So, it's been about a four months since I moved to China and I feel human again. Talk about culture shock-Yikes! I never in a million years thought that me – The Maverick – would experience this emotion. Yes, I am in rural China, so signs of city life are lack luster to say the least. I can admit that being placed in a small town did not help me acclimate to China any faster. In fact, it made it that much harder to overcome.
I will start with the food of my town: Suichang County.
Well, food in China (if you are a foreigner) is always a hit or miss. For the first two months, we (my roommate and I) either took a bite into something and loved it, or we absolutely hated it and took notes of it so we did not bother with it again. Most meals consisted of hot pot, fish, bread (my favorite), and when all else failed us, we ate fries and fried foods from a fast food restaurant called Wallace (similar to KFC).
When the meals were not so great, it usually consisted of soup with many tiny bones, something a dear friend of mine has labeled as grey matter (which I later discovered was shrimp), rice, and other unidentifiable dishes we choose to pass on because they looked questionable. In China, ordering chicken is always a gamble because you may see a chicken foot or perhaps a head. Despite what chicken body part may surface, you will almost always see BONES! I assume they use the bones for flavor, but I will always wonder what they do with the actual meat since most dishes lack a hearty amount of meat. Other foods may consist of vegetables that you pick from a refrigerator, along with beef, rice (tons of rice), noodles (tons of noodles), corn and potatoes.
All of the aforementioned foods are often served in one meal and are enough to fill you up for a few hours. Overall, the food was and remains to be enough to sustain us and keep my tiny body nourished for three meals a day.
Luckily, my school provides me with a meal card to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner daily in the Canteen, so I can save money on most meals. However, let’s just say canteen food is not something to look forward to. This place serves every bone you can imagine, some portions of grey matter, more rice, and other unidentifiable foods. In our first month or two, we often passed on canteen food and settled for a hearty peanut butter and jelly sandwich. As the months sailed by, finding foods we liked became easier, ordering foods we missed from home online became more frequent, and cooking with the help of a trusty microwave oven became a ritual when we wanted to retreat from small town Suichang.
Let’s move on to the school experience. Well, so far I have nothing but good things to say. I am teaching high school students (ages 16-18 to be exact). Yes, it is hard work because they are still teens. Their work ethic may be much different than American high school students, but they are still growing, gross, moody teens. Chinese students work hard; from sun up to sun down. They begin their day at 6am and often don’t end their learning until 9:30pm at night. These students are trained like robots to work hard, do well in school, and have as little social time as possible. It often makes them look like robots. They move at the same time, respond to a call in unison, and are very attentive at times when it’s not warranted. This works to my benefit as a new teacher because I get to have their full attention and I am able to get through my lessons with minimal redirection. For a first time teacher, this is a blessing.
While I appreciate the blessing, the number of students I teach is a bit overwhelming. In the course of a week, I have 15 classes, each class has about 40 students and they are on two different grade levels. [Brief factoid: Chinese high schools only have three years. The last year is geared towards studying for the Gaokao (national college entrance exam)]. This test puts a tremendous amount of pressure on students because passing it is their only means to getting into a good university. If they fail three times, that’s it! No fourth chance and no chance of entering college on sports scholarship or minority based scholarship. Sadly, students who fail often result in depression or worse for fear of not amounting to anything in life. It’s very sad, but it is their reality.
Overall I teach 600 students, not including paperwork that is done for other programming. At first it was exhausting and boring hearing my voice teach the same introductory lesson 15 times in one week. However once I got the hang of it, I began to develop lesson plans based on their English speaking skill level. This works in most cases and helps me determine if I am making any progress in the class.
Most staff in the school are helpful, but do not hold many conversations with my roommate and I because they believe their English is too poor or they are too shy. They would rather speak perfect English than any at all. The students are a hoot. They actually get us to sign their notebooks as if they were autographs. It seems kind of weird, but it comes from a genuine place. They often ask personal questions about my love life, kids, age, and what I like to do outside of school. Truthfully, I would rather them ask me questions than stare at me like I am an alien like they do when I teach.
Since we are on the topic of staring, let’s discuss the residents of rural Suichang. It’s is a small county outside of the main city of Lishui where most residents people are limited to access of the outside world. This means their only access to life outside of their small town is the television and world wide web. Sadly, most people in Suichang claim to have never seen a black person in-person- go figure! As much as most Asian people in China adore basketball, they are often beyond fascinated when they see a foreigner (especially, a black foreigner) in person. During the first couple of weeks, we expected some stares and questions about us in general, but never in a million years did we ever think we would be stared at and touched so much by complete strangers. The staring was not so bad, but the non-consensual touching of my hair (yes my hair), clothes, and other items I may have is enough to make you scream. Luckily, I have the wherewithal to remember that I am a foreigner in their community, so I keep the screams to a minimum. Those of you who know, hair for black women is a prized possession and takes time to construct, so touching it without their consent is grounds for expulsion. I had to learn how to say no (Meiyou) or just walk away when they began to touch my hair. In case you were wondering, at the time, I had extensions in my hair (shoutout to Turqs Special touch) so this protected my real hair from all of the changes that came with moving abroad
The residents, includes students and adults, are often curious about what is in our hair, why it looks different, and how we do it. I have learned to say twists or braid and often demonstrate how it’s done on their hair; ironically, there is always one Chinese woman that is more than happy to be a willing participant of the demonstration. Once the demonstration session is over, and sometimes before, the phones are whipped out and photos are taken of us like we are celebrities. Let me tell you, I now know what it feels like to want to just be human but you can’t because someone is always taking a photo of you creating a selfie moment without your permission or asking you to take a picture with them. Ipso-facto — leave celebrities alone when they are not on the correct platform for it!!!! My roommate hates the photos too she often takes a nose dive into a bush or toward the other side of the street. I have resulted to just yelling “Meiyou Meiyou”, covering my face, or ignoring their attempt at wanting to take a selfie. This often works in most cases, but it does not stop the random pedestrians that whip out their phones and shout “hello” to get a good photo of the foreigner. At first it’s innocent but then it becomes annoying and useless trying to either entertain or redirect. It’s kind of scary to think that our picture could end up anywhere, literally anywhere, so we shy away from it as much as possible.
Overall Suichang is in a league of its own and will remain that way as a long as the residents choose to remain in a restrictive box. My roommate and I have come to understand that our existence in this place is temporary and that some residents may never get use to the fact that foreigners, let alone black people, exist in real life and live right here in their community. Thankfully, my roommate and I have found solace in each other and our secluded apartment. This is our place to retreat when the idea and existence of cameras, questions, and Chinese language become too overwhelming for one day.
Stay tuned for more Adventures of a Maverick (The China Edition)