“Reading ten thousand books is not as useful as traveling ten thousand miles.” -Chinese proverb
It has been an interesting few days, but I have safely arrived in Ningbo… kind of. Not to skip the last month of traveling and orientation, but I figured it would be better to talk about my first impressions NOW rather than a month down the line because I’m so incredibly behind. My game plan is to intersperse travel stories and photos with my current experiences teaching English.
On my final day of orientation in Shanghai, Lora, another English teacher at my school, drove all the way from Ningbo to pick me up in Shanghai and personally escort me back. I thought it was a really nice gesture to not make me take a train with all of my stuff, and I was really excited to finally be settled. So around 11am, Lora came to pick me up, and promptly took me to have lunch right near the hotel. She tried to get me to pick from the menu, but I told her to order whatever she wanted, and did she order a LOT of things. Most of which were pretty weird. I tried jellyfish for the first time- it was awful.
Right away I noticed that she and the driver were not speaking Mandarin. It was completely unintelligible to me, so I finally asked Lora what she was speaking. Apparently it was the Ningbo dialect, which sounds nothing like the Mandarin I know. Most people can speak Mandarin because Mandarin is spoken in school and on television, but the Ningbo dialect, or Ningbo hua, is like a completely different language.
After a three-hour drive we finally arrived in “Ningbo”, but it was nothing like the beautiful pictures I saw online. This place was dirty, grey and industrial. We kept driving, and driving and I thought, wow this must be the outskirts of the city. Little did I know that this is where I would be living.
When the car pulled up to the school I almost had a heart attack. I’m living HERE?! The school is a little oasis on a highway of run-down factory shops and restaurants. I was told that I would be living in a hotel for a few days while they “got my apartment ready”, whatever that meant. I dragged all of my luggage to the second floor up the stairs and immediately burst into tears. I’d be living here for a year??!! I just wished I had someone else. If I just had one other foreigner with me I would have been able to deal with it, but I felt completely isolated and trapped at this school in the middle of nowhere. I was told to get dinner on my own, and braved the pouring down rain to get some food at a hole-in-the-wall place across the street. I got it to go because I couldn’t handle trying to be social. I just wanted to be by myself in my little hotel room.
My first night, AYC sent me a map of Ningbo, listing everyone’s schools as well as things to do in the area. I studied the map religiously and realized that not only is there literally nothing near me, I am much farther from the city of Ningbo than I originally thought. Google maps told me it would take me a half an hour to forty five minutes to get to the city by cab, and almost two hours on the bus.
I think that if I had someone with me, I would have been fine, but the fact that I was completely alone is the part that really upset me the most. Not only am I the only foreigner at my school, I am the only foreigner in the whole “town”.
I talked it through with my parents late the first night, and decided to call the DC office. During my interview, they had assured me that everyone would have at least once other AYC teacher at their school. When I realized that no one else was placed at Wuxiang with me, I wasn’t that worried because I would be in a city! There would be 15 other teachers in Ningbo, plus a decent-sized expat population. The main issue is that I am by myself away from the city. The DC office reassured me that I had a reason to be upset, but told me that the only way to solve my problem would be to call the Shanghai office. Since it was about 1am at this point, I resolved to call the Shanghai office the next day.
The only two solutions to my problem that I could think of, were either to move to another school, or have another teacher be placed at my school. There were complications with both of these, of course. As much as I hated being in the middle of nowhere, I really didn’t want to move. The school had been so incredibly nice (besides dropping me at some random hotel with no instructions), and they were so happy to have me. I also felt like leaving would be quitting. I committed to work at this school… but when I committed I thought that the school was in the city. All I really wanted was for another foreign teacher to be placed at my school; however, this was easier said than done.
The school had never had a foreign teacher before, and were making a lot of special accommodations for me. For example, all teachers have a room in the teachers dorm on campus. There is no warm water, no washing machine, no coking supplies and four teachers are assigned one room. Most teachers don’t actually live in the room, they just use the room in the afternoon after lunch to take naps. Ameson has a strict contract with the schools that we will be provided: a bed, air conditioning, a dresser, a tv, western toilet, shower with hot water, water boiler, washing machine, a refrigerator and cooking supplies and utilities. My room was lacking almost all of these requirements, so the school has been buying them for me while I live in the hotel, and by the school, I mean the other English teachers.
