Part 2 of 4
While the graduate gap year teachers are having a ball, drinking, partying, hopping from job to job, seducing Chinese girls, over in the corner of the bar I hang out in are that group of ESL teachers I am calling the redundant, the alienated and the dysfunctional (RAD from here on in) grumping away into their ten yuan Carlsberg or Tiger beers during ‘Happy Hour.’
Most of these teachers are older and believe themselves to be wiser than the young itinerant teachers they pour scorn upon whilst yelling for the fú wù yuán for more beer. However, the two groups have more in common with each other than they might like to admit.
Many of these ESL teachers may have little or no teaching experience or ‘teaching’ qualifications over and above the TEFL course they did back in the day or just before they came here. That they might have a degree from a not so kosher university could also be open to some question, especially if they have spent some time in Thailand before coming to China.
At least one ‘teacher’ to my knowledge probably purchased his degree on the Khao San Road in Bangkok, as the ‘UK degree’ he produced to a British colleague of mine when applying for a job at his school, was for a ‘university’ that did not exist. He didn’t get the job of course, he was however, already in a job at a Chinese school for a Chinese agency where it was muttered quietly by the Chinese staff that the Chinese owners PhD was purchased in the US, as was his business partner/wife’s MA from Harvard, despite the fact that she can barely speak English.
Consequently, this group of teachers will be in the sort of teaching job that pays the usual 6000/7000yuan a month plus the standard extras as listed for the gap year graduate. They often, like the gap year graduates, have a number irons in the fire of education and move from job to job as and when it suits them. Most of them will have jockeyed for position from some of the more disreputable training agencies, schools, colleges and universities that first got them their Z visas to much better places, often with an increased salary because, now, they are ‘experienced’ teachers. That they started at these lower grade institutions is more to do with their own ignorance of the teaching market in China when they were applying for work, and the need to get here on a Z visa with the airline ticket paid for.
This suggests that the RADicles are slightly less transient than the gap year graduates. Most of them have been here for a good few years. Some of them will be settled here with Chinese wives and families. None that I know of have a western wife and family here in China with them. So the thrill of actually being here with cheap beer, a twelve hour working week, travel to exciting destinations on the doorstep, beautiful Chinese girls to look at, and screw soon palls. They become weary of the disinterested, unprepared, sometimes arrogant – because their daddy is rich, sleepy, video game addicted, students with the English ability of a 5 year old British kid (that’s being generous in regard to the 17 yr old college students at a college I worked at, who expected, as a rite of passage, to be accepted in a Canadian University without the hassle of really trying).
So when better work at better schools with better money turns up they jump at it so that their place can be filled with a gap year graduate or a new and unsuspecting RADicle. Such is the teaching caste system maintained in China and equilibrium is once again achieved. An important part of being a foreign teacher is to know when your bread is being buttered, and by whom, and when to jump ship before the rest of the rats do.
However, where the disgruntled RADicles differ from the gap year graduates is that despite of, or regardless of, where they got their degrees, or for that matter how long ago they graduated from their alma maters these teachers have learnt the lessons of the University of Hard Knocks. This influences their teaching and their approach to the jobs they take.
The teachers in these RADicle groups that I have met profess, in the main, a real zeal for teaching. Not for them simply babysitting sleepy students, or showing them You Tube Videos/Movies day after day just to keep them awake as per the graduate gap year teachers who spend their lessons counting the minutes until they can get back to the office to have a nap or play video games on their iPad before the next lesson.
In the spirit of openness and honesty I guess I, your good Doctor X, have to admit that to a certain extent I too belong, to this RADicle group. Yes, I sit with these fellow teachers, drinking beers swopping tales of what happened in our classrooms this week. Grumping about the gap year graduates and their sloppy Tee shirts and attitudes (but really for having a better time than we are).
Or how dispiriting it is to have to do, and say the same thing day after day with little evident success. And yet, and yet, we still prepare our lesson plans, we generate classroom materials, we pass on tips to each other about content and things that have worked in the classroom, albeit over a beer, so it’s probably forgotten by the next day.
Nevertheless, we still wake up with the expectation that we might make a difference to these kids, make a difference to China; we take pride in our work. We believe that we can, in some way, help our students achieve their dream of going to a foreign university, pass the IELTS/TOFEL exam, get their A Levels, or simply become more proficient in English. This is why I came to China. This is why I’m still at the same school as I was last year and why I will be at the same school again next year (OK, the money helps, more of which later, in another section).
