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In at the deep end when TEFLing in China

Chairman Mao loved to swim. When he wasn’t writing poetry, meeting Nixon or thinking up new and unorthodox agricultural practices, he was in his swimming pool. Rumour has it that he would invite other politicos up to his pool to swim and talk about the world. I would have loved to be a pool net on the wall when Mao and Marx had it out. But I couldn’t be there, because I wasn’t born yet and I do not possess the powers to be invisible. Instead I went to a city called Nanshan in Shandong province, somewhere along the east coast of the People’s Republic of China, and got more insight into the mysteries of this giant country than I’d expected or even hoped for.

Primary school gate, ChinaI was out of practice for first days of elementary school. I hadn’t been in a classroom for 14 years. And I had zero practice when it came to teaching, let alone first days of teaching. I was a ball of nerves, in a new country with a new job. I racked my brain for icebreaker games, for a fun way to get to know the students, or their names at least. My parents are both teachers so obviously I went to them for assistance before my flight out. A few minutes in the town and I knew the games weren’t going to work. I was on a new continent; it wasn’t the time to try out North American games from the 70’s. I had to work from the ground up, in more ways than one. The name game icebreaker wasn’t going to be of any help in China, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to pronounce any names, which all began with Qs and Xs anyways. The outcome would be confusing and anticlimactic. Child Number One: “Hello my name is Qing and I love…Quaker Oats Cereal!!” Child Number Two: “Hello my name is…Qing…and I love, Quaker Oatmeal! And koala bears!” Me: “No Qing, that starts with a K. Let’s review the alphabet.”

It was a Monday, the day that first days usually start. And I was in China. I walked out of my new apartment, in China. I walked a block to the gates of Nanshan School and passed about a thousand kids playing in the front yard. A few stopped in their tracks to stare at the foreigner, or laowei, the rest jumped around and played tag. Other than the sheer multitude of students, the red bands around their arms and the fact that they were all Chinese, the look of things at Nanshan School on that grey Monday morning was typical of any first days on any Monday anywhere in the world. Kids were smiling and tag was being played. I couldn’t think of anything more universal than that.

I walked into the school to find the English office. The entrance was wide, white concrete, and empty. On the right side of the wall in the main entrance was a poster of young professionals in a computer lab, the bottom half of the poster was of kids playing in a meadow. There was something scribbled in red Chinese characters on the bottom. I walked up the steps and noticed the stairs looked the same; the floor looked the same, as any school I’d been in back in Canada. I could even see a light layer of dust forming in the corners of the floor. Then I ran into Betty.

“Hello, Jennifer?”

I nodded in agreement.

“I am Betty. I am the head teacher in the English department. Nice-uh to meet-uh you.” She reached out and gave me a soft hand shake. I had read about that before my arrival. The Chinese hand shake is more like a dead fish, soft graze of the palm. A solid, firm shake was for those barbaric Westerners. We walked up the stairs together to the English office, where the other teachers were at their desks (all ladies) and a few casually glanced up at me and smiled.

“The students will go on a school trip today. They will go to the swimming pool. You should join them.” Betty said. I got the chance to drop my bags on what I assumed would be my desk then she rushed me out of the office and back to the front yard of the school. We waited together and Betty bombarded me with questions about life in Canada and my personal life. No, I wasn’t married. No, I wasn’t a student. Yes, I was excited to be in China. Was I? I thought. I concluded that I wasn’t sure, I was still jet lagged.

A yellow school bus pulled up in front of the school gates and I boarded it with a bunch of students. I waved and said hello to all the kids and a few responded. But I got the sense that they couldn’t say much else in English. I met a few other teachers. Then I went on my third – alarming – car ride in China.

School poster, ChinaWe arrived at a large convention center with a Gaudi-style entrance way and a pool in the back. As the students scurried to the changing rooms I approached the teachers and tried my luck at engaging in small talk. Some responded and some looked a little nervous. They just weren’t having it. So I wandered around the halls of the Nanshan Convention Center until the students were ready and I followed them into the swimming pool area.

I didn’t get any instructions from Betty to teach from the edge of the pool. What was the new foreigner to do? Was this a test? Did they want to see how well they interacted with the students in water before they could put me in front of them in a classroom? The e-mails or volunteer handbook didn’t explain anything in reference to swimming pools and test of strength. I noticed that the teachers stood casually in a group together by the door, not paying much attention to the students and one would occasionally glance my way. I didn’t understand it. Then I gave in. The teachers weren’t talking to me, the students were swimming. There was nothing for me to do but sit on a bench, and watch them swim. My first day of school flashback morphed to my first day of summer as a kid, at my neighborhood pool, watching all the cool kids play in the water while I waited for a friend to hold my hand and take me. But I had no friends to waddle with on the sidelines, I was in China. I didn’t understand how my English speaking skills were going to help the kids by watching them swim, but I went with it. That’s something you have to do in Mainland China, just go with the flow.

The swimming pool had a slide and they provided water wings for the less fish-like children of the group. The place kind of looked like the YMCA. Chlorine even smells the same in China. The kids splashed around and the girls huddled together in their one pieces and pink swimming caps, hiding from the boys who were the aggressive ones when it came to water fights. Boys will be boys I thought, even in Mainland China.

After a few minutes of trying to get myself accustomed to the sound of Mandarin, I got up to get a snack. The snack stand at the pool had something that resembled Lays chips, some gooey things in plastic wrap (after spending months in the country I can now confirm that they were chicken feet) and an assortment of soft drinks. I opted for a can of Coke. I only drink Coke when I’m in other countries. First of all, it tastes different in every country, so it’s like you’re trying something new. It’s also a comfort thing. Coke is universal, and drinking one is having a treat that’s known all around the world. It serves as a memory from childhood, when you were good and allowed to have a Coke with your Happy Meal (like having an orange juice would make the “meal” any healthier anyways). So there I sat with my can of Coke, like a kid again: In China.

Grinning schoolchildren, China

A month later a second volunteer came to Nanshan School, Sam, a graphic designer from New York. We got along splendidly and the teaching staff said we were a great pair. I was just ecstatic to no longer be the only laowei in the school. To be the new kid on the block AND the only round eye? No fun. On Sam’s first day the kids also went for a swim. Those were the two times during my semester of at Nanshan School when the kids were sent on a trip to the town swimming pool. And we sat on a bench to watch them.

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