After eight months in a small city in central Hunan Province, my daily routine falls in step with my students’ tightly regimented schedule.
A blast of trumpets pulls me out of sleep. The military music blares from the loudspeakers throughout the school campus where I work and live. The sound tells me it’s 6:45 a.m. and my students are doing morning exercises out on the dirt track.
By 7:30 a.m. the music switches over to something more to the students’ taste – Chinese, Korean and American pop. I am among the procession of clinking metal spoons and bowls headed for the dining hall.
Breakfast is noodle soup with a fried egg. In the United States I was careful not to make a lot of noise when eating. But this is China. People unabashedly slurp, suck, burp and make other bodily sounds. I slurp away too.
Class starts at 8:15 a.m. I teach between two to five classes a day, splitting my time between seventh and tenth grade. My smallest class has 55 students, the largest almost 90.
As the oral English teacher, I don’t have a textbook to follow. I teach what I enjoy and what I think my students will like. On this day I have a lesson about music. “You are a deejay for the day,” I say. I play songs from my laptop. My students know Britney and Avril and Lady Gaga, but who are the Beatles?
By lunch, I am famished and return to the dining hall. I surprise myself with what I like to eat. Pig tail is really good, river snail quite tasty and cow stomach not bad. Whatever the dish, my tongue is always on fire after a few bites. This is Hunan Province, after all. Chili peppers are as common as salt.
While eating, I listen to the other teachers’ conversations. Even though I speak standard Mandarin, or Putonghua, I can understand very little of the local dialect. It might as well be German or Swahili. Even the Putonghua is accented by the local inflections. Sometimes a teacher will say something to me and I won’t understand. Everyone will have a big laugh. I just smile my goofy, clueless foreigner smile.
Lengshuijiang literally means, “Cold Water River.” The name conjures an idyllic country scene. But the city is actually smoggy, industrial. Downtown, with its three supermarkets and various clothing shops, is only a ten-minute, one-yuan bus ride away. Still, I can’t stand the traffic and pollution, so I rarely leave the quiet, tree-lined campus.
If I do venture out, it is to one of the small shops lining the road outside of the school. I usually have to sidestep the chickens pecking at heaps of garbage. After lunch, I treat myself to a cup of milk tea with tapioca balls for 1.5 yuan. I don’t go to the first milk tea shop I pass but to the second, called Big Taipei. It’s much better, all the students tell me, and I have to agree.
I spend the afternoon checking e-mails and reading the news. I still keep up with the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times. The stories don’t affect me now, but I do it as a way to connect with home.
There are four periods between lunch and dinner. By the time I hear the third set of bells, it’s late afternoon and I am restless. I need to run. I change into sweatpants and head out.
On the way to the track, I pass grandpas and grandmas walking with bundled babies against their chests. While mom and dad teach, the grandparents are the main caretakers. I take these opportunities to lightly pinch a rosy cheek. “Say aiyi,” – or auntie — the grandparent coaxes.
When I reach the track, some students are having P.E. class on the adjacent basketball courts. The more outgoing students abandon their games of volleyball and badminton and jog alongside me to practice their English. The less fit ones wait until I’m doing a walking lap to join in.
I started running years ago because it was a solitary sport; I could get lost in my thoughts. Running has the opposite effect in China; here, I’ve met the most people while breaking a sweat. After being alone most of the afternoon, I always look forward to these group runs.
As I sit in my apartment office reading or preparing the next day’s lesson, my students sit at their desks studying. They have another three hours of evening self-study, broken only by a 15-minute eye exercise.
At 8:15 p.m., a high-pitched female voice takes over the loudspeakers and counts off in Chinese, “yi…er…san…si…” as the students massage their eyelids and temples. Sometimes, I make the circular motions around my eyes too.
The bell rings at 9:30 p.m., signaling the students are finally free to leave the classroom. But freedom is relative. They have nowhere to go but to their dormitory, twelve students to a room. I picture them lining up at the two sinks in their room to wash their faces and then collapsing onto the narrow bunks. A final bell rings at 10 p.m. Lights out.
Not long after the final bell, I set aside the book I am reading and it is lights out for me too. Outside I hear a dog barking and the train passing. Soon these sounds fade too, and I won’t hear anything until the trumpets announce morning.