Busman’s holiday in Guangdong

JISHOU, HUNAN — Honest, I had every intention of blogging while I was traveling earlier this month. It’s just that a computer was seldom available and typing on my Android tablet is still frustrating.

OK, OK. I admit it. I was being lazy, or maybe just tired from teaching 100 fifth and sixth graders for two weeks. You try that sometime, and you’ll see what I mean.

In a nutshell, my winter holiday went thusly: two weeks in Jishou straddling the Chinese New Year on Jan. 22, two weeks in Jiangmen, Guangdong, teaching the aforesaid 100, and a week on my own visiting Macau and Guangzhou. Three days after I arrived back Jishou, classes resumed. I am writing this from the other side of the first week’s classes.

Jiangmen 江门 is a bustling city of 4.5 million south of the metropolis, Guangzhou 广州 (Canton). A teacher friend there recruited me for a young learners’ English program at WuYi University, which is offered every winter and summer holiday. Despite the hefty cost (1500 yuan for 24 hours of classes over 12 days), the program draws about 500 students each term, because they are guaranteed to have a foreign teacher.

To meet this demand, the university uses its own foreign teachers, hires foreigners in Jiangmen and recruits foreigners from abroad who typically combine the two weeks of teaching with touristy activities. Interestingly enough, WuYi has found some of those teachers through the Maryknoll Society. (That link will take you to an article written by one of my fellow teachers at Jiangmen, Judy. This link takes you to Maryknoll’s own China Service website.)

The waijiao tally was something like this: two Americans, one Canadian, four Aussies, one Brit, two Germans and two from Hong Kong (one Italian by birth, the other Indian by birth). I was among the youngest of the bunch, as most of my fellow teachers were retirees, or close to it.

So, it was refreshing to be among adult native English speakers for a couple of weeks. Seven of us were housed in the school’s Cultural Center, which serves as a hotel, and six of us met regularly for breakfast, lunch and dinner, all courtesy of the university. (The seventh had friends in town and hung out with them.) I learned a lot about Australia’s Sunshine Coast in Queensland from Annette, Judy and Sue, Hong Kong from Lucy and Louise and Newcastle, England, from Lydia, whose daughter also lives in Queensland.

Another highlight was Richard, an American visiting his Chinese girlfriend in Jiangmen. His enthusiasm and good humour reminded me of how I felt (and still feel) back when I was a newcomer on these shores.

In fact, while I enjoyed teaching my 100 bright and energetic students, hanging out with the adults really made the gig worthwhile.

Our daily schedule went like this: two one-hour morning lessons with 20 minutes break in between, three hours for lunch and siesta time, two one-hour afternoon lessons with a break, then dinner. We taught for 10 days, and on our weekend took a day trip to Baomo Garden in Panyu, outside Guangzhou. WuYi is close to a swanky hotel, three shopping centers and a city park, so there was plenty for us to do, if we weren’t too exhausted from teaching.

I came to Jiangmen by high speed rail: 2.5 hours to cover the 700 km (438 miles) between Changsha and Guangzhou and another 45 minutes to reach Jiangmen, 72 km (45 miles) from Guangzhou. Expecting warmer weather, I packed light, only to find Guangdong was in the middle of a cold snap — 40-degree weather and drizzle for a week. So, I took advantage of being near a TESCO, and picked up a sweater and a down vest. Later on, I got a smart-looking grey wool-blend overcoat for about $40. These purchases of course guaranteed two things: the weather would warm up in a week’s time and I would need a larger bag to head back home.

After Jiangmen, the plan was to meet a student of mine in her hometown of Zhuhai, two hours away by bus. But holiday family visitation duties spoiled her plans. So I decided to forge on ahead, and visit Macau, the sister city of Zhuhai, on my own.

Macau, which the Chinese call Aomen 澳门, is a former colony of Portugal. It was handed over to the mainland in 1999, two years after the British ceded Hong Kong back to China. Both city-state are Special Administrative Regions of mainland China, meaning they have more political autonomy and social freedom than cities within the People’s Republic of China. It meant, for example, that I could access Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Picasaweb, which are all blocked in the PRC.

I liked Macau so much, I’ll devote a separate post to it.

After that all-too-brief sojourn, I met up with friends in Guangzhou for a couple of days before flitting back to Changsha by high speed rail, and finally returning to still-chilly Jishou to gear up for teaching university students once again.

All in all, I had great time this winter holiday. There were occasional periods of boredom, and fatigue from teaching elementary school students, but I made new friends, renewed old acquaintances and visited another part of China for the first time. Oh, and I made enough money to pay for my travel and the pricey hotel room in Macau. I’m going do it again next year, in all likelihood.

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