I landed in Beijing in the middle of the most insufferable humidity I’ve ever experienced in my adult life. I traveled with thirty-two kilos worth of belongings to last me for the year, a ‘basher’ phone for my new Chinese sim card, petty cash and cocoa-butter cream. But nothing could have fully prepared me for this experience.
I knew I could no longer house the feeling of failure compounded by job rejection after job rejection, a bachelor’s degree that seemed to reaffirm its inadequacy and a future met with uncertainty. But this was different, and for a few fleeting moments the thought of life back home felt so sweet. So safe. So tangible. Here their eyes bore into me and a sweet little girl sat with her dad whose hysterical reaction to my brown skin validated my growing discomfort: ‘外国人! / wàiguórén!’ (Foreigner!).
After clearing security, I scanned the crowded airport hall until my eyes rested on a group of westerners. I approached them with full confidence knowing these, too, were English Language Assistants.
“Are you with the British Council?” I asked.
“Hi! Elisia? Lovely! Nice to meet you! We’re waiting on a few more, and then we’ll head off to the hotel to get you all settled in.”
The two-week teachers’ induction came and went. I passed the necessary exams and then found myself on my five-hour journey through unknown cities to my new home for the next twelve months: Wúxī.
I sat with three other language assistants assigned to a city that didn’t even get a mention in the China Lonely Planet guide, and although we chatted excitedly through the entire journey, we all carried nerves only we could unpack in our own individual ways.
I was only twenty-three and I was alone for a year.
A voice announced the approaching station and instructions for safely exiting the train – first in Chinese, and then in English – and then we had a few moments to gather our thoughts and a year’s worth of belongings.
I met the head of the English department on the platform at Wúxī train station – a short and cheery man with thinning hair, the slight outline of a potbelly through a crisp white shirt and an infectious smile. We exchanged pleasantries after a firm handshake and a series of greetings.
After exchanging contact details with the other three language assistants with promises to keep in touch, I followed the teacher to a black estate car. I can’t remember the entirety of our conversation on the drive to my new home, but I recall making out tall buildings and long stretches of road in a seemingly small city. Wúxī seemed unassuming, tentative and kind; it put me at ease. Colourful signs written in playful characters danced out at me. Dawn light settled on bodies of buildings and busy commuters. There were superstores and modest restaurants. Green street signs contained tongue twisting consonant clusters.
Wúxī (无锡): a tidy little city located in Jiāngsū (江苏) province; a forty-minute train journey away from Shànghăi (上海), with Sùzhōu (苏州) sitting comfortably fifteen minutes away. Wúxī felt like it almost wanted to remain in old China, but couldn’t commit and decided to go the cosmopolitan route like its more boisterous neighbours. Eventually, Wuxi grew tired, practised some affirmations and decided to stay in her lane. And the further we went into our journey the fonder I grew of this little hub of indecision. That it was underrated and snubbed by popular travel guides meant I could explore it with little preconceptions and with less chance for disappointment.
The cluster of buildings started spreading out and steadily shrinking, and we passed over a wide bridge revealing a scope of the ebbing downtown area. It became obvious I wouldn’t be living in the centre of the city, and I was cool with that.
After a few minutes the car started slowing to a halt. We were in front of school gates, and the security guards studied the car briefly before letting us in. ‘青山高级中学’’, read the red glossy characters embossed on the first grey building we passed. ‘Qingshan senior high school’; a huge sprawling campus with several teaching buildings, a two-storey canteen, an auditorium, a sizeable track field and only walking distance from the riverside of an ancient canal and mountain.
We pulled up at a three-story apartment building at the rear of the campus, which sat uncomfortably in the surrounding school area. Two flights of stairs later we stood in the middle of an empty apartment. After pointing out my fully stocked fridge with cold sandwich meats, eggs, sweet bread and juices labelled with an indecipherable script, a wide-screen TV in my bedroom and a walk-in shower in my bathroom, the head of the English department placed a house key in my hand and told me to rest up as I had two weeks to settle in before the real work began – I would teach fourteen to sixteen classes per week for a class average of fifty students.
Then he left. And I was alone.
Five minute intro and a warm-up. Walk around the class. Give them names and learn their seating plans. Keep confident. Encourage them to speak. Don’t discuss any taboo subjects…
Image: Elisia Brown
I entered the classroom where the majority of my new students chatted excitedly amongst themselves, unaware of the only foreign [and black] teacher in the entire school nervously setting up in front of them. A Dell laptop with a last-minute presentation strung together: ‘London culture and self-introductions.’ Safe, I thought.
I smiled weakly at my new colleagues sitting at the back of the classroom (news had already spread) who in turn waved back at me excitedly.
I cleared my throat and braced myself for the hushed whispers and stunned silence.
“Waaaa,” they chorused.
“Hello class. My name is Elisia, but you can call me Miss B–… “