Anna's Challenging Experience in Shanxi Province

Day 1

On my first proper day, a Sunday, I was woken up at 6:30 am. We only had a few minutes to get dressed etc. because we had to buy some food for breakfast. We left the school campus and walked through a very remote area until we reached a busier street. Even though it was only 7am the ‘shops’ were open. The principal explained a lot to the children. Sadly, I didn’t understand him. We went to different shops to buy noodles, meat and vegetables. It took quite a while and I was starving because I didn’t have any food yet.

When we finally got back to school we had rice soup and Chinese bread for breakfast. It was a different kind of rice than what I was used to: Small, yellow, slightly sweet grains instead of the ordinary sticky, white stuff. Moreover, the bread was different from the good German bread I know from home: Very white and different in its texture (almost sticky). It is not baked (Chinese people don’t have an oven) but steamed. Also, it was very cheap: For about 30 bread rolls we paid less than 1 euro.

After breakfast, we had a couple of different tasks to fulfil. Our principal taught the boys how to install CCTV cameras for security. This shocked me a bit because I had thought this place was safe. However, I didn’t dare to ask about safety because I didn’t really want to imagine what could happen. Meanwhile, I assigned myself the task to clean some rooms, which were extremely dirty. Since I brought some wellies and old clothes I didn’t mind getting wet. The rooms looked like they hadn’t been cleaned for at least 5 years. I’ve never seen so much dust in one place! 🙂 There were also a lot of beetles crawling around. This didn’t make my job any more pleasant but I somehow wanted to contribute. It took me about 2 hours to get the room at least “cleaner”. Though it was still not decent for my standards. 🙂

Later that day I was very happy to see the children and the principal cook, as I could really pick up some ideas. I learned how to prepare Chinese cabbage with ginger and peanut oil and how to marinate pork in soy sauce, Chinese vinegar and wine. It is very tasty except for the fact that the pork is full of bones (Chinese people love that though). Even though I was pretty tired afterwards, I still had to boil some water to wash myself since there was neither a sink nor a shower. Yes, people do indeed live a Spartan life over here!

Day 2

On Monday I was woken up at 6am. When the principal knocked on our door, everyone jumped out of bed immediately. We had to get dressed and washed (with ice cold water) as quickly as possible. Then, I had to show the kids how to make their beds in the way the principal wanted them to do it. It was complicated but I had to set a good example for the children – since I was now a teacher. 🙂

Later that day I was asked to teach English to the (whole!!!) school at once. I didn’t quite understand what was the point in that but I still tried my best. They asked me to teach them some vocabulary in both English and German. Fortunately, I had prepared some posters with the alphabet on and words corresponding to each letter.

In the afternoon I didn’t have to teach. However, I tried to talk to one of the English teachers here. I wanted to give her the opportunity to use and improve her English while I was here. I told her about my experiences in China and she explained to me how she became an English teacher. She was enjoying to talk to a foreigner and obviously asked me to take a photo with her that she wanted to print and hang up in her house. 🙂

As we approached dinnertime it got pretty cold and I didn’t really have the chance to warm myself up. Even inside the buildings it was freezing cold. Fortunately, they served soup for dinner, which at least warmed me up for a little while. We also had a variety of vegetables to eat. They are very tasty over here, as they are local produce and hence very fresh. After dinner I was faced with the challenge of washing my hair: Having long hair really is not very convenient when living without a shower. I boiled some water and attempted to wash my hair in a plastic bucket, all the time being watched by some big beetles, my new roommates! 🙂

Day 3

Once again we had to get up at 6am. The children had to do some morning exercise with the principal. Apart from that nothing special happened today. I taught the whole school how to count from 1-10 in both English and German. Moreover I taught grade 1 how to write the 26 letters of the alphabet just the way I learned them. In terms of cooking, I got to see how Chinese bread is made and I even produced a few loafs myself.

Day 4

Apart from all the usual routine and the teaching we visited another primary school nearby today. It was even smaller than this school with only about 60 students. The reason for the declining number of students is the migration of the people from the countryside into the cities. Since they believe that they will find a better-paid job in the city they move away. Most of them take their children with them, while only a few leave them behind. These students are the ones who have to live in the school, in similar poor conditions like we do here.

Day 5

Today is the last day of teaching because tomorrow, Saturday, there are no lessons. I finished up my teaching and distributed all the posters I had made to the teachers. They are happy that I was here and I am glad that I was able to help them. One of the teachers gave me a hug at the end of the lesson. She said that she would miss me and that I’ve given her some useful new ideas, which she’ll try to implement in her lessons in the future. Today we also had a team from a Chinese TV channel visiting. They were reporting about our work over here and also asked me to give them an interview. At first I didn’t quite understand why they chose me, but later I found out that apparently the Chinese were interested in what a foreigner thinks of the living conditions over here.

Thanks to Whatsapp and instant messaging the whole village seemed to know that a foreigner was in town. This evening 2 bank officers came to school just to see me. They tried to talk to me but were relatively shy. We were learning how to make dumplings (my favorite Chinese food among roast duck :)) and they just joined us.

Day 6

Today it is time to go back to Shanghai. However, before we leave, there are a couple of things we need to do. Firstly we need to wash our bedding but obviously there is no washing machine so we had to it the ‘old-school’ way. That was quite exhausting and took a long time. We also had to tidy and clean up everything. Finally, before we left, we had to have lunch. Since I had learnt a lot of Chinese cooking in the past few days, I thought I could do that together with a little boy. We prepared a variety of dishes for everyone and even though communication with the boy was not always easy, we somehow managed to make a very tasty meal.

I arrived in my flat at 11pm and all I wanted was my shower. I didn’t know how much one can miss a shower until this trip! 🙂

Even though the trip was tough and I am glad to be back in Shanghai it was a good experience. Living without a shower and a toilet and sleeping in the cold made me appreciate what I take for granted at home. Even though life over here is much more basic than in Shanghai people seem to be happy. I mean, yes they are poor but they are not starving. For them it is normal not to have a bathroom because they don’t know anything else. This part of China really is still developing and I think it would be interesting to see what it will look like in 10 years time!

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