After a happy, prolonged period of stabilisation and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling.
It was a warm, smoggy Beijing morning as we boarded the bus at Dongzhimen, taking our place among the throng of fidgety hopefuls. There were about fifty of us in total and even at that early stage I got the distinct feeling that as Europeans, S and I were heavily outnumbered. Zac from Oregon had packed a sweater in case it got cold at night. Steve from Philadelphia was wearing a new pair of sneakers fresh from a Beijing market. And Sandy from San Diego was flashing a picture of her nephew around, a chubby little thing wearing nothing but a diaper. Everyone agreed the photo was awesome.
Justin was at the door ticking off names on his clipboard, a tall well-built steak and eggs Bostonian with blonde hair and blue eyes. “Just a few minutes guys and we’ll be getting underway” he announced soberly, his Good Will Hunting accent hanging thick in the air long after he’d finished speaking. S and I were sat next to Joel and Hannah, a timid-looking couple from Ohio who looked genuinely overwhelmed. “We only got here last night,” whispered Hannah with wide eyes, “it’s our first time outside the U.S.”. The poor girl looked like she’d just landed on Jupiter. “Do you know anything about where you’ll be teaching?” asked Joel, tapping his fingers against the window as the bus pulled out of the station.
S and I did not know where we’d be teaching. Nor did we have any idea where we’d be living. In fact, we were similarly clueless as to what this training camp was all about and what lay in store for us over the next three nights. The only thing I felt certain of was that for better or for worse, we were surely in for another adventure. “All things going to plan, we hope to be in Miyun in about ninety minutes folks” announced Justin from the front of the bus. A suburban county of Beijing, Miyun is home to some stunning scenery, a mountainous region of canyons, waterfalls and the Simatai section of The Great Wall. Sadly for us though, we’d be spending the entire time at Impressions Inn, a sprawling hotel with rooms set around a country garden.
“Hi I’m Richard!” said the geek-handsome twenty something in the next seat up from mine. Slender and pale-skinned, he wore thick, black glasses and a bright green Woody Allen T-shirt with the catchline “What would Woody do?” Richard and his girlfriend Risa had been teaching with the agency for a year and had been invited along in an advisory capacity, ready to answer new teachers’ questions. Risa was a pretty girl with a pervading mousiness, bright expressive eyes and matching freckles. And boy could she talk, like nobody I’d ever met before, a potential gold medallist should yakking ever become an Olympic sport. In any case it was Richard I was drawn to and on that bus journey we formed an instant bond, sharing our backstories and exchanging favourite albums and movies. Self-deprecating, frighteningly intelligent and deeply liberal, Richard hailed from Corpus Christi, Texas; but struck me as just about the most un-Texan Texan one could possibly meet. “Well… I do have a cowboy hat somewhere at home,” he drawled.
Of course I had a million and one questions about the camp and our job prospects. But it sounded like we were going to have to be patient and roll with the punches. “It’s gonna be interesting” said Richard, choosing his words carefully. “Justin’s doing his best to keep things professional, but there’s a lot of chaos in the background”. “You guys’ll be fine”, Risa chipped in; “you’re experienced and qualified… you should be top of the list come feeding time”.
On arrival at Impressions we all queued up in the lobby where a team of Chinese staff were on hand to direct us to our rooms. The garden was gorgeous, with impeccably kept grass, scattered flowerbeds and a rocky, fish-inhabited stream. There was also a pair of playful ducks waddling around, though I feared it wouldn’t be too long before they ended up on the menu. Ordering some coffee, S and I settled at one of the wooden tables and got to know some more Americans.
First we met Marc and Amy, a friendly young couple from New Jersey. I was in the early stages of my Bruce Springsteen explorations and Marc was quick to turn me onto his album Nebraska. “Essential” he nodded earnestly with a raised eyebrow. Elsewhere, there was Brian from Florida, a goofy, Saved-By-The-Bell-type-character who specialised in broad generalisations and was so eager to please and be liked that he quickly became the butt of many a camp joke. I’d only just got chatting to Kat, an attractive, bookish girl from Maryland when Justin appeared to call everyone into the meeting hall. “The fun starts here” winked Richard as we all filed inside.
I wouldn’t have described the welcome meeting as fun exactly, although it certainly had its moments. Justin’s opening speech came across well enough, with plenty of references to the cultural challenges awaiting us. “Nothing wrong with a good spit, it’s all in the throat action!” he quipped, while we were all advised how treating restaurant staff like crap “might feel weird at first, but definitely gets results!” By the end of his talk he’d introduced us to the mantra “T.I.C” (This is China), a chilled outlook he assured, that would serve us well in the months ahead.
Justin then called upon a few people to stand up and explain why they’d been attracted to China and what they hoped to gain from a teaching post in Beijing. Paul from England, a plainspoken northerner who had the misfortune of looking like a warthog, told us that he’d soon be turning thirty and that he refused to spend the rest of his life rotting in a soulless office job. We also heard from a Californian beach bum, Zac, who stood up simply to say “China dude…. **** yeah!!!” And who could forget the ripped meathead who referred to himself as 40D. “I’m taking a year off before I get a real job ” he grinned idiotically, “China’s gonna be AWESOME!!!”
