We lived in Cangzhou, Hebei, from September 4 to November 18, 2017. That’s just two and a half months, which in retrospect might seem like a short vacation. But imagine that Cangzhou is a space-time anomaly opposed to a black hole: for the world it was two and a half months, but we got new gray hair, we lost years of life, we gained in cynicism, we contemplated the future and we decided that no, thank you.
Cangzhou is a town infected by skyscraper builders: its growth rate is terrifying, but the agenda is marked by the agricultural calendar. When we arrived it was summer, it was over 35ºC and the harvest of jujubes and their drying into red dates had begun. Soon they gave way to the moon cakes of the Moon Festival, and we officially started autumn. Shortly it was the turn of the corn harvest, and the margins of the roads were filled with grains and whole ears of corn drying in the sun, because salting the popcorn is snobbish and real men eat them with dioxins and exhaust pipe aroma. The cold hit hard as winter approached and the temperature dropped by almost 20ºC in less than 24 hours. Suddenly the streets were filled with street vendors with bundles of thermal clothing and fleece pajamas. The reason was obvious: the winter had arrived before the town hall turned on the central heating of the buildings of the city, and the isolation of the houses was so bad that the nights froze. With the cold came the turn of roasted chestnuts and sweet potatoes. A furnace roasting sweet potatoes on the sidewalk of each block, sidewalks covered with mountains of dirt-covered sweet potatoes, carts pulling kilos and more kilos of sweet potatoes. Do not miss the sweet potato, orange tuber softened by fire, only surpassed by the mountains of yams, slightly later than the sweet potato, cooked and covered with hard candy: how could I have known that the cooked potato and the candy would be such a winning combination. The last joy that came from the countryside, and the one we left colonizing the streets of our neighborhood, was, of course, the sugar cane. Cane juice to cool yourself down while at -5ºC, served by a man who seems to have come from invading Russia with his military coat of skin collar, the best to top off a dinner based on soup of ginger, fat and goat guts. Goat that, on the other hand, can not be fresher, because it has just been sacrificed on the road, in front of the restaurant, where the drain works best. Nor should I forget the secondary actors of this agricultural fair of dirty asphalt: watermelons and eggplants large and round or thin and long in summer, variety of pipes and peanuts all year round, huge Chinese cabbages stacked in vans in autumn, gigantic bunches of leeks tied in winter, overflowing electric bikes, colonizing sidewalks and portals, being dragged along the ground at every step. Giant grapefruits, red and white, as a luxury item, Ya pears like big yellow apples, cucumbers with the face of Buddha, pumpkins in the shape of a pear. Rabbits, chickens, geese, ducks, frogs, crabs. With sweet potatoes and yams, yam and sweet potato noodles proliferate, piled up like large herds of dry straw. And with the cold come the coal delivery trucks. The combustion of coal and industry in the area are probably the main causes of the devastating levels of atmospheric pollution, which occur there and the wind drag into the cauldron of Beijing, where they stagnate. In an attempt to avoid the air-pocalypse of last year, the city of Cangzhou has sealed the collection boxes of city buses, hoping that the availability of free public transport will reduce the use of cars within the city.
Cold that makes eyelashes hurt, pollution that sends you a stroke before lung cancer, blood and sewage overflowing the sewer, the adorable rubber duck sound of mandarin diamonds, and a clueless hoopoe perched on a huge hanging zucchini. How did we get here? What happened to the great Chinese dream?
RECRUITMENT AND ARRIVAL
Rockies English School is a Chinese company founded by Canadians, or so its propaganda says, with schools and kindergartens all over the country. They offer TEFL (teacher of English as a foreign language) work to non-natives, that is, to people who do not have a passport from the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom or Ireland. I dare to say that 80% of the staff they hire are Serbs, who have closed access to the impoverished European labor market, but who nevertheless have friendly agreements with China and North Korea. Their working conditions were acceptable, though not luxurious, so we accepted their offer: work for both, housing allowance, few expenses and the opportunity to know a part of the world that until then had been far from our reach. Therefore, we made the procedures to obtain the Z visa, and, after a hasty message in the tone of come now or do not come, we bought a plane ticket to Dalian and flew to the company’s headquarters.
If you are not a native English speaker working as an English teacher is illegal in China. You expose yourself to police arrest and you depend on the magnanimity of your school and its contacts between the forces of law and order. As a sign of the magnitude of this problem, during the first two months we were working in Cangzhou, three of the twenty teachers we knew were arrested. One was taken out of his kindergarten and they had to pay a lot to release him. Another one got his passport confiscated for a week and the company relocated him, forcing him to travel six hours by car every day to continue teaching in the same kindergarten that had sold him to the police. The last one was blamed by Rockies for attracting so much attention, as she was blond and the only expat in a city of 400.000 people.