What sets the older group apart is, I believe, a responsibility to the job, to teaching and to a certain extent the need for self-preservation. Some of the teachers I have met, and here I include myself, have been made redundant from jobs in the west. I took voluntary redundancy when it became clear to me that my post at the university I was working at was no longer tenable. It was clear to me even then, when I was in work, that at my age, with my qualifications (a PhD) I was going to find it difficult to find work in the UK. Plus I’d basically had enough of work. I’d worked since I was 16, I’d had enough and it was time to make a change. (Find out more on my soon to be published memoir on Kindle)
However, I couldn’t sit back and enjoy the fruits of my redundancy settlement because it was not that large, I still needed to earn money to pay bills of which the mortgage on my house in the UK was my largest money pit and I knew that I was not going to end up stacking shelves in my local supermarket. Coming to China, teaching English had been in the back of my mind for a while and as redundancy does focus ones mind it became clear that it was time to make that change in my life.
If you feel you need a change and the opportunity arises, do what I did, use the time when you are working out your notice to do the online TEFL course (on your computer at work, like I did, let the bastards pay for your time) and to get your life in order. I have to say, and I am aware it is a cliché, but redundancy was the best thing that ever happened to me. You will find online TEFL courses on www.groupon.co.uk on offer for around £49
Other ESL teacher colleagues faced similar challenges at home. One was a senior manager for a large retailer in the UK but for her enough was enough; she’s been teaching in China for five years too and has never looked back and now is working for the British Council as an IELTS examiner. The great American financial crash was the motivation for other friends to teach in China. Having lived the American Dream and been very successful the rug was pulled out from under them, their business collapsed and effectively the system made them redundant. They changed their lives and came to China, a husband and wife team who have made a great success of ESL teaching and who get to travel around SE Asia as a bonus during the long holidays.
Other teachers, friends, and colleagues I have met seem alienated from their own countries. Rootless, homeless, forever wandering the world, looking for what, I don’t know, maybe the travel is enough. China might be just another stop on their quests itinerary who knows where they will go next? They certainly don’t. What they are searching for in their travels is unknown. They are jobbing English teachers who go where the vagaries of the language takes them. Japan for a year – fantastic sushi, Korea as the head of a language school for two years, Former Eastern Europe for the craic and the top wages, South America for the beaches and the cocaine, the African grasslands for the students who want to be lawyers and doctors to help their own country if only they had a pencil, and finally to end up washed up and beached in China, propping up a bar sinking another chilly 10 kuai beer.
Some of these semi-itinerant teachers, the alienated RADicle, seem to have families, wives and children back in their home countries. They talk wistfully of them and show pictures around the bar. But for all the talk these families could be figments of a fevered imagination. Trips back home are never taken, wives and children never seem to appear on the scene and if they do its only for a week or two and then they are shipped back to whence they came to once again become out of sight and out of mind. A regular moan from the alienated RADicle in his cups, late at night, is that the bitch back home is bleeding him dry and that he needs to go to the bank again to send money, which means ramping up the teaching, finding another part time job to add to the hours already being taught.
Back-stories and personal histories are edited, fictionalised, re-written, boasted about, not mentioned much, spewed out after too many bottles of Bombay Blue. We create a whole web of lies we weave about ourselves, which make us who we are, or who we want to be. In China you can damn well be who you damn well want to be and who knows or cares a damn anyway?
You have to be self-reliant in China, you cannot be too needy or lack self-confidence or you will be lost. If you really don’t like yourself or your life, well then, just damn well be who you want to be. Who cares anyway, we damn well don’t. We are too busy managing our own lives to care too much about yours. In a transient population of English teachers many are here today and gone tomorrow to pastures and schools anew and there are always new friends to be made as they turn up at school or in the bar, fresh faced, eager to make friends, and needy for the inside line in respect of teaching here in China so don’t kid yourself you are the special one.
But they know their stuff these RAD teachers. They can teach a class at the drop of a hat. They have a lifetimes experience; they are raconteurs, fonts of ESL teaching knowledge. They have a practiced ease with new situations that makes them perfect bar flies however, in this case, it’s the shit that circles the fly as the shit tries to learn a thing or two or pick up a swift hint for tomorrows lesson that’s not been planned yet and it’s already 11pm and they’re six pints in, and the jagerbombs are starting to happen.
