Tuesday, 23 June 2015

15 Days in China before I go home.

At this time of year the EFL/ESL teacher’s thoughts turn to home.  Some of us, particularly those of us that work in universities and colleges are on their last week of teaching.  They have the long two months of summer to look forward to.  Others, like myself, working in High Schools still have a few weeks left. My semester ends officially on the 10th July. Initially I was told the 6th July but, as always, things change. You have to be adaptable to live in China.  My plane ticket is actually booked for the 9th; I cleared this with my school admin as the last weeks are usually taken up with exams, marking exams and general shilly shallying about.  Also its important to negotiate a bit of wriggle room when booking your tickets home so you can bag the best prices from the airlines.

So now it’s 15 days before I go home and gaol fever is starting to set in.  I booked my ticket months ago and as I said the dates were negotiated with my school admin.  This is tricky in itself because you will find that even the school admin will not know for definite when the school semester will end. It seems to be a movable feast.  According to my admin it’s the local education department that sets the dates of the semesters and the holidays and nothing is ever set in stone. That’s why you have to be adaptable.

One would think, logically, that as these things happen every year then dates would be fixed, or at least planned for. But no, this is China, every thing is flexible, everything is moveable and subject to change.  It is sometimes infuriatingly frustrating.

Take the beginning of the next academic year.  Most years the new semester starts on September 1st.  This year however on the 3rd and 4th of September there is a special public holiday in China to commemorate the 2WW.  I have heard, from other teachers, that in their schools the start date has been set back to the 7th. Of course they haven’t heard this officially, they have heard it from their students.

I asked my admin what was happening in my school and she said she would have to ask. Around a week later, when I asked again, I was told that the start of semester was the 1st September. But I am not holding my breath. It is just as likely that someone somewhere will decide that we start on the 7th. Or have a day off but then work on the Sunday – that’s how holidays work in China by the way, you have a day off, but then work the Sunday to make it up again.

Nevertheless, before we worry too much about that situation we have the run up to the break to manage and we need to think about what we will be doing during the two months or six weeks we have off.

For myself, the next few weeks will be teaching as usual. But as any teacher knows during the run up to the holidays, the natives get restless.  It’s been a hard year for my seniors.  Remember they are in class from 7am in the morning until 9pm at night.  Plus most of them have spent the last few weeks doing the Cambridge AS and A level exams so they are pretty exhausted.

My senior class - about 15 students  short

Of course they also have the end of term exams to look forward too and many of them are not even in class as they are now swotting for American college/university entry exams or the IELTS/TOEFL language exams.  This is a bit of a nightmare for the conscientious teacher because if you are working to a lesson plan that lasts for a couple of lessons you are constantly being disrupted are the numbers in the class change on a daily basis. So some students are turning up in the middle of a programme of teaching and not knowing what the hell is going on or students are missing from the pairs or groups you set up.

But of course, we teachers are human too, so we are feeling the pull of the holidays. They are just around the corner so plans are being made and rumours of cheap flights abound. Most of us have, as part of our contracts, payments to cover our flights to home and back. For most of us this is not a fortune and in many cases barely covers the cost of the airfare and the incidentals such as train or coach tickets to and from airports.  So finding the best price for the tickets home, or to your final destination is important.

Many of the gap year graduate teachers might not even get home this vacation. The lure of exotic destinations just on our doorstep is too enticing. So trips to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are popular destinations as are the highlands of Thailand. Why long haul home when you have deserted beaches and cheap beer on offer just a couple of hours away?

Like myself, most of the older teachers that I know, will be going home to visit with families and friends.  But it’s a double-edged sword. For those teachers on the lower incomes, the 6000 – 7000rmb per month teachers, going home for any period of time is expensive.  We might have our airfares paid, but it’s the day-to-day expense of living in the West that becomes the topic of conversation once we are back.

‘Can you believe how much it costs just to…’?
a.     get the bus into town
b.     eat out
c.      buy a pint
d.     stay in a hotel

All things that are reasonably cheap in China and are a shock to the system and the wallet once we get home.  So for some colleagues to head out for countries where the cost of living is cheap and the living is easy makes good financial sense.

