Snippets of Life as Teacher in China

By Zoe P., CE Teacher in China

March 30th

I’ve been told there are five steps in experiencing a new country. First, the honeymoon. You are in awe of the newness. You are stimulated. You feel enriched. It is euphoric and yet you still feel close ties with home. I write emails home with the following news items:
Chopsticks are where it’s at. Everyone is so friendly. There are so many cute dogs! My student wrote a poem about the meaning of equality; it was so good. People really know how to save water here. I can play soccer everyday if I want to. My sewing teacher can make anything! She is a magician and never tires! The Chinese doctors have healed my injured knee. I feel no pain. I giggle and rejoice with my fellow foreigners: Oh my god, did you read her shirt?! It says “Sadistic Teddybear”! Hahaha. I love ice crrrrrrrrream. It is 13 cents AND delicious. She asked for 100 bucks, but I paid 30!

The weather changes. You go from ecstatic to befuddled. This is the distress stage. The newness is gone. You feel like you are walking the same roads everyday, just without the people you love most. Emails decrease in frequency. Runs change from quick stadium stair workouts to 18km ipod jam sessions. I start a drawing notebook and try to adjust more deeply. My teacher’s Christian self discipline (up at 5, work til six in the clothing market, cook, clean, bed at 10:30, repeat) makes me feel guilty and confused. Chinese weight consciousness starts a-knocking on the brain box. I am not sure if teaching is meaningful.

Third there is refusal.
You are angry, frustrated and hostile to those around you. You start to dream of the “good life” back home, even idealizing stuff you didn’t really dig when you were there. You start to resent your current culture from the architecture to the haircuts. You begin to abhor the things you used to find kitsch. You even start to develop some prejudice. Disappointed with the natural environment I begin to look at pictures of Zion National Park and Sedona, Arizona on the internet. “See?!” I ask my boyfriend.* Then ranting to him, I begin to ask many “you” phrased rhetorical questions highlighting a particular individual that strikes my attention, or calling upon the whole nation as one offensive entity.

Chinese people do NOT respect boundaries. How you gonna invite yourself over like that?! My students are so cliche. True love?! Kill me. Chinese divorces are on the rise. It’s going to be 1 in 2 just like America soon. Don’t play yourself.
Do you really like that much electronic bass? WHAT ARE YOU WEARING?????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

In America when it’s cold we turn on the heat. Here you guys think it’s enough to wear three pairs of pants. I went to elementary school with kids that wore shorts in winter. I want to be sweating in my sleep! Why do you have to spit like that? So the dog is free? Are you serious.

Step four. Like green life in March, autonomy reemerges. Slowly you start to break away from your own extremism. (Also like green life, this stage is aided by warmer weather)

You start to see the differences as simply that and begin to accept them. You realize there are good people around that have your back and that life is pretty sweet. You remember what you came for and what you enjoy doing. You focus on doing those things. You realize bipolarity is not a mental condition, but like the weather, simply the changing
conditions that you have to go through. I begin studying Chinese every morning. I get over my disregard for Chinese music and study the lyrics. I cry when Na Ying sings of how her love was cowardly and her lover’s greedy. I am inspired to create new clothing and sew a skirt I am really proud of. I can appreciate my student’s insights while critiquing their work. Two kilometers is enough to get my blood pumping. Chopsticks are still where it’s at. Emails home resume their steady frequency.

Finally, step five. Independence.
They say you are yourself again. You embrace the new culture and see everything in a new, yet realistic light. You feel comfortable, confident, able to make decisions based on your own preferences. You no longer feel alone and isolated. You appreciate both the differences and similarities of your new culture. You start to feel at home.** In China or anywhere else, I haven’t felt like myself since sixth grade. I haven’t gotten there yet, but feel like I am moving closer.***

* Yes, he is Chinese.
** Or so I am told on
***Feeling at home might be the scariest part.

March 25th

REFLECTIONS: I am the cliché too

A cliché or cliche (pronounced klē-ˈshā) is a saying, expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, rendering it a stereotype, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel. I’m an English teacher, so I care about Shakespeare.The most important thing he taught me is that what is obvious to some people is not obvious to others and vice versa. In China, I can appreciate Shakespeare’s truth more deeply everyday.

I was struggling to be back in China for a few weeks, but in the last week turned my perspective on being here around (the warmer weather helps). It’s hard living in China at times. I miss conversations with westerners. I miss intellectual conversations, or even just hearing them in the background- not too much, just a little for good measure. China is just so different. In my classrooms boys sit on one side of the room and girls on the other, by choice. I realize I could be here
a lifetime and still not really understand it.

So I am trying to focus on Chinese people’s kindness and warmth. I am drowning out the cliches and the pushiness, filling in the spaces with Chinese words. I am staying busy- studying Chinese, sewing clothes, preparing classes and getting fit.
I assigned the topic of a “blessing in disguise” to my students this week and out of 180 essays I’d estimate 120 were about the same thing: the adjustment to university life. It’s strange to have so many people and yet so little variety of life experiences, style, thinking… Some of the essays, if read in America, you’d have to wonder if they’d cheated. But I had students in different sections who have never met write nearly verbatim the same essays. I have to say being here makes me so proud to be American. We DO have culture. We have so much soul, depth and creativity in our music; we have put raw self-motivation into our participation in sports; we have courage in our humor; and we are even learning to cook. Right now I am focusing on letting my American-ness shine through here in China, rather than try to assimilate. It may be an obvious conclusion as a foreigner, but since it’s easy for me to slip into a crowd, it’s not always innate in me.

