The wheels crunched over the broken bitumen as we rolled into the driveway.
I was in a fairly unremarkable area of Xi’an with a few large iron gates looming down at me….no sign of a ‘school’ anywhere to be seen.
Somehow, I had agreed (as you do on an adventure in China) to come and see a classroom of kids who were reportedly in “need” of an English teacher.
In this instance, my new found ‘bestie’ in Xi’an – the local English speaking doctor we’d become acquainted with (a little too much for my liking over Christmas) had his sights set on accelerating my career as a budding teacher of all things ‘western.’ He – clearly more convinced of my talents than I – seems to have rounded up all his friends in need of English lessons.
Um, yes. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, by now you’ll know I am not an English teacher, let alone a teacher of any sorts, by any stretch of the fertile imagination!
A journalist, yes! One who hopefully has a reasonable command of the English language, but teacher…..this is not my area of expertise.
Still…. here in China, at local schools like this, it’s clearly not about the number of qualifications you’ve chalked up.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of ‘professional’ teachers lured from the western world who are here in an experienced expat capacity, expertly pouring their knowledge into the kids across Xi’an.
Some of them have become expat friends (who, should I choose to accept my mission, I will surely be hitting up for some fast tips!)
But these schools I’m being sought after for are… a little different.
Banging on the iron clad gate, my American counterpart (who I would replace) and I, waited for someone to come and welcome us into the meld.
What lay before me, I’ll admit, was unanticipated.
In 2007 I went to Kenya, Africa to help out at an orphanage and as you’d imagine saw some pretty impoverished sights.
First impressions and this ‘school’ had a surprisingly familiar feel.
An old housing block divided into several small rooms, concrete floors, the bare bones. Little about it resembled a school as we know it in the western world or in fact the many state of the art schools in Xi’an.
I soon discovered it would just be four children, aged ten that needed my attention. Quiet relief swept over me that it wasn’t an entire class of rambunctious kids I would need to tackle with words.
This was a Waldorf school – in the loosest sense of the term. A globally alternative education movement, founded by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. This tiny nondescript block is where one woman is hoping to bring the educational philosophy of free, morally responsible, and integrated individuals equipped with a high degree of social competence to a small group of budding students. Hats off to her for making it happen, no doubt with little in the way of financial help.
A few minutes into the class and I had to smile – the way these kids were learning was exactly how I was being taught Chinese. I could relate. Their English probably slightly superior to my Chinese….which meant we were going to be pretty limited on conversation. Nonetheless, I was advised not to speak Chinese at all in the class. (Because of course the thought had crossed my mind!)
For the next hour and a half it was all about listening, repeating, singing, games and cutting and pasting…..pretty straightforward for a mum of a four year old! But still I felt slightly panicked at the thought of trying to hold these kids’ attention, especially with my woeful warbling which is normally reserved for home and home alone.
What if they are just bored senseless by this strange blonde foreigner with an Aussie twang, dressed like an Eskimo, standing awkwardly in front of them?
The class room was a small rectangular room. probably a quarter the size of a regular classroom with about five heavy wooden desks and a blackboard. Simplicity at its best.
It was also minus 4 and there was NO heating.
Having swapped our boots for slippers at the door (had I known I would’ve surely brought my trusty, warm furry Uggs!) I was kindly lent a pair of slippers that were comfy, but by no means toasty.
For parts of the 1.5 hour class, to my horror, the door was left wide open! (Repeat, it’s minus 4!)
Now I’m obviously not a hardy winter person, so it took all my strength to ignore the fact that I couldn’t feel my feet and focus on the words ‘monster, ghosts, witches’… all part of the day’s theme, “I am scared, I am not scared.” (About now, I was trying very hard not to look scared!)
These kids were obviously un-phased by the chilly learning environment – equipped with their puffer, jackets and fingerless gloves; as was Mr teacher in his beanie – it wasn’t long before I fumbled through my bag, thanking the Gods I’d hastily thrown my hat in the bottom of my bag with gloves, at the last minute!
Drifting off, I imagined myself being slowly overcome with frostbite until a small bronze bell rang out, waking me from my frozen coma. It was break time and the kids were allowed to let off some steam (or rather thaw out) and run around outside. No playground here, just a bare concrete slab and some wiry dry blades of grass poking out around the sides.
The four kids brought out the toy that universally captures kid’s attention. The humble yo yo… and goofed around as ten year olds do.
After class I found out it was par for the course to stay for lunch with the other teacher and children. A little hesitant (did I mention being frozen to the bone) but curious, I agreed to stay. It’s all party of the adventure, remember Nicole!
It was (of course) Chinese local fare – rice and veges, laid out in the room next door. My American counterpart was a vegetarian so lunch on his day is devoid of meat (secretly I was kind of relieved knowing they like to devour every bit of the animal ’round these parts).
There was a Chinese prayer-like chant and it was time to dig in.
I spied a bottle of soy sauce on the wooden table so thought I’d add a little to my rice – this was much to the amusement of my lunch dates. I could feel all eyes on me, the kids puzzled looks said it all. I wondered if it was the way I used my fork. Some excited Chinese chatter and giggles and all was revealed. Soy sauce and rice apparently not a good mix.
After lunch — in the ‘Waldorf way’ we had to wash our own dishes at a long stainless sink with water that was ice-cold, verging on freezing and some liquid I can only suspect resembled dishwashing liquid. No tea towels, bowls straight back in the cupboard to drip dry.
So dishes done, with a few smiles and a desperate need to get warm, I bid ‘Zai Jian.’
I’m weary of the task at hand but told with foreigners like myself few and far between here, they will probably struggle to get someone to teach them (or in my case ‘talk’ at them.)
I tell myself it’s all about the adventure…and maybe it’s a win-win situation. Perhaps I can help these four kids a little…. whilst seeing another side to this city (winter and all).
Your mission, should you choose to accept it!
This is China.
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