After spending an entire 10 months together battling through dry weather conditions and brutal odors emitting from specific places outside of campus, we parted ways after 300 days together. Tonight, we take advantage of the special July 4th holiday to gather together again and count the vote and see who will walk home with the one million
Before I announce the winner, I want to take some time to recall the ten short months we had together, the good times, the bad times, and the “wtf?” times.
The year started on August 21, when Jon-Michael and I flew into Xinzheng Airport, and met the long-haired Jackie Chen wearing his Akron polo. We threw our bags in the car, took the car back to campus, picked our apartments and slept for the night. The next evening, our three companions from Beloit, Josh, Marija, and Marlie arrived, selected their rooms, and we exchanged greetings. This looked like it was going to be a great year, with two of us able to speak Chinese we shouldn’t run into any problems at all.
When we set up our bank accounts early that week, we made a deal not to break the bond between the five of us (I forget what the phrase was exactly, but it was mentioned multiple times). We made an early alliance and agreed to vote off the others that tried to get into our way. The only minor problem at the time was that we didn’t have internet yet, but there were internet bars off campus we could easily get to and spend ￥1.50 per hour, so that was no big deal. After about two-three weeks we got an advance on our first paychecks and all purchased internet. Our classes had also started at about this time and everything was going smoothly.
Out of the three that didn’t know Chinese, two decided to start learning. Jon-Michael picked up some Chinese lessons on his own and Marlie arranged to meet with some friends once-a-week to help her with the Chinese. We also found many delicious foods not only for ourselves but also for Jon-Michael, the group’s vegan. Going to a foreign and unknown country, he was prepared to expect at least a little dairy (or at least eggs), and would adjust to it if necessary but we found a large number of vegan choices, maybe even more than you could find in an average American restaurant. On occasion we would have to tell the workers not to add egg, but this was no problem at all. No adjusting here required.
That’s not to say no adjusting was required at all, of course. We were a group of Western-educated students, trying to teach classes in an Eastern-education setting. There are many things to overcome, such as the exam-oriented education system and the so-called “deference barrier”. We also had to adjust to the typical class size. Most classes had 30 students at the fewest (excluding JM’s IELTS class) and some classes were as large as Marlie’s two 70-student classes. This was difficult for language courses, where 20 students could be considered a large class. It’s just very hard to give the students the individual attention and practice that they need, especially with native speakers. Nonetheless, we pushed on, kept on teaching our courses and fighting on (as the Chinese would say).
Outside of classes, we were expected to attend luncheons/dinners that were held by either our office, the Foreign Language Department, or even on one occasion by the Provincial Government. If you’ve heard much about Chinese culture, you would know that there are a lot of manners and rules that are to be followed. For example, the first three drinks of your alcohol are supposed to be toasts by the host(s). After that, the host(s) will walk around the table, refilling everyone’s glass with the alcohol and give each person individual toasts. There are other rules too, about where the person should sit. For example, the host of the dinner should always sit against the wall and facing the door. Then he/she may choose who should sit by them, and so on around the table.
I first noticed some of the teachers having problems when it came to these dinners. Marija, in particular, had trouble understanding the culture and sometimes refused to give up the host seat. Claiming, instead, that she “didn’t care” and she was going to sit where she wanted to. I realized at that moment, and earlier when she didn’t speak nor tried to learn any Chinese, that she was going to have trouble living in China during her year here. Later on, that sense grew bigger and bigger as we realized she tried to rely on the rest of us for, well, everything. She would always choose someone else’s dish at the restaurant, expect others to plan out trips, and then broke other cultural barriers not only in China, but those expected back in America as well. Needless to say, when it came around to the Qingming Festival, Marija was the first to be voted off.
