The beginning was chaotic, but I went with the flow. I woke up early, put on my best smile, and went to the office days before my contract started because I wanted to be ready for my classes. There was no new teacher orientation, or a formal introduction to administration. It seemed there was no administrative staff. Just, one person, the foreign department coordinator. So she tells me, You start to teach on September 4th. Teach?? I thought my contract started on September 1st because I would have the first two weeks to plan, not because I was going to start teaching immediately! I’m an experienced teacher, but this is a new realm, I expected a little bit of input into the culture and the way students learn here. I didn’t have a list, or time to decorate my classroom, would I even have a classroom? I hadn’t been given a tour on campus, I didn’t know the school standards, goals, philosophy, rules, or even the lunch schedule (which I got completely wrong at first), and on top of that we started to work on Thursday, had Saturday off, but went back to work on Sunday. It didn’t make sense to have a day off before the first day of classes!
The coordinator gave me a very thin sheet of paper with my schedule. Wait a minute! What schedule? I was given a time table with my four daily classes, but no classroom numbers. She just said I’d teach English grade 10. The first day she came with me to show me where my classrooms were, there I found another surprise, 42 students, no chair for me, only a big table, a blackboard, and chalk.
I have low blood pressure and bradycardia, so that first day I was about to faint several times because I had nowhere to sit. I told the coordinator about it and her answer was, “In China teachers don’t sit!” I explained my medical condition hadn’t been an issue in the past, but she said that if I needed a chair I should ask the students. Where would they find me a chair if all the tens of desks were taken? I sat on the table a few times, but classes are so crowded I felt embarrassed to sit there when the front row is literally against that table. Upon my insistence, they provided a “chair”…
After the first day I asked the coordinator for the classroom numbers. “It’s very easy,” she said in her squeaky little voice, “English 1 in classroom 101, English 3 in classroom 103, English 5 in classroom 105, and English 7 is on the second floor.” Good! Ready for my second day I directed my steps to classroom 101. The students froze when they saw me until one of them uttered, “Your class no here!” I walked out, looked up, and pointed to my schedule, “Look! This is the correct number!”.
“No, no, no, your English 1 is over there! I show you.” Kindly, the student left me at my English 1 classroom door, I checked, the number was 103. That was my whole day, asking where to go, except for English 7, which was on the second floor. I returned to the office to tell the coordinator she hadn’t given me the correct information. She screeched, “Yeah! English 1, class 101!” I stopped her. I hadn’t been able to find my classes without help. She pointed at my schedule, “Look! Class 1, classroom 101!” I knew this was going to go on circles so I asked her to come with me the next day. When we arrived I told her, “See? English 3 is in classroom 107.” ” Ah, you don’t understand, don’t pay attention to those numbers, just learn where your classrooms are or ask the Chinese teachers.”
One morning, the coordinator was screaming in Chinese on the phone. The only word I understood was my name, so I turned as she rushed to my desk. “You have to be in your lesson 7 right now!”
“No, today is Wednesday, my first class starts at 9:50.”
“No! They changed the schedule! You had to have been in your class at 7:50!”
“Hurry up! Come with me!” I put my things in my backpack, she starts to run, I start racewalking behind her. “Oh, you don’t like to run?” “My backpack is too heavy.” It was Wednesday, but she said, “Today is Friday schedule because students go home after lunch.” I was sweating when we arrived to the second floor classroom. “Ok, teach for ten minutes.” And she leaves.
The Domestic School
Since the first week we worked on Sunday the coordinator told us it was the beginning of the school year and we’d probably have to work on a Sunday again a couple more times, at least until the schedule was stable. We had a couple of days off, but we went back to work on Saturday. “Today is Monday schedule,” the coordinator announced. “It’s only for now. You won’t have to work on weekends once we get the schedule from the principal.” I sighed. A teacher had told me I could make good money teaching English on weekends, and I was looking forward to earning extra money soon. I inquired how he managed his side job when we had to work some weekends. He looked at me with pity. “Ah, you’re at the domestic school.” “Domestic? What do you mean?” It was then when I learned that my school is divided in two sections, actually two completely different schools. One is the international school, which follows the American model; and where I am, the domestic school, ruled by the Chinese people and government, even though both schools belong to the same person (whom I haven’t even been introduced to.) My friend didn’t want to discourage me, but he did say that things there were a little “different.”
