Richeldis has now been in China for two and a half months. She writes candidly about the challenges of settling-in, and starting to enjoy all there is to learn and to teach.
I have been in China for ten weeks
Honestly, the month of October has probably been the hardest month so far. My periods of homesickness have greatly reduced. However, when I do feel homesick it is far worse than what I’d experienced in September. This month has been slightly less eventful and we’re beginning to get into a routine now. We’ve also begun dancing, calligraphy and Mandarin lessons which is fun and keeping us very busy. To top it off we’ve also begun teaching the teachers’ children for 4 hours a week which is exhausting but very rewarding.
Our first holiday
The 1st of October was the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. As a result, we were given a week’s holiday with only three days’ notice. One of the English teachers at the school invited us to join her friends and family for a barbeque on the 1st of October. Chinese barbeques are incredibly different to British ones. The barbeque took place in an orchard on the outside of Jiayuguan which was made specifically for barbeques. In the orchard each group gets their own indoor room, outside seating area and barbeque pit.
To begin with all the grown up’s set up all the ingredients and began making all the barbeque food, which included dissecting parts of a sheep. In total it took them 3 hours to make all the food. Before my mum throws a fit reading this, yes, I offered to help them many times and each time they refused. This is because, in China, children are not expected to help their parents with housework and cooking due to the severe academic pressure they are constantly under. Therefore, it is considered an adult’s job. While the adults were cooking, their children were introducing me to Chinese dancing, and I was introducing them to Scottish dancing (or at least attempting to).
The food we ate during the early afternoon included bread, kebab like things, lots of other mystery meat and vegetables lathered in soy sauce. The two items of food which we avoided like the plague were chicken and duck feet. Although my students swear to me that both are delicious, I don’t think ill ever be able to bring myself to try it. We then spent the next 4 hours chatting and doing karaoke (yes, they brought their own karaoke machine to a barbeque). Then the adults began cooking again, this time they were making hot pot. Once we had eaten again, we spent the next few hours telling British stories and the parents made each of their children show of their English by also telling us a story. Then we all went outside to play another game, which was explained to us like this, “you get hit, you die!”, we pretty much just had to improvise from there. Overall, the barbeque lasted 12 hours and we were absolutely shattered when we got home.
Time to sightsee
For the next four days we went on holiday with the other two volunteers (in the same city as us) in Gansu. Due to not having much notice of the holiday most of the things we wanted to do were booked up but thanks to Jamie we managed to have a proper holiday. On Wednesday we went to Jiuquan (a city not far from Jiayuguan) for a day trip. We spent most of the day shopping as all of us did not bring enough clothes with us to China and then we went to the train station to head to Zhangye.
In Zhangye we were staying in an international hostel and it was very strange to be around native English speakers again. We also met two Chinese guys the same age as us called; Cristiano Ronaldo and Roy. On Thursday morning we went sightseeing to the rainbow mountains which were beautiful. We spent a couple hours there as a coach takes you round to different sight seeing spots. I also tried some of the best bauzi I have had in China so far. We then went for lunch and had noodles. After lunch we went to visit a monastery which included a 3km walk in the rain without coats! On Friday we visited the wetland park in Zhangye and then we headed to the market which was near the hostel. On Saturday we wondered around the city and then headed to the train station. At the train station we met an American man who was hoping to purchase a ticket to visit Xinjiang, we have no idea whether he managed to or not. We spent the rest of our time off relaxing and lesson planning. We also had to work during our next weekend to make up for the time off school because of the holiday!
Our dancing, calligraphy and Mandarin classes
After the holiday the school had organised for Jamie and I to begin our dance, calligraphy and Mandarin classes. On Wednesday mornings we have a two-hour dance class. Chinese dancing is very hard as you have to stretch absolutely everything and move in a certain way. We are always aching the next few days after dance class. Our Mandarin and calligraphy classes are on Friday mornings. Mandarin class is very difficult as a lot of the time they will say something in Mandarin (which we have never heard before) and then expect us to be able to understand them. Calligraphy class is good fun, but it is hard, it took us the whole lesson before he was confident, we could draw a straight line the right way.
Teaching the teachers’ kids
Between 5pm and 7pm on Thursdays and Fridays we teach the teachers children English. It’s far more pressure to teach the teachers kids as the teachers check exactly what we’ve been teaching their kids and if we are getting results or not. My Thursday class are aged 3 to 7 and my Friday class are aged 9 to 10. My Thursday class is definitely the harder one to teach; aside from two pupils the children’s English is not good which makes it very hard to discipline them and because they are young kids who’ve just been at school for 9 hours, they are incredibly restless and misbehave a lot.
On my second lesson with my Thursday class everything went incredibly wrong. My waiban (a teacher at the school who is responsible for Jamie and I) who is sometimes a bit scary watched the whole two-hour class unravel. One of the children had given everyone else sweets before the lesson so the children were immensely hyper before the lesson had even began. Throughout the lesson they wouldn’t stay sitting and were adamant on running around and wrestling each other, they were scaring the 3-year-old and they were shouting non-stop. I finally caved after one too many kids had fallen and hurt themselves and I let them do colouring for the last 20 minutes to keep them still and quiet. The lesson was a complete disaster and my waiban let me know so. However, I’d learnt from that lesson. The next lesson I’d separated all the desks into rows, the especially naughty children had to sit on a table by themselves and I taught them what sit down and stand up meant so that when I shouted it out, they knew what I was talking about. That class went really well, and I haven’t had too much trouble with behaviour since.
My Friday class on the other hand is far easier to manage. The kids have amazing English and are able to hold basic conversation with me. These kids have also been taught the English alphabet (my other class are still learning pinyin so I can’t teach them the English alphabet in case I confuse them) which means I’m able to use the board for teaching and written work instead of just relying on constant repetition which I have to do with my Thursday class. This makes the lessons far easier to fill as I can spend at least 20 minutes focussing on writing.
I’m really enjoying teaching the kids, it is definitely a challenge. However, it’s worth it as it is so nice when you meet the children in the school, and they try to use the English you taught them.
How I’m settling in
I think I’m settling in quite well to Jiayuguan; however, the homesickness has definitely been worse this month than last. We’re beginning to get into a better routine of things now and we’re quite busy during the week. Something which caused slight annoyance for us both is the change in time difference between Britain and China. In China they haven’t done daylight saving time since the early nineties so we’re now 8 hours ahead of Britain instead of 7 which has made phone calls with family slightly more difficult to organise. Even though from advice I’ve been given from past volunteers less communication with your family during peak homesickness time isn’t a bad thing.
Last weekend Jamie and I were lucky to meet Amy (an English teacher at another school in Jiayuguan) who has offered to show us around Jiayuguan during the weekends which we’re really excited about. I’m definitely having moments when I think, “I’m insane what am I doing here?”, but I do not regret coming to China at all and I’m having the time of my life here. I still can’t believe two months of my time here is over already.