So it’s been a while since I last wrote something. Now we’ve settled into our schedule of university, work, one day off a week, there isn’t a huge amount to write about unless you want endless stories about funny things our cats have done – they are pretty priceless when it comes to generating comedy material.
It’s been great to settle into a bit more of a routine although the Chinese system of working, at least as an English teacher, does mean I can never feel too sure of my hours for long. As someone who is as hyper-organised as I am, this has led to some frustrations (read: minor tantrums). Luxurious days off have been brought to a swift end with a Wechat (Chinese Whatsapp with a far better array of emoticons) message or phone call telling me I am expected at work in a couple of hours. Likewise, classes I have planned are cancelled the night before – whilst I can’t deny that a large part of me is pleased to have some more free time it is frustrating as no class equals no pay and having enjoyed the comfort of a healthy bank account when I first got out here, I am now feeling the pinch of earning just a few hundred pounds a month!
However, even when I am cursing my cancelled night of West Wing viewing or lack of free time to drink tea and eat donuts I really can’t complain about work as I am currently getting by on a measly 9 hours a week – although definitely hoping to push that up to at least 12 by the end of this month! Currently I only have one or two classes a day so my working hours are staggered over the course of the week, with Friday being my only day off with no university and no work commitments – Joe’s schedule is the same so Fridays are now known as ‘Kirsten and Joe’s Day of Fun’.
With university taking up my mornings from 8.40-12noon, Monday to Thursday I am lucky enough to have my weekday afternoons free as my working hours typically start around 7pm. I’d love to say that I spend this time exploring Chengdu and generally enriching my time in China but to be perfectly honest most of it is spent in the flat. I try my hardest to use it wisely and study or lesson plan but admittedly I am also good at whiling away a few hours on Netflix and/or adding to my collection of aforementioned cat stories.
Compared to the kids I teach I am living a royal lifestyle. These kids have a full day at school and within just a couple of hours are being sent off to a ‘training school’ to intensively study English for up to 2 hours at a time. And I am sure several of them have another ‘hobby’ or lesson shoehorned in beforehand. Their weekends are not the two days off I enjoyed as a child and instead are spent in the classroom with me. It has made me reflect on whether the whole ‘Tiger Mum’ stereotype you hear being thrown around in regards to Chinese parents is justified. For most of the parents, I think they genuinely just want the best for their child and for them, getting them one step ahead of their contemporaries by mastering English as early as possible is a huge and undeniable advantage. It’s certainly not done to be cruel – not least because it costs parents a small fortune. The average cost of a class is around 400rmb for an hour – that works out at over £40. I can’t think of a single hobby or tuition fee that costs that much in the UK and I think it’s safe to say that these parents are incredibly committed to their children’s future.
Looking at it in a colder light, in China children are expected to look after their parents when they are elderly. Therefore it could reasonably be argued that all these extra classes are a way to secure your investment – give your child the skills they need to get a great job and earn lots of money and that’s your retirement package sorted. It makes sense, particularly when the one-child-policy means almost all children are only children (although I do teach some siblings as their wealthy parents can afford the astronomical fines you are faced with if you have a second child here) so you do really want to make sure your single offspring is as likely to succeed as possible. Overall, having seen the way the parents dote on their children here I like to think it’s more about giving the child the best possible start in life than it is about securing their own future benefits but I am sure the latter plays a minor role in some instances.
As a result of this parental ambition, I have encountered some very pushy parents. The mother of one absolutely adorable 4 year old I teach made sure to tell me at the end of my first class that her child already knows 100 English words and that she had very high expectations about the extent to which I would expand her vocabulary. Knowing that said parent spends the duration of our 1 hour lesson peering through the glass door and listening in makes for a bit of a nerve wracking experience sometimes. Another mother, having only just agreed to not sit in the actual classroom while I teach her 6 year old in a 1-2-1- lesson, regularly barges in throughout the hour to dispense ‘advice’. Needless to say this only serves to distract her already ‘challenging’ child and I am finding it increasingly more difficult to keep my rigid smile in place as she presses her own chosen textbooks on to me as my student refuses to come out from under the table. One particularly funny moment came when I was merrily attempting to teach the kid body parts through the medium of singing Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes until I was blue in the face and I realised that her textbook suggested I teach them the words for breasts and buttocks. I decided to ignore Mum on that one.
Despite these slight challenges, I am really enjoying teaching and it is hugely satisfying when a lesson goes well. Having been slightly apprehensive about it to begin with, my favourite class is unexpectedly the kindergarten kids. Although I do more singing and dancing with them than I will ever be entirely comfortable with, and I do have to spend quite a lot of time pretending I am not seeing them shamelessly dig around in their noses (seriously, what the heck is up there?!) they are ridiculously cute and never fail to make me laugh. The hysterical reaction I get to the announcement of reward stickers every week is nothing short of hilarious and in itself is enough to keep me going back!
Having toyed with the idea of going full time once my current visa expires in July, I am now pretty fixed on continuing at university for another year from August (not least because it gets us a more flexible visa that actually lets us leave the country!) and continuing to work part-time. University is what I enjoy the most out here and I feel really lucky to be in the position where it can take up the majority of my time as I am determined to be at least intermediate in Mandarin by the time we leave. In the meantime I just need to become more accustomed to the slightly vague and haphazard notion of working in China…although not sure what this means for when I finally come back to real life and have to hold down a 40-hour-a-week job in the UK!