As the middle of 2014 approached, my time in my home country was drawing to a close. There was little reason to stay – ambivalent family members, preoccupied friends and the endless cold and rain did nothing to inspire patriotism.
My new degree sat collecting dust, and I was eking out a meager existence as a technical support operator for a major brand – steady work, well-paying, but not the career I had envisioned for myself.
I had just completed the illustrations and design for a children’s book, released by a small start-up. The full-time job and success expected to manifest from this project never came. In those depressing months following graduation, in which I excelled most at being impoverished and desperately bored, I realised my portfolio wasn’t good enough.
The only thing for it was to do something else and work on my own projects as much as I could in my own time. The idea of going to work in retail or staying put was anathema to me, so there was only one thing for it:
I would do what so many others in my situation were doing – travel to foreign lands and sell perhaps my most marketable skill. This, of course, would be my mastery of English. Across the world, the demand for English proficiency is high. The language I have spoken since I was able to form words, and taken for granted my entire life, is something that represents wealth, freedom and knowledge for millions of others.
As the world’s lingua franca, an at least conversational grasp of English is increasingly required in economics, law, business, science and hospitality. Therefore, it follows that in such places where English is not the native language, a native speaker is highly prized as a means to acquire fluency.
Most legitimate institutions require at least a Bachelor’s Degree and a TEFL certification. I completed my own TEFL course and very quickly was recruited for a position in China after putting a C.V online. I was one of two teachers sent from the hiring body to China. He, a quiet business major who crashed and burned horribly during our demo classes, was given the easier assignment in Nantong, close to Suzhou and Shanghai. I was given a one-way ticket to Changchun, a city I had never before heard of.
The position I had been recruited for was enviable and rare amongst the plethora of ESL jobs in the world. It was a public school position, teaching high schoolers. The pay was triple the average monthly salary of a local Chinese, and came with free accommodation and utilities.
The apartment was clean and light, fully furnished, and located a ten minute walk from my school. It was close to several large malls and entertainment centres, and, best of all, I was working on behalf of an Australian University. Therefore,I completely bypassed a lot of the issues experienced by other ESL teachers. I was paid on time, was given immense freedom to create my own lessons, and was treated with utmost courtesy at all times.
I arrived in Changchun, nervous and overwhelmed, at midnight. The journey had taken well over twelve hours, and necessitated a stop at Guangzhou. The air in Guangzhou had been hot and uncomfortable, even inside of the airport, and I had been forced to wait inside of a sweltering bus on the tarmac with the other passengers as our plane rolled slowly onto the runway.
Luckily, the company I worked for was wholly legitimate and looked out for the needs of its employees. Shortly after arriving and waiting like a lost lamb for a few minutes, I was picked up by a ministry of foreign affairs officer and her errand boy. They ushered me into a black SUV and drove me to my new home in the centre of the city.
My first impressions of Changchun were that it was a lot more developed than I had originally anticipated. There were malls, shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants everywhere. The next impression was that clearly, the Chinese liked their beds hard. Really hard. Exhausted after my travels, I flopped onto my new bed, in my new home, and felt basically as if I had just fallen onto a solid plank of wood.
The next few days proceeded in a rather dreamlike fashion – I was taken grocery shopping by my two new ‘assistants’, Sally and Amy. Chinese girls only slightly older than myself, they giggled with me in the car about their boyfriends, lamented their body shapes, and shyly asked if I was interested in eating pig’s feet with them for supper.
Sally, a voluptuous, moonfaced girl with long dark hair, who wore a new minidress every time I saw her, taught in the class adjacent to mine. She would often intercede in matters of class discipline if the class became too unruly, having no qualms about hitting or slapping students when pressed. Amy, thoughtful, rail-thin and bespectacled, was the quieter of the two and totally preoccupied with her upcoming nuptials.
I was taken first to set-up a new bank account, then to a drawn out medical test in nearby Jilin City, and then given a few days to orient myself in my new surrounds.
Changchun is a second-tier city in China, and less polluted than many other Chinese cities which enjoy similar stature. There are fewer factories and a large nature reserve on the outskirts of the city. The northern provinces of China are home to rugged landscapes and large lakes. One of the largest and deepest in the world sits atop Changbai Shan, a 5000 foot mountain several hours away from Jilin City.