Of course some colleagues and friends will be leaving for pastures new come the end of term. Some might not have their contracts renewed, like the guy who can’t be arsed to wear a shirt to class and thinks shorts and flip flops are reasonable attire for a teacher in a High School.  And what the Aussie who was teaching his High School students English four letter words was thinking F*&! knows.  Of course he is no longer required at that school. But within a week or so he has secured a new teaching position, no problem, and teaching kindergarten of all things.  That he has to leave his pregnant Chinese girlfriend, soon to become wife, hundreds of miles away with her family seems to be bye the bye.

Other friends are seeking new working opportunities across the world and its sad to see them go. I feel like I am losing very good friends. Friends with whom I have shared the highs and the lows of living in China and in one case we have both shared actual blood, sweat and tears.  I hope we meet again to share a whisky or two.

Some of the younger teachers, teachers who I might have stereotyped as ‘gap year graduates’ are returning home to continue their academic careers.  Some are entering MA programmes back home to become better teachers, and of course become better qualified in what, at home, will be a very competitive job market.  I think I have written elsewhere that teaching time in China on your CV/Resume doesn’t cut the mustard with most employers in the West so returning home to continue with their education might be the best choice. Of course they could have spent their time in China doing the various courses on offer here such as the CELTA and various MA courses taught in English.

Of course going home also offers us the chance to replenish and purchase those crucial things that we can’t seem to find in China.  I’ve already done some of my shopping on Amazon so things will be waiting for me when I get home. The 600gms plastic bucket of Marmite for instance, shaving oil and other goodies to bring back with me.  I might do some clothes shopping, especially shirts and a few tee shirts because as I have mentioned elsewhere its difficult to get the sizes here in China – a Chinese XL from a couple of shops (Uniqlo and H&M) just about fit me, if I watch my weight - an XL from a standard Chinese men’s shop is about a western M. I have not seen XXXL shirts, apart from some tee shirts.  (I have mentioned that you can get shirts made to measure here – but they are more formal type work shirts I want casual short sleeve shirts.

At the moment my agency, my actual employer has my passport. They have to renew our residency visas with the authorities so we can come back.  This has turned out to be a fraught experience for a colleague as her passport was stolen whilst it was in the charge of the office admin en-route to the police on the Metro.  Obviously this is one of our worst nightmares losing the passport. Thankfully my passport was in a different system and was not lost. But now my colleague, with only about two weeks before flying home, has to go through the rigmarole of filling in forms, travelling to Shanghai to visit the embassy and hoping the passport gets back before she has to fly home. Fingers crossed as the trip to Shanghai, scheduled for today, has already been put off until Friday as the police didn’t complete all the paperwork on time – This is China!

Getting one’s residency visa renewed also means a trip to the local travel medical centre for a medical check up.  This means getting there at around 8am and doing the rounds of the various doctors and tests. Ones blood, eyesight, chest x-ray, ECG, Ultrasound are checked and then various bits are prodded in different rooms until all the boxes have been ticked and signed.  This year I was given my report and it raised a few minor issues that I need to chat with my doctor about in the UK.

Of course one of my major problems is getting someone to look after Snooky whilst I’m gone. Some people ask me if I will take Snooky with me.  But at around £2000 per each leg of the trip that’s a non-starter.  I’ve looked into the local dog stay places but I have not been impressed as the dogs seem to be confined to cages all day and only given two walks a day. Fortunately a Chinese friend of mine has offered to take Snooky again as she looked after the dog whilst I was in the Philippines, Australia and NZ.  So I know Snooky will be looked after. Probably looked after too well as she was a little fat when I got back from my holidays.

So that’s pretty much it, everyone I know is counting down the days to their holidays and in fact some lucky b………s are travelling this week! You know who you are!  We teach for ten months of the year and to be honest for some of us the workload is not particularly onerous and China has lots of public holidays but I guess we are all looking forward to going home. We need to wash China out of our hair for a while, indulge in some of the food we have missed, meet up with family and friends and have some rest and relaxation.

That is not to say that we will wash China out of our hair completely we still come back, year after year – next year will be my forth year – to continue to teach English and be amazed by this crazy and wonderful country and its people.

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