First Full Friday in Binhai

Have I only been in Binhai a week? This place astounds me at most every turn. I’ll get into these things soon, as I don’t want to lose the newness and alien sensation of being quite possibly the only westerner in this village of 500 000. Yes, in China 500 000 people = village.


Thursday afternoon
“Byron, your classes are cancelled tomorrow,” ‘they are?’ I think, “students have exams, no classes.” Cool beans, of course, now I have to get here for 8 hours to prepare for a class on Monday afternoon that I won’t start thinking about until Monday morning… but okay.

“Would you like to attend a workshop tomorrow?” Mrs. Chin (or Ching – my ears are not so good with Mandarin). I want to say ‘no’ but I get the distinct impression that this is less a cordial invitation and more a politely phrased order.

“Sure, I look forward to it, when is it?”

“First block.”

‘Fuck’! First block at Binhai Middle School starts at 7:40AM, normally I don’t have to be at school until 9:00AM. My alarm remains set for 7:45AM. Now I have to recalibrate my body to get out of bed just after 6:00AM in order to get to school for First Block, despite not having to teach AND not being required at school until 9. Joyous!

I am not a morning person, but I stumbled out of bed shortly after 6AM, out from under my cozy duvet and heated room into the -4 C of my apartment (which is the same temperature as outside). Two cups of coffee, one of orange juice, and a bowl of cereal seems a poor deal for this early morning but it’ll have to do.

I arrive in time to get to the auditorium with some of the teachers I share an office with on the second floor of building 5 or 6. The front of the auditorium is packed with students, most all gawk and stare at me. Yes, I’m that much of an oddity here as to invite double takes and googly eyes. There have to be at least 60 students here, later I’d count the English teachers… just the teachers… and came to the conclusion that there must be over 50 English TEACHERS in this school.

Just teachers of one department! There are more teachers here than there were students AND teachers in either of my South Korean schools.

Then the class begins, it’s a review class and… good lord is it boring. For an English class it contained a lot of Mandarin. Indeed, entire sections of it were in the majority tongue of China. I stayed awake. Barely. Joy of joys, the second class beings and… it too is a review class… of the Exact Same Material. Shoot me, shoot me now.

Now, I get it, it allows the Chinese English teachers to compare teaching styles, figure out what works, what doesn’t. What didn’t work for me was being up this early, and learning just how bloody intimidating Mandarin is as a language.
One of the teachers posted the Mandarin for live, alive, living, lively. They looked something like this… I think… 生活, 活着, 活, 活泼… looking at them now I can see a root symbol but at the time it scared me.

The second class ends and I realize how smart it was for me to agree to this workshop. Mrs. Chin leads the group, asking teachers their input on the teaching styles demonstrated this morning. Mrs. Chin holds a lot more sway than I knew, so dragging myself here was definitely the correct choice.

I’m zoning out the conversation, which is taking place entirely in Chinese when I hear Mrs. Chin drop a smattering of English. Water? Liquid? Steam? Ice? Those all came up during the class she sat in on that I taught to my four dedicated ESL students. I sat there, nervous. It’s unsettling to know people are talking about you, when you’re sitting in the group, and they’re doing it a language they know I don’t understand and don’t seem the least be bothered that I have no clue what’s being said about my teaching style.

I’m a good teacher. But compared to what I saw today. I am not a traditional Chinese English teacher. My classes are lively affairs… as I’ll explain shortly.

Mrs. Chin assures me she complemented my different teaching approach.
I can neither confirm not deny that.

One of the teachers I share an office with leans over and says, “All the other teachers want you to know how handsome you look.” “Thank you?” 
I figure out it’s because I’m at least 20 years younger than the two previous Western teachers to have ventured to Binhai. Honestly, I’m confident I could carve out a semi-lucrative (by Chinese standards) career travelling to the 500 000 person villages of the provinces. They are that appreciative of people with skills similar to mine. Young(ish), full mop of hair, not a sociopath. Not a high bar to hurdle.

That should have wrapped up my day, but it didn’t. I eventually synched up my iPad to my creaky laptop thanks to a certain Aussie Down the Road and went around snapping pictures of the school grounds. They’re pretty epic in scope.

I prepared to call it a day around 4:00PM, I’ll just pack up my bags, while away the hour and go home, I’m crossing the courtyard when I bump into my four students. Great! I can tell them that on…

“Can we have our class now?” 
“Uh, pardon?”
“It is time for class. Can we have it?”
“Shhh-uuure?” I mean, it’s their last class of the day (Chinese students go to school on Saturdays) and they’ve written 4 exams and they still want to take an English class? How do I say no to that? Simply put, I don’t.

I get my books and proceed to give them the least useful, most fun class they’ve likely had in years.
According to the text book we’re learning about simple health issues (cold, flu, headache…) and Infinite Complements (which before teaching this class I didn’t know about) but we start out talking about their new weekly assignment of the Weekend Story. I did this to great effect with my Apple Tree class back in Wonderland and this will be a verbal recap of their weekend. It’s so they practice speaking, learn vocabulary and improve their sentence structure.
We get into the class and I find some charade cards I made up, and Year (yes, that’s her English name, I had a girl named Mario until I changed it to Maria yesterday) pulls ‘backache’ and does the worst improv ever. She holds her back and sports a huge grin. The other students immediately guess the ailment, but I stop the class.

For 10 minutes I explain how important gestures and body language are. I mimic Year’s grinning backache and then stare sternly at Maria and say “I’m so happy I get to teach you English.” To demonstrate how words alone don’t often convey the complete meaning. But I make it fun.

After the class is up I inform them to go home. And they look at me. I didn’t realize it at the time but the class was scheduled for another 50 minute class.

One of the reasons I love teaching in Asia and China is the look of joy and gratitude that small acts of kindness bring to students’ faces. They had a WHOLE BLOCK free, to do whatever they wanted. They have to attend classes on Saturday, but for nearly an hour they could hang out, chat, text, read, play ping pong or basketball or… do nothing.

They were overjoyed at this gift.

For me, it was more, I’d been up since 6AM, at school for 10 hours and really just wanted to go home and start my weekend… by blogging about my day at school… oops.


One thought on “First Full Friday in Binhai

  1. Pingback: Chinese Two-a-Days « Byron and his backpacks

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