This lake, called, appropriately, Heavenly Lake, brings to mind the stunning landscapes one would find in New Zealand. It looks as if Milford Sound had been placed upon a mountain plateau. The food in Changchun is excellent, featuring plenty of dumplings, hearty soups and the famous northern hot pot. Non-Chinese food options are less plentiful, and when found, often have more in common with the kind of food you might find on an airplane. In my time in China, I never ate European food anywhere but at home or at Starbucks.
Being China, Changchun still has pollution. As it is in the north of the country, it relies on coal for heating during the harsh winter months (during which temperatures can drop below -20 degrees). In the winter months, the air becomes thick with acrid smoke, blackening the sky. When you walk around outside, it is essentially akin to inhaling cigarettes. Changchun also isn’t immune to the other issues facing China in regards to environment and hygiene. Spitting, littering, and public defecation are not only common, they are ubiquitous.
Everywhere you walk in China, the ground will be covered with globules of mucus and spit, owing to people hawking up phlegm frequently. Whilst I have heard that many Chinese consider spitting to be healthy, spitting also occurs indoors – at restaurants, supermarkets and schools, which is disconcerting to say the least.
Chinese dwellings and building interiors tend to be neat, and all of my local friends kept their households very clean. Chinese apartments all seem to come with shiny, skeuomorphic plastic floorboards and the faux Louis 16th style furniture that is in vogue on the mainland.
On the other hand, apartment stairwells, hallways, and the streets in general are sometimes unbelievably filthy. The reasons for this lack of apparent civil duty are myriad and probably best discussed in another entry. However, on this very post I have placed a picture of Changbai Shan lake. A historic and beautiful vista, you can clearly see that someone has seen fit to throw litter on the ground. An apologist might suggest it was a tourist who was responsible, but Changbai is really only a tourist destination for mainland Chinese, and I, and my two Australian companions, were the only discernable foreigners there.
Anyway, I wasn’t in Changchun, China to mull over its environmental issues. I was there to teach.
This job was/is still one of the best jobs I ever had, an absurdly comfortable position in which I had an incredible amount of disposable income and time. Regardless of whether it was school holidays, exam time, or my classes had simply been cancelled, I was paid. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t particularly concerned about my financial situation, and could enjoy myself day-to-day shopping, painting and writing, or simply sitting in Starbucks people-watching.
I had been an anxious child, terrified of climbing trees, getting lost, or having my parents abandon me. As an adolescent, I was often unhappy for nebulous reasons, and resistant to change. In China, I had most of my capacity for anxiousness obliterated by sheer necessity. I was forced to speak Mandarin, to venture out on my own, to interact, daily, with at least 90 students whom all wanted English tutelage, conversation, or simply a respite from the aggravation of their other class.
My class was an elective, and I quickly gained a reputation as a relaxed teacher who would allow a student to snooze in class as long as they didn’t interrupt others. This wasn’t out of disinterest (mostly). My apartment building sat adjacent to another high school, and I would often titter at the sight of students, clearly visible in the brightly illuminated classrooms, as late as 11pm at night, still studying diligently away. I would watch the far-off windows as I waited for the kettle to boil in my small kitchen, wondering how I would fare in such a school, at that age. I had been a lazy student, capable of more, but unwilling to put forth the effort.
My grades were good but nothing spectacular. I put off homework in favour of drawing superheroes or playing video games. Project work was always something to be rushed, performed to a decent level and then finished, so that I could more quickly get back to the pressing business of – well, doing nothing. Watching the Chinese students put forth so much effort made me feel ashamed for all that recalcitrance.
ESL-providing institutions, whether they are private or public, as a general rule, tend to prefer young people to teach. Part of the allure of the foreign teacher is that they be young, good-looking and fun, so that students can relate to them better (and have a fun time in the class, thereby incentivizing them to continue on in whatever programme they have signed up to). Of course exceptions exist, and certainly Universities and most public schools prefer qualified and experienced candidates. I, however, was not experienced, and my qualifications were not education-related.
I had been selected because the previous teacher, a career-teacher in her fifties, who spoke fluent Chinese and was married to a Chinese man, was considered too ‘matronly’ and strict by the faculty and students. Barely older than the students and coming fresh from a creative industries degree, I was introduced to the school as the ‘young and beautiful New Zealand girl’.
My lifestyle in Changchun was quite alien to anything I had experienced beforehand. With a disposable income far in excess of anything I had ever had before, I quickly developed an addiction for shopping and luxury goods. In New Zealand, I had never been able to buy what I wanted, when I wanted. As a kid, I’d been very aware of the spectre of poverty and how closely it seemed to follow my family. We had enough for nice things, a warm house, and food on the table, but upmarket clothing, restaurant dining and vacations abroad were out.
