Postcards from Abroad: Beijing


Despite finishing exam season in Beijing, Denis Vaughan isn’t worried his results will be what’s forcing him home earlier than expectedLast week I had my mid-term exams. Normally in Ireland I’m incapable of ever taking these seriously and always tell myself that if I do badly it doesn’t matter, I can always pull it back for the final exams. I’d like to say that over here I’m able to take academia a little more seriously, especially considering the pass rate is 60% in China but I just can’t do it. If anything, I’m even worse over here. It’s bad but I’ve now reached a point where I’m just completely indifferent to my Chinese classes. Not because they’re Chinese classes. I like learning Chinese, I wouldn’t be here otherwise. For some reason I just feel that I’m not actually benefiting from them at all. Not as much as I want to anyway.

It might seem a bit odd but I think I learned more during my first two months before college even started. I’m convinced it’s all about the environment you’re in. When I arrived in Beijing, I was working in the suburbs in an area where absolutely nobody spoke English. I needed to use Chinese to survive there. Even though I lived in a dive that had a hole in the ground for a toilet and a permanent smell of musk, it was all worth it in hindsight. I had to get the landlord’s permission to turn on the air-conditioner and shower (which was conveniently located above said hole in the ground) so when you’re in a situation like that you’re forced to use the local language.

In the classroom you don’t really have any incentive to use the language other than to pass exams. It was much more motivating when the incentive was survival. As well as that there are just some things that you don’t learn in the classroom. You don’t pick up the local dialect and all the colloquial phrases that they use. Last week in class for example, I learned about a dragon coming to someone’s house and scaring them. I mean, dragons are great, but I can’t really picture myself chatting with someone about a dragon visiting my house any time soon.

On a non-academic related topic, I’ve got a new job. I’m still in the English teaching business; I’m just no longer teaching five year olds the days of the week and how to sing Old Mc Donald. I find this slightly beneficial to my mental state of mind. Being a shiny happy person who’s juggling half a dozen screaming children that are hanging off you really takes it out of you.

I work for a tutoring company now instead of a Kindergarten. The way it works is the company has a list of clients that want to learn English. If the company hires you, they try to match you with the students that are most suited to you or in your area of residence. It’s more convenient than commuting. If they actually match you with someone that lives near you, that is. And with everyone you are matched with, you have to lie to so the company looks better.

That’s standard in Beijing though. There’s a serious shortage of English teachers here. That’s why they just hire under-qualified people such as myself and ask us to lie to the students. As far as my students are concerned, I’m from England. Although I don’t like it, in China the country you come from carries a lot of weight and Ireland isn’t really up there. Most don’t know where it is. You’re more respected if you come from a more powerful country like America or England so that’s what I tell my students. I was a 24 year old Canadian for a while too back when I was in Datong so you get used to lying through your teeth. For example, my 24 year housemate who is also teaching English in Beijing lived in Manchester and graduated from the University of Cambridge with a degree in English literature. In reality she’s a 21 year old NUI Maynooth graduate from Meath. But I can’t really say anything. I have a masters in teaching foreign languages from Beijing Language and Culture University.

China’s mad like that. In some ways, it can be as shady as it gets and you can get away with anything, and yet in other instances it can be ridiculously strict. Take censorship for example. No Facebook means no Facebook. You’ll only get it if you pay for a good VPN and they’ve even shut down a lot of those recently. Those of you familiar with The Great Firewall will know that you can’t access any of the websites that most of the young generation in the west spend their time on. This includes Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Youtube, Google and more. I can actually live without these for the most part but the only issue I have is with the Google ban.

UCD mail is powered by Gmail so as a result I can’t access it which is just plain annoying. Even more so when you have academic transcripts that need to be sent to a Chinese university ASAP in order for you to be accepted for your second semester abroad. Getting in touch with the student desk has been a serious effort. Just today I had the International Officer in Quinn contacting me via my hotmail account saying that Peking University have sent an urgent mail saying they can’t process my application (which was meant to be finalised two months ago) because they don’t have my transcripts. I’m hoping express post to China works its magic or I could be homebound a bit sooner than I expected.