On the First Days

Arrival: Wednesday

I arrived Wednesday evening, got picked up at the airport by a driver who spoke precisely no English, but he was holding a sign for my school and knew exactly where to go. The highway was pretty empty; a majority of cars were either taxis, luxury cars, or cars marked with the DiDi–the Chinese equivalent of Uber or Lyft–logo. Sitting in the back of a van, hugging my backpack, from the airport to the school felt like a kid walking through the line of Space Mountain; the transition from the world I have always known to a roller coaster of experiences was one of tension, wonder, and all-encompassing change.

Because I hadn’t allowed myself to sleep on the plane, I had to force my eyes open throughout the van ride to the school. I reached my apartment without incident. And as soon I walked through the front door of the building, a jovial guy with a big smile and a clean English accent greeted me. Harry is a fantastic dude; he is incredibly sweet and quick with a joke that sounds right out of John Cleese’s mind. (When I noted his sense of humor’s similarity with Monty Python, he beamed and said that was greatest compliment someone could pay him). The first thing Harry did was offer to help with my bags; luckily for both of us, my apartment is on the first floor; his room is directly above mine. Once I got the basic unpacked, I went upstairs and we talked a bit. Until we heard the apartment door open once again.

A married couple had just arrived with 11(!) bags. And guess what? They were not on the first floor.  They were on the 5th floor. So Harry and I brought a few bags each up their apartment, which sufficiently tired me out. I went back to my apartment and crashed.

Day 1: Thursday

I was awoken to the sound of groups of cadential shouting in Chinese outside my bedroom window.  Local teenagers were organized into perfectly straight and organized lines like a company on parade; they wore identical pure white shirts and bright blue-and-red pants. They marched, chanted, and saluted together–lead by young men in army uniforms. I had problems getting my students to wait in their desk for the bell to ring; these students were running around the basketball courts in unison. Welcome to China.

As I later found out, all Freshman are required to spend a few weeks before school starts in this military academy. This is their introduction to conscripted military service, a requirement for all Chinese citizens. They live in the dorms next to the teachers’ apartment building and they drill with army officials. They wake up early to scrub their windows with newspapers, have no doors to their bedrooms, and are instilled with disciplined CCP ideology.

There was nothing officially scheduled on Thursday; half of the building was due to arrive that day.  Harry and I quickly met those who arrived on Wednesday and we broke into groups based on our priority. A few of us in the apartment organized a trip to the Walmart that is a few blocks away. The differences between American and Chinese Walmart is slight; the products are almost entirely Chinese, but there is a small Western selection. The process of buying products works a bit differently, but we figured it out easily enough by watching the locals. The best teachers we have available to us is simple observation and imitation of the locals.

A group of 10 of us grabbed lunch at a place mere steps off of campus called Kung Foodle–a name I included purely for those of you who love puns. Ordering would have been difficult, but the owner (accustomed to having Western teachers grab lunch there) fashioned a pointer of a chopsticks and straws. A few things were laid plainly clear by this short trip to and from this restaurant: you can see how clearly Chinese demographics skew older and a good rule of thumb in China is the younger someone is, the more likely they are to speak English–and anyone over 50 almost certainly speaks not a word of it.

Later that afternoon, a group of veteran teachers organized a series of trips: one to the phone store to get local SIM cards, one to Metro (a German equivalent of Costco), and one to Ikea. Most of my building took the public bus to Ikea.

In order to navigate the labyrinthine home good store, we broke up into small groups. Harry and I were joined by Emily, who lives on the second floor as well. She, like me, is a first-year teacher, born and raised in Chicago, and has three older brothers. The last point I mention specifically to help you understand how fun this Ikea trip turned out to be. Any sort of teasing Harry and I could dish at her, she could snap right back into our faces.  She knew when to roll her eyes, give a gentle slap on the arm, or devastate us with questions of our masculinity. But she also knew when to let us lift heavy things or her and rescue her from the occasional cockroach in her apartment (we’ve all had an appearance). Though the three of us became fast friends, let’s just say that I do not allow myself to be their third wheel.

