9 Glorious Years

Well, maybe not.

It’s nine years today since I first arrived in China. The weather that day was about the same as today – sunshine and 33°. I was braced to be whisked to Third-World squalor as we passed through the grubby villages between Beijing Airport and Tongzhou. But Tongzhou was a relatively well-appointed satellite town outside the capital, which was to be my home for the next three years.

I soon learnt a few things. When asked when we would start teaching, it seemed quite reasonable to be allowed a couple of days to recover from travelling to China. The correct answer was, “Immediately”. Mrs Wu promised to take us to see the sites, but she was too busy appearing to be busy to ever do that; but it was also the custom.

And so here I was with no experience of teaching school children, or EFL, or the faintest idea of what an intermediate-level imbecile learner was, or a curriculum, or anything much. I made a right mess of the first term because being an egalitarian sort when it comes to knowledge, I expected everyone to complete the exercises. With the arrival of the second term, I abandoned that for ploughing my way through the textbook regardless of whatever progress my students might be making. (Answer: none.)

I’m trying to think how things have changed over the past nine years. There are the obvious ones like the size of the economy (quite ignoring the Namibian levels of income), and the current administration, which having come in my time is about to leave in my time. The Internet has been increasingly abused since the Olympic Games even although very little of what is blocked is of interest to a domestic audience. (Recent figures I saw claimed that only 4% of Internet traffic ever strays outside the prison walls; that’ll be the expats and students applying to foreign universities.) People who can think for themselves have become even less popular. I’m sure there are a lot of other things which have changed since I’ve been here although after moving from one place to another, I have a fragmentary picture at best.

But how different is China after all this time? I don’t believe it is that different from the time of my arrival in 2002. The infrastructure may have changed with new buildings there and roads here, but the people don’t seem to be different, and they’re what counts. The population may still be a Third-World pyramid, but the youth of today ends up being the parents of tomorrow, and the world stays the same because no one has time or energy for children and social change. (Not counting callous megalomaniac dictators. You know who I mean.)

Meanwhile, when Bruce is sent round to find out who has a bike (me, John the Maths Teacher, Rob and Michelle, Fred), I wonder what the school is up to. I’m predicting a pointless and unnecessary lecture on road safety from someone who isn’t qualified to speak on the subject. Mr Bamboo’s advice: go when it’s safe to go; expect traffic from the other direction; and pay attention because no one else is paying attention.

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