The International Writers
in a Chinese Rural Town
as a town did anonymity like it did Marmite. I remembered what
it tasted like, but there wasnt a hope in hell of getting
any. Crowds of people stood agog wherever I went. Chopsticks froze
between bowls and mouths. Stupefied children on bikes wobbled
into other stupefied children on bikes. Aside from this, the 40
degree heat, the flat above the meat market, the seed-spitting
grandmothers and the crazily steep mountains, well, it was much
A teaching placement in provincial China was always going to be an awakening.
Id previously taught only in Normandy and Eastbourne, neither of
which is renowned for its brain-juddering culture shocks. Being the sole
foreigner in a wild-eyed market town a days drive from the Vietnam
border was a different cosmos altogether.
Regional capital city Nanning sat some four hours away. Id arrived
there first. That had been a hot, giddy blast of noise and colour, but
compared with my new neighbourhood it was a vision of urban normalcy.
The first few times I walked through the honk and hive of Jinchengjiang
I was followed everywhere, although no one came within five metres of
me. I was like the Pied Piper with a force field.
The centre of town seemed to be stuck in a permanent rush hour, clogged
with scooters and red auto-rickshaws. Some of the roads were sealed, many
were just orange dust. All of them were lined with food stalls and men
on their haunches, playing Mah-Jong or just silently watching the day
bustle by. Through the stifling humidity, a smell of livestock, diesel
and fried vegetables permeated everything.
Tilt your head up, and youd see green karst peaks looming above
the buildings like monster sentries. Look back down and you might see
a pavement dentist excavating a client, or a shopper wandering home with
a rigor-mortis-fixed dog over a shoulder. The market sold the full smorgasbord
of bodily parts. Give a vendor a pig, and the stall would offer noses,
tails and fat, even eyes. The whole hog.
After people stared, they beamed. I met with humbling open-heartedness.
Teachers and parents invited me to simple homes for dinner: feasts of
fresh greens, suckling pig, chicken feet and cold beer. Chinese drinking
games and long, sinuous chats would always follow, their success dependent
on the ability to find a mutual language level and the number of empty
bottles on the table.
One of the teachers often took me out on his scooter. The buildings on
the outskirts would get smaller and crumblier and then stop altogether.
It was here the paddy fields started. Blindingly green patchworks yawned
through valleys and seeped to a purplish gold at dusk. Some evenings there
were big, chaotic games of football on the edge of town. I panted around
dusty pitches until it was almost black, exhaustedly sweaty, regularly
nutmegged and violently happy.
The lessons themselves trod a fine line between order and surrealism.
The pupils poured daily into the insect zoo that was the classroom, sometimes
up to 45 at a time. I taught over 200 different children, and was asked
to give each of them "English names" to adopt. It was taxing.
After allocating every last name that came to me, I had to move on to
footballers and pop culture for inspiration. I found myself chanting the
alphabet with Waddle and Morrissey.
Almost every student was a diligent gem. This was a fresh generation of
China. Their parents had lived and loved under the apple-cheeked spectre
of Mao. I tried hard to make the lessons fun and full, although teaching
resources were woeful. The solitary text book was a carnival of weirdness
and dodgy grammar: apple jam, monkeys and bad conjugations. The best times
were the late afternoon lessons, with sun shafting through the windows
off the hills and eager kids yearning to talk and talk.
I cant pretend to have fully understood China. Its made up
of sticky algebra. But over my time in Jinchengjiang, it taught me infinitely
more than I was able to give from the blackboard. And being the unwitting
centre of mass attention became easier. Id felt sheepish to begin
with, but when I finally got back to the drizzle of London, nobody-status
back with a vengeance, my small-town fame was a much-needed tonic. When
youre dodging puddles in Hammersmith Bus Station, rice bowls and
mountains can seem a long way away.
© Ben Lerwill - Feb 2007
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