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Our year teaching English in Nanning, Guangxi

Sometimes you just need to pull up stakes and do something completely different. It’s a reset button for the brain! That’s how I came to uproot my wife and two of my five children and spend a year teaching English in China. This is our story.

At the time we made the decision to go and teach English in China, we were coming to the end of a long and complicated business merger process. I had been running a successful web development and marketing business which had reached that point where it needed much more than me to grow any further. I’d been approached by an investor group who wanted to put together a big national web development network and I’d agreed to merge my business into theirs, taking on the role of General Manager with a share of the national business and the profits. It hadn’t worked out as expected and by the time I realised the problems and backed out of the merger, my business was in shreds. I was disillusioned and demotivated. I needed something completely different.

Our family, as drawn by students Miki and Emi in 1999

It was at this time that we saw an advertisement in the local paper recruiting English teachers in China. I responded more out of curiosity than real interest, but attended the interview with the local hiring agent. I wasn’t really very impressed by his pitch, but the thought of living and working in an exotic location like China sure interested me. I decided to look into other options to make this happen.

I soon discovered the Teach English in China group on Yahoo and started a dialogue with some Australians, Canadians and Americans who were already working at various schools in China. Through these conversations, I was able to work out who were the good recruitment agents and what conditions we could expect if we secured a teaching job.

I approached one of the large teaching recruitment agencies in China and they were very interested, particularly as both my wife and I were willing to teach. Neither of us had any teaching experience, but I agreed to complete a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course which would enhance my status with many of the schools. But realistically, they weren’t looking for experienced teachers at all, just native speakers who could control a classroom and encourage the students to vocalise their English.

Within a couple of weeks we had an offer from a school in Beijing, but I rejected that because I wasn’t sure we could handle the climate of the Chinese capital, especially the very cold winters and the very polluted summers. By then, we’d provided the recruiting agent with our biographies and photos of myself, my wife and our blonde, 12 year-old twin daughters.

The photos cause a complete change in our relationship with the recruiting agent! Suddenly they were pushing very hard for us to accept an offer from a school in Wuxi, the Hollywood of China. The agent was keen to get our girls into TV and movie acting and we’d all live like Hollywood stars! This pantomime quickly became frightening and we terminated our relationship with this agent.

Going back to the Yahoo teachers’ discussion forums, we shared our experience and began a dialogue with a Canadian single mother with three daughters who was teaching in a forward-thinking school in southern China. Her school was looking for more English teachers, was family-friendly and she offered to negotiate a package for us which would include airfares, salary, accommodation and health care.

A position in Nanning, Guangxi Province

We soon had an offer on the table from Nanning Foreign Languages School, a progressive pilot project of the Guangxi Regional Education Board which was aiming to provide an immersion-style education in various foreign languages to children in middle school and senior school. This sounded like something we could really get interested in, so we started negotiating.

Nanning is the capital of the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous province

Guangxi is one of several autonomous minority provinces in China. It was once part of an independent region called Yue and is the homeland of the Zhuang minority. Guangxi shares borders with Guangdong, Yunnan and Vietnam. Nanning is the administrative capital, with a population of about 3 million people. It sounded just exotic enough to be really interesting!

The package on offer was not terribly financially motivating, but the lifestyle on offer definitely was. We would live in a two bedroom apartment in the grounds of the modern school on the outskirts of Nanning and teach 12 x 40 minutes classes each week for a salary of around AUD$150 per week. The school would provide our apartment rent-free but we would need to pay electricity and internet fees. Our children could attend the school free of charge and we would all be covered by health and medical care provided by the State. We calculated that our living costs would probably consume less than half of one teaching salary, so that left plenty of spare money for lifestyle and some travel between school semesters.

Some candid family discussions followed as our twin girls had just finished primary school and one had been offered a scholarship with a girls college we were keen for them both to attend. But the reality was that unless I was able to pull out of the downward spiral I’d entered following the failed business merger, that wasn’t going to happen anyway as our finances would soon begin to suffer. Although my girls may argue this point, we decided as a family that China was worth a try.

Not being people to half do anything, we unloaded all of our material possessions we couldn’t take to China in a series of weekend garage sales. We sold my beloved Toyota Landcruiser 4×4 and all the computer equipment I’d used to run my business. While this gave us a small bankroll in case things went terribly wrong, there was really no going back. We were going to China come hell or high water.

My beloved Landcruiser had to go to fund our move to China

We left Australia in early January bound for Beijing where we would meet our Canadian compatriots from Nanning and travel south on the train after a few days sight-seeing in the Chinese capital. We left behind just 8 tea chests of personal goods stored in a cupboard in my brother’s unit – all the rest of what we still owned was packed in four large duffel bags on wheels.

We leave Australia for China

We had paid for our own flights to China, with an open return date. After completing 12 months at the school in Nanning, we would be reimbursed the cost of our airfares. The school covered our travel costs from Beijing as well as the cost of our hotel for four nights while we enjoyed the sights of the capital. It gave us a good feeling about our new employers.