Fancy company in the outside, disgusting bathrooms and inoperative staff in the interior. If nobody but the recruiters speak (mediocre) English, who teaches English in this school? Who trains teachers?
Our accommodation in Dalian. A dark skyscraper in a dirty alley. An apartment without kitchen, with a living room-bedroom occupied by a huge bed made of springs and crushed scraps. Shit up to the ceiling. Awful smell.
Once in Dalian we had a complete medical check-up and the procedures for obtaining our residence permits with irregular contracts were started: according to the invitation letters upon which our work permits were issued, I was going to be a data analysis specialist in Dalian, while my partner was going to work as channel commissioner in the same city. Our work permits didn’t specify our job positions, but they did set the city in which we were supposed to work in, and it wasn’t the real one. OK, so, this shouldn’t be any problem, since it is an extremely generalized practice in China. You can work as TEFL in China if you are non-native, just not legally. However, the best part of the whole process was the contract, which was signed by a recruiter of the company, using his fake English name, and agreeing that “the teacher will follow all the stipulations and terms outlined in this contract”. The company didn’t have to follow the contract. They wouldn’t risk to have it written, not even on an absurdly invalid contract such as that one. A less compassionate soul could argue that we didn’t double check, and it would be right. A more compassionate one could think that we only wanted to find a better future and that we let ourselves be carried away by our enthusiasm. Be that as it may, Rockies English School is nothing more than a bunch of thugs with gangsters methods who compensate for their professional ineffectiveness with contacts that allow them illegal practices in one of the countries that most perfectly managed to merge the dystopias of Orwell and Huxley. Those who think I exaggerate, please, come and see.
They “trained” us. And when I say this I mean that they took a secretary out of her office without even asking if she could speak English, they gave her a handful of videos and some photocopies that she did not know how to use, and they had us ten days watching videos of children songs which were equivalent to the AIDDAS tracksuits and the CNAHEL t-shirts. They have taken Anglo-Saxon children songs and, in order to avoid paying for copyrights and to be able to boast a personalized teaching method, they have eliminated notes, destroying the rhythm, and they have changed the lyrics, ruining the rhymes. Music is important to me, so they made me suffer.
… AND THEY FOOLED US
After ten days of abject waste of time, one of the recruiters asked us for feedback. The two words most related to the Chinese corporate spirit are feedback and training. We gave it to him with characteristic honesty and less characteristic delicacy. Then he looked us in the eyes and said: well, then I say that everything is fine. We told him, no, no way, what did you just say? He filled out his report in front of us and left happy to have received another positive feedback. That afternoon, this same recruiter sat us at the same table with his colleague Leo. They told us that they had seen our demonstrations and that they were delighted with our skills as English teachers. Ok, we thought, they’re kissing our arses, there’s something they surely want from us. You have come to work in Luoyang, right? They asked us, to which we agreed. We had to hurry because the course was already starting. There is a small problem, they told us: the Luoyang semester does not start until October, so you will have to be out of work this month. However, we have come up with a solution to your problem: you could work this month in Cangzhou, a city full of attractions, very close to Beijing, with a young and dynamic team from which we have only received positive feedback. They will welcome you with open arms, they will organize excursions to Beijing and Tianjin, they will look for a good apartment for that month and so you will not lose money. Because money is the only thing that matters. You have come here to earn money, right?
Cangzhou, we thought: that city that our Chinese recruiter did not stop offering us again and again and we always rejected because the only thing that Google says about it is that it is sinking, air pollution is brutal and there is an iron lion in the outskirts you can visit if you like lions or iron figures. But it will only be a month, right? Of course, they told us, looking at us with love, only a month, and then Luoyang. You will enjoy it so much you will never want to leave. Hahaha.
For want of another option, angry and frustrated, and without being able to allow ourselves the luxury of having a month of vacations, we said OK. Happily, they told us to enjoy Dalian, because that day and the next one we’d have to do some exams and then everything would be free time and sightseeing around the city. That afternoon we started doing recorded demonstrations of theoretical classes following their methodology, the next day we did the same thing in the morning, and at lunch time they told us it was over, now enjoy Dalian. We went to the apartment to leave our student gear and as soon as we entered the Wi-Fi zone, the following message arrived: within 2 hours your train leaves for Cangzhou. In 15 minutes there will be a taxi waiting for you at the door. You will need an hour and a half to get to the station and you have to get the tickets at the window, so don’t be late. Greetings.
BYE, BYE, DALIAN
Grateful in some way to our experience in rushed flight, we prepared our bags in ten minutes and still had five left over to finish the beers in the fridge. Then a dizzying journey through rows and rows of new skyscrapers, systematically arranged, en masse, a distressingly incomprehensible humanity. Where is food grown to feed all these people? Where are the goods and services manufactured? Where their export products? We arrived at the North Station of Dalian half an hour before the departure of the train, only for the driver to leave us stranded and abandoned and to discover that the station had four floors and no sign in English. I managed to find the correct window and the waiting line on time, so we arrived at our high-speed train less than five minutes from the start.