I had never been to Ikea, so it was a fascinating and overwhelming experience. I tried to imagine what it would be like for an older Chinese person who survived the lean days after the Revolution to walk into perhaps the greatest display of global Capitalism available. I bought the equivalent of $200 worth of stuff for my apartment, including a desk lamp, some dish and cookware, clothes hangers, and trash cans (which, bizarrely, was not included in any of our apartments). But others bought far more, which presented an obvious problem to get back; we would take up most of the volume available on the bus that brought us here and none of us had the ability to communicate to cabbies to get back (and for boring technical reasons, none of us but the veteran teachers could order a DiDi). Luckily, an Chinglish-speaking Ikea delivery-van driver noticed our predicament and offered to drive all of us back to campus for the equivalent of $20. So we packed everything into the van; 4 of us could sit in chairs, but the rest of us piled in, sat on boxes or the floor of the van. It was hot as hell, but the driver would not allow us to open the windows, lest we be seen by the police who might suspect he was smuggling us. Someone demanded that nobody pass gas for the duration of the ride.

We got home without incident. I finally had the chance to finish unpacking, including hanging my clothes. Now fully unloaded, I am using about 40% of the storage space that this apartment has. It’s starting to feel like home.

Day 2: Friday

The first day of organized activities, which began promptly at 7am for the mandatory health check. We were told to stop eating and drinking anything but water for 12 hours beforehand, so we all piled into the bus to the health center a little grouchy, tired, and hangry. At the medical center, all 35 of us teachers were queued in the lobby with paperwork and passports and one at a time instructed to go down a hallway with a long series of numbered side rooms. Like a YA novel, each room presented a test. In the first room, we were assigned a locker and given a robe; all of us had to take off our shirts yes, ladies had to remove their bras) and put the robe on. A few of the guys took this as an opportunity to make jokes about looking like Hugh Heifner with the medical-white-and-blue robes, while the women did their best to stay modest in such clinical conditions.

First we had our heart rate and blood pressure checked, then we were sternly directed to an eye exam. We had chest x-rays, ultrasounds (of the lungs), and had some blood drawn.  The nurses and medical staff appeared to know only the English words required for their portion. “Open robe.” “Stand here.” “Make fist.” “Thank you.” “Room 105. Next!” The facility was clean, but sparse. Like the staff, there was nothing comforting about the facility–no corporate art or relaxing color palettes. Just clinical awkwardness.

If I am being honest, my mind went to a dark place while waiting for the next room. We all made jokes and tried to comfort and/or tease each other, but when I had a moment while Harry and Emily were in other room, I thought about how obedient we all were. That the clinical atmosphere and direct orders denied us the ability or desire to protest. We felt awkward, but not uncomfortable. I wondered (and worried) what more the staff could do to us before anyone seriously objected, or if the patina of authority and medical necessity would make us all compliant. Perhaps to put too fine a point on it: if I was instructed to go into a room filled with showers, I cannot say that I would have hesitated.

Well, how the hell do I transition out of a macabre Holocaust reference?

I will just do here what we all did there: just keep going. As batches of us finished, we walked to a nearby convenience store to get snacks and something to drink. No one fainted, but Emily was worried she might. Harry and I said we would carry her back to her place if need be. After we all got some snacks and shared some jokes at the nurses’ expense, the mood lifted. I sat next to and spoke extensively with Kayla on the hour-long charter bus ride back. She lives in the same building as Harry, Emily, and I. From Stockton and used to work in a really tough school there. She was burnt out, broke up with her boyfriend, and wanted to do something crazy. She is a completely open book and with enough assertiveness and sarcasm in her 5-foot body to make anyone slightly intimidated to get on her bad-side. She has a version of “the look” that every mother and teacher possess that can instantly quiet a classroom of even the most rambunctious teenagers.

We all got lunch together in one of the school cafeterias.  This dining hall serves Chinese foods, while the other specializes in Western dishes (it will open once school starts). The food is far better than any I have seen in an American school.  Those with less-adventurous tastes might have objected, but I found the food a welcome exploration of flavors. You might not know precisely what meat it is you are eating, but I have vowed to try anything and everything while I am here. I was comforted to see that few of the new teachers were particularly good at using chopsticks and that all of the veteran teachers were, so its a skill that will be developed.

