My New Life in SuZhou
As stated in the last chapter, I was tricked into remaining in Wuhan throughout Spring Festival 2007 and then cheated out of the money that was due me.
|Trip to Shanghai|
With my contractual obligations finished on the last of the month, I took a plane to Shanghai where I was met by my new school's representative, Mr. Xu. It then took another two hours or so to arrive in Suzhou (Only 1 hour by fast train though). I was now in the employ of the Suzhou Polytechnic Institute of Agriculture. My first story about Suzhou was entitled: From Hubei to Suzhou City.
The first thing to tell you about finding myself in Suzhou, is that it is a marvelous city. You can keep Shanghai where you drive on roads that are 10 storey's up in the air, and Beijing with all its ring roads, and Hong Kong with all its bridge connected dots of land.
If you want hustle and bustle, you can find enough in Suzhou. It is modern enough to suit the city slicker, and yet retains enough of the old world to suit someone like myself, and from where I was living, everything a tourist might want to see was not far away. For Example:
The Foreign Teachers
When I arrived at the SuZhou Polytechnic Institute of Agriculture, there was only one other foreign English teacher working there. She was an Australian named Sue. We were neighbors living in an accommodation building set beside, but outside of the school grounds. Above us lived the four Foreign Japanese teachers.
|School from the canal behind it|
A Short time after I arrived, an Italian teacher named Chiara Braccagni arrived, and I was the one who gave her the first and most comprehensive introduction to Suzhou. I wrote about that introduction in the article entitled: My New life in SuZhou, which Chiara later translated into Italian for me.
At the end of my first Semester, Chiara and Sue both left, and Zhunex, a young Philippino arrive. It was he who introduced me to Jerry, with whom I later traveled to Mt. Tai in Shandong.
After one semester at the school Zhunex moved on to different pastures, and Bob arrived. Bob, originally a 'Pom', is an Australia Citizen; my age, my size and with a somewhat similar character.
First Semester in Suzhou: March-June 2007
Chiara, and the Italian Boys
Chiara, who in 2007 had not yet graduated from University in Italy, had been invited by a sister school of our college, to travel to Suzhou, to teach introductory Italian lessons to six boys whose plan it was to study in Italy.
|Chiara and the 'Italian Students'|
These 6 boys were also in an 'Oral English' class of their own under the expert tutelage of yours truly. As Chiara started her classes weeks after I started mine, I had already had time to assess these students ability to learn a foreign language. And it was non existent.
These guys had to be the laziest and yet at the same time, nicest students that you could ever hope to meet. So pointless was it at times to actually try and teach them anything, that sometimes class time involved them teaching me Chinese.
They had already completed 7 years of English studies, and for them it seemed a waste of time to study any further, given their complete lack of success at it. How was it then, I asked myself, that they or anyone else, expected that they would learn Italian in one semester. As it turned out, they did not! But I am racing ahead of myself.
|Chiara and BenDedek|
Their Italian language training was intense. They had 4 classes of expert tutelage a day, and they could sometimes spend every one of those lessons trying to learn the same question and answer: Quanti anni hai? Io ho vent'anni. [How old are you? I am 20 years old.] They drove both Chiara and I crazy.
Sometimes I would go to their class, perhaps the 4th one of the day, and after spending 15 minutes reading everything that Chiara had been trying to teach them that day, would split the class so that the two of us could control them a little easier, and hopefully, succeed in teaching them. An interesting concept when you consider that I myself had never learned the language.
I did however have 3 advantages. Firstly I had done a bit of Latin at school; secondly I had studied French for 5 years at school (and spent a short time living in France), and Thirdly, I wasn't lazy.
|My favourite restaurant in Suzhou at ShiLu: Muslim of Course.|
Anyone can have trouble learning how to correctly pronounce words in a foreign language, but these boys, after 4 months of study, still couldn't answer the simplest of questions. They also couldn't do it in English. And they certainly did not pass their 'live telephone test' conducted by an official sitting in an office in Italy while they were sitting in China.
They could neither understand nor answer such questions as Quanti anni hai? - Oddio!
Chiara was informed that the Sister school in Italy was not going to take the boys, but then, after both colleges succumbed to the fear of 'losing face', Chiara was informed that the boys would be received for two months, and then sent back to China.
She was not to let anyone know that this was the plan. So naturally she told me, and naturally we got the boys together and kicked their asses. I think we spent the equivalent of 4 periods talking to them about cultural differences, and how necessary it was for them 'not to stick together', but to make friends and learn the language when they got there.
We had to tell them not to hold hands; not to invite Italian boys to 'sleep with them'; not to run wild in the freedom that they would experience.
|Suzhou - Shan Tang Sheng Jie|
We told them that they would hate the Italian food; that they wouldn't be able to buy the things they usually liked; that even if they met Chinese, those Chinese would most probably not speak Mandarin, and would write Chinese in the 'old way' which the boys didn't understand.
We spent weeks reminding them that they had only one slim hope of being able to stay in Italy, and that was if they quickly made friends and, by ditching usual Chinese Custom, they quickly involved themselves with the locals and made every effort at all times to speak Italian. This we assured them, would encourage people to help them learn quickly.
As things transpired, when they did arrive in Italy, the laziest boy in the class was separated from the others, and was surrounded by people who spoke neither Chinese nor English, and the dude actually learned to speak Italian very quickly.
|Suzhou at night|
After their two months were up, the college decided to let them finish the semester, after which they were allowed to finish the year, until finally, as far as I am aware, they all continued in Italy to complete their Education.
