Teaching in China

2009-09-16 00:00

THE idea of adventure is a relative one: for some it might only be a trip to the game reserve. But by anybody’s standards, spending a year in China in a town of one million people where you are the only Westerners would push the adventure envelope.

That is exactly what Mary Perry and Edward Garner did, heading off into what was to them the unknown — the town of Gaoyou is not big enough to appear on most Western maps of China.

They went off to teach con- versational­ English at a college, on a year’s contract. Perry and Garner now live in Pietermaritzburg and have written a book about their experiences­, Adonis and Bignose in China.

Both Perry and Garner are widowed, and met on a walking holiday in Greece. Perry was a teacher and had taught at Durban Girls’ High School, Garner was a retired soldier. They did their Teaching English as a Foreign Language qualification, and off they went to China.

Their book started life as a diary they kept while there and, although it is privately published, Perry is finding that the distribution is not such a hassle as it might have been. She had given numerous talks on their Chinese­ year and, having been given a taste people are now keen to buy the book and read more.

The title refers to the fact that their students were very admiring of Garner­’s white hair and regularly remarked­ about how handsome he was: obviously, he enjoyed that.

Perry on the other hand was asked by a child why her nose was so big. But nonetheless, when Perry is asked what the best thing about their trip was, she says that it was their students­, the other people they met and the sense of community.

“It can be a cruel society, but possessions are not important. I once asked my class what they would do if they suddenly came into a lot of money and every one said they would give it to their parents to make their lives easier.”

The students were great fun. Garner­ had a student in his class, nicknamed Charlie, who spoke good English, but had a thing about Picasso. Whenever he was asked to speak to the class, he spoke about Picasso. One day Garner thought that he would get round that by writing on the board “today I have nothing to do”, and asking his students to talk on that. So Charlie came to the front of the class and said: “Today I have nothing to do, but that was not a problem for Picasso­.”

The worst thing about China, says Perry, is the lack of privacy. Personal space is a very unChinese concept.

“Even going for a walk, people would walk next to us and stare. In restaurants, twice the waitress sat down at the table to watch us eat.

“I asked a colleague, who spoke some English, why they did it and he said that in the West, people would stare at him in the same way. There is simply no sense of privacy.”

Another problem they had was that it was impossible in Gaoyou to source English books.

“It didn’t occur to us before we went that we wouldn’t be able to get books. We played a lot of Scrabble and read Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything from cover to cover, several­ times. Even in the big cities, we could only get the classics — Dickens and Shakespeare — and grammar­ books, but no contemporary novels. If we had known that, we would have taken a suitcase of books with us.”

The book also tells how the Chinese treated Perry and Garner with enormous respect, because of their age.

“I was 65 when we were in China, and Ted turned 70. People have a reverence­ for age there and the Chinese­ have a hard life, and age quicker. Our boss was 35 and he said that we were like his grandparents and must be respected. I wasn’t sure I liked the idea that they thought I could be a grandparent to a 35-year-old. They did seem to have a fixation about age.”

I ask Perry if they are adventurous types and she pauses.

“I suppose so. If I had really thought it through ... yes, I would still have done it. But not on my own. It was fine with someone’s hand to hold. It was an incredible experience.”

And would she go back? “I’m not sure that I would go back for a year. Ted says never again. But the culture is so old and so unbelievable.”

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