After lunch, we were finally given our class schedule and the teachers’ editions of the textbooks we were to use. To be clear, the textbooks are Western that are practically identical to those used in American schools. I say practically identical because there are three primary exceptions, called the Three-Ts. Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square. According to both the Chinese administrators and Western teachers alike, these are the only “sensitive topics” that are different in the books. So since I’m sure all of you are wondering, here is the perspective of Chinese government:

Tibet has been a part of China for a very long time.

Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China.

The Tiananmen Square Incident was no massacre but a “counter-revolutionary rebellion.”

All of us teachers were told this, but the likelihood of a PE teacher been asked about this seems fairly slim. No, the most likely teachers to be asked about these issues are the unlucky souls who have to teach the history of the 20th Century, most especially the 10th Grade Modern History class, which spans from 1500 until Present day.  Any guesses as to who one of those teachers might be?

Harry is a PE teacher….Emily and Kayla are doing Middle School English….any one else you can think of?

I have two classes. One period of 10th Grade Modern History and the second of 12th Grade Western Civilization (basically European and American history). So it is a virtual certainty that I will be covering this material in class. I want to be clear: at no point were we told we were required to teach the Party line. We were welcome to state that these were controversial and politicized topics. We were encouraged to ask the students to think critically and do their research about the Three Ts, but we should not be “pushing our ideology” onto them. Which I interpret as code for: if you are not willing to state the Party line, avoid the topics as much as possible and that to do so would be seen as an attempt to politicize history. That only these three topics were seen as sufficiently political should be all one needs to know about the seriousness of these issues are to the security of the CCP’s public image.

Anyway….Because I was only assigned two classes, I now have the liberty to create my own electives! I have thought about some possibilities and will work with my department to do so. I will provide updates on this matter, but I am incredibly excited for the opportunity to design my own curriculum! I think comparative political systems or the history of sports will be my first proposals.

Since we have derailed from the story a bit, I should insert a point of clarification here. There are two teacher dorms; only new (to this school) teachers are permitted to stay here; if you resign your contract, you are given a stipend to have housing elsewhere in the city. Mine is called simply Building 5 and is close to the center of campus. We are about half the size of Building X, the other teacher dorm–and the only building on campus with an elevator. Though I have had one-on-one conversations with just about all of the new teachers now, (unsurprisingly) circles of friends are developing mostly based on which building you were assigned and which department-and-grade level you are in.  Because I am the only new teacher to the high school history department, I will have to be a bit more transitory with my friendships.

In case you are wondering: the various grade levels do not interact much professionally. The primary school teachers do not work with the middle school teachers, who do not work with the high school teachers. The high school English and Social Studies departments work together, though they are currently attempting to be more closely aligned. STEM classes are taught by Chinese teachers.

Alright, that’s enough of that. Back to the story.

Friday evening began when the 30-year-old couple of Don and Sarah organized a group of 11 of us to go to a burgers and brewery place near the Shanghai Expo Center where the world exposition was based a few years ago. Due to being the oldest of the group of new teachers and having strong parental personalities, we all call them Momma Duck and Dadda Duck, much to their reluctant delight. Don picked the place and Sarah wrangled up the taxis, made sure everyone knew where they were going, etc. They’re so patient and generous and wonderful.

I was in the taxi with Don; our method of telling the cabbie where to go was to type in the address to a Google-Maps-equivalent and show the driver, who would smile and nod. We then tracked our progress on the app to ensure we weren’t being misdirected. The cabbie dropped us off close enough to our destination, which was (unbeknownst to us) in a mall. There was no signage for it, so we all wondered around the mall until we found the remnants of the burgers and brewery place! Lights out, stuff off the walls, tables stacked. But the website still said it was open!

We later found out that we had learned the hard way a necessary lesson about Shanghai: stores open and close with no announcement or indication regularly. Rents fluctuate quickly, permits aren’t renewed, owners get bored and move. It just happens.

So we had to figure out what to do. We still wanted to eat and drink, but none of the other spots in the mall were what we were looking for. I remember seeing a concentration of Western options as we drove to the our failed destination and so we began walking. And walking. And walking. I had certainly underestimated the distance to these locations and a rebellion among the more tired and hangry was certainly brewing. Until Mr. Pancake saved us all.