Six hours exceeding 300 km/h through crop fields, toy villages and skyscraper cities without night lights. We arrived in Cangzhou at night, but it was a strange night: without the strident, variegated lighting of Dalian, the air shone with purple light. It was the night light of the smog, which filtered and scattered the few lights from the windows of the skyscrapers and the giant signs of red light. It smelled of humanity and pollution, but without the accompaniment of the moist aroma of decaying vegetation that complements the smell of all the great tropical cities I have known. This was no tropical city: less than 200 km from Beijing, a northern city in the middle of a desolate plain. With abundant refineries and a large thermal power station within the same city, surrounded by more refineries and factories, Cangzhou produces and exports abundant oil and coal.
Our contact at the local company, Cao, met us at the train station, squeezed us behind the bars of the back seat of a taxi with our suitcases in our arms, and he explained to us, initiating an irritatingly insistent tendency, that the fact that he had received us at the station was a show of courtesy and kindness on his part (lest we think it was his duty), and that he would help us a lot because he was like that, one of those who help. He took us to a hotel that looked like a roadside brothel, in a foul alley, in an extremely dirty neighborhood (without knowing that it was going to be our definitive neighborhood), we went in to find out that the owner was a friend or part of his company, he told us not to get out alone because it was dangerous, he pushed us into the room, then he came in after us and he stared at us until we asked him if he wanted something. He told us that they were going to invite us to dinner as a gesture of welcome and that afterwards we could rest. After a hasty departure that left no time for lunch, we were both hungry, so we left the hotel wanting to discover something good. In the middle of a street full of interesting local cuisine and lots of entertainment, they got us in the Yon Ho, the equivalent of a Chinese McDonalds, put a plate of noodles with onion and cabbage in front of us and sat down at a nearby table to watch how we ate. Then we returned to our room of the fecal smell. That’s how Cangzhou started for us. I did not feel joy again until a month later, when I managed to fly my first kite in a giant, windy square.
Rockies English School recruits non-native English teachers in different parts of the world, generally in countries in crisis with young (and not so young) overqualified people. We are white, our eyes are big, our hair is not black, and our academic titles impress. Once here, with our illegally obtained work permits, they rent us to local companies. The standard package includes the Rockies teaching method (embarrassing even for them), the teaching material (flashcards, CDs, books that no one knows when or how to use) and us, the big stars of the show, the laowei, white monkeys whom you can kick and spit because we, unlike many Chinese teachers, do not hit children, and we can not make ourselves understood using words. They proudly show us to parents who pay, we believe, small fortunes so that their children from 2 to 6 years old, many of them so young that they do not even speak yet and constantly try to crawl, are exposed, 20 minutes per week, to international teachers and to the English language.
In the case of Cangzhou the business was double, since Rockies rented us to an intermediary company that, in turn, rented us to no less than 14 kindergartens and a primary school. Some of the kindergartens were in the city, others however in different cities of the province.
The horse-trading seeks to get the most profit for the companies involved at the cost of violating our contracts, as it is more than likely that our contract with Rockies and that of Rockies with local companies do not coincide. Thus we discovered how the Chinese negotiate: behind your back, without taking a step back, without compromising, without really negotiating, by exhaustion, wearing you down, smelling the desperation, knowing that you are in their hands, and adding insult to injury by trying to make us share their fiction of respect, courtesy, we are a great family, I will do what I can. The face of the wildest capitalism is kind, relaxed, cynical and passive-aggressive, and they make use of New Age philosophy and positive thinking as if they really believed every word they say. They insist with innocent and sincere logic that the only thing that really matters is to make money and that working together as a team, with a lot of feedback and a lot of training, we will achieve happiness.
Obviously, the contrast between the people we have known as part of our work and the people we have met on the streets could not be greater: generous, there was no store or market that did not give us some little present. Smiley, happy, relaxed, curious, the grimy neighborhood in which we were abandoned ended up conquering my heart through their people. People who live in their workplace, who do not complain, who do not have a bad gesture; who pay the bills, communicate, explore on the internet, participate in social networks, and purchase and manage their transportation using a single mobile application, the WeChat, in a country where everyone has a cell phone of the very latest technology. A population extremely easy to control, with plenty of police stations but no police presence on the streets, who is not even remotely aware of the problems associated with the poison they breathe, problems for their health and for their children above all. People who only wear masks when it is cold, because you get used to pollution, they say, but the cold makes you sick. That’s why you had to drink a lot of boiling hot water, especially the children: children with mental retardation, autism, Asperger, ataxia, development problems, queuing every half hour to drink their obligatory glass of hot water, in kindergartens with wide open windows and levels of pollution that the government classifies as health alert and environmental emergency. Kindergartens as clean as the streets: communal bathrooms with tiny holes in which to urinate, human excrement on the floor and in the door, children defecating in cubes in the middle of the class, without washing their hands, who wet their seats while their Chinese teachers chat with their cell phones, who pass their hands from their private parts to their dripping noses, their rotten teeth and my face. Streets where fecal waters share space with restaurant terraces, vegetable shrubs and slaughter of domestic livestock. It is not just disgust: it is the risk of cholera, dysentery, typhus, in immense and overcrowded cities, full of children with no basic hygiene concepts.
