The Shenzhen Diaries #4: Little Trouble In Big China (Part 1)

So I don’t die in Hong Kong, I find my adviser, meet people just like me, realize that we’re going to make it through with the power of friendship, happily Chinese ever after, right?  Well, in the short time that I’ve been out here, we expats (cool name for western foreigners) have a saying for the inexplicable things that happen out here and the convoluted processes that it takes to fix them.  We call it “China Shit”. Getting lost in Hong Kong with nobody available to see you through and make sure you don’t die: China shit. Being reprimanded by your adviser about paperwork that your adviser already has in his possession:  China shit. Flying 5,000 miles around the world, leaving behind everything you’ve ever known and cared about to find out that you still needed to interview for you job: Some real China shit.

And China shit is exactly what happened.  I have been very much a city-phile for much of my life.  I remember going to New York as a kid and being blow away by it.  The vastness of the skyline, the amount of people, the variety of food.  It called to me from all of its aspects. I’ve always been fascinated by culture and the multitude of ways that human life has been achieved.  This is probably in large part due to the rich Italian heritage coming from my mother’s family. And by Italian, I mean North Jerseyan(?). I remember bits and pieces of the city life from when I was a small child, but I was whisked away from it at a young age to go to a better suburban school.  This probably explains most of the romance about it, but most of the specifics came to me through the stories they would tell me over coffee and cards. Public transportation, bar hopping, a neighborhood family. To me, living in a regimented, suburban cultural wasteland, it sounded like freedom.  

One of the points of tension in my relationship with my ex was this fetish-like desire to live in the city, even if for a while.  She was less inclined. I take it today as a metaphor: she wanted ten acres and a mule; I wanted to be famous. When I got that call, that was my go ahead.  The chance to go to China tore at that seam until ripped the whole thing open.

Karma did come for me however.  The first little disappointment living out here was that I wasn’t going to be in the greater Shenzhen area known as Futian.  This is the one that shows up when you Google search Shenzhen; you’ll know the skyscrapers and neon lights. As a matter of fact, none of my group got assigned there.  Anyone there has been with the company several years, probably meaning that you sort of graduate into it. There is another city area known as Bao’an, which a large chunk of my group was sent to.  Instead, I was in Pingshan.

Anyone who as been through the same process relishes in informing you that Pingshan is affectionately known as the ‘sticks’ compared to the vastness of Bao’an or Futian.  They probably enjoy telling you to reclaim some of the disappointment they themselves felt for being sent out in the same manner. Cyclical rejection. Because we were more than an hour outside center city, we were stuck in that shitty hotel while our other friends had already met their schools and were beginning to apartment shop around the area for their living arrangements.  This dampened my spirits even more. I felt banished. I felt stashed away. Forgotten.

When nothing was happening for us, a fair amount of anxiety began to bubble up under the surface.  We voiced this to our adviser. We had a free Sunday and rather than hang around the hotel, we figured why don’t we take the day to apartment shop so that we can just move right in.  In his very reassuring way, our adviser kindly said, “Make sure you get the job first before you decide on a place to live.” Well fuck.

I have to say, it was pretty hard to hear that I was still technically unemployed.  This revelation caused a pretty good deal of panic among my group, which he tried to placate with his exact figure of “You have a 95% chance of getting the job”.  When something of a lynch mob began forming to get a hold of our adviser, he called a meeting in the white boardroom at the the company’s office. We had been living with very little information in that small shitty hotel room for several days at this point.  We thought it would be refreshing to finally get some clarification on very simple things like: ‘What the hell were these schools expecting from us?’ or ‘Why haven’t we gotten a textbook yet?’, even better ‘When can we get out of here and settled in?’. On the outside, this would seem like a simple set of asks, especially when we were disoriented from traveling around the world to this seemingly inhospitable continent, but even something as simple as, say getting off a plane for example, was time proven to cause a fair amount of struggle.  