We really enjoyed the snow in Beijing, coming from the tropics

Beijing turned out to be incredibly cold. The State had decided winter was over and turned off the central heating that supplies the businesses and hotels in the capital. But nature had decided winter wasn’t over yet and was turning on -10 degree (C) nights and 5 degree C days. Coming from the sub-tropics, we found this very hard to deal with and were sleeping fully dressed, with woolly hats, gloves and boots! But on our first night in Beijing it snowed and that was really magical for we Australians, coming from a sub-tropical Brisbane climate.

Exploring the Forbidden City in Beijing with our Canadian hosts

After just a couple of days in Beijing, during which we managed to explore the minority markets, Tianmen Square and the Forbidden Palace, we bugged out early and boarded the train to Nanning, in the much warmer and equally sub-tropical south of China. The train would take 31 hours to complete the journey, travelling via Guangzhou on the coast.

Our route from Beijing to Nanning via Guangzhou on the train

The train to Nanning was our first big immersion into Chinese life. Travelling “hard sleeper” class we found ourselves cheek to jowel with the Chinese people in all their wonderful, noisy, smoky, seed-spitting and shell-dropping glory. We had to run to secure our berths when the train arrived on the platform, as the Chinese were throwing bags and children in through the windows to hold places. No-one cared if you had a reserved berth – that could be sorted out later. It was all about getting somewhere to sit and somewhere to throw your bags before the train set off.

Hard sleeper train from Beijing to Nanning

Along the way I played cards and drank beer with people who shared not a word of common language. We ate train food and jumped out onto the platform with the Chinese when ever the train stopped by buy snacks of fresh fruit, noodles, buns and chips. We drank Chinese tea and watched the countryside change from frozen, empty fields to lush, green rice paddies with small villages climbing into the hills. We saw people living in caves and others living in shanty shacks on the edges of fields. We saw big, dirty industrial towns and cities were it seemed the Chinese had yet to try garbage collection at a civic level.

Two nights after we stepped on the train in Beijing, we arrived tired and dishevelled in the Guangxi provincial capital. We had not washed since leaving Beijing because the wash room on the train was so much dirtier than we were. The toilet was only for dire emergencies and was an indescribable horror.

We arrive in Nanning, Guangxi

But waiting for us at Nanning railway station was a friendly Chinese lady who spoke excellent English and quickly had us loaded up into the school’s very luxurious mini-van for the ride through Nanning to our new home. On arrival at the school we were shown to a well-equipped ground floor apartment with basic bamboo furniture and given a tour of the school.

The main teaching building at Nanning Foreign Languages School, Guangxi

Nanning Foreign Languages School was not like we’d imagined at all. While it still had an “under construction” air about it (and did the whole time we were there), the newly built 5-storey teaching block showed this was a serious educational institution. There was also a brand new 4-storey teachers’ apartment block, but there was no room for us there so we were given an apartment in the old teachers’ block, built in the 1960s.

The entire school turned out to welcome the new Australian teachers

Our welcome to Nanning Foreign Languages School (which I’ll call NNFLS from now on) was also pretty awesome. The whole school turned out to a special assembly to welcome the new teachers from Australia. Our girls were presented with school uniforms in the sailor suit style of Donald Duck’s nieces. We were then taken to lunch in the school cafeteria, which was more like a large restaurant.

Our 1960s apartment building in the grounds of NNFLS in Nanning

First impressions of Nanning Foreign Languages School

NNFLS was a shock to the system. Over 1000 students were boarded here and only went home during semester breaks. From our ground floor apartment, we’d hear the call to assembly at 6:00 am that signalled the start of the day for both students and teachers. First up was a vigorous exercise session on the tiled parade ground (which quickly taught us to count from 1-10 in Mandarin while lying in our beds). Then the students and teachers would retire to the cafeteria for breakfast before first lessons at 7:00 AM (although our rather civilised classroom schedule started at 8:30).

Students do it a lot tougher than teachers in Chinese schools

The students do it particularly tough in Chinese schools. We visited a student dormitory a couple of times during our stay and were shocked to find the students crammed 4-6 to a room sleeping on wooden board bunks with just a thin (1″) foam mattress for comfort. Everything they owned was on little shelves above the bed. It was primitive living at best. By contrast, we also visited a few teacher apartments at our school and found they lived very well in 3 bedroom modern apartments.

This is how the furniture was delivered to our apartment in NNFLS

The days were very long for the staff and the students, with last lessons running until 6:00 PM, then dinner in the cafeteria followed by study sessions until about 9:00 PM. But there were a couple of breaks during the day. The first was from midday to 3:00 PM when everyone (including ourselves after a short time) ate lunch and had a nap. During this time we’d often find teachers and even the principal asleep in their offices. The second break was at 5:00 PM when the students played sports – mostly basketball. The school also had a very impressive running track, although we never saw it used.