DIFFICULTIES AND PROBLEMS
Between my partner and I, we had to take care of approximately 1400 kids per week, distributed among almost 100 groups and 15 schools in which the Chinese teachers in charge abandoned us as a rule upon arrival, they refused to communicate with us and they looked at us with despise and hatred because they thought we were being paid a lot more than what we really were. It is not surprising that the two and a half months we lived in Cangzhou we were constantly sick, alternating fevers of up to 39ºC with a persistent bronchitis that no longer leaved us. My axillary lymph nodes were inflamed in turns or simultaneously, and ended up taking me to the hospital. The economic profit that both companies and kindergartens made with us I can not, nor want to, imagine.
The accommodation did not help either. A huge and broken apartment, rented for us obeying the interests of the intermediary company and with great savings for our contracting company, Rockies: instead of offering us a selection of apartments, as promised, they took us to a fifth floor without elevator and they left us there with a look how nice and spacious. The bathroom consisted of a poorly placed drain, a shower faucet, a toilet bowl and a sink, all covered in black grime from the street. It was separated from the kitchen by a broken door, so that bathroom and kitchen spaces intermingled in an unhealthy symphony of stinks. In the kitchen, the fires sometimes went out with small explosions and at times spewed short flares. Thick drops of black fat fell from the extractor’s chimney, spoiling more than one meal and more than one pot. The water heater worked, or not, so having a shower was a source of stress. The windows were badly fitted and let in the cold and the pollution. A huge and walled terrace completed the picture: the owner had used it as a dump and, instead of cleaning it, he closed it. Cao told us that it was dangerous and that we should not try to get there.
They distracted our protests with a new document in which they told us how to get to the kindergartens located in other cities: take bus 10 to the bus station; buy ticket to destination city (unspecified); look for a taxi; get to the kindergarten; repeat the process in reverse. Just like that. We explained that, by contract, if the kindergarten was more than half an hour away from the apartment, the company should provide us with a car or taxi to it. For once, Rockies supported us: they knew that, in a city where nobody spoke English, it would be practically impossible for us to reach our destination without help. The local company reluctantly agreed: anyone who enjoys having a private choffeur should try a driver with 5 cm nails who drives hating you while chatting from two phones at the same time, trying to compete with a turbo trailer, and each time you say hello looks around with an expression that I can only describe as “wait, the cat just talked to me, has anyone else seen it?” All this with the accompaniment of Cao’s nasal voice repeating, without rest, that there won’t always be cars to take us to these places, and that it’s about time we learn to go alone.
In short, there was a lot of trash that we just accepted because, for just one month, it wasn’t worth a fight. Thus we fell into the second trap:
We were at the end of the month and we had not received any news about our transfer to Luoyang. The last week of September we said goodbye to our 1400 children and their teachers, so certain we were that our transfer was close. I called our coordinator from Cangzhou, Lily Wei; the one from Luoyang, Villa; our recruiter, Kevin Zhang: Lily was surprised to hear that we were going to another city, Villa did not know anything, and Kevin just said that the Luoyang semester would start when we arrived, and not vice versa. I finally got to talk to Leo, who had told us that Cangzhou was a one-month plan, and he told me that the Luoyang semester was starting on October 20, so we would stay one more month in the same place.
At that moment the hostilities began: the local company did not like the idea of us leaving, and did not miss the opportunity to tell us what liars and thieves were in Luoyang, how well we were going to live in Cangzhou. The coordinator of Luoyang confirmed the start date and told us that she would give us a week’s notice, so that we could organize. We took heart and went back to our kindergartens, where the children gradually got used to us, began to communicate and tolerate our closeness, and where we ourselves were beginning to adapt and learn to find our 100 classrooms without anyone’s help.