I think, also, I have fallen into looking at China as China, rather than selecting good people I can seek out, enjoy and learn from. Now and in the end, I love and hate both American and Chinese cultures, because they are both a part of me and because love and hate coexist and exist because of each other.* I don’t think Chinese culture is any better or worse. It is certainly not exportable nor is it a threat. Ah the two cultures…. so different, and both in me.

*Of course this is the kind of philosophical simplification that I hate my students writing in conclusion of their essays.

March 19th

LIVING (one part of) THE DREAM
We call the new spa in Yantai the “Wizard’s Palace,” because it is magical, regal and mysterious. I found the mystery unsettling the first time I went, back in November. I walked into a high ceiling reception hall greeted by women in white
satin gowns and white faux fur shawls. The lobby was adorned with abstract modern paintings in gold wooden frames. An enormous bouquet of fake peonies sat on a circular table in the center of the room. I was ushered to a large velvet couch surrounded by slippers and told to give them my shoes.

I then parted ways with my boyfriend and entered the women’s chambers, similarly lined with cherub statues and lavish furnishings. I felt apprehension. My style dislikes the ornate to the point of moral distrust. I said to my friend Kristen (who had already been there several times and loved it) that the place was probably run by a wizard who would never let us leave. “They are probably going to take our organs.” She just laughed as she always does. The gross exaggeration prepared me for whatever was ahead, which turned out to be dinner.

We were given pink shorts and shirt pajama sets, dressed, and left the women’s chambers out a back entrance. We passed a bar, a pool table, and a stuffed animal claw machine game as we circuitously made our way through the velvet curtained corridor en route to the elevators. Grand, shaded mirrors hung on the walls, as if to confirm my dark reflections.

Fifth floor. Bing. Doors open. Turn right. It was hard to remember how to get back, but Kristen was already introducing the new activity: “the buffet here is ri-diculous.” We entered a banquet hall the length of a football field. Decor included a larger than life, growling, golden lion statue; high backed, plush silver couches; an eight food wide fish tank with neon lights; three foot tall birdcage light fixtures; and a telescope (doesn’t that SCREAM wizard?).

Dinner was already underway and the buffet line was busy with Chinese people of all ages, all dressed in pink jammies, considering their options of fare. Over sweet and sour chicken, bok choy, tofu and baozi, the questions came out, beginning with the most obvious: How could such a large and and grand place be maintained, while feeding everyone up to three meals for free, while only charging 39 yuan (about $6) a person? The food took the edge off our curiosity and Kristen and I left Jimmy to return to the women’s chambers.

The women’s spa space includes a locker changing area, a long primping station, and the spa itself which has two and a half story ceilings. In the center is a large soaking pool. There is also a sauna and stream room. Showers three deep line the perimeter and there is also a room lined with wooden bath tubs and two “fat melting” machines, which look fit to take someone to the moon. Like the lobby and dining hall, the spa spares no decoration. Red metal mesh curtains hang around the rectangular pool, and the bird cage motif is continued in other areas. If I had to choose one, I’d say the spa aims for an Arab style, given the arched entryways.

Kristen and I showered then went to the sauna where we rubbed salt all over ourselves before soaking in the heat. We then showered, and soaked, and steamed, and sat, and showered as the spirit moved us. I still wanted to hate the place, but it was growing harder. Kristen told me it was time to go to the “rest room.” We dressed in our pink suits and headed to the third floor. Overly makeup-ed women in short tight qipao’s were ready as the elevator doors opened to lead us down a few hallways to our destination. We entered a room the size of a public high school cafeteria. It was darker than a cinema before the start of a film and filled with larger than lazy boy recliners, each attached to their own flat screen and headphones. We could order foot and leg massages from the recliners; the masseuse would simply find us in the sea of sofas. I of course was not interested in getting a massage, still fearful and not ready to be a donor.

“You can sleep here overnight,” Kristen noted as she reclined backwards 180 degrees, “and then eat breakfast in the morning.” After watching Discovery channel and some snippets of NBA games (a refreshing reprieve from China’s government dominated CCTV networks), it was time to start heading home.
Since November the spa has developed into Kristen’s and my weekly ritual. Some things have changed since the initial visit, including it’s growing popularity. This means that to eat dinner at 6pm, you must arrive promptly at quarter til and then use your best Chinese to remind the ladies that they are behind you in line and not to cut. Chinese people, who are usually very law abiding, seem to break from this pattern when food is involved. Last week at 5:55 a new food
server made the mistake of prematurely taking off the plastic wrap from the fruit salad. Immediately a rush of Chinese women ages 17 to 75 surrounded the cold food buffet and started filling their plates. The attendant yelled, “it’s not time yet! it’s not time yet!” but the ladies ignored him. He picked up the remains of the fruit salad, moved it behind the velvet rope, and continued preparing his station. A woman in her 70’s, who had kept the tongs, went back to the salad.
When the man noticed, he was furious and demanded she give him the tongs. She put the tongs behind her back, closed her eyes and shook her head. I admired the woman’s defiance, although lingering fear of wizardry still keeps me from taking more than a few chunks of watermelon before time is called. The furnishings will sometimes dramatically change at the spa, even from visit to visit. Wall hangings are replaced with statues, and stuffed animal claw machines disappear overnight. Although we have grown accustomed to a weekly routine of rinsing, exfoliating, and moisturizing, a large part of me denies that such a place exists and that this is actually my life. My denial comes, in part, from not feeling justified in spoiling myself, but then I am reminded of experiences like finding a Pucci dress at a thrift store: “it’s only
six dollars!”

–Zoe Pastorfield
Teach China 2009-2010

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