Our adviser started by finally coming around and admitting that we were going to have to interview for our jobs in a ‘demo’.  I think my mother put it best during this period when she said, “I don’t know whether to be mad at them for not telling you this or you for not looking it up.”  Several weeks into this process, I echo her sentiment. Apparently demos are a pretty common practice for ESL teaching. In reality, I shouldn’t be upset considering the fact that they hired me in the first place for knowing next to nothing about me or my teaching style.  The only interview I had was while I was home and it seemed more like a prep for a class than an interview. I thought I did pretty well, and they seemed intent on hiring me until they let slip that they were expecting me to teach 1st and 2nd graders. Only teaching college students before that (and badly at that) and having no formal K-12 teaching education or experience, I had no idea what to expect from 6 and 7 year olds.  I cracked and asked that I get upgraded. This is when they found a middle school position for me. Funny thing about it was that they assured me saying, “Oh, a position just opened up!” This felt a little too convenient. (And it was. More on that later.) In retrospect, this is probably how I got myself banished out to Pingshan rather than a city province like Bao’an. I would ask where the original school is, but if you are picking up on the trend forming here, it is almost impossible to get a straight answer out of anyone in the company.  They will either guess or pass you off to someone else who will do the same. By no means are we the focus here, despite the lovely Youtube videos they sent us before.

My adviser gave us the best demo script he could muster without having a moment of teaching experience under his belt.  He wrote rules on the board and told us to play a game. What could we do other than take his word for it? He’d done this before right?  (Actually we found out a couple weeks later that this was his first full semester with the school, probably explaining a lot of the chaos.)  Call me defeatist, but I knew right away it was mostly useless. It quickly degenerated into a Q and A session where my group and I could finally get a crack at figuring out what the hell was going on in this place.  It’s comforting to know that you’re not alone in the dark, but that doesn’t exactly make it any brighter. Our adviser doled out arbitrary information that he made us feel foolish for not knowing. Just in case I needed another kick in the ass for opting out of 1st and 2nd grade and moving for the middle school kids, at one point in the meeting (not 5 minutes after he assured us half-heartedly that we had a “95% chance” that we were going to be accepted into our school), he turns right toward me and says in his busted English, “Your school, Christian, has teachers with very high standards.”  No pressure.

One last strange moment in the demo lesson was when our adviser grew somber for a moment, then proceeded to write the words ‘Intimate Touching’ on the board in big bold letters, then letting it sit there and marinate over the room for a moment.  “Okay,” someone in the back said with a little bit of embarrassment. “This,” said my adviser pointing with his red marker, “No. If kids want to hug you, you just pat them on the head.” He then made the motion. He stressed that anyone being found to do this would be removed from the program immediately.  Weird, right? Yes. But we figured the rest of the process was weird, and it was something that needed to be covered at some point in the process anyway. Why bring out this particular moment of that God-forsaken demo class? Because, ladies and gentlemen, I ask that you store this little nugget because it turns out to become relevant later in this story.  It truly is comical.

An orientation session was held a couple days later for all the new arrivals that came over.  It was really just a big commercial for the company with some linings of protocol and a rushed, half-assed teaching workshop afterwards.  Of course there were the obligatory horror stories like the guy who went 70 days over his visa and was slapped with a ¥10,000 fine (~$1000).  It became painfully clear how valuable we were for this company through how difficult it was to get fired. I thought that I was taking this mostly seriously.  I was worried about things like lateness or reputation. Yes, I wanted to party and take it pretty easy, but a lot of that got scared out of me in Hong Kong. However, it turns out there have been multiple firings by schools for teachers showing up late/hungover, missing days, mishandling the kids or teachers.  I suppose it comes along with the adventurous package for the type of people who want to come out here, but it couldn’t be denied that I was in interesting company. What is really amazing is that more often than not these teachers were just rebranded and shuffled around schools in their area. There is very little consequence within the company itself unless you are serially ruining your opportunities out here.  Perhaps it was comfort that I was feeling, but it also made me feel very leery about what exactly my role was out here. They called us ‘Talents’, but that just made me feel like a widget.

