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The International Writers Magazine
Stranger in a Chinese Rural Town

Ben Lerwill

Jinchengjiang as a town did anonymity like it did Marmite. I remembered what it tasted like, but there wasn’t 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 like anywhere.

A teaching placement in provincial China was always going to be an awakening. I’d 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 day’s drive from the Vietnam border was a different cosmos altogether.

Regional capital city Nanning sat some four hours away. I’d 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 you’d 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 can’t pretend to have fully understood China. It’s 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. I’d 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 you’re dodging puddles in Hammersmith Bus Station, rice bowls and mountains can seem a long way away.

© Ben Lerwill - Feb 2007

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