Compulsory Evening Appearance
A little before the Mooncake Festival, which is a one-week holiday, the coordinator told us she was “making the program for tomorrow night” and started asking us for our talents individually. I hesitated. Why was she saying she was doing the program for “tomorrow night”? When did we get an invitation for an evening event? Since I didn’t have any plans for that night I told her I could do the cumbia, a traditional Colombian dance. Later I played it in my mind again. She hadn’t asked us if we could attend the holiday celebration, she informed us the time and place just a day before. That night it was raining a cántaros (cats and dogs). My umbrella didn’t prevent my beautiful long red cumbia dress to get soaking wet since there is a long walk from my apartment to the building where the event was being held. I did my dance, but it was still in the back of my head that we hadn’t been told about this celebration in advance.
Maybe a Possibly Definite Schedule ?
A month into my job I wanted to find some stability to hold on to. It had been too crazy and I really needed to know I had control over something, and the schedule was going to be that something. I kept asking for the year schedule, for the holidays, teacher workdays, etc. Chinese don’t have teacher workdays. Nevertheless, I continued asking for a piece of paper or a link to tell me when my vacations would take place. I got different answers from the coordinator that came to the same thing, “There’s no schedule yet, you have to wait a little.” It was just frustrating to have acquaintances at the international school planning for holiday trips and trying to include me in their plans when I couldn’t say yes or no because I didn’t know yet when I was going to be off.
Maybe this is my Kung-Fu Panda year. Maybe this is the Chinese philosophy, “Live for today and never plan for tomorrow… or for the next couple of hours.” But I just couldn’t take it. All we got was notes written with chalk on the office blackboard, tomorrow this, next week that, even a tentative New Year’s vacation (who can buy tickets anywhere with this assurance?) with dates that constantly changed, and some notes didn’t even make a distinction between the primary and the high school, which was simply confusing.
So I put it out in the teachers’ WeChat group after the coordinator sent us this message:
-Coordinator: I will make a new winter schedule for high school and a new one for middle school tomorrow morning.
-Me: [@Coordinator], with all due respect, some of us need the year schedule so we can plan for visiting family, buying plane tickets in time, etc., especially for the long holidays like New Year’s.
-Coordinator: School doesn’t have year schedule. All the schools in China have to listen and wait for the government to announce the dates for each holiday.
My heart sank. I didn’t continue the conversation. This woman had been telling me to wait for the schedule, that we wouldn’t have to work on weekends after the first month, that everything was messy only because it was the beginning of the school year, that once we had a schedule from the principal it would be easier…
I contacted my cousin immediately. He had lived in China for 5 years. He certainly would know what the heck this was all about… Not knowing my schedule felt like a straight human rights violation. Having to work on weekends without being told in advance was shocking to me as well. Wasn’t it during the Nazi Germany that people were forced to work 60, 70, and 80 hours a week? Adolf Hitler tried to arrange the weeks to be longer, but the human body doesn’t work like that. Production lowered as illness and fatigue dominated. That’s how I felt after having to work 7 or 8 days in a row, and 13 days once!! When they told us we’d have a break during the week, then we would have to start teaching on a Thursday, but with a Monday schedule in mind. That is probably one of the worst parts. The make believe game. Sunday we do Monday schedule, Wednesday we do Friday schedule, Saturday we do Tuesday schedule. At school I had to convince myself it was one day and after work people told me otherwise.
My cousin ended up speaking on the phone with the coordinator in perfect Mandarin. There was no clarification about schedules, except what it had been said above, but now at least they are trying to tell us about future events and “tentative dates” a little beforehand.
I learned that it is part of the Chinese culture to say yes to everything. They don’t want to “lose face.” At the same time, they don’t appreciate a direct answer, especially a negative one. That’s why I wasn’t told about the schedule issue from the very beginning, or that I was going to teach at the domestic school. They led me to believe the advertisement (international school established in 2010… same address, different management.) The domestic school is not even mentioned in the web. It might seem cruel to an expat, but it is their way to bring hope and happiness, as all their advertisement and food menus state. In all their evasive answers they just want to give hope. And the constant last minute changes… those are part of their normality, that’s why they are always running, so we end up doing the same. When in China…
Then I found this website. Pay attention to the adjusted working days… Argh!! So, it is real. The government tells its citizens when their vacation is and when to work on weekends. The government decrees the holidays, and the government can change their mind, so we do have to “wait and listen.” However, these regulations don’t apply to the international school!
This country has a complexity that can be overwhelmingly frustrating. My cousin’s advice was to find what made me happy. Thank God the list isn’t short. I watch American TV shows on my computer (even though the internet sucks), have these amazing margaritas in Laowaitan (foreign neighborhood), exercise, read, go to the spa hotel, hang out with friends when possible, attend church, listen to Pastor Loran Livingston online, try to create art projects, keep up with friends and family in the US, look forward to the next country I’m going to visit, and write these long blogs to you, which is a great catharsis. Thank you for reading. You are the other half of my equation for sanity 🙂