In China, I drowned out a lot of the perpetual loneliness I felt in blind consumerism. There was nothing else I liked better than spending money on clothes, cosmetics, accessories and travel. Although I had always liked nice things, and always wanted to have them, in Changchun I felt quite out of control from time to time. Unable to really connect with the few foreigners living in Changchun, and with so much free time, there were periods when I would literally go for several weeks without having had an actual conversation with anyone. No ‘friends’ from New Zealand contacted me, no ‘family’, either, and with only the most rudimentary of Mandarin in my repertoire, it would have been impossible to express this ennui to the Chinese companions I did have.
So, my primary connections in Changchun became my students, and then, after that, the enormous malls which dotted the city. I suppose I felt that I could solve my sense of isolation by buying things to make myself feel more successful, but that approach didn’t always work.
During the Christmas and New Year period, I booked a stay at the Marriott in Shanghai, leaving Changchun behind for a time. It is a fantastic five-star hotel, and it was very conveniently located right beside Nanjing Road, one of the longest shopping strips in the world. You can probably guess what happened next, right? I spent a staggering amount on clothes, food, toys, souvenirs. I purchased so many presents for myself that I actually ended up being not able to take some of my new things with me because they would not have fit in my suitcase. By this point, my overspending had begun to make me feel guilty and ashamed, but I hadn’t quite had enough of it.
What really opened my eyes to some of the root causes of my Changchun depression was during the New Years lightshow. In Shanghai, crowds gather on the promenades by the Bund to ring in the next twelve months. In 2014, those multitudes reached numbers around 300,000. As I walked from my hotel down to the river, I suddenly found myself trapped within a vast crowd. I imagine that a claustrophobic would have found the experience terrifying, as I was literally sandwiched between thousands of people and carried off to the promenade by the sheer magnitude of the throng.
As thousands waited for the countdown to begin, I looked around me and realised that everyone else was with their friends, their family, or their lovers. Couples were holding each other close in the winter cold, friends were laughing with each other, and families held hands in the confined space. They all seemed very alive and loved, and looking at them impressed upon more fully than ever how alone I was.
It occurred to me fully that the only reason I was there, spending as much money as I was, was in part to cover up the real loneliness I felt. It would have been easy to blame my perpetual solitude on others, but I had to admit that I would not have wanted to spend time with me, either. I knew I was hard to take, hard to deal with, and perhaps I had done a better job than intended at keeping people, and opportunities, out. Was I solitary by nature or nurture? It didn’t matter anymore – I didn’t like it, suddenly, and wanted it to change.
That New Years, unfortunately, was not just a scene of personal revelation. That year, a massive stampede broke out towards the end of the celebration which killed over thirty people and injured many more. Although I was only mere metres away, I mistook the screams and the churning of the crowd as being nothing more than people stumbling or fighting. I was standing on a flower-bed at the time, unable to step down into the rampaging crowd, and was too annoyed, cold and tired to recognise the situation as something serious. Somehow, I managed to make it back to the hotel, exhausted, freezing, and wondering if there would ever be a time in my life where I would feel real connections with other people – and whether those people would ever feel a connection with me?
The rest of my year in Changchun passed in a sort of pleasant blur. I cooked, I shopped (with a little more self-awareness, though), I had the opportunity to visit many interesting sites. At the end of my tenure, I threw a small party for all of my students and was given many gifts. Sally, whom was present at the time, remarked upon the large pile of presents sitting on my desk: “The students very like you! Judy not have any of this when she finish here.”
I was touched by the generosity of the students, and by the many lovely letters I received from them, which I still have to this day. I bought another suitcase to accommodate all the presents, and, on a rainy morning, left my empty apartment for the last time. I struggled out onto the road with too much luggage, hailed a cab, and was back at Changchun International Airport.
My way back home started with a two and a half hour flight to dreaded Baiyun Airport in Guangzhou, and then from there an eight hour flight back to Australia. In between the two flights I had a mammoth layover of ten hours, which I spent in the China Southern Airlines lounge eating cheese and crackers and feeling unexpectedly melancholy at leaving what had become my home, for good or for ill.
I arrived back in Australia, excited, wistful and nervous, all at once. The plan was to stay in the Western world for some duration – little did I know, though, that I wasn’t done yet with China. But that is a story for another time.