From back west to out east

When Spiddal-native TV and radio worker Fiona Ní Chéirin sat down to examine out her rapidly decreasing work options a month ago, she was drawn to the idea of going from West to East and sampling life as a teacher in a Chinese city. Here is her tale of how she is faring.

How many of us have been hit by the current economic climate and have often spoken the words “I just want to get the hell out of this country”, but in many cases, it is much easier said than done, as we have things like money and family holding us back.

But as I had been in and out of work for some months, enough was enough. I decided to fight against any obstacles that may have stood in the way of my leaving and put one of my favourite quotes into action; “grab the bull by its horns” and see where it swung me.

I never had a clear vision as to where I would go, I just knew I had to get out of this country for a while.

So my answer came when I thought to myself, what are the three little words that every single one of us comes across most days, if not every day, no matter where we are, “Made in China”! As most of the products that we all use daily are manufactured there, it was clear that this was a country in which business was booming.

What to do out there was another question, not speaking a word of Mandarin, I didn’t have too many choices. So when I came across a post looking for an English language teacher, I went for it. But having never taught English before, I didn’t think it was going to work. Surprisingly having passed many interviews, I landed the job. When I got the start date, that was it, I was moving to China !In a blink of an eye, my world was about to change. For better or for worse? !

For the last couple of years, I spent my time working in all three media — TV, radio and print, with most of my time working on TV shows such as Ireland’s Got Talent, The X Factor, TV3’s Taoiseach documentary, many TG4 shows like An Jig Gig, Mí na Meal, to name but a few.

So to go from that kind of environment to being thrown into one where I was going to be teaching 700 children each week to speak English and me not having one word of mandarin, tthis was going to be somewhat of a ‘little’ challenge! Did I mention, I didn’t know a single soul out there either?

But after nearly 18 hours travelling, I boarded my final flight to an inner airport in China where it was going to bring me to my destination, it was then, it hit me hard. Being the only foreigner (and of course, only pasty Irish person, who looked completely shattered, who at this moment, wanted only a fine big cupán of Barry’s tae and a nice fry! ) on the flight surrounded by Chinese people, I finally realized, “I’ve landed in China. It was the beginning of an adventure, be it good or bad, but I knew one thing, I was going to give it one hell of a go.

We all know China has a population of more than one billion people, so when I arrived in Xiangtan city in Hunan Province, south of China; my new home for the next year, I got a real sense of this number. Someone described it to me as a small city, ah come on lads, it just has a population of over three million.

Everywhere I looked, there were just so many people, so many cars, skooters coming in every direction, from the front, back, right, left — so much noise that you would find yourself putting your hands over your ears at times, air that was a stark contrast to Salthill’s Prom and people sitting on the pavements, on the side of the roads or standing, all with pots of noodles in their hands Welcome to China.

One particular thing that hugely contributes to the noise, is when cars, buses, etc want to pass each other out or tell each other to get out of the way(which is every second ), they beep the horn, so with no controlled lanes of traffic in Xiangtan and many other nearby cities, cars are literally on top of each other, skooters are trying to dip in between the bus and truck, with all this going on, there is constant beeping. I have seen drivers just rest their hand on the horn as they drive their car. It’s been my new alarm since my arrival in China! It would certainly give you the jitters at first when you come here.

Standing out in the crowd

Something that really shocked me and to this day, still does, was the number of people on one single scooter, sometimes up to four people. And the biggest shock of all is seeing young children, as young as a year old, standing up between the driver and the handles. Just unbelievable. And did I mention not even a helmet on any child.

As soon as I stepped foot in Xiangtan, my childhood dreams of becoming a celebrity came through! For a second, I thought the President touched down but no, just myself! I couldn’t walk one foot and the stares began. But let’s make this clear, it wasn’t just a simple quick glance, I mean, people stopped instantly in their tracks on the streets, turning completely around and standing there for at least a minute or two, just staring! I know I’m not Chinese, but come on, I don’t have two heads. There were children pulling at their parents shouting, “white girl, white girl”, people were stopping me on the street asking could they take my photo! Never having been the shy kind, this was fantastic. “Hellos” were bellowed from car windows.

At first a bit overwhelming but you realize, this is only one of the many cities in China, its not the biggest city, not the most popular city so of course this was going to happen. It wasn’t as if I was in Shanghai or Beijing where there are many foreigners. A city like this only sees a small number of foreigners.

To take a break from all the chaos of the roads to my new celebrity status, it was time to sit down and sample some Chinese cuisine. Never being the most adventurous when it comes to trying new foods but hey, I’m in China, it’s time to forget about ordering a burger and chips.

There’s no doubt that Chinese people are not afraid to eat. With a breakfast that would consist of bowls of noodles, a lunch which is normally from the hours of 12-2pm, and they don’t just have a regular sandwhich and coffee, it ranges from rice, vegetables, beef, pork, and more noodles. Dinner time is around 6pm and again this will consist of rice, vegetables, fish, and more meats.

To tell you the truth, where I live here in China, on exactly these times, I actually hear the cooking pans going!

When dining at restaurants, they don’t limit their servings either and everything is served in big bowls and plates so you can just help yourself to what and how much you would like to eat.

But there’s no doubt from what I have seen, that Chinese people very much like to eat. That was one of the first things I noticed when I arrived in this city and even in other towns/cities nearby, you get the smell of foods instantly; you just wouldn’t find a corner or a street without a food stall, with everything from fried bread, kebabs, pots of noodles, whatever you fancy, it’s all there.

And so to work...

After getting lost in the Chinese culture, I forgot for a moment, that I was not here on a holiday but that I had an actual job to do.

So it was a very strange feeling when I walked into a classroom of 56 Chinese students on my first day as an English teacher, they all stood up, clapped and greeted me with the words, “Ni Hao”.

Of course, I was slightly apprehensive, but not as much as I thought I would be. I was more laughing very hard on the inside, as this experience was so far removed from the world that I had come from.

For someone without a word of Mandarin, where to begin? Thankfully, they had a few little words of English, they understood phrases such as “what is your name” “how are you”, “where are you from”. Chinese students show a lot of interest in someone who is completely different to themselves and from a very different world, so I started by talking about my country, even though most of them had never heard of it before.

There is no doubt that Chinese students work very hard. They start their day at 7.30am and finish at 5.30pm. The boarders of the school have extra classes from 7.30pm to 9.30pm.

Some of these children come from not so wealthy backgrounds, so the drive to succeed is imposed on these children every day. Children as young as eleven spend their weekends getting maths and English tuition.

Certainly my first couple of weeks in China have been eventful to say the least, from the crazy driving, to the consumption of the most rice I have eaten in my lifetime, my new celebrity status, to a few lost in translation moments in the classroom, the adventure has certainly begun.



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