After 6 months of teaching in the small town of Aojiang I finished my contract and it was time to move on. Being confined to the small town life of Aojiang was tough at times so I wanted to check out a different side of China in a big city, and I was also dying to spend more time with my girlfriend Jen do I decided to move to the biggest of all cities—Beijing, and enjoy myself for a while.
Before heading to Beijing I went to Shanghai with some old friends to see the world expo, but I’ll save that for a future post.
Reflections of Aojiang
Living in Aojiang was an interesting chapter in my life. Aojiang is a town that’s not all that nice to a person. It’s small, but crowded and dirty… and unlike the small towns I’m familiar with the people don’t want to get to know you, and they aren’t that friendly. Our town only had about 6 foreigners which meant we got a lot of attention… but unlike the attention I was used to in Foshan that I referred to as “Rock Star status” this attention felt mostly negative. Rather than staring at you with curiosity, or saying hello to you because of interest, people seemed to stare at you as if you were some strange animal and only said hello just to see how ‘the animal’ would respond, then laugh with all their friends about it.
To be honest the town really gave me a negative opinion towards Chinese people… I went from being enthusiastic and friendly with my interactions with local strangers to only speaking to them when totally necessary. I did become friendly with some of the locals but I didn’t really make many local ‘friends’ unless they had already been introduced to the group through someone else.
Initially when applying for the job in Aojiang I imagined a small peaceful beautiful town that would encourage me to befriend the locals, improve my Chinese, learn more about Chinese culture, get more connected with nature and enjoy a more slow paced life for a while… but nearly all of these expectations were shown to be false.
I’ve heard one reason Aojiang is how it is, is because the large city nearby of Wenzhou is known for its cutthroat business attitude and merciless money making strategies. The people adopt a mindset of extreme competition, striving to be better than others at all costs and doing whatever it takes to make a business profit. I’m not sure how true that is but it does reflect the attitude of some of the locals pretty strongly.
I’ve never before in my life seen drivers who drive so impatiently, cut others off at every chance, stop lanes of traffic to give themselves a slight advantage, and who honk their horns so constantly and loudly at every single opportunity. An example of the attitude on the road was when my friend Daniel one time, while in a taxi, was stuck behind a stopped car who only needed to move forward a few inches to let him pass. Daniels taxi honked at him a few times, but the driver ignored it. After a while Daniel moved to where the driver could see him and motioned for him to move forward the driver ignorantly yelled a Gan-ma! At him which in this context would mean something along the lines of “what the hell do you want?” After it was clear what Daniel wanted and the driver still didn’t move Daniel expressed the anger we all felt towards the locals in similar situations by flipping him off and screaming at him for a few minutes.
Aojiang was also a ridiculous example of different ideas of saving face that some small town Chinese locals can have. I understand the concept of saving face in some situations by… for example… not embarrassing others in social situations, arguing politely without showing lots of anger, not contradicting your superiors and stuff like that. But some of the things the locals did when referring to gaining or saving face merely seemed to be a way to satisfy their egos desire to be better than everyone else. Here are some examples of things we couldn’t understand until we asked a local ‘why?’ and had it explained.
-Sometimes when locals buy new clothes in Aojiang they will deliberately leave the tags on for the sole reason of displaying to others that their clothes were ‘new’ so they could be appreciated.
-Often we’d go to point and pick restaurants where you walk up to a buffet and point to the items you would like. We noticed after a while that often people with perfectly good pockets would hold their car keys in their hands as they pointed at the food they wanted. We wondered why they would do this because obviously they would have to put the keys in their pocket when they sat down to eat anyway, why did they want to hold them in the line? We found out only people with nicer newer vehicles did this, and holding the key in their hand while pointing was a way of showing others they owned a nice vehicle rather than a poor man’s scooter.
-One time my friend Alex went to lunch with his old boss. They had a 2 hour lunch break but when they sat down to order the boss demanded that the food be brought Kuai-dian!! (quickly). Demanding your food quick wasn’t all that unusual in this town but Alex asked her why she wanted it so quickly since they had a 2 hour break. She told him if she didn’t ask for it quickly, the other tables surely would… then their food would arrive later giving the meaning that they were ‘less important’.
