Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

A survival guide to teaching in China

Have a rucksack for everything you’ll need: some schools will not give you a key to your shared office, though keys are given to Chinese teachers. This, I am solemnly told, is for “security” reasons.

That is to say, while you will have considerable difficulty at night getting past the security guards on the massive, metal, spiked school gate and face more nuisance as you try to break through the gate to your building and the next one to your office’s corridor, you nevertheless have that vital key to the final barrier: the door to “your” office, so you can steal a Jurassic-era computer.

Consider taking along a small, fold-up camping chair with a hole cut in the seat: in most schools the toilets are “squats” — ceramic holes in the floor, not comfy “thrones”. You have to sit like you’re about to do a star jump; you can’t just read the paper. If you don’t go with the camping chair option, ensure the loo has a mop. This is because the entry-level, Western backside does not come with rifle sights or whatever homing device is housed in the superior model, the oriental backside.

Balloons or water bombs, especially in the sweltering summers. Fill one with water, tie it and hurl the bomb to a child in the classroom while everyone roars with delight. The balloon is tossed around from child to child. Bang on your desk with your jam jar: when you stop banging the child who has the balloon is “it”. She has to answer the next question in English or complete the next grammar exercise amid hoots of laughter. The humour is that wonderfully spontaneous and simple, including among teenagers and adults. Eventually the balloon bursts and a grinning child emerges dripping from under a desk where he had desperately tried to avoid the flung bomb.

Toilet paper: this is generally not provided. And you don’t want to embarrassedly ask someone as your Chinese colleagues use those small packs of tissues the size of a slightly large matchbox. Westerners require more paperwork. More power to that: first a wipe, then a scrape, then a polish and at least one more touch up with lashings of loo paper the size of small sails. Not that overgrown confetti please.

A metal tea mug or get one of those wonderful jam jars your Chinese friends use. It comes with a screw-on lid to keep your tea hot and the better ones are virtually unbreakable. I know; mine have gone clattering down stairs many times. Bring your own tea or coffee. The local favourite, lu cha, green tea, makes your jam jar look like a miniature aquarium and you will be constantly picking bits of leaves off your lips and teeth.

A hand towel for perspiration: the summers are a hot, wet blanket. I have acclimatised, but you, fresh off the airplane, will be a candidate for heat stroke. If you are working all day at the school, take along three 500ml bottles of yen chi shui, salt soda water — refreshing and great for salt retention. Also take along three bottles of mineral water as this option contains trace elements good for brain functioning. Avoid purified water.

Keep the empty bottles and use them as clubs. Play Run the Gauntlet with the kids when the bell goes at break time. Stand at the door and whack each child with the bottle on the head (there is absolutely no pain, just a plonky noise; they love the game). The first squealing child to make it out the doorway without getting his head or bum smacked gets a reward of your choice: ice cream or lollipop. Great for sword fights in break times too.

Your own lunch: lunch is usually provided but many Westerners’ faces whiten when they see Chinese canteen food. Usually I find it reasonably tasty and nutritious. If it is spicy Sichuan food that is served then take along extra loo paper. Fiery Sichuan cai is awesome but often it rapidly urges on a series of bowel movements that is truly the Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony of movements. You will go through two or three chapters of a novel while you wait for the fury of your sphincter and colon to subside. Then wistfully think about an ice cube for an enema. I never learn; I like Sichuancai that much. And it’s cleansing.

A camera: important for mementoes of those wonderful children you are leading up the Alps of the English language. And to take pictures of those Chinglish signs no one back home will believe. Chinglish is a wonderful, curious form of English to be found on public signs, such as in toilets and bath rooms in schools: “Beware of landslide” and “Slide carefully”.

Sufficient taxi fare or locate the nearest McDonalds or KFC. Some schools’ loos do not come with doors and only a two-foot wall separates you from the next loo. Curiosity is a sign of a young, healthy mind but some of my students are dead keen to know if Westerners are equipped the same way. So, in those schools, if I need a number one I catch a taxi home – the fare is pretty cheap here – or I make a beeline for the nearest Big M or Colonel Saunders outlet.

If you are not provided with a key to “your” office (security reasons) ensure your rucksack is large enough to carry everything around. You never know if the classroom will have been locked during breaks of when you have to dash back during a period to get that forgotten teaching aid.

You will sometimes not be provided with textbooks for the classes that are usually forty to fifty children in size. This is your wonderful chance to create your own lessons (something I love) specific to the children’s needs. The school will make photocopies and you will be carting around perhaps four hundred copies in your rucksack as there is no guarantee “your” office will be open to get stuff for the next lesson. Good for the tummy and leg muscles. You will look like you are going on a three day solo excursion in the Drakensberg.

Oh, and take along a sense of humour, a love for teaching children and a passion for culture shocks.