Lesson preparation in our apartment in Nanning Foreign Languages School

Our initial class schedule was very easy. 12 lessons of 40 minutes each per week plus the time to prepare lessons and, on occasions, check homework or test results meant we worked about 15-20 hours a week. The rest of our time was our own and we used it to explore Nanning and discover more about Chinese culture, food and lifestyle.

Settling into normal life in China

At the time we arrived in China, I was struggling with my weight. I’d been progressively putting on more and more weight as my business woes had deepened and I was starting to feel very weighed down by it (no pun intended). The change of diet and lifestyle during our first six months in China had a profound effect on my health. Our meals now consisted mostly of rice and vegetables, with very small portions of meat (usually less than 60 grams per person). We did not go hungry, we just seemed to eat less and eat far more healthy foods. Some of the very bad things disappeared from my diet completely – like milk drinks, cheese and potato chips which were just not readily available in Nanning. But I still had plenty of Chinese beer (which is a lot like German beer) and I started to develop a taste for Chinese “grape wine”, a soft red wine in the Italian style.

We also did a lot of walking. Not having a car (and not being allowed to drive in China  even if we’d had a car), we went everywhere on foot or on the public bus. Although we could eat for free in the school cafeteria, we didn’t much like the food there so most evenings we would walk down to the “toll gate” where suburban Nanning really started and eat in the food hall at the Guangxi University for Nationalities or at the street stalls that would spring up along the roadside after dark.

Street noodles became one of our staple foods in Nanning

We very quickly became street food aficionados. Although there were a few restaurants right outside our school and an adequate cafeteria in the school itself, we discovered that the freshness of street noodles was better than almost anything else we could readily access. We could just point to what we wanted from all the fresh ingredients on display and it would be cooked for us in minutes by street chefs expertly wielding large woks over monstrous coal-fired wok burners. We’d sit around on plastic kiddy stools at tiny wooden tables and watch the world go by. We’d often be joined by Chinese passers-by who thought nothing of sharing our table and we’d have a laugh or two even though we could barely communicate at all.

On the weekends, we’d catch the “No 1 bus” (which actually didn’t have any number on it at all, just a blue square) into downtown Nanning to shop. Shopping became our major weekend pre-occupation because it was really hard to keep our cupboards stocked with foods we could understand and there was no English language television at all in Nanning so we relied on buying pirate DVDs from fast-disappearing black market video stores. We’d recognise these stores only because their windows were always pasted over with newspaper so police could not see inside.

Nanning’s “walking street” was a big and pleasant surprise

Downtown Nanning was an even bigger surprise than our school. Here was a modern shopping metropolis with brick paved walking streets and boutique clothing stores. For a largely rural city deep in the south of China, this was simply amazing. We spent many happy Saturdays prowling the shops on walking street and spending up on fashion clothing, which was one field where the Chinese were clearly leading the world. For lunch, we’d treat the children to a meal at McDonald’s which would be 10 deep with Chinese kids at the counter.

Supermarkets in China were always an adventure into the unknown

After shopping in the downtown, we’d head for the largest supermarket in Nanning where we’d try to understand what was on the shelves and find enough comprehensible food to keep us going for the next week. We’d inevitably come away with bags of frozen dumplings, coloured sliced bread, rice and rice snacks. Fresh vegetables we could get from the small market garden outside our school and were best bought fresh daily. Meat we’d buy at the wet market near the “toll gate”.

Once our shopping was done, which usually meant we’d walked between 12-15 km and were absolutely exhausted, we’d track down the “No 1 bus” for the long ride back to the school. Getting onto the bus in downtown with 10-20 bags of groceries and shopping was always challenging. One time I got stuck trying to get into the door of the bus because two Chinese men tried to push in either side of me and jammed my full backpack between them. The only thing I could do was turn around and push them off the bus so I could free myself! Another time my girls gave up their seat for an old lady on the bus and she grabbed one of the girls and made her sit, horrified, on her lap for the rest of the trip. It was always an adventure catching the local 1 RMB bus.

The wet market was where we shopped for fresh meat

Wet markets were another huge experience for our little foreign family in China. There’s no such thing as a butcher’s shop in southern China, so you go to the wet market to buy your meat and other staple supplies like fresh noodles, vegetables and tobacco. Meat would sit all day on wooden tables of questionable hygienic standard with flies buzzing all around. We’d try to get there as early as possible and select the pieces that were covered up by other pieces. We’d try not to notice the cages full of live dogs, turtles and other animals we didn’t consider right to eat.

One of our favourite treats on a visit to the wet market was rolled rice noodles, which were made on the spot at the edge of the market using ingredients bought fresh every day. These were an amazing treat for the taste buds and we still hunt them down every time we visit China.

MORE TO COME … this is a work in progress and we’ve really only just begun. Please bookmark this page and come back for further instalments!