Escape from China

The air outside

“Two American Teachers in China, Part 2” is Amy’s story about teaching art to little children at Peking University Experimental School in Jiaxing.  a small city outside of Shanghai. What follows here is the story of her departure from China. In the next post, she gets engaged in Bali and married in Thailand under the most romantic circumstances.

Amy and I talked on Skype while she was in Ohio and I was in the Philippines. Her voice was strained, she was clearly still congested, and she coughed frequently.

 Amy’s story


When we left off, I was talking about moving to the English Department the next semester and then being promoted next year to high school art teacher in the international school, which I was very enthusiastic about. So I left China for the Chinese New Year vacation,  visited you in the Philippines, went on to Bali and Vietnam and then returned to China.

Now, in November China officially turns on the heat, creating the notorious “pollution season.” A dark cloud moves into town and lingers until late spring. It really is oppressive and depressing Living in that environment. It’s really difficult to be cheerful.

Because of the coal?

Yes. I believe that’s what it is. Some factories are using safer fuel, or heating mechanism, and some factories are still burning coal.

I started having respiratory problems in November. In December I was in America for three weeks and had to cancel a trip because of severe bronchitis. Then I went back in China for two weeks, hopped on a plane to see you in the Philippines, where the scenery was beautiful and the sky was blue, and then on to Bali and Vietnam. My health did improve over vacation. But it took maybe one week back in China before I started getting sick again. When I say sick I mean debilitating sick, like you can’t breathe

it’s sitting in my lungs. I don’t know if you can hear it in my voice, but I’m still having congestion after a month. I’ve looked it up and found that it can take six months to get yourself back to normal.

As soon as I returned to school, it was clear to me that this position was way outside the realm of what I wished to do with my life. I went from teaching art, my life’s passion–sharing culture, sharing art making and learning language—to parroting phonics to very poorly managed students. The job was a farce, just a way to put a superficial “foreigner seal of approval” on the national division, which was all they wanted me to do.

Can I jump in here for a minute? I’ll never forget teaching at my Chinese university and hearing the guy next door shout the same syllable over and over—thuh, thuh, thuh—maybe fifty times while the class repeated him. I had to suppress the urge to throw down my book, dash in there and yell, “That’s not the way to do it!”

Exactly, but the educational culture is so rigid. They think memorization is the only way education happens, whereas it’s quite the opposite. If you look at the research on how learners learn, it’s very much an organic process through exposure and context. You learn a language more when there’s a cultural component, as opposed to non-cultural components, because it creates interest, which is what causes students to invest effort into their learning. Fascination is the most effective tool in the classroom, not obedience.

So I’m teaching this uninspired class, and I have a co-teacher who is supposed to be managing the students but is on her cell phone the whole time. I had 18 class sessions, nine classes twice a week. When I had a good co-teacher who was willing to work with me, then education would happen. Only one, maybe two, were of the right mindset to do what needed to be done in that classroom. Otherwise we had glorified recess.

We had some serious behavioral problems. At one point I was concerned about the possibility of violence. The behavior went unchecked because there weren’t any policies in place to handle children who are obviously struggling with the circumstances of their lives. I believe firmly that there aren’t any bad children. There are children who are having a really hard time growing up. Behind every bully is a terrible home life in almost every instance. I think those individuals need great compassion

Als0, because the policies that were in place, I didn’t have a sanitary classroom. I didn’t have established protocol for hygiene. Like I had students that vomited in my classroom, and there was absolutely no procedure on how to handle that situation. I literally just had to put paper towels on the floor over the vomit and continue teaching. And wait for staff to arrive.

Couldn’t you tell the co-teacher to get off her cell phone and take care of the situation?

No, no, that was not her job. You often hear, “That’s not my job.” Everyone does their job and nothing other than their job. There’s a lot of passing the buck. Western culture values taking the initiative, thinking outside the box and making sure that whatever needs to be done gets done. I’m just speaking of cultural norms. In my eight months there I observed some similarities, which I realize are generalizations. For example, instructions are much better than suggestions. Open-ended “well, you can do whatever you want” will not fly. You say, “Please do a, b, c, d.” And you get, : Okay, I’ll do that.” Their eyes go like the deer in the headlights when you give them choices, which makes sense considering their society. It’s not a choice society but a follow directions society.

