Must-Reading for Anyone Planning to Work in China!
by Jane G. Beckman
Compelling and entertaining, this cautionary account of the struggles of a would-be English teacher in 21st Century China is a read that is hard to put down. Felicity Brings, who is pushing 60 and looking to escape a New York winter, naively signs on as an English teacher for Chinese students, actually believing the assurances of her employer that no knowledge of Chinese will be required, she will be teaching adults, and she will be provided with any needed assistance.
The truth, she finds, is quite different. Not only is she assigned to teach middle school students, rather than adults, but she is on her own in everything from attempting to obtain visas to continue her stay in China, to finding anyone who has enough of a grasp of English to communicate with her charges so that she can actually teach them English! It seems that what passes for "learning English" in most schools is repeating words and phrases by rote, without comprehension.
Plucky and resourceful out of necessity, she learns to survive in a system that is part 21st century pop culture, part outdated technology and infrastructure, and part whimsical and cumbersome totalitarian bureaucracy that reinvents itself on an almost daily basis. Her accounts and background information on how "China Inc." really functions, rather than the face it tries to show to the rest of the world, should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone attempting to do business there.
Whether it's the quest for dry laundry, clothes that will fit her Western body, or just surviving a trip across town on a motorcycle taxi, she presents a tale that refuses to devolve into just another account of cultural clashes. And somehow manages to maintain her sanity through it all, though just barely.
Her analysis of how teaching contracts have become a lucrative business for unscrupulous promoters is an excellent insight into the larger systemic problems that plague not just foreigners in China, but also its people. Those who are familiar with the modern cultural evolution of China will find her tale unsurprising, but her humor and light sense of irony keep things lively, when they could simply wallow in cultural conflict and cynicism about the disfunctional system that is modern China.
We learn to root for small triumphs, and day-to-day survival, as she learns to cope with her job, her life outside the school, and gets to better know the Chinese people. Her account is full of small cliff-hangers: Will she ever get to teach adults? Will she manage to get through the coldest winter on record, when the air conditioners refuse to switch off? Will she get another visa extension? And finally, will she finish her contract or finally give up and run for home? You'll have fun going along on the journey to find out!