The night of August 11th was our last at Zhuo Yue English language school, so the kids put on a talent show, showcasing a mix of Western and Chinese music, dance, and comedy – though the effort of one kid, Johnny, to translate stand-up acts, on a line by line basis, effectively drew any humour out of the performances. Once the show had ended, a small group of us foreign teachers occupied the canteen where the event had taken place, after the kids had left for their dormitories and school employees had put them to bed. We commandeered a sound system, drafted in some beers, and chilled out. But there was little conversation involved. We were each taking the time to reflect upon the past month or so, hanging out of windows and gazing out across the school complex and mountains that lay beyond in contemplation. The kids must have heard us, and, still enthused by talent show performances, defied their curfews, came to their windows waved. It was a moving moment. We, or I, hadn’t anticipated an emotional departure, but the bonds we had formed with students and staff alike were unexpected, which would render final goodbyes the next morning all the more acute.
Everyone was out in the courtyard waiting for us, the next and final morning. A few kids were crying, buried deep in the consoling hugs of their minders, and many more appeared to be on the verge. As far as I remember, most of us teachers were stoic. Swapping WeChat IDs with those we were closest friends gave the impression that in some small way goodbyes weren’t final. We stood for photos and endured the shitty situation together, repeatedly uttering ‘see you later’, rather than ‘goodbye’.Some kids – those who had been with the school the longest, would be leaving too. Many had come to us from the city of Shenzhen and, as three of us teachers had decided to travel on to Hong Kong together, we’d be sharing a 2 hour bus ride to Guilin city, from where we’d all take a bullet train into Shenzhen. The arrangement made the farewell process that little bit more bearable, at least, so the logic read, we wouldn’t be quitting the entire school all at once. But this logic hadn’t prevented us from dragging out goodbyes at the school for as long as possible, and, as such, missing the bus. A sense of urgency quickly undercut our sentimentality and we piled into a trailer affixed to an old school motorbike, speeding away until we managed to flag down and board the coach, 10 minutes or so later.
Some 3 hours later, I found myself on the train to Shenzhen. We were dotted about the train’s many coaches, leaving me with sometime to reflect and absorb the fleeting majesty of Guangxi province’s urban-rural meld. I chowed down on the burger and fries I’d collected from the station, and peeled open some of the small sweets and little packaged meats the kids had given as parting gifts. I took some time to write my journal, though as I recall the majority of the entry concerned a pedestrian peanut farming trip my class had taken a few days earlier – I hadn’t at that point absorbed those final few days enough to feel any worth in getting them down on paper. In any case, we wouldn’t truly finish our departure until we had said our final goodbyes to the kids that travelled with us to Shenzhen, those that’d been with us the longest, and were amongst our best connections.A crowd of parents and family awaited as we emerged from Shenzhen rail station. It was comforting to see the joy on the kids’ faces as they embraced grandmas, mothers and fathers with wide smiles. We decided to hang around for a few minutes, as we had no real timetable to adhere to from this point forward. We moved amongst the group again, trading goodbyes and swapping more WeChat IDs. Parents and guardians started to peel away their kids to cars and connecting trains. One of my former students, Angel, who would always shout and swear at me in friendly jest, said a simple goodbye, one that wasn’t laced with the usual name-calling, swearing and laughter – her biggest tell. Another kid, ‘Iron Man’, was visibly struggling, and his farewell became quite cinematic. He stayed with us for as long as his parents would allow, and took 10 or so slow steps forward, before glancing back at us, teary eyed, waving with his one free hand, and repeating the process a further 3 times. Iron Man’s goodbye would be the closest I came to welling-up, and was the tipping point for others.
I imagine it would be difficult for others to appreciate the poignancy of our goodbyes, much less grasp their meaning. But a month is a long time, and the experiences we shared with those kids were both innumerable and bonding. I recently wrote that this would be my last ‘Missing Journal’ post, but as I continue to reflect upon my short time in China, the more I’m aware of the extent to which I have unconsciously reduced complex experiences, and have negated some of those that have impacted me most personally. In a sense, this article has been much less about broad experiences, such as teaching classes and cross-country travel, as has been the case with previous posts, but concerns itself instead with unpacking two particular moments, one in the courtyard of Zhuo Yue School on the morning of August 12th, and another, some hours later, at the exit of Shenzhen rail station. A group of more than a dozen foreign teachers amongst a school community of hundreds had been whittled down to just three: Max, Charlotte, and myself. Each of us had struggled in some capacity with the day’s farewells, but as a trio we were now able to reflect on the past few days and weeks with a richness and empathy that would draw us closer together. We had arrived in Hong Kong after the sun had set, and took a slow stroll through the dimly lit foliage of Victoria Park.