-Even my young students would act in similar ways. Every class I would fill in their progress book with how well they did for that class. I would fill out each book at the end of class, then once all the books were finished I’d let everyone make a line. The strange thing is, even though I never ever let someone join the line before all the books were finished. The kids would still fight and push and thrust their books in my face in a desperate attempt to have their book checked before the other kids. Even if I just collected all the books at the same time, and handed them all back at the same time, kids would still fight to have their book on the top of the pile. Every single class I had to yell at my kids to sit down while I filled out the books because they would run and try to shove their book in my face so I’d complete it faster. After months of this I realized how baffling it was and I had my TA ask the kids “You know we all make a line at the same time, you know no one gets to go home any sooner, you know having your book finished first and last is the exact same, it doesn’t make ANY difference… why do you fight so desperately every class to have your book finished first?” the kids simply responded “Teacher, we just want to be number 1, to be better than the other students.”
Despite the fact I didn’t like the city of Aojiang very much, and I had a hard time dealing with the average local… looking back now I’m still glad I went, and I can honestly say I don’t at all regret spending 6 months of my life in the town. Despite the bad things I still managed to find a lot of good in my time in Aojiang. For starters I learned how to be a really good English teacher. Our school had really high standards for us, and already had established a high level of teaching so I was forced to catch up to the level of teaching quickly and learn tons of things to improve my skills. I learned countless activities and games and methods of teaching to really drill home the material and also ensure my kids were having lots of fun every class. Because I do everything on the computer I also have 40 lessons for 3 different levels saved on my computer that I’m sure will come in handy for future teaching. Completing the 6 months also gave me self confidence in my abilities. I never missed a single day of work during the time, the TA’s and Chinese manager said they thought I was a really good teacher, and my students seemed quite sad to see me go.
Aojiang was also a good city to work on myself a bit. I managed to go to the gym 3 times a week for about 3.5 months, and also to do yoga twice a week for about 4 months. When my friends saw me in Shanghai they said I looked more fit so that was a nice benefit. I also had lots of time to learn some new skills on the computer and some new songs on guitar. And with Aojiang also having really cheap prices and not all that much to do it also let me save a lot of money. I managed to save about 70% of my paycheck every month.
I also had a lot of fun in Aojiang. I only had to work 21 hours a week so we had a lot of time to mess around. The two other teachers at my school were awesome people. Out of all the foreigners in the surrounding towns I was very happy to be stuck with them. We got along awesomely, and liked to have fun in the same ways. We did too much drinking at the bars and clubs which was always fun, we climbed mountains, went swimming in the lake, went on random adventures, went camping, had lots of foreigner get-togethers and we all had a similar sense of good music and a similar sense of humor. I also liked the TA’s at our school a lot even though they didn’t share our interests or want to hang out with us often until the end. ^.^
Thoughts on Beijing
Coming to the city of Beijing has been an interesting experience in the sense that it reminded me Aojiang is NOT China… it’s just a strange small town within China. I worry now that some of my recent blog posts where I generalized Chinese people or China might not apply to most of the country. I’m now slowly learning that it’s okay to talk to the locals again. There’s so much to get used to… the people are very friendly and helpful towards me… the drivers don’t constantly honk their horns… they have pizza restaurants… you don’t need to negotiate your taxi price… the bars have live music – hell there’s more than 1 bar!… It’s like I’ve reentered the real world again, I find myself saying… wow I remember that!
So far in my 3 days in Beijing I went to an awesome pizza restaurant on a street with countless restaurants and bars that played live music, I took a paddle boat out onto the river, I met a legendary Beijing local with Jen and cooked western food for him (with western ingredients) and I went to a music festival… all things that weren’t possible back in Aojiang.
The music festival was a ton of fun. It was an hour outside of Beijing near the great wall of china surrounded by forest and mountains. The air was fresh, the music was great, there was lots of people but surprisingly not too many, and the atmosphere was super friendly and fun.
The future right now feels really exciting. Jen and I have a list of over 50 fun things to do including bungee jumping, a trip to a famous kung fu temple, camping on the great wall and many other fun things.
My time in Aojiang where I was forced to stay and work in the boring town while Jen was waiting for me in Beijing really reinforced to point for me that I NEED to become my own boss in life, set my own hours and attain financial freedom. I know now that I’ll stop at nothing until I achieve this because I can’t accept a 9-5 life with no freedom for myself.
My fellow teachers Darian and Alex also inspired me in this direction. Right before I left Aojiang Alex bought a bar and is now the proud owner of his own business while Darian met a Chinese business contact and started a small business project of his own. This has inspired me to work on some future money making ideas myself.
On top of all this after moving from Aojiang I’m really feeling a sense that the world is an amazing fun and friendly place. For some reason within me I have a huge sense that big awesome things are approaching on the horizon for my life… and my feelings are usually right! 😉