Thus the bar is a microcosm of life amongst the English Teacher fraternity, and over in the corner, face in his or her beer/laptop/tablet/phone/food not interacting with anyone at all is the dysfunctional RADicle. How they ever got this far, and actually organized a job in China, and the flights, and the visa’s, and actually teach is a mystery because they don’t seem to be able to organize their own existence.
These teachers have little or no social graces. They seem to be friendless in a society where friendships are solidly forged, and are maintained with almost religious zeal. A meeting in the bar after a week or so apart stuck on campus teaching is a love fest of manly hugs, jovial backslapping, inquisitions about ones health, and job status, round buying, food sharing, whispered sweet nothings between friends of similar, and opposite gender, shared experiences in the classroom, tips about good restaurants visited, queries about the family back home. and when and where will you be travelling this summer/spring break, jagerbombing, and the general chit chat of the kind one has heard a thousand times but are too polite to mention.
The dysfunctional RAD stands to one side watching uncomfortably as the bonhomie threatens to engulf him or her. Should someone notice him off to one side, and offer him or her welcoming hug or a handshake it’s a pretty stiff affair as if the very nature of the human contact is something to be avoided.
I have often walked into a bar and over in the corner is Johnny no-mates (we called him Dikipedia because he always new better than anyone – you can meet him in my memoir on kindle) staring resolutely into his, (I have to say this it is mainly a male disorder, maybe the females just stay in their apartment doing cross stitch, or marking or something that I cannot fathom) beer/laptop/tablet/phone/food. If, god forbid, the bar is empty, and you go over to their table for the company, because any company is better than no company, right? The dysfunctional teacher will share a few words, but in the main what’s on the laptop/table/phone is usually much more interesting that whatever it is you might have to say. So you spend your time looking at the door praying to Dionysus that someone, anyone, will step through entrance to give you a reason to leave the loser on his own.
When the dysfunctional teacher does join in with the band of happy fellows in the bar, often after being encouraged to do so, because if nothing else RADical English teachers are a generally a friendly, and welcoming bunch, then tend to go over the top and get thoroughly pissed. There is nothing wrong with getting pissed; I’ve been there myself after one or two too many pints, and Jagerbombs and/or Mr Jim Beams whiskey.
The dysfunctional teacher often gets the wrong end of the stick, and cannot endure the normal banter of inebriated teachers recoiling from, and diluting the stress of a heavy 10-hour working week. They seem to end up wanting to hit someone, or getting hit or coming on inappropriately to any female members of the group, and the whole evening goes tits up, again, such is their dysfunctional rage.
When one does get to have a real conversation with the dysfunctional teacher it seems that even at home they were just as uncomfortable as they are here in China. Like the alienated RADical they do seem to be looking for something, maybe its personal change maybe just something intangible like getting a personality. They didn’t seem to fit in at home. They seem to be introverted, the type of kid that never got the girl, so they retreated into the world of video games and study.
Maybe they feel that coming to China will challenge them, and eventually change them, and they will become different people. So we can give them kudos for actually getting off their arses and getting here. But it seems that once they are here they find it too difficult to give up those comforting OCD routines that makes us who we are, to throw off the mantle of introversion, for better or worse.
Even so some of the dysfunctional teachers I have met have managed to meet, and keep Chinese girlfriends, some of them have even married the poor unsuspecting girls. I suspect, however, this might be a good thing for the dysfunctional male foreigner who is probably missing his mum, and the easy life back home because Chinese women are generally the boss in any relationship. The epithet used for Chinese wives ‘Dragon lady’ is not a matter of whimsy; in China it is a reality. Forget having to get yourself a lifestyle guru or a life coach a Chinese wife does all this, and more, and is probably prettier.
Of course being a foreign teacher is a good catch for a Chinese girl dysfunctional or not. Our wages are often double or more than what the average Chinese teacher earns so it means that he can keep her in a manner to which she will quickly become accustomed too. One teacher I know had to hand over his monthly salary to his live in girlfriend, so she could manage the money by allowing him a monthly stipend (in his defence they were trying to run a business too).
However, all areas of ones life will soon be policed with a rigour that would bring a smile to the face of Mao Zedong and his Red Army cronies who infected this country with a military passion for order, and cleanliness that translates in the modern era into how things get done in the home. Take the washing up for example. Apparently it has to be washed three times. Once in hot soapy water, and then swilled off twice in running cold water. If these standards are not applied, then it’s the gulags for you comrade.