It was early in the morning, and I had heard a quiet knock at the hotel room door. Haggardly rising from a jet-lagged slumber, I opened it and was confronted by a small Chinese woman who barged her way into the room. She told me in quick, heavily-accented English that I was teaching in one hour, and I would have 3 lessons in a row. The topic would be myself. 

Before I had time to protest that I’d only arrived earlier that night, had zero teaching experience and didn’t even know where exactly in the city of Hangzhou I was, she was gone. This was it, the deep end, I thought to myself as I rushed around, fumbling for a paper and pen to plan the first lesson, wondering what I could possibly say about myself for an entire hour that would keep 30 or so Chinese teenagers entertained.

After a few days in bizarre limbo, teaching at a summer school just down the road, I was put on a bus along with some similarly confused English teachers, and sent to a small provincial town on the outskirts of Hangzhou where we would spend the next month.

As with most things in China, first lessons with a group of students would always be eye opening, slightly embarrassing but always interesting. As soon as I entered a new classroom, there would be a flood of questions from the mundane to the outrageous. The first would always be: “Do you have a girlfriend?” followed by loud giggles from everyone, before someone asked, “What do you think of Chinese girls?” or pressured me for an opinion on Justin Bieber. Inevitably, I was then asked how tall I was. Being 6ft 4 in a class of 5ft teenagers left the students both amused and scared of my comparatively towering height.

Compared to University life, the teaching job was hard work and full-on, with almost no guidance from the school. Compared to the students however, our workload was relatively light.  For us the day started at 9am, ridiculously early for someone used to rolling out of bed for a midday lecture. For the Chinese students the first lesson began at 6am and they didn’t get to bed until long past 10pm, with a meagre hour and a half for lunch and a further hour for dinner. The boys would even skip meals to play sports, running round in the blistering tropical summer heat in their precious time off before sprinting off to their next lesson.

I found my position in the school unique; the foreign teachers were someone the students could talk to, albeit brokenly, about their school woes and we spent many a lesson ranting about their daily life, the fact they were at school during their summer holidays, the bad food and the strict rules enforced by their merciless headmaster. But all of them were full of hope. Their goal was university, which would bring them a freedom they’d never yet experienced. Freedom from home and from the relentless Chinese education system. They knew that they would have to work exceptionally hard to get there, with the country’s huge population limiting opportunities for further study, but they all had exceptional drive and motivation, something I found both inspirational yet at times slightly terrifying.

Spending my summer in China was by far one of the more constructive options I could have taken. Aside from the costs of flights, everything was paid for by the school and I even received an unexpected pay check at the end which I put to good use in the bars of Beijing. The culture and lifestyle were at times outright confusing. I would always find myself at some point in the day shaking my head and growing impatient when I just couldn’t get my head around something, be it the gratuitous consumption of chicken feet or locals grabbing me for an impromptu photo shoot in the street. It was all part of the experience though and far from alienating myself from the way of life I began embracing it, finding myself noisily slurping up noodles in backstreet restaurants and munching on chicken heart kebabs after a heavy night of homebrew drinking competitions in the local bars. Teaching in a foreign country was certainly never going to be easy, but the challenge of it made it a greatly rewarding and outstandingly eye-opening trip.

Richard Collett

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