Friday 13 March 2015:
I’m teaching again. I guess that the retirement was always going to be a contested zone but I
didn’t expect it to puncture in quite this way.
Here’s what happened. Just before Christmas, I received an email from a young Chinese teacher
of English whom I had met during a visit to his school in Zhanjiang some seven years ago. I had
gone to his school in an official capacity- as the Head of a Sister School in an arrangement
sponsored by the Cairns City Council- and in the Confucian culture that is never very far from the
surface in Communist China, this is a position of exaggerated dignity. There were welcoming
banquets, drinking events I couldn’t escape and cheering groups of school children. It was very
flattering indeed- no one cheers the Principal at home. I remember going to this young teacher’s
classroom and enjoying engaging with his bright and lively students. My ego was again flattered
by the deference everyone showed me in the classroom and I enjoyed the open warmth of the
English teachers on the staff of the school. The young man’s name was Huang Jianwen but he
introduced himself as Bill. It was his English name, he explained, given to him in his first class with
a much loved American native speaker.
Bill’s email was wholly unexpected – warm and gracious and vague in its intent. So much had
happened in our lives and in the world since we had last seen each other, he wrote. How good it
would be if we could get together again. I have a little experience with this kind of Asian inquiry
and returned an equally vague and complimentary response. Yes, it would be great to catch up;
actually, I was now retired and free to travel. Perhaps I could one day come back to Zhanjiang?
After more emails and more compliments on both sides, the offer became concrete and I could
commit to coming for a fortnight to work as an assistant in Bill’s classroom. I’m meeting all my own
costs; feeling as I do now I would probably have paid to work!
It all happens today and I am really chuffed to be asked and excited that I could accept the
invitation. Almost immediately I began working on ideas for the lessons. Bill told me that the units
he was working on at the time of my visit related to Volunteering and to Living and Working
Abroad. I was busy with slide shows and discussion topics, remembering always that my novelty
value related to bringing a different style of teaching and learning and a different voice to the
classroom. I decided to pick up Australia’s Coffee Culture as a something that might interest
young Chinese students thinking about travelling abroad. This involved trying to suggest what
topics of conversation young Australians might engage in in a coffee shop. It’s a long while since I
was young myself but I’ve had a go at sorting out some topics. They range from the profound (Is it
better to be happy or to have a meaning in life?) to the banal (Who would win in a fight: Superman
or Spider-Man?) I wonder what the young Chinese students will make of these questions,
processing them as they must in a second language.
Now as I wait to board the plane, I’m feeling weary. The Cathay Pacific flight leaves at 12.50 am:
and everyone gathering at the Gate looks exhausted. At the end of the evening flight there is a day
in Hong Kong then an early evening flight to Zhanjiang. And then my work as a teacher can
Sunday 22 March 2015
The flight from Hong Kong to Zhanjiang is theoretically an international flight. The plane is a
Shanghai Airlines 737 – small and relatively full: at least it seems very full because everyone
seems to have a lot of hand luggage. The flight is supposed to take only 50 minutes but we are late
getting away and it is a full hour and a half before we are into Zhanjiang. I make conversation while
I am in Hong King with people in shops and no one seems to have heard of Zhanjiang. Perhaps it
is my pronunciation or the extraordinary insularity of the Hong Kong people that has these
otherwise intelligent souls are ignorant of a city of eight million people only 600 kms away.
I am further intrigued when I reach for the inflight magazine and find that Zhanjiang is not shown on
the map of Shanghai Airlines destinations. Where am I going to – a city that no one knows about
and is not shown on the map? What a great start for a novel! I can see the end of the first chapter
forming: when our plane arrives, there on the tarmac is the perfectly preserved fuselage of —
Malaysian Airlines Flight 370!
I find when we get to our destination that the checked baggage takes a little while to arrive and
there is a rush across the tarmac by locals struggling with their carry-on luggage to be the first
through the customs gate. Even though my Western politeness puts me close to the back of the
queue, I am quickly through with a minimum of fuss, being met and welcomed by Bill. Stretching ahead of me is almost two weeks of work in classrooms.