The next act saw Justin introduce a fat middle-aged Arizonan up onto the stage, a rosy-cheeked dude in a gaudy Hawaiian shirt who seemed more than a little out of breath by the time he laboured up to the microphone. “Hi I’m Greg”, he puffed, “and I’ve been teaching in Beijing for a looooooong time”. He paused here, clearly expecting a laugh, and when none came he proceeded to perform what was essentially ten minutes of bad stand up. “I’m hungry!” whispered S, as Richard shot me a knowing smirk from across the table. With imaginary tumbleweeds floating across the stage behind him, Greg was eventually put out of his misery as Justin nudged his way onto the microphone and announced a break for lunch.
Gravitating toward Richard, Risa, Marc, Amy and Kat, S and I grabbed some seats in the garden, reflecting on what had been a bizarre hour. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet”, chuckled Richard, while a few tables down there were whoops and hollers as 4OD appeared with an armful of Tsingtaos. “Man do I need a ****ing beer!” he gasped. “Aaaaalright, party time!!!” cheered a faceless accomplice. “TIC mother*******!” sang another. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing! We were in the middle of a bloody training camp, not stranded in a forgotten outtake of Porky’s. When Justin came a short time later to address the group I was expecting the frat boys to receive a royal rollicking. But he either didn’t notice or chose to turn a blind eye. “Guys… guys… could I have everyone’s attention for just a moment! I should have mentioned this earlier but it slipped my mind. We have a little problem… but it’s ok… we need to know… this is important… the staff here have asked you not to flush your toilet paper. Please guys… in the basket!”
“Dude, that’s like totally f***** up!” hooted 4OD with a swig of his bottle, his buddies guffawing away in surround sound. Watching him as he slapped one of his henchmen on the back with a rattling belch, I couldn’t help but try to picture this oaf in an actual classroom with real live children. Surely this guy wouldn’t be getting a job. Right?
After lunch we were all encouraged to “get to know each other”. The classic “write three sentences about yourself, two false one true” game was employed, though in all honesty I wasn’t sure I wanted to get to know any of the people at my table. Still, it was entertaining if nothing else, as a wild-eyed American called Jammin’ Andrew revealed that his true sentence was “I got expelled from College for setting a shopping trolley on fire and throwing it from the fifth floor.” “Why would he share that?” whispered Asthamtic Steven, a sickly looking boy from Baltimore. He looked like the kind of guy who’d spent the majority of his childhood being terrorised by guys like Jammin’ Andrew and I couldn’t help but feel a surge of empathy.
It was barely 5 o’ clock and the day’s training was over, the teachers all retreating back to their rooms for some rest time before reconvening back out in the garden for dinner. The “bros”, as Marc called them, took this as a green light to crack open more beers and I instantly understood that this time they meant business. Within an hour the party was raging, the volume level spiralling as bottle after discarded bottle joined the glassy graveyard of the garden floor. Watching events unfold from the safety of the swing set and benches across the stream, our little clique had a perfect vantage point. By this point Team America’s dubious ranks had been bolstered by Warthog Paul and a rough-as-nails Londoner called Lou. Sporting an open back of sexually suggestive tattoos, it was clearly her intention to get laid before the night was done. And with 40D leading the list of possible takers, she would surely be successful in her quest. “Yup, when it comes to school placements it’s pretty hard to sell THAT,” observed Kat.
With late afternoon fading into early evening, a sizeable group of Chinese tourists joined us in the garden for dinner and karaoke. But there was little integration and it wasn’t long before some of the bros began heckling the singers. “Is someone strangling a cat?!?” howled 40D. Then, just a few minutes later he was drooling over Lou with a beery “Yaaaah… I came to China to like totally dig the culture and s***”. It was gone 1am by the time S and I decided to turn in. Camp America was still in full swing; the bros belting out John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads at the top of their lungs as they bounced up and down in a scrum, arms around shoulders, beer bottles stabbing into the night air.
The next day’s training session kicked off at 10am, though somewhat predictably half the camp failed to show up on time. Split into groups with an assigned team leader, we sat informally exchanging teaching techniques, classroom management tips and good websites for songs and games. Every now and then a pocket of bros dribbled in, 40D eventually appearing with his sunglasses on and the hoodie of his sweater pulled up. Warthog Paul was the last to show some forty-five minutes late, an arrival that was greeted by an en-masse slow handclap. “Paul! Paul! Paul! Paul!” they chanted as a bemused Justin looked on from his table. Performing a mock bow, Paul lapped it up as he made his way to a free chair, raising his arms triumphantly and grinning a silly grin.