Why this wasn’t prepared over the summer, I have no clue. It makes me feel a little guilty that they are doing all of these things for me, but it is part of the contract that they signed so it’s not really my fault. Regardless, hiring a foreign teacher is expensive and a lot of work, especially in terms of applying for visas.
The next morning, I was told to be at the school at 8am for a teacher’s meeting. Lora picked me up at the hotel and drove me 50 feet down the road to the school.. okay, maybe 100 feet. First she brought me to the teacher’s building. The English teachers’ offices are located on the 4th floor of a nice, new building. After huffing and puffing up the stairs, they showed me to my cubicle. My first cubicle! However, these cubicles were more like desks with mini dividers.
After showing me to my desk, the English teachers brought me to the meeting. First they introduced me to the principal, a man in his late thirties who’s Chinese was completely unintelligible to me. Apparently he speaks with a heavy Ningbo accent (as opposed to the Ningbo dialect), so it is almost impossible for me to understand. The English teachers then left me with… someone high up in the administration in the very front row, while they went to go sit in the back.
The meeting was absolutely awful. First, the vice principal spoke. I couldn’t understand anything he said, and he spoke for over an hour. No one way paying any attention. Most people were reading books, playing on their phones, or just plain socializing. After the vice principal, the principal also spoke- none of which I could understand. At one point in the meeting they introduced all of the teachers. The vice principal read the teacher’s name, where they went to school and what they are teaching, which was followed by polite applause. Finally, I was introduced, and the applause that followed was deafening. I felt like a celebrity! But it was also extremely overwhelming. Everyone was craning their necks to get a better look at me, while whispering and giggling. Now I know how it feels to be Justin Beiber.
After the meeting, we went to the cafeteria to eat lunch.. at 11am. The food was decent.. considering it was only $1. But the whole experience was completely overwhelming. After lunch I went back to the hotel for the afternoon to “take a rest” and wait for the new teacher’s meeting at 4:30.
While walking back to the hotel under the hot sun, I started crying. I was completely exhausted and overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do or how to feel. I didn’t want to let myself get comfortable at Wuxiang if I was going to leave, but I had to let myself get comfortable and open up if I was going to stay. When I got back to the room I called the Shanghai office, who told me that they would “talk to the school”. I spent the whole afternoon crying on and off, laying in bed, basically doing nothing. I knew that I was suffering from culture shock, which I also know sounds ridiculous. I thought I was immune to culture shock in China at this point. I’ve been here for so long! I’ve been to the most crowded of cities, the most rural of towns, the dirtiest and smelliest places. I’ve traveled in huge groups and by myself, I’ve pooped in gutter squatty potties that smell so bad you can taste it. I took insanely hard language classes, I’ve been stranded in places where people don’t even speak Mandarin. So WHY NOW? Why have all of these other things been fine, but living on a highway by myself, 30 minutes driving from the city isn’t? I went into this experience so confident about my language and my cultural adaptiveness. But my culture-shock meltdown definitely proved to me that I’m not as cool as I thought I was.
“Richelle, you need to get your sh** together”, I told myself. I put on some makeup to make my swollen eyes look more human, and went to meet the new teachers.
Meeting the new teachers definitely made me feel a bit better. While none of them spoke English, at least we were kind of in the same boat. After a meeting with the president, none of which I could understand, we headed to dinner in the cafeteria restaurant. We piled into a room with a giant table, and the principal made sure the best English speakers sat near me. Their English was still pretty rough, but we could communicate using Chinglish.
The new teacher’s banquet was actually very fun. I had some really great fish and crab, and got a little tipsy off the decent wine they served me. The principal was very impressed with my drinking skills, which in China is a good thing. He kept telling everyone how I could drink a lot, and handled my alcohol very well. Looks like I’m getting invited to the next banquet!
That night in the hotel, I still felt conflicted. Everyone was so incredibly nice, but did I really want to live on this dumpy factory street surrounded by nothing for a whole year?! Why would I do that when I could be in Nanjing, my first choice city, surrounded by multiple friends in a really nice apartment?
Because I’m not a quitter, that’s why.