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Trophy teachers on the China circuit

The Nanjing Galaxy Yacht Club floats securely in the yellowish, turbid water of the Yangtze River.  The neighborhood – in the northwest of the city, far from the Ming Dynasty wall – is mostly industrial.  Not far upstream is the famous Yangtze River Bridge, a dark, ominous shape stretching across the water.  There are no yachts nearby, though a few skidoos and hovercraft vessels bob gently under tarps, along the shifting dock that extends from the parking lot down to the yacht club’s door, where rows of idle employees greet incoming guests.

Lilly and students

It is our second visit to the yacht club.  Lily and I do not have a membership, if they are even available; we have been guests each time.  Our first visit was in honor of our first day of teaching at a local junior high school – the Secondary Affiliate School of Xiaozhuang University.  Today, we are celebrating our attendance at the 4th Annual Sunshine English Festival. Amazingly, it is actually sunny, with an uncharacteristically clear, bluish-gray sky for late winter.

Approaching the restaurant from the parking lot, our main Chinese boss grips Lily’s arm and points ahead.

“It’s on a boat!”

Before going to the dining room, we are taken to stand on the deck and take in the view.  We can just make out the forest of heavy machinery that towers over the opposite bank of the river.  Our hosts – the middle school’s principle and some other teachers and administrators – light cigarettes and congregate on one end, where they converse in Chinese.  As usual, we – the foreign English teachers – wait separately until told where to go.

The Sunshine English Festival was essentially a recruiting event for the Secondary Affiliate School.  A stage was erected facing the field, where the attendees – junior schools students, parents, teachers, and prospective primary school children – sat on small stools.  We were present as special guests, and thus were placed directly in front of the stage, at a long table, where not only could we see the stage, but everyone could clearly see us, whether in front or behind.  For over an hour, we sat through a handful of speakers and performances by groups of students, including a hip-swaying rendition of The Rivers of Babylon.

After the main event we learned our true purpose at the festival.  The five foreign English teachers (and a visiting Peruvian) were placed throughout the playground and the students were then unleashed like hungry wolves upon us.  However, as Lily and I began to wander off to inconspicuous corners of the playground, we were pulled back and ordered to stand in front of a large festival billboard.  It was brightly colored, flowery, with the school’s name arcing across the top.  “Very beautiful!” our boss remarked, referring to the billboard.  Some students were rounded up and shoved toward us.

“Talk!” a teacher demanded.

The students giggled, nudged each other.  A photographer took pictures.

“Hello,” a student finally ventured.  “You have girlfriend?

Lily and I were first introduced to this style of publicity the year before.  We lived in the small city of Yichang in Hubei Province, a city with a very small population of foreigners.  Occasionally we would encounter another white-faced pedestrian, only to have them pass us briskly by on account of their downward gaze – most likely a tactic to avoid the continuous gaping mouths and points we would so regularly receive.  As in Nanjing, we were stationed at the city’s #1 Middle School, which happened also to be a key school – a designation existing since the PRC’s founding which ensures certain schools greater state resources and competitiveness.

Our Chinese coordinator in Yichang was a middle-aged woman named Ms. Ling.   She was touchy, insecure, and often employed extremely roundabout methods of communication – something not uncommon in China.  A biology teacher by training, she was also responsible for the foreign teachers, but since she spoke very poor English, she delegated most interactions to her assistant.

From our first meeting, it was clear that Ms. Ling was skeptical of us.  “So young!” she insisted.  I don’t believe Ms. Ling ever managed to go beyond her initial judgment – but she came to terms with it, or at least found a use for us.

Our classes had just begun one day when Ms. Ling suddenly appeared at my door and interrupted my lesson.

“Owen, come with me!” she demanded, and walked away.  I looked at my students, who were being surprisingly quiet, and left.  I was just in time to see Ms. Ling pulling Lily out of her classroom by the arm.

With our students left unattended, we were taken to a garden on the other side of the school, along with a few students we had never seen before.  No one explained anything.  Then we noticed the photographer.

We were placed in front of a large, strange rock, and small groups of students were assigned to each of us.  As the photographer arranged them, I waited awkwardly, unsure of where to place my hands.

“Hello…” I started, but it was difficult to converse with the students as the photographer shuffled them around, swapped some out for others.  One girl had a strand of hair hanging across her forehead.  The photographer and Ms. Ling both noticed it and tried to push it out of the way.  It fell back.  They tried again; it returned.  Finally, the girl was shoved brusquely out of the way, out of the picture.

“Talk with them,” I was told again.

“So…” I tried.

“I want to know,” proposed one particularly large student.

“What do you think of America and Taiwan?  You know, there is a phrase: ‘to have a hand in.’ Or foot?  Is that right?”

I tried to smile as the camera clicked and clicked.

After the photo shoot, I returned to my class, where my students were behaving normally.  But Ms. Ling kept Lily behind.  She then went into Lily’s classroom, personally selected a few students, and stood them against the outside wall, as though suspects in a police lineup.  She and the photographer then went about their brutal selection process. 


“Step forward!”

“No!” she said, pushing an unsatisfactory child back against the wall.