“Hey guys I’m Mark!!!!” yelped the little man excitedly, trotting up the stage steps with a showy flourish. Justin had introduced him as “an EFL expert”, “the most experienced teacher in Beijing”. But I’d immediately felt something was off with Mark the moment I laid eyes on him. It might have been his shifty eyes, his manic energy or his nasal American accent. Maybe it was his clearly died auburn hair, his sallow skin or his veiny cheeks, evidence of what we later discovered was a chronic drinking problem. In any case Marky Mark, as Richard referred to him with a snigger, was billed as an EFL lecturer, but his sixty minutes up on stage that afternoon consisted of little more than him playing videos of his muddled classes. “Here’s me and my kids playing shopkeeper,” he howled as onscreen carrots and tomatoes were flung around the room like snowballs. “Ah man, I get those kids so jacked up!!!”
“My kids love me!” he announced after a period of muted video watching. “On teacher’s day I got flowers, chocolate, home made cards, the works… man I get those kids so jacked up!!!”
“Give them all your energy and they’ll give you back tenfold”, he told us. “Learning’s gotta be fun… just attack them with language! Man I get those kids so jacked up!!!”
“He got the Beijing police force pretty jacked up too” whispered Richard, hand to his mouth. “Smashed up an ATM machine because it wouldn’t give him any money and got into an altercation with an officer. If Justin offers you a post at Marky Mark’s school, run like the wind!”
That evening, quite unexpectedly, an agency rep called Maggie came to our dinner table with news. “I have arranged demos for you both at a school!” she proclaimed with a business-like smile. You will also have an interview with Trudy, the principal. It’s in the northwest of Beijing. I will drive you there tomorrow and when you are finished we will come back to camp”. And then she was gone with a curt nod. “Great news!” enthused Richard, as Justin gave me a thumbs up from the buffet table. “You see”, smiled Risa, “it’s all coming together!”
The next day Maggie drove us to Shangdi, a nondescript neighbourhood in Beijing’s Haidian district. S and I had been up late that previous night planning our lessons. We hadn’t been given much info to go on; all we knew was that the kids would be aged between 4-6 and that our lesson had to be half an hour long. “Don’t be nervous!” Maggie told us in the car, a mantra she repeated so often during that two-hour drive that she eventually succeeded in making me a bit nervous.
It was a brand new school located in the residential complex of MoMA, a vast rectangle of green-white building blocks set around an impeccable garden of ponds, flowerbeds, rock formations and a children’s playground. Trudy the school’s principal and sole owner, greeted us on arrival with what was clearly a meticulous charm offensive. She made us tea, treated us to snacks and gushed about how handsome I supposedly was. Our demo lessons were a piece of cake, with just a handful of docile kids and no parents in attendance. I did a vocab lesson on animals, S knocked out a rousing rendition of Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. All the while Trudy sat at the back of the class with her mute husband, smiling, clapping and making encouraging comments.
“Thank you that was wonderful!” she dripped, ushering us both onto the sofa at reception. And then she disappeared into one of the classrooms with Maggie for a prolonged session of negotiations. Some time later Maggie emerged alone and was in no mood for beating around the bush. “She wants you to start September one. Shall we make the contract?”
As soon as we saw what was on offer, S and I knew we’d be fools to turn it down. Richard had already explained how the agency paid teachers more or less the same salary, regardless of where you were placed, how many kids you had to teach and the number of contracted hours. We also knew that a lot of teaching posts were at state schools, Monday to Friday 9-5, often with thirty odd kids stacked into a class. With Trudy we only had to work five hours a day and there was a maximum of six kids per class. The schedule did include a full Saturday, but all in all it felt like a sweet deal. After a brief discussion, S and I put pen to paper and so it was that we became Trudy’s first English teachers.
When we returned to Camp America that evening we found the place turned upside down. Some people had been sent off for their medicals as part of the visa process. Others were off doing their own demos in and around Beijing and… well… some people were stuck at camp in a state of limbo. I found Warthog Paul hiding away in a corner of the meeting room swigging from a beer can, cheeks even puffier than normal, eyes red, shaking his head inconsolably. “It’s all right for some people” he slurred miserably, “if you’ve got blonde hair or blue eyes, or if you’re a Barbie doll type. But no schools are interested in old Paul”. I actually felt sorry for the silly bugger.
Out in the courtyard I spotted Asthmatic Steven deep in conversation with a school principal, a contract set on the table between them. 40D and a bunch of his disciples had apparently headed off to a nearby brothel (!), while those with a more wholesome appetite were making dumplings with Justin and the agency reps. Joining the cooking class, we gave Richard and Risa the good news about our new jobs. “Congratulations!” trilled Risa, giving S a hug. “Knew you’d land on your feet!” smiled Richard.
The next morning those who were still at camp were subjected to an unspeakably boring lecture by a middle-aged Chinese man representing SAFEA (State administration of foreign expert affairs). With his humourless monotone voice and ropey English pronunciation, I don’t think anyone had a clue what he was going on about. Instead, someone had managed to obtain a copy of 40D’s CV, which was being passed around to universal hilarity. S was playing hangman with Risa when an agency girl called Sofia came over with the news we’d been desperately waiting for. “Your apartment is ready!” she whispered, “so if you like, you can leave camp tomorrow morning!”
With the dreary speech still droning on in the background, S and I had to suppress our visible delight and calmly confirm that yes, we definitely wanted to check out of Camp America and move into our new home.