It’s a big school. The year level that is the equivalent of Year 11 in Australia has 2400 students – all
of whom study English. Bill has a class of 27 students; it’s one of the two top classes in the
language that are streamed off from the mainstream cohort. I will be working with both classes in
the first week and with Bill’s class alone in the second week. There are many other English classes
in the cohort and I will work with some of them too. These classes are enormous- 57 to 60 students
in each class. The students in Bill’s class are the top Maths Science students and some of them
are obviously very bright; all of them are very hard workers and take their study very seriously.
When I begin to work with them, I also find that they are delightful young people: winsome, open
and warm-hearted. They have a naïveté or innocence about them that Australian students do not
have but, of course, it’s always difficult to make these cultural pronouncements because the filter of
my understanding – their working in a second languages- is so distorting. It seems to me that their
lives have been much less exposed to media and celebrity and raunch than the lives of Western
children and the result is what young people in Australia must have been like in the 1950s: my generation, actually
They smile so readily. The students are very grateful for my willingness to come to their classroom as a volunteer. Native speakers are unusual in Zhanjiang schools and so the lessons focus on listening and speaking rather than writing. That’s my brief: Bill needs to get maximum use out of this resource while it is handy. The young people in the classes I teach come up and want a piece of me – a signature, a
photograph, a word of personal encouragement. I try to act the part of the avuncular gentleman –
that seems to be what is expected anyway. It is flattering to have the positive response so
generously given. It’s not exactly cheering but it’s still good for the ego.
The lessons go well – although some students shyly tell me afterwards that they miss quite a bit of
what I say. The slow pace of delivery and the repetition of key phrases really makes a difference; I
am better in some lessons than in others. The slide shows are good, with the pictures supporting
the simple text. When I get the chance to see the students’ written work and comprehension I am
impressed by the sophistication of the texts they handle. The standard of written English in
controlled settings is very high.
I am very grateful to Bill and his family for their kindness to me during my story; their lives seem to
be put on hold for the two weeks that I am here and it must be tiresome to have to bother
with me when they are tired or just need some privacy and quiet. I am staying in an hotel very
near the school: it is clean and wonderfully welcoming when I need down time. Despite its
pretensions to grandeur as an international hotel, it’s a little shabby and needing a refit. Still, the
staff are welcoming and it suits me fine. The thing that I find hardest to manage is the cigarette
smoke that hangs everywhere. It’s in the lobby, the restaurants and in all the soft furnishings and
carpet of my room. People smoke here as if there is no tomorrow.
The other intriguing thing I have found with Chinese people is their noise tolerance. The place is
noisy and they make a lot of noise themselves: conversations are conducted with absolute
candour so that the whole room or restaurant is in on the story. I think that Chinese itself must be
an easy language in which to do this: the tonal intonation allows for lots of declarative noise. At
first I thought that I was blundering from one domestic altercation to another – that warring
husbands and wives or unfeeling brothers and sisters had decided to settle things in the restaurant
or the street. But just as quickly as the verbal slugging started it would give way to laughter and
smiles. The local people seem unconcerned at my presence. Small children stare but older people
usually just ignore me although they will smile back if I greet them first.
Wednesday 25 March 2015
I’m waiting for my flight back to Hong Kong at the Zhanjiang International Airport. This is a little
precious, perhaps: Hong Kong is the only international destination served by the airport. There is a
small check-in desk now overflowing with people. Apparently the flight is two hours late: no one
seems to think that this is unusual or unexpected although some of the International visitors at the
International airport are grumpy. A small group of Germans need to be in Hong Kong to connect
with the Lufthansa jet to Frankfurt tonight. Most people are standing; two important looking young
men in uniform may soon open the luggage check-in. I have my boarding pass but haven’t
checked the luggage yet.