Entering October, after the initial shock and the first flu, we began to explore our city. We got disposable masks and I could breathe, with effort but more or less safely. It is not an attractive city, unless you come from one of the surrounding cities, with the same pollution, more garbage and a local pool as the only form of entertainment. However, that is a value, since it is not pretentious, just a Chinese city in the central plain, with people living their daily lives among cricket cages, urban gardens and street markets. We met the great square of the city, with its kites and its replica of the iron lion. We were horrified by the amusement parks for children, with the sweating facilities and nightmarish figures. We found a couple of parks with some little, surprising charm. We observed life in parks and squares in the morning and at dusk: grandmothers learning to use the Chinese sword, men practicing with whips of chains, Tai Chi groups, huge aerobic-dancing groups, opera fans, married couples dancing, young people dancing salsa with Chinese rhythms, many open-air karaokes, people dancing alone with no embarrassment at all, musicians practicing their scores, small orchestras of two-string Chinese violins and arrhythmic percussion, drums and cymbals. There was no park or plaza that had not been colonized by these hordes of unique melody. We discovered recreational salons, a cat coffee and wonderful foot massages. The market vendors knew us and greeted us as we passed by, the people of the neighborhood had become used to our presence, our children began to greet us with smiles and hugs.
However, we were eager to leave and finally settle in our destination city, Luoyang. We could not invest in improving our Cangzhou apartment because it was temporary, the pollution was exaggerated (although Luoyang was expected to be equally bad) and our workload was brutal. But the appointed date was approaching and, once again, we received no news from anyone. On the 20th I contacted everyone again, and everyone ignored me. The pollution went up to an AQI (Air Quality Index) of 348. To have an approximate scale: below 50 it is considered good quality. Above 150 it is considered bad for the health of the entire population, including the strong and healthy. Mora than 200 it is an emergency situation, from 300 on alert, and the maximum that these devices can measure is 500. In the living room and in the bedroom it smelled of smoke and in the street it seemed that the end of the world had arrived. It was a small air-pocalypse that lasted less than a week, a warning of what would come in winter, and during all that week I did not stop sending measurements, photos and videos to Rockies with the same message repeated over and over: get us out of here, you have no shame. In the end they answered to my messages: there was no Luoyang, they had canceled the contract for this semester and we would have to stay in Cangzhou.
We did not accept it: it was not acceptable. They had taken us to Cangzhou with lies to cover a gigantic work contract because no other teacher wanted to stay there. They had made us come to China at full speed knowing that we would not have a job and that we would have to accept the offer of Cangzhou, a city that we always refused to go to. The hostilities with Rockies began. They would have to get us out of there, there was no other option. Our coordinator said ok, she would meet with her leaders and they would find a solution. Three days later she told me that they had finally met and that they had decided that yes, indeed, we were staying in Cangzhou. It was outrageous. By then we had heard negative experiences from other teachers and we knew how Rockies responded to the problematic teachers: unpaid salary, passport hijacking, extortion, threats. In the end, tensely, they accepted to find us another destination as soon as the new batch of Serbs arrived.
A BITTER-SWEET GOODBYE
Supposedly, that was going to take weeks or even months, but we got a new surprise: the third week of November we got the message that Rockies had just signed a new contract with a big kindergarten in Foshan, in the south, capital of the wing chun, next to Guangzhou and Hong Kong, a sweet change. They asked us if we accepted the transfer and we said yes, of course. On the 13th they put me in touch with our new coordinator, Wendy. This woman told me that on the same Saturday we would fly to Foshan, and thus the endless and hard farewells to the children began, aggravated by the flu that we were suffering.
I suffered more than they did, for sure. Most of the children did not understand that they would not see me again, but a few of them did. Some who always hugged me and looked at me with big serious eyes got mad at me and refused to talk to me anymore. A few cried. Many hugged me spontaneously, which is the only good way to hug. One of my favorite children, a fat 4-year-old chubby giant baby who, the first time I sat on the floor to catch the attention of the class, came crawling to lie on my lap, did not want to let go, kissed me again and again and murmured something non-stop. I asked the teacher what was he repeating and she said “don’t leave me”. I won’t forget many of those children. And on Thursday afternoon, between classes, with fever and in the middle of an emotional storm, Wendy sent me a new message: dear Leire, Mario and you will only have one kindergarten, both of you will work in the same one, the kindergarten is very new and very good. You will only work for three hours a day instead of the five hours of the contract. But you will have to stay in the kindergarten from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Do you agree? Can I buy your tickets? I told her that was ten hours a day, double of our contract. She told me that at noon we would have two free hours to rest, and that it really would not be work. I told her to buy the tickets, of course. There would be time to talk about work. No way we’d continue in Cangzhou.
