 10-lane highway. All around the encroaching development has an almost suffocating effect. I desperately take photos of the disappearing ‘real’. Now and again, my students have the honour of seeing the fruits of my weekend labours. Photographs are a good TEFL conversation starter, which can be turned into citing exercises for EAP. As I start my environmentally sustainability speech, one of my horrified and very wise students remarks, “But teacher, that isn’t the real China, this is China.’ Ah so, so much for expat nostalgia. And really, what did I think I was doing? What right do westerners from developed worlds have to ask people in undeveloped worlds to live in shanty towns full of rotting shacks not just without heating but also without water or toilets, because they are looking for some misguided sense of the real? “Why shouldn’t I have a car? You do. Why shouldn’t I have running water and a toilet, you do,” says another wise student. Actually, I have had six cars, though never all at the same time which seems to be the thing these days.

letterLuckily, one does get wiser in this TEFL/EAP business. After nine years of teaching English in disparate and sometimes desperate places through desperate times, post 9/11 and into homeland security, post Iraq, post Martha Stewart, post financial disaster, post The Queen Mother and Alexander Queen, I have found finally found it wise to practice what I preach. Speak no religion, sex, or politics especially when delivering English classes. And how does one finally get so wise? It went like this:
Upon booting up and opening the first of a barrage of emails one morning I opened this email and knew that I had found my own personal Waterloo: