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.
“So what do you think?” grinned Candy as we shuffled inside the apartment. There was an engulfing silence as S and I undertook a brief inspection. I looked at S. S looked at me. We both looked at Candy. Candy grinned back cluelessly. Dear, oh dear.
There were no words to describe what we thought of the flat. A conventional dictionary-sourced option may have been something along the lines of filthy or disgusting; but in reality this joint was a whole new level of skank that required a yet to be invented adjective. “Um… is a little dirty,” giggled Candy nervously. But I just glared back at her, which instantaneously wiped the silly smile off her face.
“Um… Maggie told us this place was brand new?” I managed with a bleak shake of my head. But now Candy was stuttering incomprehensibly and making a pig’s ear of trying to get Maggie on speed dial. Looking utterly depressed, S sighed, arms folded, bottom lip pushed out as I stood there picturing a local vagrant rejecting this hole with a patronising laugh before returning to his cardboard box back in the alley.
Having been unable to make contact with Maggie, Candy was at a complete loss as to what to do next. S and I looked at each other again. It was ten o’ clock at night and we both had to start work in under forty-eight hours. The apartment, in all its immense dreadfulness, was at least a five minute walk from school and I could only imagine how much hassle it would be for EE to find us a new one. “I guess we better sleep on it,” said S with a defeated yawn. So we bade Candy good night, who did some more nervous laughing, apologising all the way out of the front door and down the stairs.
Dragging our luggage inside from the hallway, we decided to go straight to bed and pray for a morning miracle. Perhaps it wasn’t as bad as we thought! Maybe we could whip the place into shape! Possibly there was some kind of Chinese Mary Poppins in the building who could fix this shit with the world’s largest spoonful of sugar.
After the draining tedium of Camp America, we actually got a decent sleep that night and woke up with bags of enthusiasm and a steely resolve to transform our hovel into something resembling a home. First we made a list of things the agency needed to sort out. There were broken light bulbs, an unresponsive stereo system, faulty electrical sockets, a fridge that was barely cold and a soiled section of carpet in the bedroom. EE had also lied to us about the telephone, the microwave and kitchen utensils, all of which failed to exist. “Oh… I see,” said Jordan, another EE rep with a slightly different type of nervous laughter. “I will tell Maggie, maybe in a few days someone can fixing”.
Holding out little hope of any meaningful assistance, we jumped onto the Beijing subway at Shangdi and made the short three-stop journey to Zhichunlu, where there was a colossal Wal Mart Supercenter. Two hours later we emerged, armed to the teeth with bulging bags of cutlery, plates, cups, cooking utensils, a bin, an iron and ironing board, a mop, a dustpan and brush, pillows, toilet roll and a shit load of cleaning products.
Back at the Shangdi fleapit, we rolled up our sleeves and got on with what had to be done. We swept then mopped the floors and scrubbed the kitchen, with its black-as-night stove and yellow-crusted counters. It was hard, hard work and some parts of the flat were so musty it sent S into coughing fits. I was going to suggest we open the windows, before realising it was probably worse outside! But then our spirits were lifted as S discovered a functional vacuum cleaner in the bedroom cupboard. “Yes!” she cheered, punching the air, the two of us hugging manically as if we’d just won the lottery.
By the end of the day the place was sparkling and we were off to a local plant shop for some much-needed greenery. Spontaneously, we also picked up a couple of Japanese Fighting Fish; a feisty bright-orange killing machine called Bei and a lethargic sleep-lover named Jing whom we had to house in different bowls after they tried to rip each other to shreds. With our pets installed, we threw a map of Beijing up on the wall and scattered our plants about, the majority of which formed The Jungle, the modest but cosy enclosed balcony that overlooked a primary school playground.
In stark contrast to the hard graft of getting our living quarters up and running, our first weeks at Enlightener Education were a piece of cake! As a brand new school, there weren’t actually any students yet; so our first week was spent crafting decorations so that the school looked a bit more like… a school. This is where S really came into her own! Armed with card, colouring pens, glue and scissors, she crafted a giant tree for one of the classrooms. Working with her Chinese language assistant Lily, they adorned it with leaves, apples, oranges and pears.
Elsewhere, we designated other wall sections to the days of the week, months, shapes, colours, numbers, animals and the weather. I’d never been much of an arts and crafts guy, so I kept my contributions simple by making vocabulary cards for all the wall art. From branch, leaf, apple, pear, orange, cat, dog, pig and horse to triangle, square, circle, rectangle, cloud, rain and much more… I felt sure the decorations would play a direct role in the kids’ language growth. Day by day, piece-by-piece, it was starting to look and feel like a cosy little school.
Tracy meanwhile, Enlightener’s principal and sole owner, was glued to the phone trying to lure in potential students for demo classes. “Leighton! We have two girls coming tomorrow!” she trilled one day, so excited that she was virtually running around in circles. The demo process certainly took some getting used to. Basically, parents would bring their kids in for a free thirty-minute trial class. But the information Tracy gave me before each session rarely harmonised with the reality come show time. “Ok… tomorrow there will be four children aged 4-6, coming at 16:00!” she announced one day. So I scuttled off to my classroom to prepare a suitable lesson, photocopying course book pages, devising a game or two and preparing the right song. But the next day only one student turned up, forty -five minutes early with half the family in tow. This included a dreadful grandmother, who kept interrupting my lesson to tell poor Kevin to sit up straight, speak clearly and listen to the teacher. It was all I could do to stop myself from telling her to shut up!
On our second week the demos started to roll in thick and fast and slowly but surely we got used to the chaos that each day brought. There was a fair bit of pressure, what with the parents watching my every move from the back of the room and Tracy standing in the corner grinning and sweating. At the end of each demo everyone filed out and the parents would sit at Tracy’s desk in deep discussion. All but a select few spoke barely a word of English, so it seemed any decision was based purely on their intuition of myself, as well as the quality of Tracy’s sales pitch. Nevertheless, every day at Enlightener was an enlightening experience and all the while we watched and learned.
Happily for Tracy, and indeed for S and I and our reputation with EE, new students began trickling in and by the end of the month we both had a handful of classes. “Thank you so much for your hard work!” gushed Tracy one afternoon, “Please let me take you to dinner tonight!”
Tracy had been exceptionally generous since our arrival at Enlightener. She’d brought us lunch on several occasions and taken us to a Korean hotpot restaurant across the road. It was invariably a huge feast and she always picked up the bill. As such, I thought nothing of it when she asked me to teach her son Harley during Enlightener down time. “One day Harley go to study in America!” she told me, “Please… give him all your wisdom!”
I really enjoyed my classes with Harley, a polite boy-genius rocking the Harry Potter look. He was like a human sponge, no matter what I taught him he just retained it all and had an amazing knack for pronunciation. “Harley really love your lesson!” oozed Tracy, but in truth it was all down to the kid; he just seemed to have a gift for English. But as good as gold as he was in my class, he was a whole different beast with his mother. “No way!” was his default expression whenever she asked him to do something. He also had quite the temper and both S and I would awkwardly look the other way whenever he descended into one of his violent tantrums of slamming doors and throwing his school bag to the floor. On one infamous occasion he actually kicked his mum in the leg with a vicious kung Fu move after she’d told him he couldn’t have a chocolate bar before dinner.
One day we arrived at school only to be bundled outside again by a highly excitable Tracy. “Let’s go!” she sang, waving her car keys at us. “Today we go to the book fair… very big event… my school needs better books!” And so we drove off across the city to The Beijing Exhibition Centre. The traffic was so appalling it took us nearly an hour and a half to get there. Happily, the journey was well worth it! The place was mind-boggling, with floors and floors of books in pretty much every language you could think of. The English floor was humongous and every time I picked something up Tracy asked me “Do you like it? Is it good? We can buy it!” We ended up getting a bunch of classics like Hansel and Gretel, The Gingerbread man and Rapunzel. We also came away with a pile of pop-up books, including Don’t You Dare, Dragon and What’s the time Mr. Wolf?
It was also decided that my classes would work from the Primary Colors series, an action-packed set of course books aimed at kids between the ages of six and twelve. Based on the adventures of a group of children who travel around the world in their flying car, each book was stuffed with songs, games and a variety of fun activities.
“Tracy sounds ideal!” exclaimed Risa, sipping from her glass of wine. “You guys have seriously lucked out,” echoed Richard, “Our principal doesn’t even know our names and if you’re like one minute later your pay gets docked”.
S and I were celebrating our one-year wedding anniversary with a party that also doubled up as a housewarming. In addition to Risa and Richard, there was also Marc and Amy, Kat, Rosey, Cameron and a few more Camp America survivors. I’ll never forget how we went to pick them all up from the Shangdi Subway station and lead them back to our apartment in a motorcade of vehicles that were little more than motorised wheelbarrows.
We were only a month into our Beijing teaching adventure and things were going well. We were still in that glorious honeymoon period where everything was new and exciting. The pollution hadn’t got to us yet and the cultural differences that would begin to wear us down were still kooky and amusing. We’d also yet to see the other side of Tracy, the side that would eventually make us realise that our seemingly idyllic jobs had no real long-term sustainability. Still, on that perfect night, with the wine flowing and the snacks rapidly disappearing, all was well in Beijing.