My lesson this morning was a very happy one with the students in Bill’s class. It’s the last of our
Living and Studying Abroad lessons and I wanted to recreate the atmosphere of a coffee shop
where the students could discuss big ideas. Alas: no coffee – but I found packets of those delicious Indonesian coffee lollies and they had to do. The students were very happy to work through the discussion questions; despite the controversy of some of the questions there was little disagreement. It was better to be happy than rich; family was more important than friends; Superman would win the fight against Spiderman. When it was over, I made a speech to thank the students and they made one to thank me. I will remember their wonderful interest with affection. I will so remember the kindness of Bill and his family who made me so welcome.
The highlights of the journey are always the unexpected moments that illuminate the culture or
society you are observing as a stranger. Here are three such moments.
I am in the main park and gardens of the city- a lovely place with a children’s playground and a
lake with a promenade. There is a little pavilion near the main gate where a group of elderly local
people are gathered in the shade to listen to a small orchestra of five elderly musicians and two
lively women presenting Cantonese Opera. There are no sets, no costumes and no technology
except a simple sound system. The orchestra plays stringed and percussion music from a hand-
written score; the two ladies sing all the parts with great enthusiasm. The audience is highly
engaged in an elderly way. It’s just delightful to find this little piece of tradition nurtured in this way
as modern families amble past. And the music is great. The singers are talented and the orchestra
is very focused and disciplined.
Bill takes me to a Confucian temple in a village about forty kilometres from the city. A Confucian
temple, of course, is a contradiction in terms but this place certainly feels like a place of worship.
It honours a young local man who competed in the national exams to enter the Civil Service and
was placed first in the examinations. He is the only student from the area who ever achieved this
distinction and is much revered. A copy of his prize winning examination answer is mounted on
the wall; a statue of the distinguished young scholar takes pride of place where the cult statue
might be found in a Buddhist or Taoist temple. It is Spartan and austere compared with other
Chinese temples but the place has a lovely feel to it. People had been there recently, offering
flowers and a soft drink in honour of the scholar. Oh, and all of this academic success happened
over 400 years ago. It’s just extraordinary that a scholar who made his mark in the Ming dynasty –
roughly at the time of Shakespeare- would still be honoured in a country village in the People’s
Republic of China.
The third illustrative incident is the obverse side of the coin. I go to the sauna in the hotel, hoping
to shed some of the extra pounds I have acquired. It’s late afternoon and when I arrive, there are
four Chinese men – all obviously friends or business associates- spread out in the sauna. I can
hear their loud conversation as I store my clothes in the locker and head into the sauna area.
Everything goes silent as I enter.
One of them wears a heavy gold chain around his neck with a large piece of jade attached. I know
already from Bill that the new rich in China are not modest about flaunting their wealth. Two of the
men are very busy smoking. The man with the gold chain, however, quickly recovers his
confidence and laughs uproariously. He points directly at my penis- I’m not very far away from him
and this is quite invasive- and laughs again. Everyone has something to say about me- even in
loud Chinese that I cannot understand I am guessing that this is not very complimentary. I stand up
as tall as I can and say in English , “Good afternoon, Gentlemen. It’s all good; it’s okay!”
I take my place on the bench in the sauna; the men continue to scrutinise me intently but quickly
lose interest and return to the smoking and spitting. They go to sit about the cold pool; slowly they
leave and I am the only one left. I remember with a chuckle my grandmother’s good advice: “You
can never be too careful when you are abroad with your pants off!” She was certainly right there.
I have my last meal with Bill and we chat about the school year ahead. We talk about long
weekends and he says that the next short breaks for teachers will be the tomb sweeping day ( a
festival to honour ancestors) and May Day. I explain that the old conservative government in my
state had tried to abolish the May Day holiday by moving it to October. The new Labor Government
in Queensland has restored the holiday in May – “It’s called the Labor Party but the Socialist
government is not really a very Socialist government.” “Oh,” says Bill, “That happens from time to time.” It’s an interesting idea to take away from a fascinating visit.