It was casually hinted at during the meeting but was confirmed later that we weren’t even here legally.  The Education Bureau has strict policies about who is allowed to work here, where they live, where they’re from, etc.  This goes right along with the Chinese attitude toward foreigners. Whomever’s protection it is for (ours or their people’s), they stressed the need to register with the police once we found a place to live and we have to reregister every time we cross the border and come back.  A friend of mine actually forgot to do this. To his surprise, police showed up at his classroom door, brought him home to get the necessary documentation, and brought him to the station to register. Nothing came of it, but they are very insistent on having you on the books at all times.  

The illegal part of it came in the form that we were supposed to have a formalized work permit before we even got here.  Because we weren’t technically ‘employed’ by a school, we were still on a provisional visa. Until this was complete we couldn’t attain a work permit, which was necessary for a residence permit which allowed us to live here.  This is why we are so free to shuffle around these schools, because there really isn’t a legal pin keeping us there. The teachers however are in such high demand by these schools that the Education Bureau overlooked many of these restrictions to allow the company to pull in foreigners from of colleges and job boards, slap a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language Certificate) on them, and start shipping them out to schools all around China to allow the language to take root.  I have a sneaking suspicion that there is also an executive or two in the company that is buddy buddy with someone in the Education Bureau, or perhaps the company could have even been invested in by the bureau itself. It seems to me that a long standing tradition of the Chinese to create a lot of rules and selectively enforce them. ‘Illegal’ might not really carry the exact same meaning over here as it did at home. In hindsight, the company is essentially a bunch of Coyotes smuggling Americans and other Westerners into the country, promising them work, and selling them at a premium.  I wouldn’t go as far as calling it indentured servitude, but I wouldn’t exactly throw the word ‘ethical’ out there either.

Several members of my group and I actually ended up in an elevator with one of the western officials of the company, the one who led the orientation.  We had already had words with him about having to stay in the hotel an extra night while everyone else was moving in and exploring their areas of the city.  He knew our situation, but he probably had seen a million unfortunate souls wander through in similar circumstances. Trying to ease the tension in the small space I said, “So, how is Pingshan?” (The far out area that we were supposed to be living in by now).  His delightful answer was, “Have you not been there yet?”. He started to say how nice it was when as if by magic, the elevator doors opened and he ducked out, still talking through the metal. Looking back, I wonder if that was even his floor or was he just trying to escape the situation.  

We had one more weekend to sit on our lesson plans by ourselves at the hotel, then demo day came Tuesday.  The people who went the day before me for their demos all got the job. This made me feel better. I would join them for apartment shopping after my demo in the early afternoon.  Being in the continuous state of shitting bricks, I took the hour long car ride from the hotel thinking I would be back to pick my shit up then I could say goodbye to the anxiety and stress it took to get here.  I remember my mother’s voice saying, “You should dress nicer.” But on the other hand, I had spoken to people from the school who said, “Don’t worry about it. We dress casual all the time.” I wore a short-sleeve button up and black jeans.  Not disgusting, but surely leaving something to be desired. (Side note kiddos: Always overdress for the interview.) The narrator in my head that day was screaming, “Don’t fuck up or you whole life is ruined!”

As per my adviser’s style (who is not in the car and communicating mostly through text), he instructs the driver to drop me off in front of the school and takes the rest of my group in the car to apartment shop.  The car pulls away and that bitter loneliness bubbles in my stomach again. The guard seems to know who I am and lets me into the gate. I am met by a teacher younger than me. He speaks English very well, but very softly and his tone is as if he finds my goofy American-ness as charming.  He is wearing a black turtleneck and thick rimmed glasses, and his hair is flipped with buzzed sides. I draw a moment of comfort from homecoming in the fact that the tendrils of the art/hipster movement had made its way all the way out here to the Far East.

He sets me up in the library to prepare my lesson and tells me he will call for me in twenty minutes.  I thank him and he leaves. Thinking that I had a “95%” chance to get this job, take the time to try and lower my blood pressure and gain some confident American charisma.  I take in the sanitary looking white tile that makes up the entire outside of the building and the rich flora landscaped in the alien climate. I hear the yells of children echoing throughout the open, motel-like halls of the school in the courtyards.  Pingshan is actually not as “sticks-y” as people made it sound. It is much more like a big suburb. There might not be the massive back to back malls that you get in Futian, but it still holds many of the city aspects: people, public transportation, tall buildings.  More city that I am used to home on the Jersey Shore anyway. For the first time since my arrival on the continent I think, “This might not be terrible.”

Finally young Andy Warhol comes back.  He brings me to a classroom completely lined with the same bathroom-like tile that coated the entire building.  Any of the schools I’ve been to out here seem to take on a motel-like format. There aren’t any real hallways, instead the classrooms are linked along the same outside walk.  The only thing keeping the elements out are the unsealed windows and the metal door. No air, no heat, no screens, and the kids wear the same sweat suits all year. Whatever. China shit.  

The front of the room is a raised platform with a smart board that I have no idea how to use (and even if I did, everything was in Chinese).  Preparing for this, having no idea of the anatomy of a Chinese classroom, I was assuming that they would at least have a whiteboard. There were only two chalkboards that seemed more like aesthetic fixtures than any sort of practical teaching device.  I was assured on multiple occasions that I did not need a powerpoint, but it seems as though that were the only thing they were really suited for. I made due, but on that platform, all I could think about was not tripping or falling off. I guess it was supposed to represent some sort of authority over the room, but in reality it just made me feel exposed.  

A bell rang and turtleneck introduced me to the class and in my nervousness, I just started my lesson.  I began my intro and working my way through my script. Anxiously, I blasted through a lot of material quickly as the students and the teachers amassing in the back of the class eyed me skeptically.  I thought that the skepticism was just from my newness, but the real reason was revealed when a second bell ran in the middle of my lesson. It turns out in Chinese schools, the students are allowed to roam freely in the hallways between classes.  I started my lesson before the period even started. Due to the tightly timed nature (some would call it scarceness) of my material, I was forced to start over when the class began in earnest. The first couple minutes just felt sloppy, having to repeat a lot of my material for half the class, and the other half just hearing it for the first time.  I knew that they knew that I knew I was a fake.

I thought my job was to be charming and entertain the students, then once I got the job, more specific material would be provided.  In my helplessness and with assurances of the teachers that this was a fool proof success, much of my lesson was an appeal to pathos, consisting of drawing poorly drawn stick figures of my family and describing adjectives to describe them, followed by a game of ‘Categories’.  Without anything to go on, I suppose you teach what you know. So I had 10 and 11 year olds playing a college drinking game. I thought this was brilliant because I could get a feel for their English ability as well as keep them entertained. In hindsight, I was a bit of a wreck.  I was impressed with how many animals and colors they knew, but then I realized many of them were checking the glossary in the backs of their textbooks and the backs of their colored pencil boxes.

In the back of the room, most of the teachers looked like they were roped into this and had little time or attention for it.  Many checked their phones or conversed with their colleagues. It was only a small group that was really analyzing me and their faces looked like the faces of the students in Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”.  They were oriented around a brick-faced woman in an olive-grey suit who looked unamused and seemed to be complaining to an assistant of some sort. I learned later this was the headmaster of the school, and this wasn’t a good omen.  

After the class, the teachers congregated.  I let them talk while I stayed back with some of the students.  They did seem to be very genuine and some of them were very curious.  The girls asked me if I had a girlfriend. When I said no, one answered loudly in Chinese.  It made the other girls giggle an chastise her, then they ran off. The boys elected the kid with the best English in the class to ask me questions.  “Do you know this?” he said and wrote “LOL” on the board. I thought it was cool they knew texting language. Then he asks again if I knew “PUBG”. I was overjoyed to finally find nerd culture out here.  I talked with them a couple minutes and they asked stuff like what I thought about China and how I felt about Trump. I wouldn’t have hated working with these kids. The creeping thought again arose, ‘Maybe this could work out’.

When the teacher group broke up and young, Chinese Andy Warhol looked less than amused.  He noted that the kids loved me, and I agreed with him. I thought I was a hit, even if it was only due to the exotic nature of my inherent American-ness.  He even noted that he game was good. But he had nit picky criticisms about how I ran the game and he felt like I didn’t engage a wide enough variety of students. The ‘very high standards’ began to rear its head.  “You have a tattoo,” he said half surprised. He must have noticed when I was raising my hand in class. He told me I would have to cover that up and emphasized that I was teaching children. The panic again began to build.  When someone told me that he dressed very casually to class, I brought only 3 ties and shirts, the of my attire mainly consisted of short sleeves button ups in preparation of the famous South China humidity. I pondered the idea of how three shirts were going to last me five days a week, every week.

When he said, “You seemed really unprepared” and “Why didn’t you use the provided textbook?”, I almost lost my shit right in the library.  I blamed the company and my adviser. And don’t get me wrong, they are unethical douchebags, but in the spirit of honesty that I am trying to write this blog with, the sloth with which I approached teaching college had reared its head in my preparation for this lesson.  I was presented with an impossible task, and instead of using that to propel me beyond what was expected, I let the challenge spook me and I cheesed the effort assuming these schools knew what they were getting in these half-baked and under-prepared teachers. Then again, maybe the company saw me as the college professor I supposedly was and expected a lot more out of me.  He even noted that the previous person before me was ‘lazy’, ‘unorganized’, and ‘not a good teacher’ and they were trying to find a teacher who wasn’t that. I was that when I left America, but this seemed like a challenge to not be that in China. But wait for it. More on the previous teacher later.

It wasn’t a flat-out ‘no’, and it could be argued that it was worse.  Black turtleneck gave me a textbook to take home and a page to base my lesson on.  He said to come back tomorrow and try again.

I was demolished.  I was still unemployed.  I would have to spend another night in the God-forsaken hotel.  China life is being put on further delay. If the last selfish, lazy, ignorant bits of me that expected this to be easy weren’t burned off by now, this was doing a good job of finishing them off.  If I wanted anything here, I was going to have to bust my ass for it, and I hadn’t done that in years.

Young, Chinese Andy Warhol called me a cab that dropped me off to meet up with my friends apartment shopping.  The driver dropped me off on a random corner somewhere in China (something I was immediately not fond of considering the last couple installments), but I was eventually flagged down by a suited man and brought to my disgruntled friends who were, again, without our adviser.  They were being shown trash apartments by the suited man who didn’t speak a word of English and who was becoming increasingly frustrated with simultaneously gophering for my adviser and my friends’ unwillingness to purchase his discount wares. They could immediately tell that things weren’t going well for me either.  I stayed silent as they tried to negotiate simple things like furniture and a refrigerator with a man who didn’t speak their language.

One found a reasonable apartment (one that he didn’t even end up taking later), the other would come back with me the next day.  Finally my adviser showed up. “You are sad,” he says after taking one look at my face. I agreed with him. In his typical fashion, he tried to point out the way that I was dressed and started asking why I didn’t use the shitty yet fool-proof lesson plan that he provided (which I did).  Present me realizes that much of this situation was my own fault, but in fairness, I probably could have had some better guidance to navigate it.