The farewell to the city was surprising and precipitate. With hardly any time to pack our bags, we gave away what we could not take to the few friends we had in the area. The last visit was for our unexpected adoptive family: the small group that we imagined (wrongly) it was a family that ran our favorite restaurant, the Four Seasons Fragant Dumpling. In a very short time we had become very fond of each other, they always took care that we were warm enough and that we learned a few more words in Chinese, and the WeChat automatic translator had allowed us to discover in the woman of the house the spirit of a poet. When we went there to tell them that we were finally going to get transferred to another city, the woman hugged me and cried, so we all hugged each other and cried. Friday night, the suitcases ready, we tied a bow to our biggest plant and we took it to them as a present. They made us sit down and they brought us our favorite dishes together with what I suspect were their favorite dishes, lest we left without tasting them. They sat with us and we toasted with warm beer, hugging each other again and talking thanks to the mobile translators. We embraced the cooks, we cried a bit more and we promised to miss each other very much. Since then, not a day has passed without our adoptive Chinese mother sending us some message talking about friendship, warmth, nostalgia, nature, peace and cosmic cycles.
TO THE SOUTH
Saturday, November 18: early in the morning, race against time dragging the suitcases, losing sight of Cao, high-speed train to Tianjin, subway to the airport, strange counters full of menthol snuff packs and figures of miniature monkeys made from something similar to a golden birch flower and small pieces of cicadas (Golden Cicada-Monkey), pretending to be little people eating noodles, receiving massages and dolce far niente in a park. China does not stop surprising. We arrived at night in Guangzhou (Canton), where we were picked up by another angry driver, apparently the only employee of our new kindergarten who had bothered to get his driver’s license instead of using Chinese Uber (Didi) for everything. The drive to Foshan was frightening as well as promising. We saw real trees, not the sad gray poplars from the outskirts of Cangzhou. He left us at the door of a luxury condominium where Vince, the director of our new kindergarten, was waiting for us: HSKids Dadi Kindergarten, a new center for a company with more than 500 centers in China. They took us to a tiny but luxurious apartment by Chinese standards, Rococo and of tremendous bad taste, with a small terrace overlooking the private park of the condominium, its trees and its carp ponds. The situation did nothing but improve. Vince took us to buy the bedding, towels and pillows, and we tried to rest our fever and bronchitis. The next day we bought pots, pans, cutlery, and as soon as we returned to the apartment Vince summoned us to his kindergarten. I’ve never seen such a luxurious center. Guards with helmet, bulletproof vest and explosive detectors at the door (ex-military looking guards who spoke English). A park with stream, pond, bridges, hobbit houses, wooden boats. Hallways with small roads and toy cars. Carpentry workshop, art workshop, dance hall, gym, science lab, kitchen for children, classrooms arranged as miniature houses, all the furniture, books, material you could dream of in such a place, totally modern, clean, gleaming bathrooms, smell of fresh wood, an orchard in the rooftop. 5000 m2 of facilities for 20 rich children and almost the same number of teachers.
Vince took us to his IKEA catalog office, offered us water and got to the point. He had seen recordings of our Cangzhou classes and he had loved them. It turns out that making children laugh as if you were a retarded clown is now called Total Physical Response, it is the most of the most in these kindergartens, and we were, in his own words, masters. Most of the Chinese teachers that we have known do not know how to dance moving their feet and do not touch their kids with anything other than their feet or a stick, so the idea of TPR made the eyes of our new principal shine, and the possibility that his Chinese teachers received training from us probably provoked him a small erection. So, instead of hiring the full Rockies package, he only wanted to hire us. And Rockies swindled him, how not.
The negotiations had already been done behind our backs, the contract was signed and we were considered informed from the moment I answered to the messages from our coordinator Wendy. Very simple: our contract with Rockies stipulates 25 weekly hours of work for a fixed net salary, plus 150 rmb/h the overtime. However, Dadi kindergarten employs international teachers for 40 hours a week for a minimum salary that far exceeds our salary. Therefore, Rockies rented us to Dadi for the price of a 40h contract, pretending to pay us our 25h contract salary, and keeping the difference as the profit of the transaction. Vince knew that our contract stipulated 25h, but Rockies assured him that they had an agreement with us and that we would work 40h for the same salary. Maybe because we are stupid Westerners who accept these kind things, like that, with a big stupid smile, no questions asked.
Since paying 60 extra hours per month to each of us would have ruined their profit margin, they eliminated that possibility by saying that they only paid us for teaching English, and not for teaching dance, science, cooking, Spanish, art or carpentry, as our new principal was demanding. It’s not really work, the great Rockies boss, Dominic, told me. Maybe there is a misunderstanding between working hours and teaching hours, he told me. My brain cells are still bleeding from the effort to understand this phrase. I think there has been a misunderstanding, Vince told me. Because you are Westerners, you don’t like to work without being paid, he told me. What happens is that it really is not going to be work, because it would be bilingual classes, and not English classes. I asked him how many hours per week he hired his employees for, and how it was possible that he signed 40h contracts if they were not really going to work that much. I also told him that if I wanted to give my work away I would teach English to children who did not have the option of an international luxury kindergarten, and that millions of Chinese had died so that this kind of “misunderstandings” wouldn’t happen anymore, although the latter had been beautifully suggested by Mario. It was totally worth it, because Vince’s expression was exactly the same as if I had just stepped on one of his testicles with a high-heeled shoe, and after two days of exhausting negotiations with almost 39°C of fever we had started to feel a bit disregarded.