Mr. Pancake is a breakfast-for-dinner place with what turned out to be precisely two kinds of beer: Coronas (served with lemons, not limes!) and Tsingtao, the national beer of China. It was silly, but it was cheap and open and no one objected. And it turned out to be wonderful time.

What that night revealed to me is the selection-bias this kind of job demands. Only people who are flexible and adaptable and can maintain their patience and sense of humor could both do this kind of trip and find it worthwhile. Sure some of us were getting grumpy, but we could make fun of that fact.And we all certainly laughed about it after we got some waffles and beer in us. We all know we were thrown onto a roller coaster together and there is an immediate camaraderie that develops when put into the inherently stressful situation of moving across the world. Plus, we all share the same job and love of it! I am truly among a wonderful group of people.

Day 3: Saturday

I woke up early and went for my first run. Not feeling particularly adventurous, I ran around the school’s track. I had run two miles before Dana, a 32-year-old PE teacher from Kansas City joined me. She suggested we do some ab work outs between laps, so I joined her in doing so and will probably replicate that process later. We did a mile together, so I was pleased to end up with a solid three miles.

We had information sessions about the school and our departments for the bulk of the day, but nothing that is interesting enough to relay to you all. But on Saturday, three things happened that made it a productive day.

  1. I went to the bank to exchange my USD into RMB so I could pay people pack for buying my beers and transporting me around the city.
  2. I solved my internet problems so I now have wifi in my apartment.
  3. I bought a Chinese cellphone so that I could use WeChat. A brief explanation of WeChat: it is the one-app-fits-all for communication and transactions. Absolutely everyone in major Chinese cities has and uses WeChat every single day. You can use it as a messenger with friends and families, including calling, video calling, and sending files. But, once you have a Chinese bank account, you can use it to pay absolutely everywhere. Every restaurant and store accepts money through WeChat, including back-of-the-van-grocers. We have heard reports of beggars and street performers accepting donations through WeChat, though I haven’t seen it for myself yet. In essence, because of WeChat, urban China is a mostly cashless society. However, due to the trade war between the US and China right now, the school has not yet been able to create our bank accounts. Hopefully soon. Luckily I brought a good amount of cash!

Saturday evening was another evening of food and alcohol organized by Daddy Duck Don and Momma Duck Sarah, this time things went much more smoothly. We took the subway for the first time and ended up in a part of town that one could mistake for Chelsea. There were tons of Westerners around. We started at a (really good!) burgers-and-beer place, where I had a veggie burger, a gin-based cocktail, and their house beer. We also got to watch some Premier League football, which made Harry happy. We then went to a classic cocktail bar that was standing-room-only, where I had a Lychee-based cocktail that turned out to be far better than I expected. Funnily enough, some veteran teachers from our school came into the bar shortly after we arrived, so our group of 12 inflated to 20! But because of our size, it was time to split up. A handful went home, a few more went to a karaoke bar, but myself, Harry, Emily, Don, and Sarah went to a ruin bar similar to those found in Budapest. I got a classic Rum-and-Coke, we played intoxicated pool (which is the same thing as regular pool, but a lot funnier), and Emily, Harry and I sat in a bathtub together.

It was easily one of my most fun nights out ever.

There was no drama in the group, there was fantastic conversation, and every drink I had was tasty and generous. Cheers to all who made it happen.

Day 4: Sunday

We got home about 1am, so I was more than happy to sleep in. I spent a few hours in bed reading and catching up with the world, and I wrote the bulk of this post. Harry, Emily, and I went to lunch and Walmart to continue populating our rooms with basic necessities like closelines to dry clothes, quick food options, and cleaning supplies. A quiet and productive day before a very busy week begins tomorrow.

It is my goal to take more pictures so that I can post them here. To force myself to begin, I will post sometime this week a tour of campus with plenty of pictures, so be on the look out for that!

Let me know if you have any questions you’d like answered in the comments! And don’t forget, if you follow me here, you will be automatically notified everytime I post something!

Love and appreciation to all!