Tag Archives: university

Back in the PRC

Back in the PRC. This will be my 6th year teaching out here. Its true what they say, the more things change the more they stay the same. It took me two weeks to figure out a way to climb the Firewall and find a shop that sold real bread.

After a gruelling 30-hour journey I arrived in my new place of residence. Hunan Agriculture University, Changsha, China. I spent part of the morning waiting for a plane in Shanghai, where the sun was shining through the departure lounge windows. But in Changsha the temperature was lower and the sky overcast. Predictably, it rained later. I have always said, I have a strange ability to take the Welsh rain with me wherever I go. Guess I won’t be needing the new Karrimor sunglasses I spunked £22 on.

When I walked through the door of my new apartment the first thing I saw was a dead cockroach, just lying on the floor near the door. It was almost as if it were an offering of some kind, or a welcome gift. My friend Aria came to visit me and help me settle in. Chinese girls are good like that. Especially if they know you have gifts for them, In Aria’s case it was a copy of Filthy Shades of Grey, a book that is undoubtedly not available in China, an I AM SHERLOCKED tee shirt and a bar of Cadbury’s Wholenut.

I woke up the next morning with a cockroach crawling through my chest hair. It was raining outside so I had chocolate and a bottle of milk tea for breakfast, watched a couple of episodes of I Shouldn’t Be Alive (Discovery Channel documentary), then went back to sleep. When I woke up again it was dark. Jet lag is a cruel mistress.

The campus of my new place of residence, Hunan Agricultural University, is absolutely huge. There are thousands upon thousands of students, and countless shops, supermarkets and restaurants. In fact, the campus is probably bigger than most fair-sized European towns and villages. It is situated on the outskirts of Changsha, a city of over 6 million (more than twice the total population of my country) and surrounded by lush green fields, rice paddies, ponds and mile after mile of farm land. Strawberries grow here.

After a couple of days I was called to the university office. I was expecting to collect my new schedule, or maybe have to hand over my passport or other documents. Instead I was given a months salary in cash, told I was going on a weekend trip to a spa in order to experience ‘rural Hunan’ the following week at the request of the local government, and that my classes didn’t actually start for over a month after that. I’ll pick up another month’s salary before I have to do any actual teaching.

Apparently I am teaching freshmen students, which means most of them will be in the 17-19 age group. The freshmen classes always start later than the others because, regardless of their major, for the first six weeks or so of their college / university lives every student, make and female, has to partake in military training. I suspect this is to teach them discipline rather than prepare them for war, but I have never been sure about that. They march and learn songs, and the kids at the nicer universities even get to shoot rifles. The poorer and/or less prestigious universities can’t afford bullets, so they just have to pretend.

My first weekend back in Changsha was eventful. On Saturday one of my friends, Martin, a Canadian, and his Chinese partner Cici got married. Chinese weddings are a blast! The next day there was Orange Island music festival. Chinese music festivals are quite bizarre. You get a very eclectic mixture of acts, from traditional singers to thrash metal and screamo, all on the same bill. I only went to see Architects who didn’t even end up playing in the end. The day after that I went on a trip to an ancient riverside town nearby called Jing Gang, which was beautiful. Strangely for China, it was almost completely deserted. Which only made the elaborate show in the evening, a re-enactment of a battle that took place on the river there 5 or 600 years ago, even more surreal!

It’s difficult sometimes, being in a strange country with limited internet and crap bread, but I wouldn’t change this life for the world.

Going Back to China.

Back to work in a few days. Bummer. Goodbye friends and family, hello unknown.

On September 1st I have to get up at 06.30, travel to Cardiff by car, get a coach to Heathrow airport (London), take a long-haul flight to Shanghai PuDong airport, get a public bus to Shanghai Hongqiao airport, take a domestic flight to Changsha, and hopefully meet up with a representative from my new school who will then drive me to my apartment on the outskirts of the city.

All in all the journey will take around 28 hours I guess, providing I make all the connections and don’t die in a fireball somewhere.

I’ll be honest, the thought is a little daunting. Before a long journey I get apprehensive. So many things can go wrong. Adding to my trepidation is the fact that I am starting a new job in a new school in a new area. I have been doing this for 5 or 6 years now, and it seems I spend most of my life ‘settling in’ and walk around in a permanent state of mild culture shock.    

I work as an ESL teacher in China, which I will blog more about in the future (I pwomise!). I don’t pretend to be a real teacher. My job basically amounts to entertaining disinterested Chinese university students and being the token ‘foreign expert,’ that gives an educational establishment added credibility. I actually have a foreign experts certificate issued by the Chinese government which assures me that I am, indeed, an expert at being foreign.

People who pursue this pseudo-career are usually faced with three employment options:

1: Volunteer work. This, in my book, is an instant no-no and geared toward exploiting graduates who need work experience. The parents invariably pay the schools, so why should the foreign teachers be expected to work for free?

2: Private schools. These offer a higher salary, usually 10-13,000 RMB (£1000 – 1300) a month, sometimes more, but you have to work up to 40-hours a week and usually have to pay for your own apartment, transport and everything else. In short, its like having a real job.

3: State-run educational establishments (schools, colleges and universities). These offer a lower salary (on average around 5000 – 6000 RMB, or £500 – 600) but as part of a ‘package’ that also includes a fully-furnished apartment, travel expenses, visa fees, health insurance, return flights back to your country of origin, bonuses, and sometimes even phone, internet and utility bills. The main advantage is a much lower workload, and lengthy summer and winter holidays. It isn’t difficult to pick up extra part-time work to make up the difference in salary if one is so inclined.

Having experienced both sides of the coin, I decided long ago that option three suited my needs better, mainly because the general life hassles are minimized and I get a lot more free time. During the 2-month winter holiday I usually do some travelling around mainland China, and in the summer (when I often change schools, and sometimes cities) I go back to Wales to spend time with friends and family.

During the holidays is when I can apply myself fully to writing. I don’t pretend to be a professional.  I’m semi-pro at best. I don’t make much money teaching, and I make far less writing. But one thing I have learned on this epic journey is that life is about much more than money. It is a sad fact that if I made more I would undoubtedly waste it on stuff I don’t need. A truly fulfilling life should focus more on personal happiness, freedom, independence, setting and achieving goals, and making a difference.

Chris Jay of Army of Freshmen once said, “If experience can be considered a currency, then I am a rich man.”

And I agree.

Probably the worst thing about living and working in the PRC, apart from the general weirdness of it all, is the government-sanctioned internet censorship. Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, You Tube and most blogging sites, including WordPress, are blocked, which makes social networking a constant game of cat n mouse. For this reason, combined with my own general laziness, my blogging over the next nine months or so may be a little sporadic, so please try to stick with me!



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