Experience of living and working at Zenguofang School

June 16, 2003

Dear Owen,

Helene and I can¡¯t believe that it is almost time to go back home. How this year has flown. We came to China with mixed feelings of uncertainty and angst for the unknown, but also excitement at the prospect of doing something new and different with our lives. Looking back, the few days spent in Yangshuo to acclimatise was nice, but nothing could prepare us for the culture shock that awaited us.

Shuangfeng is a rural village in the heart of Hunan province and here we experienced the ¡°real¡± China. We saw how the bulk of the Chinese people live, coping with their daily grind with a ready smile and an inquisitive eye. Being the first Westerners that they had ever seen, we felt like we were a sideshow. Everybody would follow us around and often even open our shopping bags to see what we had bought. The shop assistants would giggle and run away when we approached them. The novelty eventually wore off, but the nosiness remains.

The cost of living is very low with fresh fruit and vegetables abundantly available at the market or street vendors at give away prices. A taxi will take you from one end of town to the other for 3 Yuan and the bus fare is only 1 Yuan. A haircut and upper body massage will set you back 10 Yuan, male or female. But for every pro there is a con. Leisure activities are none existent. No parks, movies or libraries. Every TV channel is Chinese. The few English VCD¡¯s that are for hire are either war movies or Kung Fu fighting. They seem to be copies of copies of copies with very poor sound. After 9 months we found a ten-pin bowling alley in desperate need of maintenance.

We would have lunch in the school canteen but because all their food is liberally spiced with hot peppers we prepared our own breakfast and dinner. Chinese take away can be ordered and is delivered to the school gate. For 5 Yuan you get a meat dish, two vegetables and rice. We would ask a student to phone on our behalf and to specify no hot peppers. There are no Western style groceries or dairy products available here and the local bread is sweet. To overcome this we had to take a 3-hour bus trip to Changsha once a month to do our shopping. Any bus trip in China is a hair-raising, white-knuckle ride. Overtaking at blind spots, dodging animals, pedestrians and cyclists and stopping in the middle of the highway to pick up or drop off passengers with traffic passing on either side and in both directions, is all in a days work. Broken down vehicles of any size and description would undergo major repairs right there on the spot. We have become seasoned travelers and are now used to this.

We would fill up 2 suitcases with bread, margarine, cheese, sliced ham and beef, bacon, jam, mayonnaise, yogurt and Lipton tea. We still can¡¯t figure out why the Chinese don¡¯t like sweet chocolate but add sugar to their bread and milk. This sounds like a terrible drag but it was fun to get away and indulge in Big Macs, Kentucky Chicken and Pizza. We would sometimes extend our overnight stay and do some sightseeing. The local theme park, the ¡°Window of the World¡±, was a disappointment but be warned if you are over sixty. A sign at the ticket office declares: Old tourists above 60 years can take half price tickets if they show their perfect instruments.

The school however was the counter balance for all the inconvenience. Everybody, from the headmaster Mr. Li, down to the handyman, was most courteous, friendly and helpful. On the few occasions that we were ill the school doctor treated us with empathy and concern. She would hook us up to the obligatory drip and dispense high quality western medication and drugs. Like rural communities everywhere, the people of Shuangfeng are extremely hospitable and we felt very welcome. We were given a very comfortable flat on campus with all the amenities that you had promised us. This was most convenient as we could go back to our flat in between classes for a cup of tea and to read the China Daily. We would leave to teach when we heard the bell ring. There were two classes in the morning and two in the afternoon, and a two hours lunch break in summer allowed us to have a siesta every afternoon. The one big irritation however was that our schedule would be changed and we would not be informed. As there is not much to do here we agreed to work on Saturday mornings but every now and again we were told that due to circumstances we had to work the odd Sunday as well. These ¡°circumstances¡± cropped up more and more frequently and we eventually just refused point blank to work another Sunday. Internet access was provided in our flat at one Yuan per hour.

Zengguofan Experimental School is a private boarding school that has only been operating for 3 years. It is, by Chinese standards, a small school with about 800 students from kindergarten to grade 9. They have just started adding a new wing to accommodate, I think, 800 more students and it should be ready by next term. This will be used to expand the school and to eventually cater for grades 10 to 12 as well.

Ah, the students. They made it worth our while. We have come to love them dearly. When we got here we found that they have very competent English teachers and the standard of English is high. Their reading and writing ability is good. Their oral English however was relatively poor. We could not understand the students, nor they us. Now it¡¯s a different kettle of fish. We can have long conversations with many of the better students. At this stage the little ones are limited to identifying colours, numbers, the alphabet and parts of the body. They know how to greet you, can tell you their name and have quite a big repertoire of nursery rhymes and songs. The beauty however, is that because they could start their English education with the help of Helene, their pronunciation and accent is better than most of the older student¡¯s. On a cold and blustery Christmas Eve the students held an English concert (or as they say a party) in our honour. They realized that we would feel lonely and melancholy at this time and wanted to cheer us up and showered us with Christmas cards, birthday cards, wedding cards and homemade cards. They succeeded admirably and for the first time in our lives we also experienced a white Christmas.

On two occasions the school laid on a car and driver to take us to visit the birthplaces of Chairmen Mao Ze Dong and Li Shao Qi. We also managed to visit Shanghai, an incredible place, which can rank with the world¡¯s great cities. Mr. Li also took us on overnight excursions to neighbouring cities to visit other schools. They were interested in appointing foreign English teachers and we had to do our stand up routine for them. It would seem that both the management and students were impressed as we were offered employment with them for the next academic year. We politely referred them to you.

You have been most supportive and we want to thank you for giving us this opportunity. This past year is etched in our memory forever. Some of our friends and family would wish that they could have experienced what we have and some will say that we were crazy. We took the plunge and came up spluttering but it was downstream all the way with the odd rapid here and there.

Kind regards,

Raymond Stander.

Helene Stander.



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