I am going to say that had not Chiara and I got stuck into these boys, that they most certainly would not have made a go of their studies. In doing so however, I am not putting tickets on either of us, but I am making a very valid point, and it is this.
In Chinese society, 'face' is everything, and in Chinese Education, 'making students feel good', is the first rule of the day. You must be 'kind', and 'encourage' students to 'do their best'. You must 'inspire' them. But the fact is that most of the time it is a waste of time because it is utter B.S. Sometimes a proper kick up the derriere is the best thing for a student - and we kicked.
We made no bones about the fact that they were lazy good for nothings who would not succeed. But at the same time, we told them that if they actually wanted to work to succeed, that they might possibly have a chance to succeed.
|My favourite photo.|
They themselves are responsible for their progress, but I take pride in the fact that Chiara and I did not give sway to apathy and 'face'. We kicked ass and they motivated themselves.
I may not have been their Italian Teacher, but I will always be proud of them for their success, and honored to have contributed something toward it.
People measure their life's meaning and success in different ways. For some it is measured in power, position, status, money, and possessions.
Others include more 'intangible' things. It is one thing to boast of how successful one's son or daughter is, and it is another to take pride, joy and comfort in the knowledge that your kids turned out to be decent people.
As I have already written regarding the three boys who lived with me in Hong Hu, my relationship to them consisted of being a little bit of a father, a little bit of being a big brother, a little bit of being a teacher, and a little bit of being a friend. And we all need such people in our lives.
One of the intangibles in the measurement of success, is how good a father, a brother, a teacher or a friend we have been.
When I think about the boys in Suzhou who went to Italy, I am grateful that I played some part in inspiring them to be successful. I don't need acclamation or praise, but what I do need in my life, is the awareness that I have 'contributed'.
|Canal beside the school.|
One's self identity is not based on what one has or has done, but on knowing oneself sufficiently to be able to say, 'I am glad I am me!'
In their case, I am glad, that being 'me' meant that I went beyond the 'definition' of my job, to help them, not because I 'believed' in them, but because I don't want to see anyone (especially young Chinese) fail to apprise themselves of the limited number of opportunities that come their way.
My self worth is not dependent on 'your' approval, nor anyone else's. My self worth is dependent upon my doing my utmost to be as good a person as I can be in my dealings with people.
And if some people find it necessary to grind me under foot in order to make others look at them; if people need to run me down to feel good about themselves; if people think that they can make others think less of me by doing and saying things to destroy my reputation and character, then that is their problem - not mine.
My self worth comes from the intangibles of life, and my life in China has provided me with far too many for any one person to rob me of my self identity.
|Canal behind the school|
This is of course, the meaning of the title of this book. "Finding myself in China", I found myself! Now my identity is mine. I no longer depend on others to define who I am. They may think, say and do as they please. I no longer need such people in my life. My life is too full of a better class of people.
As far as the 'Italian Boys' (as we used to refer to them) are concerned, despite whatever picture of our relationship with them you might have, we were all in fact good friends and went out together and dined together. Shan Tang Sheng Jie
That semester was for me a great time of 'going out'. Chiara and I went to so many places both within and outside of SuZhou. We would eat at the wonderful Muslim restaurant up in Shilu; ride our bicycles everywhere and often dine together.
While I know that Chiara did manage to spend time with Sue, Sue spent a lot of her time outside of college hours, teaching in a Company. Although I sometimes saw her in the morning, or passed her on the way to or from classes, I rarely saw her in the evenings.
We did however manage to spend a few days together in the middle of May, when the school took us on a 'tour of WuZhen, Nanxun and Tongli Towns. That was the first time I came into real contact with the Japanese teachers, but I did not really get to know them until after Bob arrived in my third Semester.
|Foreign Teachers visiting Tongli Town|
Prior to that trip, Chiara and I had taken a trip to Shanghai, Hangzhou (West Lake) and Shaoxing. That was a fast, furious and utterly exhausting time.
It came about when Chiara expressed her interest in going away for the Labor Day (Week) holiday, but did not want to travel alone. I told her that as long as she made all the arrangements, that I would 'tag' along for the ride. And so off we went.
Little did I realize that Chiara was the hyperactive type 95% of the time.
She did as promised and planned everything, right down to what time we got up in the morning and what time we went to bed at night. I remember that when we arrived in Hangzhou, she wanted to immediately go sightseeing. I was exhausted and refused to go anywhere but to bed. So off she went on her own to check out some places on her itinerary. Next day as we traveled about at a frenetic pace, she would say, 500 meters down that way we can see this sight or we can go 500 meters that way and see that and then go round to see this etc etc.
I remember asking how she could be so sure about the locations and she said that she had walked it all out the previous afternoon just to get her bearings.
It's quite funny really. We were so busy, and took so many photos, and had so much information in our heads, that when I got back to Suzhou, I had too much to put to paper. I never did write about West Lake, although I did write about our visit to Shaoxing. If you ever get a chance to get to Hangzhou and go out to West Lake; do it! It is worth it!
|Suzhou city gate at night|
As the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and so it was that at the end of that semester, Chiara headed back to Italy. I on the other hand was meant to head back to Australia to see my family. But I didn't!
Hardcover Publishing inquiries welcomed!
R.P. BenDedek is the pseudonym of an Australian who has been teaching in China since 2003. He currently lives in Baotou in Inner Mongolia. In addition to contributing to Magic City Morning Star News as a columnist, he also is an assisting Editor for the Newspaper.
Additionally, BenDedek is the author of 'The King's Calendar: The Secret of Qumran' at www.kingscalendar.com