When I was 19, I travelled to China to teach at a remote university. To be honest there are hundreds of ‘what the f*ck’ tales from my six months in China … many of which I’m sure will make it onto this blog at some point, but I’ll start with one of my favourites.
For the second part of my Gap Year, my friend Nikki and I worked as teachers in Huihua College in Hunan Province – twenty-seven hours by train from both Beijing and Shanghai. Huihua is a large city, but it’s in the middle of nowhere, and so Nikki and I were two of only three white residents in the whole city. As a result, we were treated a bit like celebrities. Whenever we walked down the street, people would try to touch us, or wave in our faces, ‘Hello!’ ‘Hello!’.
The college paraded us around the city as something of a status symbol – we would go to dinners with key figures from the community, and numerous guests, none of whom could speak English, but all of whom had been invited along to dine with the Western visitors. It was all very strange – despite being teachers in the English department at the college, none of the other teachers would speak to us because they didn’t want to highlight how bad their English was.
However, one of the times a fellow English teacher did speak to us was to ask us to assist two former students in our spare time. Thomas and Grace had graduated some years beforehand, but were applying for jobs which required them to have an English test. They had returned to college to ask the English department if the ‘Western foreigners’ could help them practice their language skills. Every few weeks they would invite us out to dinner, and talk to us for a few hours.
The dinners didn’t start off well. Like many people we met in Huiahua, Grace was particularly keen to repeatedly tell me how ‘fat’ I was (I was a size 10-12). She would randomly throw this observation into conversation for no reason. After we’d explained that ‘fat’ isn’t something you would ever call someone to their face, she changed the description to ‘strong’ (though we all knew what she meant!). Not content with insulting me, she managed to then insult Nikki. We had both spent the first half of our Gap Year working as lifeguard, but Grace didn’t believe that was possible. ‘We believe Charly is strong enough to be a lifeguard, but Nikki is too weak.’ Nikki and I would spend the meals, talking privately between our gritted teeth, getting angrier and angrier at the stuff they were saying.
The final straw came a few months in.
The pair of us were living in an apartment on the campus. We would teach 5 or 6 classes a week, and spend the rest of our time occupying ourselves around campus, playing sports, hanging out with the students, or sunbathing on the top of the concrete apartment building we were living in. The Chinese don’t sunbathe – they have an obsession with pale skin. In fact, in the region we were living in, they didn’t even wear deodorant, and so in the hot weather, the students would simply wear loads of different layers, masking the smell of their sweat.
Despite being 4 years older than us, our Chinese students were extremely innocent and child-like. The students slept in segregated dorms, sharing with 7 other students, and there was no contact allowed on campus between male and female students – not even hand holding. With that in mind, Nikki and I were careful to keep out of sight whenever we sunbathed.
On this particular day, having spent our day off sunbathing on the roof, Nikki and I were chilling in our bikinis in our flat. The whole floor of our staff building was unoccupied other than us, and so we had left our front door open, not expecting visitors. A group of strangers suddenly appeared in the doorway, staring in on us. Nikki and I looked up at them in confusion, before we recognised a face. Grace was with them. She had brought a group of random strangers into the college campus, and into our housing block, purely to stand outside our front door and peer at the white girls. They didn’t want to talk – they literally stood there, watching us like zoo animals. Even more intrigued because they had caught us in our bikinis. Understandably, Nikki and I were livid.
The next time we had a dinner scheduled with Grace and Thomas, we decided to get our own back. (We were 19 remember …) At the end of the meal, having explained that our schedules were too busy to meet up again, we bid them farewell. ‘In England, we have an expression which we use for someone who is a close friend. It’s a term of affection … when we feel close to someone, we call them a ‘wanker’. We just want to tell you that we think you are both complete wankers!’ We beamed … and never saw the pair again.
You can’t make this sh*t up!