As a young 19 year old, I was absolutely convinced that I knew everything. By 22, it was confirmed. By 25, I realised I did not. As a young man, I was angry, and into issues. I tried to conquer peoples’ heads by quoting Christopher Hitchens or by reading Buddhism for Dummies. “Follow the eight-fold path.” Now, take the popular show, South Park and Eric Cartman. In this show, Cartman is somebody who thinks he knows it all. He also thinks his bullyishness is a way to live. To put it lightly, as a child, I was a dickhead. I was a smug pseudointellectual who thought that the word pseduointellectual was clever.
At the age of 24, I set off around the world, very determined to find myself and my purpose. After all, I had recently completed a year of volunteering. I needed money and a point to exist. My Bodhi tree was economy travel.This means little legroom, but at least two meals. I was to carve my own path as a teacher,, and it took a while. I arrived in Tianjin, China and encountered a wealth of pollution, diarrhea and stress. I became an expat, and expats, in my experience are deeply confused people. This is a huge generalization, which is also true.
I flew into China, and what struck me greatly was the amount of pollution. The plane landed and we were surrounded by chimneys pumping the air full of coal. I was from Northern Ireland and I had landed in a beast. Probably a dragon. A communist dragon. A ‘communist’ dragon.
Days passed in China and I surrounded the streets in panic and anxiety. I knew absolutely no Chinese, and traffic lights were just a suggestion. I once saw a man get knocked off his scooter in the city’s busiest street, and my coworkers were reluctant to phone for an ambulance. Unless you are in the party, you are nothing. You are less than a number in a country with 1.3 billion people.
Smiling in his leather jacket, my boss took me to work. The walls in my workplace were entirely green with little bluetak marks. You had to use a fingerprint scanner, and everything in the place screamed marketing. All of the local Chinese staff wore pink uniforms, and many of them had plastic smiles. If there was a meeting, all of the staff would gather in a room and nod in agreement. There was a strange collectivism, and it made me deeply uncomfortable.
Two weeks of training, and the job began. I was a fully trained teacher. I taught three year olds, which mainly involved them jumping on flashcards. And, I taught teenagers, which mainly involved ignoring the textbooks and Flash videos, and hoping for the best.
Now, I have spent three years in for profit education, and this company tried to teach 3 important ‘values:’
1. You are a big important family. Yes, yes, you will have to go to compulsary unpaid training events which are far away. But, you will have cookies. Big smiles now. Now, ignore the teacher who ran away in the middle of the night. And, ignore the teacher who got fired for kicking another teacher in the testicles. They were not family.
2. Negativity: All negativity was banned. You will certainly have to teach 12 extra hours a week in the Summer for no extra money. BUT, you will get watermelon on Wednesdays.
3. Broken promises: Hey hey, you won a teaching competition, so you won a free trip to Shanghai! Oh wait, you did not re-sign your contract, so I guess we will delete that email.
The situation was so bad that you had to either laugh or hold a dirty protest. But, smearing shit on the walls is frowned upon in the teaching profession. That sort of behavior leads to complaint calls or a verbal warning. WIthin the first two weeks, I had to attend a conference in a hotel where I had to stand on a stage and fire a glitter cannon, on my off day. Within the first four weeks, i had to teach in a shopping centre. This involved learning a dance on the spot, bending my knees really low and asking 3 year olds, “what’s your name?” The marketing team nodded in approval, whilst I took public clowning 101.
The pollution in the air made me really sick. I was often on an IV in a hospital. Notably, one evening I was on a IV in a military hospital. Soon, a man drove a moped into the treament room. He then pulled out a packet of cigarettes and some beer bottles and had a party. My mouth would have dropped if the saline didn’t keep it open.
Still, there were upsides. I had a small but committed friend group. We would stay at the local bar until 5am, drinking, eating and watching a sheep dog called Skipper drinking out of the toilet. One night, my friend and I were eating street food whilst a member of the Chinese Mafia threw some ham at my head. Later on, he threw a beer bottle at me and we knew it was time to move on.
Life was intense. It backed and forth between shitty work, laughter at silly work and endless inequalities and pointless burecracy. Two final pointless and intense events summarised the year.
First, my work held a “didn’t we do well?” conference after the intensive Summer course. We were not permitted to sit beside people we knew and liked. One teacher actually open a beer during a particularly boring speech. One of our company’s core values was humility, which explains the 30 minute presentation about why we are better than all of our competitiors. One of the bosses decided to give us a 1 hour presentation on The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, steps 1-3 in 5 minute chunks, then translated into 5 minutes of Chinese. Bored, I went to the bathroom to hide, finding most many other people there to do the same thing.
My final conference was at a 5 star hotel. Our job was to stand between parents and children at the tables and pump them up by jumping and clapping. Important, there was a buffet, and we were not to touch it We had 2 sandwiches and should be grateful. I dared to take a cup of coffee and was stared at by the local pencil pusher. He then told me, “you should stop being sick!” and stormed off, which is excellent advice to give to a sick person.
Then, my last day of work came. My final lesson to give to students was contractions. It is/it’s, etc. I performed in front of parents and although it was very hard to make that exciting, they shook my hands. I was free, free from the madness of that ridiculous year.
Although, this blog post may be seen as quite depressing, as a writer I must write as I saw it. I love China, I love the Chinese, but that year was damaging. After I got off my final flight home, I smelt the fresh air of Northern Ireland. The skies were blue and I saw my friends again. I knew that this experience was how to NOT be an ESL teacher. The next step, Korea was how to do it, and along the way, I fell in love.