As it is November 4th, that puts me at exactly two months since leaving the states. And that milestone gave me special occasion to reflect and finally sit down to compose once again. I do apologize for the considerable lag time since my last post; I know certain people have been inquiring when the next one would be and knowing that my writing is appreciated makes me feel very honored. It’s not as if nothing significant or fresh has happened in the time between posts – new things, big and small, are happening all the time.
For a while though, I found myself falling into a routine, which can be viewed as both good and bad. Wake up, commute, teach in the morning, come home for lunch, go back for afternoon classes, come home for dinner, and repeat the next day. On the weekends, I would finally have the chance to sleep in a little, catch up on correspondence and news, hopefully have a video chat with the parents, and maybe get out and explore the city on my bike. This illusion of routine with long gaps devoid of exploration or travel made it seem like I could’ve been teaching for years and the lack of constant exposure to new experiences made it seem like I could’ve been teaching anywhere, that China, as a component of the experience, didn’t matter.
I promise this won’t all be boring pontification. In the time since my last update, I have started guest-teaching every Friday at another school. I have so far taught classes for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grades, really getting a taste for what teaching other age levels could be like. (Side note: don’t wish to speak for anyone else who’s a teacher, but a class of 50 6th graders seemed to be much easier to handle than a class of 15 kindergarteners. Thoughts, Tessa?) To be quite honest, I really like the school, the teachers, the students, everything about the experience has been very welcoming and positive. Maybe it’s a rotating role, but the school has these assigned ambassadors who wear a bright red sash and are responsible for welcoming guests such as myself to the school. The students’ English is excellent, so much so it makes me question the adults’ competency level. I’ve found at both schools faculty and staff whose English is poorer than the students or those who barely speak any English at all. Welp, the children are our future, I suppose.
One Friday afternoon at this new school, I was invited to participate in an Olympic-type decathlon the school holds every month called Sport Day. Everyone participates, from the tiniest kindergartener to the headmaster herself, a frail old woman at that. And when I wasn’t competing, I was beating the kids off me with a stick, so interested in my background were they. Now I don’t want to brag, but I won the gold in each of my events. Hey, somebody had to represent the U.S. at these games. I did try to make it close when I was competing against the kids, I’m not a monster. Anyway, the whole afternoon was very fun and relaxed and I got to share my story with a group of very nice, friendly kids.
Maybe it’s because I mostly deal with kindergarteners who often have their finger up their nose, but these elementary school students were very clever. They’re reading full English sentences from a book, they have a wider vocabulary than I do in Mandarin, they’re able to focus and take direction, and they’ve yet to lose the enthusiasm and yearning exhibited by my kindergarteners. While some of them might be shy and hesitant to raise their hand and participate, there are plenty of the clear standout pupils every teacher wants who chase every hands-on opportunity, the active participants, the volunteers. And to my knowledge, they arrived at this point without an English native teacher. It inspires confidence and makes me wonder how far my kindergarteners will go.
Back at my other school, I have recently been tasked with a public works project. When they found out that drawing used to be quite a hobby of mine, they asked if I would assist their art teacher with a mural in my downtime between classes. I have an hour each day after my last class and before the end-of-the-day concert, which I used to fill by going down to an empty classroom and practicing the piano. Now, every day, I steadily add to this mural on the first floor:
Now, the idea and initial sketch were not my own but I was responsible for at least this wall. When the whole thing is finished, this entire lobby will be painted. I’m actually kinda proud of it and it has an element of permanence. Like the school pictures, it’ll still be here long after I’m gone, proof that Jin Jieke was here.
Hopefully another piece of my legacy will be the legendary lessons I taught on Thursday. As Halloween isn’t widely celebrated in China and American candy options are few and far between, I thought I would integrate at least one aspect of the holiday into my lessons. So, for the classes held on Thursday, I had the students trick or treat “around the neighborhood” at the other classrooms but instead of receiving candy, they would receive one vocabulary word from each “house”. Obviously they didn’t have access to any costumes but boy, do they love screaming “trick or treat!”
As I mentioned earlier, sometimes on the weekend, I’ll go out on my bike and just explore the town. For instance, I had no idea until I decided to venture beyond my commute route that I literally live on the edge of town. Where I live, Wanchengxin Tiandi, is a huge shopping plaza with plenty of restaurants and stores. It’s not the cleanest place but it’s commercial and it’s developed. However, if you drive maybe two kilometers past my apartment, you’ll find yourself in the slum neighborhoods.
If you notice, the rose bushes lining both sides of the street are nicely trimmed and clearly well-kept despite being in frame with run-down shanties and houses with significant pieces of brick wall missing. A few houses down from this photo, a young teenage girl was handling a metal grinder and an acetylene torch. By herself. Stark differences separated by less than a mile, two parts of town that have nothing in common, that seem to be two different worlds. Yes, Xingtai is an industrial town populated by the low to lower middle class but an outsider like me can scarcely hope to touch the surface of the income disparity issue. Something I’ve noticed every day on my way to and from the school are the city workers in their orange jumpsuits sweeping the streets, trimming the bushes, picking up trash. And surprisingly, most of them are elderly women. Women constitute a much bigger share of civic services, manufacturing, and industrial jobs than in America.
Switching gears, being the only American (or person of any ethnic diversity whatsoever) in a town the size of Xingtai can get awful lonely, especially for someone with limited language ability. And the majority of people I know are either 5 years old or 45 years old so meeting someone in my age group is rare and can only come about through serendipity. That is why I was so thankful to finally hang out with two of my fellow teachers this past Saturday evening. We went out to dinner (I now know of at least one Chinese-approved, affordable restaurant in my area) and then played night badminton. I know I used to scoff at badminton, but it was probably the most fun Saturday night I’ve had so far (and sadly, the most exercise). We agreed we absolutely had to play again someday, only next time… maybe drunk?
Thank you all once more for taking time to read my ongoing story. I’ll try to take less time in the future between chapters. Zaijian!