We offered him six hours a day instead of five and our total commitment to the different activities of the center. He told us he would accept it if Rockies accepted it too. Obviously, he asked for part of his money back and Rockies refused. We received one last message from Wendy telling us that Vince would not accept less than 7 hours a day, 35 weekly, and that if we did not like it we should be leaving already. Sick and exhausted, the idea of grabbing our luggage and starting looking for accommodation in a gigantic unknown city was too much for us, so we threw Vince a last offer. Six hours a day participating in all the activities of the center, or seven hours, as requested by Rockies, but following the initial approach of Rockies: we would only work as English teachers, less than three hours a day, and we’d spend the rest of the time in the office, but without working. “Free time”, as Rockies said, within the kindergarten limits. He said that, if we wanted that, we were one too many. One of us would have to leave. After two more hours of negotiations it was agreed that we would honor his center with our presence seven hours a day, of which we would work giving varied classes no more than three. With the implicit knowledge for both parties that we would do everything in our hands to spend four hours a day downloading series and re-reading old books, and that he would try to rip us off and make us work at least seven hours a day teaching his teachers the secret of our magic. In short, we were screwed, but at least we would leave Foshan when we were recovered and prepared to do it, not before.
The classes were incredibly simple and easy, the children tremendously spoiled, the Chinese teachers could speak a nice English and they were always there helping us and the children. I still don’t understand what we were needed for. In most of the classes there were more adults than kids, and I felt as if I had been inserted in The Last Emperor, Bertolucci’s movie, in which grown-ups were there to satisfy every need and desire of the little emperor, never frustrate him, and always comply with a smile. The place was extremely clean, the twenty children had a medical check-up and a quick examination every morning, before getting in their own small-scale world, where they were masters, and they were put a bracelet with GPS that sent their physical location and vital signs to their parents in real time. None of that fitted with the fact that they let me come to work (since I did not have sick leave) with fever, a horrible cough and incessant mucus. A beautiful epidemic looms, children and teachers, right from the north, very cool. Enjoy. From me to you.
The place was, as most of the places we have known in China, mostly facade, although a very luxurious facade. Same as the “fancy apartment” that they so generously gave us. Winter had arrived there, with less than 10ºC and wet wind from the sea. The apartment was very cold, it had no gas extraction (the white death a constant threat) and the bed was too hard to have a good rest in, the mattress made of hard grass. Our health only declined in that place where we could not rest or get warm. We protested, of course, and asked for a valid mattress and a small radiator, to which Vince replied that, yes, in fact, we needed them, but that they weren’t included in the basic requirements of the apartment. Do you prefer to have two sick teachers teaching your children day after day rather than setting up an apartment that should already be set up? we asked. His answer: I hope you will be able to solve your problems without asking for our help.
When your own mp3 starts asking you Should I stay or should I go? you know you’ve come to a crossroad. We had been in China for just over three months and we had not even received the third salary yet. None of our objectives had been met. More than anything we had seen ugliness, filth, pollution. The few beautiful things that we had found (very few, and not really beautiful) did not compensate the rest. Maybe the few good people we’d met (our restaurant family, our foot massage family from Henan, the old car-washing man who was the first one to greet us when we got to our apartment in Cangzhou, a lot of the kids, a few sparse faces at the neighborhood, the only warm feelings we could gather in Cangzhou) could compensate for three months of anxiety, sadness, fear and illness, but could they make up for six months, a year? How much was the money they were paying us worth to us? We needed it (we still need it), but if there is something that has permeated me during these three months is that if you think as a poor, you negotiate as a poor and plan as a poor, and you become a little poorer. They asked me to give my time and my money to people so rich that I could hardly imagine it, and, although it came to me as a surprise, I am class conscious. They told me that we were so privileged to be able to work in a clean kindergarten and live in a tiny, cold apartment that was not completely broken that we should pay for it with the equivalent of an extra teacher’s work.