It begins coming out that my adviser wasn’t terrible surprised about me getting trouble.  Remember the demo lesson? Remember him turning to me in the lesson and saying ‘Your teachers are going to have very high standards’?  Remember him making a weirdly big deal about no kiddie-touching? Well, M. Night Shamala-China, I am getting bits and pieces of information through him and filling in blanks through my contacts that I met at the school that the last person to have the job that I was the very same infamous kiddie-diddler who was removed from the program!  It was a girl trying to lure a middle school student into private lessons because she was trying to molest him! And I was going to replace her. I wish I was fucking joking.

Yes, I should have been more prepared for this lesson.  Yes, some bad habits of mine needed to be taken to the fire and fixed.  Yes, I should have dressed better. But fuck me, unless I hit back to back home runs in this demo, the school had no intention of taking the first teacher that my sleezy, low-standard company offered.  They were going to negotiate over my head like I was livestock. And it turns out that Chinese people, being widely known as bigots, form their opinions of certain races very quickly. The last teacher was American.  It isn’t outrageous that this brick-faced headmaster, being of the past generation, assumed that child molestation was a fucking American tradition!

China in a lot of ways has seemed to be about me finding my voice.  I found my voice in that apartment lobby and really took the opportunity to lay into this guy.  I was tired of being in the dark and then held accountable for it. I asked why I wasn’t fitted with a textbook or any sort of teaching advice when the school was clearly expecting that (Especially the school that he himself told me was going to have high standards and didn’t seem to have a strong opinion of taking on ).  If I could have pulled his “95% chance” figure out of the air and beat him with it, I could have killed him.

He checked his phone and stared at his shoes.  He clearly was used to this sort of thing, but it made me feel a lot better.  He assured me that I would nail the next one and he would come with me, probably much like he should have done the first time.  It seems to be either a principle of Chinese business that you only put out fires once they’ve already started. The policy of ‘It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission’ is taken very seriously out here.  (Consider this foreshadowing next week.)

I finally tuckered myself out and my adviser followed up with a stream of empty apologies, excuses, and assurances.  Then this guy had the balls to ask with a smile, “So how are you guys getting home?” We were over an hour outside of the city center where the hotel was and the cab drive cost almost $50 to get home.  I got in another couple minutes of biting his head off. It may not have changed our ride situation, but made me feel a little better.

On the long ride home, I found out that one of my friends didn’t feel that his demo went well either.  So much in fact that they didn’t give him a straight answer either. They said they would let him know before 4pm.  I was immediately impressed by his calm. How was I helplessly panicking while he was cool as a cucumber trying to make me feel better?  I asked him. I have to admit that he inspired me when he asked, what choice did he had in the matter? He was married and trying to move in with his wife in the area to start their lives in China.  This would be killing me, I told him. He said that the school was going to decide one way or another. If they took him, great. If not, he would just have to deal with it when that time came. There would be more opportunity, and it wasn’t worth his blood pressure to get bothered over it.  

I honestly believe this was a big step in my manhood.  Being male yes, but being human as well. Stoically accepting things that one couldn’t change.  This was something that was killing me at home, and maybe a part of me thought I could escape it out here.  This was something to strive for. And the first step toward achieving that grace and stoicism was to take this problem in front of me and deal with that before trying to take it all at once.  

Later that night when we sat down for dinner, he got the call.  He got the job. I was glad for him and it made me feel better about my own situation.  It validated his wisdom. I hit the books that night with vigor.

Sadly, this wasn’t nearly the end of it.  


Sorry about the missing entry last week.  By now, things are actually shaking up so I was pretty busy (and perhaps a little hungover).  I will get back on a weekly schedule, but don’t be surprised if I take a week off between sections here and there.  I am glad to be back on a writing schedule, and it is actually surprisingly refreshing. Thank you for anyone who reads this.  It might not be quality publishing, but it really means a lot to interact with the world this way. It makes me feel like a real writer or something.

See you next week, folks.


Rembrandt – “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp” ]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s