A properly photogenic group was finally selected, which happened to be a major portion of Lily’s most disrespectful, unmotivated students.  But they possessed something Ms. Ling liked, and so Lily found herself sitting on a rock by a coy pond, pretending to instruct a circle of giggling students, who held textbooks open to random pages (and some upside-down).  The next day the scene was pictured in the local newspaper.

Nanjing’s Secondary Affiliate School of Xiaozhuang University is tucked into a labyrinthine old neighborhood of clustered cement houses.  The streets are so narrow that a sedan can just barely make some of the corners, and two-way traffic generally results in arguments or standstills.  Much of the residents’ daily activities occur outside, visible from a passing vehicle: washing hair, brushing teeth, eating, and disposing of waste.  It is an area that will not last long in China’s steady march of progress. 

Despite having been to the school over twenty times, I could never possibly find it on my own.  We’ve never had to; each week, the school sends a driver.

He picks us up Tuesday morning near our downtown apartment.  He looks like a driver, and I have faith in his abilities for no sound reasons.  His voice is the rough growl that only a native Chinese speaker can produce, a small engine circling through the tones with roughness.  His face is at once young and old, and his gray tinted hair has a childlike unruliness to it.  He always has a cigarette, but he knows: sometimes it’s cooler not to light it.

Most days the headmaster accompanies us.  He too fits his role, his being of the academic administrator: glasses, untidy suit, gaping grin.  “Please, please,” he begs in his limited English, and we get into the back seat of the black Volkswagen.

For nearly forty-five minutes, we sit in the back and stare out of the window, while the headmaster sleeps.

When we reach the school, we say goodbye to the driver and headmaster and walk past the classrooms to an empty conference room that is always reserved for us.  There, a woman makes us tea, and the heavy double doors shut us in until class begins.  We have never been shown the other teachers’ offices, or the headmaster’s.  We come in a private car, sit in a private room, teach lessons unrelated to their regular curriculum, eat a lunch of specially prepared dumplings (in place of the standard fried fish, fried cabbage, and fried stomach), and leave again behind tinted glass. 

We know we also have a role to play.  As foreign teachers, we fit somewhere between honored guest and indentured servant. Technically, we do not work for the Secondary Affiliate School.  Our contracts explicitly bind us only to Nanjing’s #1 Middle School (the equivalent of the last three grades of American high school), but to the Chinese such an agreement does not preclude us from additional requirements.  Employed by the middle school, we are essentially its property, a resource to be distributed wherever the greatest benefits are seen.  Often, this has nothing to do with education, directly.  Instruction is our secondary role.  As foreigners – specifically young foreigners – our primary usefulness lies elsewhere: promotion.

The Sunshine English Festival

Native speakers can surely be useful as examples or speech models, but they are not necessary.  In the state run Chinese education system, every student has compulsory English lessons taught by Chinese teachers who have undergone schooling for that very purpose.  And although some institutes and other programs recruit only experienced foreign teachers, most have extremely low requirements – generally, one must be a native speaker, a college graduate, and not horribly deformed.  But even those basic prerequisites can be skirted.  In other words, a great number – if not the majority – of foreigners moving to China are not real teachers in the sense that they’ve gone to school for education, but people who want to live abroad, learn Chinese, to travel – often either recent college graduates or retirees.  At times it seems anyone who is willing to live in China can find a way, and they’ll be paid decently for it.

From our experience, foreign teachers are seen as something of an accessory, an extra, a perk, like a new gym or jazz band – something to separate one school from another, or a face to print on pamphlets to draw new students.  None of this is terribly odd – schools offer services and like to advertise them.  But Chinese schools are state run and the curriculum is ostensibly homogenized, and while controlled education may be basic to communism, schools in modern China are governed in an arguably businesslike manner: competition (both for students and faculty) is highly encouraged and necessitated by the population, cheating is common practice, and having money or political connections can most certainly help open doors.   

Chinese public schools are typically affiliated with other schools, and even to universities, and through that interconnectedness resources may be shared (though that does not mean that a student will go from primary school through college in one string of affiliated schools).  And aside from official connectedness, schools may benefit from relationships developed between teachers or administrators.  Favors pass back and forth, as with any business relationship. Foreigners, loosely-incorporated and with debatable usefulness but obvious promotional value, are often involved in those deals, and thus employing them provides a school with a significant bargaining tool.  Nanjing #1 Middle School pays a certain amount for our employment, and the students then pay the school for our classes; but to make their purchase more worthwhile, we are rented to other schools – whether in return for money or political standing – and every school we go to, however briefly, can then advertise the face of a genuine native English teacher.  

The dinner at the Yacht Club is nearly over.  Smoke from the other table has wrapped the room in a haze.  An old math teacher at our table has been making the same joke for nearly an hour, pounding the table after each repeated punch line.  Everyone is full.  One of the school administrators stumbles over from the other table, his brilliantly crimson face marked with a content grin.  He carries a bottle of baijiu in one hand and a small toasting glass in the other.  After a bit of ritual stalling, he pours a drop of the white, syrupy booze into his glass and raises it to one of the other foreign English teachers, who dutifully tosses back his own glass.  The administrator grins even larger, his redness deepens, and he exclaims, “Ni gei mian zi!”

The woman to my right, a Chinese English teacher, laughs and translates unnecessarily:  “He says he has been given face.  In China, you know -” and then she circles her own face with her hand – “face is very important.”

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