Every day we lost added value, health and joy. We felt trapped in a business that is a huge assembly line. Because don’t be fooled: children’s education in China, at least the little fraction we have been able to know, is a large factory run by sociopaths in search of greater and more immediate profit. There are so many intermediate pieces and the communication within the chain is so defective, that there is no room for quality or flexibility, so the only indicator they can use is money: how much it costs, how much is earned, pieces that come out, pieces that enter, how much the price of that piece. Everywhere we have been we have seen looks of amazement after our simplest class. We give a minutia to these under-stimulated children and they go crazy. We know we are good, they knew we were some of the best they had had there, they often told us so. It was our mistake to suppose that it really mattered something, and that we were dealing with human beings. They are not. They are big companies, and they were born in a different world, after a very different history. In the end, Rockies was just a lottery: some other teachers got a good number, others eventually found it more bearable, some ended up really bad. We played and we had enough of everything. China was beginning to feel as a soulless country and we didn’t want to try anymore.
Our Vince came to us with two documents: the first one described our agreement. For that semester, that is, which would end in January. For the second semester, he had redacted a new document: a thorough, ludicrous, gloating descriptions of his terms, take it or leave it. After February, we’d have to work for ten hours a day. Our tasks included all the lessons discussed before (English, Spanish, music, dance, art, carpentry, agriculture, science, etc.), plus greeting and saying goodbye to kids and their parents (look at the white monkeys, they are so mine, kind of daily show), plus feeding the kids their five daily meals, in English, I guess, plus helping them on their potty-time, plus training the other teachers, plus decorating the kindergarten according to lessons and seasons, plus public shows, plus training some basketball team after work. But don´t worry, the unpaid hours are just for this year, after you finish your contract I will hire you directly, wouldn’t it be fantastic? Something died within me at that moment. I think it was the last sparkle of hope and eagerness. Crazy asshole, I thought. He really believes we are both stupid and desperate.
The same afternoon we purchased our flight tickets out of China for the very next week, Thursday night. We were still ill, but, while Mario was getting worse, I was starting to feel stronger. We tried to sleep that weekend. On Sunday, after lunch, we decided that we had to pay Guangzhou a short visit, at least. Actually, we were in Foshan, but so far to the southeast that Guangzhou city center was closer than the center of Foshan. So there we went, coughing, crackling chests and glazed eyes: the two hours that we needed to get there by car gave a new shine to my idea of overpopulation. Lasagna-city, houses built on the top of older houses, surrounded by skyscrapers, pierced by hanging roads. Tropical trees growing in the pavement, resting on a wall, in the shadow of a taller building. Overwhelming, suffocating humanity spread in a city of non-human scale. Horrifying and appealing at the same time, looked as a place I could live in.
On Monday, one of the Chinese teachers came aggressively towards me to demand that I signed a contract with the kindergarten. They also needed both our passports, resident permits, and all the documents we needed to get the residence permits. After all our past experience with Rockies coordinators, we could handle the situation so well it makes me feel I finally learned something, at least in terms of passive-aggressive patronizing and the various excuses you can use to ignore people and keep doing as it pleases yourself.
On Thursday we left without any explanation. There were two reasons why: firstly, we didn’t want them to ask us for any kind of economic compensation for our early departure. We didn’t want to hear threats, insults, we didn’t want to be blackmailed. The second reason is harder to explain, and it is paranoia. After talking to various other teachers in China, I have found that the feeling is more common than we first thought. We knew we shouldn’t be worried at all, but we couldn’t help but feeling scared. An understandable byproduct of the helplessness we had felt for months, I guess. At night, I texted our principal from the airport, telling him we wouldn’t go to work next day because we were going to the hospital to see a doctor. We flew to Dubai. During the flight I got so sick the cabin crew had to radio a doctor. Watching them worry and fuss about the last breath of nearly three weeks with fever, more than a month in which my skin just ached and couldn’t bear being touched, weird noises inside my chest, painfully swollen up nodes, nearly made me cry.
We landed in Dubai and were picked up by a friend who offered us a good mattress in a nice apartment, plenty of food and lots of hugs. We spent there a whole week getting fatter, sleeping and enjoying the hot weather and clean air. Once we got out to the street we found a completely different world, but still so similar. Coming from a totalitarian open-market communism devoured by consumerism, we had arrived in a tribal theocracy devoured by the same consumerism. Both with equal social inequalities, in which a few chosen ones control everything, and the rest just buy things, or wish to buy. Both with modern day slavery, which has allowed them to build amazing structures, material or not. Both terribly classist, misogynist, racist and controller. Both with such aversion for criticism. Another dystopia.
Rockies thinks we are still in China. It thrills me. I want to see how long it takes them to realize we already left. I am collecting their passive-aggressive bipolar crazy emails. It is all about denial: don’t plead innocent, just repeat that shit never happened, until you feel satisfied of the new shape of reality. Well, congrats, then. It worked! We are in China and we will work for Rockies again because it was all a misunderstanding, we silly Westerners just don’t get to have the right open-minded attitude, so we had a reasonable cultural shock. Come back. Good girl.
Rumor has it that they have changed their company name: no more Rockies’ English School, welcome Career Oversees Ltd. Same crap, different label.