I arrived at Zhuo Yue English school – pronounced ‘cho yeah’, on a Wednesday, and was immediately ushered into a small office within a beige and uninspiring one-story building. I perched myself atop one of several wooden stools dotted around the room and waited quietly, taking time to absorb my surroundings, as my contact, Cathy, shot off somewhere to gather all of the various and necessary induction papers. Observing the room, I twisted and rotated about the stool, causing it to creek precariously under my weight. I saw an untidy space littered with mounds of paper, stationary, and arts and crafts paraphernalia. Rows of three computers sat parallel to each other along opposing walls beneath, on one side, a broad window, which gave an expansive view of the school courtyard. It was about three in the afternoon and most of the kids had class, leaving the courtyard barren and preserving a silence unbefitting of the complex’s vast expanse. Eventually, Cathy, who headed the admin arm of the school and had been my interviewer and sole ‘on the ground’ contact during the application process, returned. I spent the next fifteen minutes or so feigning an understanding of the school’s procedures and curriculum, both of which were steeped in ambiguity, and trying on various t-shirts, which were emblazoned with the school’s name, to ascertain my ‘Chinese size’ (I was an extra-large).I was quickly coming to realise that the image I had of the systematic, demanding, and altogether stereotypical Chinese school – a preconception that had given me much anxiety, was false. At the time, I didn’t realise just how much could be read into the disarray of the offices or the ambiguity of the curriculum. Much like the room itself, the school’s function, and my role within it, was confused. I was to spend the rest of the week observing classes, and would be assigned my own on Sunday night, as the new kids arrived from Shenzhen for the beginning of a new school week at nine am the following day. The new ease I felt upon realising that the school was not nearly as formal or disciplined as I’d once worried was completely undercut by fresh uncertainties: who am I teaching? What am I teaching? Where am I teaching? And, most pressingly, how the fuck was I going to occupy classes of more than a dozen Chinese-speaking kids for five hours a day, five days a week?
These were questions I relied upon the rest of my foreign teacher cohort to answer, in the short term. I was the last of an initial group of about thirteen to arrive at the school – bar two Americans, who’d follow a week or so later, and I was eager to field each of them a barrage of questions on just how the hell this whole thing worked. My opportunity came after first introductions at a four o’clock Mandarin class held for teachers, from which I determined my Chinese name, 休 (pronounced sheyow), and learnt some swearwords – just enough to get by. Here I met most of the people I’d be spending the next 5 or so weeks with, and I was relieved to find that they weren’t assholes. In fact, I got along with everyone, to varying degrees, and a subset of us became good friends.After class, and some food, we took the one hundred metre walk back up the street to the grey, five-story apartment block that would be our home. The building sat across a road parallel to the school. It was far enough away to constitute a change of scenery but close enough that kids on lunch would clock your presence through a window, wave and scream, en masse, from their fourth-floor canteen in a large beige building within the school compound. My bed was on the fourth floor, in a room at the front of the building which, as such, included a small balcony. The room was far apart from anything I’d expected. The beds were soft, the shower was powerful, and a bulking ac unit in the corner blasted an icy wind on command. I settled quickly into a comfortable new environment and, after unpacking a little, continued to badger my roommate with questions about his first day of teaching, as my apprehension was building.
Without access to my journal many memories of my first week are indistinct. After the initial shock of arrival, the next few days were less eventful. The same evening, the school took a group of us teachers to a small bar in Yangshuo, presumably to grease the wheels of conversation with a little alcohol and get us better acquainted. The next day, my first full day at Zhuo Ye, was spent, as promised, in observation. I sat in on an entry level class, in which the bulk of the work consisted of regurgitating the alphabet and pronunciation, or ‘phonics’, as the class was called. Relative to levels one, two and three (three being the most advanced class), ‘phonics’ kids were much younger, maybe eight to ten years old. A distinct personality with an inordinate capacity for patience is best suited to teaching phonics. The kids were disciplined, mostly, but a combination of their young age and a pervasive language barrier make for a difficult environment for a non-Mandarin speaking teacher. Observing phonics was initially interesting, but two and a half hours of ‘A is for apple’ and so on proved maddening.Sun-bathed days slipped by and, before I knew it, it was Sunday evening. I was at the school, completely drenched in a combination of rainwater and sweat. Rainwater, from the thunderstorm that’d caught our group off guard mid-hike to the top of a local mountain, and sweat, as I’d left early to come hurtling back down again to meet my eight o’clock with Cathy. As the newbie, I’d been recalled to conduct ‘interviews’ of the new batch of kids that had arrived from Shenzhen. It was my job, along with two Chinese-speaking aides, to assign the kids a class level based on their responses to questions picked randomly from a list. A kid who could answer ‘what is your name’ but not ‘tell me about your family’, for example, would be determined a level one, whereas a kid who could respond cogently to both was assigned a level two, or three.
I sat between my two assistants and skimmed through the long list of names in Chinese characters on a piece of paper in front of me. Some had corresponding English names next to their Chinese title – students adopt an English name at language schools as common practice. There were clusters of the same name, ‘Coco’ was especially popular. But many had clearly taken complete advantage of this responsibility, and infused their choices with complete originality. A small, bespectacled boy with gelled-up hair, who I would later teach and become good friends with, shook my hand, sat down and introduced himself as Iron Man, which did throw me a bit. As we worked through the list, the regular Mike or Mary was punctuated with the occasional curve-ball of Poison, Mango, and even Tomato. Others were less decisive, and even struggled to pick from a long list of suggested names we provided. For this reason, one kid asked if I would choose a name for him. So, I thought for a moment, and in an act of counterbalance and probable cruelty I christened the boy ‘Keith’.