For me it was difficult to tell what was Confucian and what was police state. The Party will jam a person into some job, usually a dead-end job, maybe far away from their family. They’re there for life and there is nothing they can do about it.  

Or they have no choice but to go into the family business. Or they get married off to the right family. A perspective husband has to have enough money for three households. He has to buy a house, take care of his parents and his future wife’s parents. The way her parents see it, he’s taking their daughter off the employment market. That means she can’t take care of them, so the husband has to do it.

I remember a Chinese teacher explaining to me how daunting it was for Chinese men to marry. You have to have money to support everyone and make more Chinese citizens  You. have to have the cars, you have to have so much in your savings account, and they want to see the numbers.

It’s not at all rude to ask someone how much money they have in their bank account. How much money they make from their job. This is status. We might think, “How dare you,” but they have to determine relative status in order to establish who “speaks up” to one person and who “speaks down” to the other. And who bows lower than the other. We don’t have to show deference. You might respect someone because of the job she or he has, but you don’t have to make a big show about it. That was true in Korea too. Their first question was what was your job.

But getting back to your situation.

More air

The school made absolutely no effort to provide a healthy working environment for us. This was really difficult for me to accept because in America those are legal standards. Your workplace must be a hospitable, healthy, hygienic environment. China does not see that as a right, but as a privilege

I was able to buy an air purifier for my home and come home and breathe fresh air, but at school it was really difficult. It was appalling to me that that they chose to have all of those children breathe dirty, toxic air every day. It was heart-breaking. But the policies simply weren’t there. The mindset was simply not there. The understanding of germs isn’t there. I hope for a better China, but the history of the industrial revolution shows that changing priorities takes time. China is a hundred years behind us in terms of putting obsession for profit over the well-being of the people.

Then there was the heat issue. In the north, the government provides free heat from November 12 to April 1, regardless of the temperature. So if it’s 10 degrees Fahrenheit on November 1 or 30 degrees on April 10 there’s no difference. In the south the same rules apply even though people have a choice of when to turn the heat on and off.  Mind you, the heat only goes up to 65 degrees. My classroom was still cold. I got used to wearing three layers everywhere—long johns, yoga pants, a pair of pants on top of that. You talked about what you wore in those times too.

I knitted wool socks, it’s a moist cold too.

It’s a moist cold and bone-chilling. My classroom would be a wet 40 degrees. I told them I was sick so I needed to have heat in the classroom, and they said they wouldn’t do that for me, I asked if they could provide a space heater, and they said they wouldn’t do that for me. At the end I was teaching in a job I really hated.

The school didn’t want me there, the students didn’t want me to be there, and I didn’t want to be there in a freezing environment that was riddled with bacteria. I had 658 students coming through my doors and no one did anything about sanitizing the classroom. There was no one cleaning tabletops or anything else. Someone came around with a broom twice a week. The policy wasn’t there.

Then I found black mold. I made a fuss about it until they sent over a guy over. We went through these charades about what I wanted him to fix, and he said okay, and I left him alone so he could have the space to work. When I came out a little while later and he had removed the wall paper, and you could see it was all mold over the bottom of the floorboards and he has a roller and some white paint and he’s just painting over the mold, not trying to wash it or sanitize it, or scrape it clean, which you need to do, otherwise it just comes back, So his solution was just purely cosmetic which had nothing to do with actually fixing it.

So I was still staring at the mold and feeling that I was breathing in these mold toxins, and I started to feel very trapped because there was nowhere I could go to be in a healthy environment. And there were also questions about the food and the water—people are saying not to drink the water, but then what do you use to wash vegetables. That on top of everything else, I was starting to feel unwell physically, psychologically, and professionally.

I thought about the next year. How can I know that it will be any better? The air can’t get better. The heat can’t get better. If this is how they treat me this year, how are they going to treat me in the international school? My health kept getting worse, and the school was not very empathetic or receptive to my breathing concerns. I became asthmatic towards the end.

Then it became clear to me that I was doing myself more harm by staying on than I would by leaving. I did sign a two-year contract, and that meant something to me. A lot of soul-searching was behind my decision to get out. I went to HR one morning and said I couldn’t stay here any longer and gave them a five-weeks notice.

