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Culture Shock 3

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The students at this school are boarders and they live to a regimented lifestyle. At around 5.30am they are awake and getting dressed in their normal uniform, or whatever clothes they have, and then at 6.30am are ordered to run around the oval in class formations to the tempo of a whistle blast. From my living quarters on campus I can hear them screeching "Left, left, left right left". The cold weather does not prevent the early morning exercises. However, rain does stop the morning routine.

Then it is time for breakfast and the first class begins at 7.30am. Each period is for forty minutes separated by a 10 minute break with the last period ending at 8.30pm for the primary students and 9.00pm for the senior students. The young children can’t wait to get out and play. The play surface is an enclosed tiled courtyard and this can be both very hot and cold with seasonal changes. At around 11am there is a general assembly of primary school students and this is when the head "Moral Teacher" gives a speech and if necessary publicly punishes and chastises anyone who is on report for misbehaviour.

The lunch break, is between 12noon and 2.30pm, and this period offers both teachers and students relief from this blistering fast pace. Everyone on campus uses this time for sleep. The place is a ghost town over the lunch break. The food is served as "slop" and it can have a bitter sweet reception from students and staff. I eat on average one meal a day in the school’s dinning room.

At the end of 10 days I see a convoy of buses and cars coming to take the students home and the teachers are seen leaving with luggage for a visit to family and loved ones. There is no leave given to the teachers during the 10 days of school and they must obtain special permission to leave the campus during the day or evening. A guard is posted on all exits and the school is surrounded by a high wall that has broken glass along the top. Since I have been here two Senior School teachers have been absent without leave and were sacked from their job. I often see teachers slumped over their desks asleep throughout the day. Students are struggling to stay awake and attentive in class. During one class I stopped 10 minutes short of the period and had everyone put their heads down for a rest. I still kept on speaking to them in English or I would sing to them a new English song they have just learnt.

In brief, the other major aspects of my culture-shock are:

  • The traffic chaos.
  • The tremendous contrast in human faces; some are very old and some just beginning to blossom; some expressing optimism and some pessimism.
  • The Chinese language and having all public signs in Chinese.
  • The poverty, the dense population, the sound of car/truck horns is unrelenting and drifting odours can come with a stench that goes right down into my stomach.
  • Litter and pollution is rampant.
  • Being stared at in public.

    Yet there are hidden surprises awaiting me each time I turn my head. In a single moment I can turn from disgust to pure joy that displays immense love. The society is so polarised. A good example of this is when I manage to go to Mass at a Catholic Church in Nanjing; the people demonstrate a strong devotion and friendliness and sing like a choir of "Chinese" angels.

    I walk a familiar path when I go shopping. I pass the tailor shop where an elderly woman who mended my trousers still smiles at me. With purpose I look into her tiny workshop and say "Ni hoa ma" (Hello, how are you) with a smile. The local people are slowly beginning to stop their staring and I am slowly feeling accepted. The shop assistants have not spoken to me as yet as no one speaks English. They laugh and talk amongst themselves as I pay for my goods. Even so, everyone is polite and very willing to help when they can. I feel safe in my new neighbourhood.

    I have lost my nervousness and fear about cycling on the public roads. I ride with "the pack" and follow their lead. I have done a lot of walking and I have learned so much from simple observation. What I first perceived as chaos there is now order and protocol. Yet it never seems to surprise me what awaits me around the corner. Yes I could remain blind to it all. Withdraw and hide but each day I willingly venture out to find new meaning to this place called China.

    There is so much I am yet to discover about this strange and contrasting place.

  • Author: Paul A Hodge