Soon after I arrived and after we had signed the contract my school decided to inform me of a certain ‘rule’ they have. No teachers are allowed to leave school premises between 7.50 am and 5 pm. This is in case any ‘incident’ should occur. This is a word I hear often but I am yet to figure out its true meaning when it is uttered by a Chinese person. According to Doreen if I leave school and an ‘incident’ happens during school time then the school is responsible. So if I happen to trip up on a curb between the hours of 7.50 am and 5 pm the first thing the police/medic will say is not “Are you ok?” but rather “Grown lady, why are you not at school? This would not have happened if you were! This is the school’s fault!” Equally if something were to happen to a child in school the teachers should be around. Now that one is logical, but my arguing that I would probably be 70th out of 70 on the list of teachers to contact given that I cannot communicate with anyone other than Doreen did not seem to make any sense to them; nor did the argument that the foreign teachers at other schools are exempt from this rule. Similarly, my idea of setting up an English Corner (where students can come and converse with me in English for about 15 minutes a day) was shot down for fear of ‘incident’. Doreen’s explanation was a bit sketchy so I took incident to mean either a) the kids will fight each other (I did not know English Corner could get so heated!) or b) I will physically hurt the children. From what I could decipher, it was leaning quite heavily towards ‘b’. Needless to say I was somewhat offended but I already know my school does not like me so I’m pretty much over that one.
Anyway, since I live next to the classroom and since the city’s metro closes at 11pm, I am confined to spending a significant amount of time in school. Things have started to feel a bit too claustrophobic of late so last week I planned and executed my great escape – the first of many. On Tuesdays I finish teaching at midday so I scoffed down my lunch and dashed out of the school gate whilst it was open. In China, the students go home for lunch which leaves me with a small window of opportunity. The feeling was liberating, I physically felt a weight lift off my shoulders. I have never before consciously felt the feeling of freedom until now and I could hear Martin Luther King Jr. speaking loudly and proudly as if he were the backing track to this fundamental moment of rebellion.
First stop on my liberty march was the post office. I have been psyching myself up for this challenge for a little while and so on this high I strolled right in with a parcel, a birthday card and the Lonely Planet Phrasebook. I caught the assistant’s eye and said (in bad Chinese) “Hi I would like to send a parcel and a letter.” The lady was very nice and allowed me to finish my sentence which was painfully slow to compose due to flicking back and forth in the phrasebook. I then managed to communicate that I also needed to buy an envelope, stamps and a box. At first, the assistant thought it would be a good idea to write down the characters of what she was saying since I could not understand when she spoke them. I have found this to be quite a common technique. Note to China -when it is written down it is even more incomprehensible to the unknowing Westerner, to my eyes it becomes a pretty picture as opposed to a word and there is no way of guessing what it might be! When that obviously failed she made use of other customers. The whole conversation was filtered through the occasional passer-by who could speak a splattering of English. By the end, it felt like the whole community had made a collective effort to send a parcel and a birthday card to England! The willingness with which people helped me by translating things was really great to see and has challenged my perceptions of the Chinese so far. Twenty minutes later it was done and dusted. I had forgotten to ask how long it would take for them to arrive but by this point it was pretty much just me in the post office so dear nephews expect a package to arrive in either half a month or half a year (flicking quickly between ‘m’ and ‘y’ in the phrasebook is not as easy as you would think!).
Feeling even more triumphant I decided to try and take a bus to Book City (a 24 hour book mall) where I would chill with my kindle and an iced coffee like a true rebel. However, when I reached the bus stop I realised I didn’t know what the Chinese characters for that particular stop were nor did I know which number bus to get. At the bus stop, they tease you with English as the name of the stop is written in English at the top of the poster but then the bus route including its destination and where it stops is all written in Chinese so unless you know, you have no hope. Why they even bother with the English words at the top of the poster is yet another Chinese anomaly. So instead I settled for Lianhuabei Park which is opposite my estate. It’s quite a tropical park, with very tall exotic looking trees, a little bit of grass and lots of tropical plants, flowers and a pond full of algae. I had a stroll around for a while, observing the old men napping on benches and pairs of women wildly swinging their arms and chatting as they walked. I sat down by the ‘exercise area’. These are quite common in Chinese parks and they look like a cross between a children’s playground and an outdoor gym. There are brightly coloured metal frames that swing and rotate for you to exercise all parts of your body. One of them was like a man-powered cross-trainer and another was a similar device that moves both arms and legs in opposite directions causing a thrusting motion with your hips to happen. Next to this were some table tennis tables where young and old had come together for a casual play in the park. As time went on more old people arrived and greeted each other like family. Their stamina, speed, and precision when it came to playing table tennis were remarkable. There was one rather large old lady who was evidently queen of that playground and none of the younger competitors came close. On a nearby table, men were playing cards and laughing and joking. This community spirit, which I have found quite suffocating so far, was admirable to watch from a far. These old people were not left on the shelf, waiting for death but rather they were chilling in the park with their friends just like bunch of British teenagers except in better physical shape.
After a while I ambled back to school, dying of thirst and covered in bites from the park but it was worth it. I walked in the school gates as the kids were racing out. I was greeted with suspicious looks from the teachers but I was too relaxed to care. I finished the day with a bit of yoga and (for once) a genuine smile on my face.