At the end of the first semester, we were given the task to write our final exams and give them to the dean about a month before the students had to take them. This is when we truly noticed the differences between Western and Eastern cultures and the expectations that are given to us as teachers. While at first, we were told to write whatever we wanted for the exams, we found out later that this was not the case. We needed to have at least four sections, one of those must be a writing section, there must be something from the book in the exam, etc. etc. Needless to say, some of us had to draft multiple exams before getting one approved by the dean. Also, grading the exams afterwards was quite a hassle. I’m sure all of us would agree that the exams could be graded within a couple of hours if it wasn’t for the crazy grading rules that are set by the department. For example, we must write a score near the students answer, whether it is right or wrong. This turns the exam from an easy one to grade with only wrong answers to mark to one where each paper will take about 1-2 minutes, not including the writing portion (which could take another 1-2 minutes). At this point, we were all flustered with the system in place, especially Josh. To him, and to the rest of us, this grading system was just over-excessive and completely unnecessary. Who is really going to look at every single number on every single exam to double-check that we knew what we were doing? And don’t get me started on color-coding either.
It was also at this point of the semester where I was getting a feeling of who was going to stay for the second year versus who was going to go back. I already wrote about Marija above. Josh, because of the system and the fact that he got accepted into a graduate program at Cornell (congratulations, by the way!) was not going to come back for another year and Marlie was also not going to come back at all (for understandable reasons that I’m not going to write here). It seemed at the time that Jon-Michael and I were the only two that were coming back for the second year. Although I hadn’t made any sort of “announcement” or plans at the time, I still felt in my heart that I loved my students, and that I was here for them, not the school, nor the department, nor the dean. There were reasons for me to go home, but more reasons for me to stay.
Josh is a very active and outgoing person. His emotions also seem to have a way of having an effect on other people. If he’s having a good day, everyone is happier and active. If he’s having a bad day, we all feel somewhat down. If he’s upset about something, we might get upset about it as well. This was most noticeable when he would complain about everything in China. Not only was the school’s administration bad, but he also didn’t like the students studying habits (thought they should loosen up a little bit) and absolutely abhorred the traffic situation in Kaifeng (who can blame him though? It’s really bad here). I think I’ve seen him ride a bus a total of two times, once to the liquor store and the other time getting supplies for the party. Otherwise, it was the taxi. This attitude spread to the other foreign teachers, most notably Jon-Michael, who moved from telling Jackie he wanted to stay another year, to absolutely deciding that he wanted to go home. This left me as the only person willing to stay, and even then they tried to convince me to leave.
From this point, the negativity among the other foreign teachers got significantly high, and I couldn’t stand it anymore. At this point I took myself out of the group, just stopped eating meals with them and stopped spending much time with them outside of frisbee. In my mind, this was a good decision. I got to spend a lot more time with my students, time that I should have spent with them all year. We occasionally went to lunches and dinners together and I played games with them, and visited the English Corner that they hosted every night. Sure, they have the same problems as we do when it comes to the school and the atmosphere outside, but they didn’t vent them on everyone else around them. This made the mood in my last few weeks in Kaifeng much brighter, and much much more enjoyable.
Throughout the year, we ran into many troubles, including teaching expectations, alcohol intake, and environmental problems that are common around China. With those problems though, some of us were able to adjust and others had a hard time living there. In the end, I think the person that had the best time and was able to adjust the best was Marlie, and that’s why I’m voting for her to win Survivor: Kaifeng. Sure, there were problems at first (noticeably fast food), but she was able to overcome them, and all of her students loved her. She had students there at least once every week to talk to her and spend time with her, sometimes more than others. She didn’t complain as much about everything like the others did and really did well throughout the year. Yes, it’s true that she’s not coming back next year, but if I used that as my only criteria to vote, then nobody would win because I can’t vote for myself.
The motto of Survivor is to “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast.” While this isn’t a reality show like the TV version is, one still needs to outlast the others for their time here. Out of the final three, the person I voted for, I felt, did the best in outlasting the others, and making the trip successful.
P.S. – I was teetering on voting for Marlie vs. Jon-Michael, but when he cut me out of his final post, that helped me make my final decision.