Many foreigners just do what they call a “midnight run,” just disappearing.  I really wanted to leave in a way that was as respectful and as gracious as possible. I knew I was putting them in a difficult position because getting a foreign teacher takes about three to six months. But they had failed me in so many ways, and I had to take care of myself. I couldn’t just get sick while they did nothing to help me get better and still expected me to finish up the year.

The contract we signed had all sorts of stipulations about what the school could do if a teacher broke her contract. Most were financial. You’d have to return the airfare the school paid to get you to China, repay the $600 moving stipend, repay the rent on your apartment—all kinds of things. But they said, “We’re not going to make you pay most of what we could make you pay. But we are going to fine you $1000 for breaking your contract because we paid a recruiting fee.”

I found this really upsetting. I wasn’t leaving because I’d found a better job or just didn’t like it. I talked only about my health because I knew that would resonate with the Chinese. Even knowing about my health problems they were still fining me $1000.

We got paid on the 12th of every month, and I was leaving on the 20th. So payday plus a week. I would have to get paid for that final week on the 12th as well, and that wouldn’t happen. I decided to call in sick my last week because they were not going to pay me for those last five days and also fine me $1000. The idea of standing in the cold, dirty air for five more days for free was absolutely ludicrous.

When I got paid I went down to the bank and transferred all my money. On Friday after my last class I wrote my letter of resignation. “I’m calling in sick the next five days. Here’s a note from my doctor.” I’d gone to the doctor a week before and she had written a note which officially released me from work for five days. She’d said I needed rest in a clean, warm environment. I said, “Here’s my computer. Here’s all the paperwork. Here’s everything.” I left everything as tightly knit as I possibly could.

I had someone come into my apartment and get the keys. Saturday morning I hired a van to pick, me up and take me to Shanghai. I did have to put all my belongings in a hotel storage area for two weeks while I was in Thailand recovering. Then I stayed in the hotel and got everything on the way back to America on May 1.

The reason for flying to Thailand was, I was too sick for the long flight to America. I was very concerned about even the five-hour flight to Thailand. I needed to breathe clean air and be warm as soon as possible.

Sunday afternoon, as soon as I was in Thailand and safely out of reach, I emailed the school. I didn’t know what the response was going to be because technically I was disappearing. Technically. I got no response. No one had informed anyone that I’d left Monday at 8:30 a co-teacher called from my classroom. “Where are you?” I messaged back and said I wouldn’t be coming anymore. The next day HR messaged me. “Where are you?” I told them, “Listen, I left as professionally as possible, and I did my very best for you. I’m respectfully asking you to respect that privacy.” That is the last I heard from them.

Three weeks later a colleague sent a picture of the dark sky hanging over the town. She wrote, “This is what the sky still looks like. Be glad you left.”

So that’s the exit story.

It’s kind of a bummer, but sometimes that’s the way life is.

It’s not really a bummer because I can tell you, Carol, I was so happy to be home. I’m so glad China failed. The lesson here is that life doesn’t always work out the way we think it should, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t work out. I’m glad I had the experience. I just wasn’t meant to be there for two years. And who’s to say I won’t go back later to a different place, like maybe Kunming, where the air is much better.

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Derek Fichtner
Derek Fichtner
4 years ago

Sorry to hear about your experience. I’ve taught in South Korea for 18 years, and the job sounds much like what we used to experience on a large scale, 10 to 18 years ago. It’s not as bad as it once was, but now we deal with pollution, too. I started a Facebook group called Clean Air Ideas in Korea, which anyone is welcome to join. I also have a website for masks, advice on buying purifiers, and making DIY purifiers. That one is at cleanairkorea. Glad your life panned-out well!

Jan Hasemeier
Jan Hasemeier
4 years ago

Oh, Amy. I’m so sorry. I knew it must be awful for you to leave. I had no idea the air was so bad. I’m so proud of our adventuresomeness, morality and bravery. How are you feeling now? When you are better, I’d like to meet Andy. Love you!

4 years ago

Amy’s story is all too familiar. I have heard it many times in many forms from a variety of international educators. I have been relatively fortunate. The air has improved way out West where I live, purportedly due to the use of natural gas from Russia. Nevertheless, it is still very bad some days and it creates an emotional impression of Armageddon.