May 5th: Return to ChangXing Primary School

Volunteers' Flat (building on right)

I had returned to Shanghai with the intent to start teaching at the ChangXing Island Center Primary school on Monday, May 3rd but I discovered that all schools were closed on Monday and Tuesday for the national “May Day” holidays. So, I spent Monday and Tuesday in the volunteers’ flat in Shanghai (right), catching up on this blog and getting acquainted with some new volunteers.  Since the average stay for a volunteer is between 4 and 8 weeks, most of the people I had met in March were no longer there.  I also spent some time scouting out possible hotels for the week Grace would join me in Shanghai, looking for something that was comfortable and convenient to visiting EXPO. I had had a wonderful time in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, but it was really nice to be back on familiar ground.  The Metro makes it so easy to get around Shanghai: no more following buses on foot to see where they go!

Since my assignment at the island primary school was only for four weeks, I felt bad about missing Monday and Tuesday.  So I got up early Wednesday morning, hoping to make it to ChangXing Island in time to be of use to the school.  Another reason I was anxious to return was that my friend Karen Yin had had her baby just before I left Mianyang and I was looking forward to meeting her new daughter, Gu Yi Lin. As I left the volunteers’ flat with with my large suitcase in tow, heading for the Metro station, it was raining. (It seemed like it often rained when I was making a major move, carrying suitcases!)   In March, fellow volunteer Nicholas had shown me how to take the Metro to the Science Museum stop, where I could catch the bus to ChangXing Island.  He also told me that the bus station on ChangXing Island is adjacent to its ferry terminal, so I knew it would be easy to walk to the school from there.  Unfortunately, the island’s bus station was moved after he left and, as I got off the bus on that rainy Wednesday morning, nothing about the surroundings looked familiar to me.  What was familiar was the crowd of men shouting “Hello?” in my face in hopes of getting me to let them take me to my destination. I knew how to tell them where I wanted to go but, since ChangXing Island is about 20 miles long and 2 to 3 miles wide, I had no idea how far that might be from where we were.   This was a problem because it meant I had no way of judging what a fair taxi fare would be. I had Guoming’s cell phone number and I called him. After answering he asked me “Where are you?” Guoming’s English is improving but it took a few minutes for me to get him to understand that I was on the island but not sure where on the island. Once he understood that, I handed the phone to the taxi driver so Guoming could make sure he understood which school it was. When the driver passed the phone back to me, Guoming assured me that the cab fare being requested by the driver was reasonable.

ChangXing Island Primary Schoo

Arriving at the school was exciting as it looked just as I remembered it. The guard at the school gate allowed me to enter – either he knew I was coming or I looked vaguely familiar to him from my previous stay.  Almost all schools in China are enclosed inside walls and/or fences and access is monitored by guards 24 hours a day.  The recent bizarre spate of stabbings of school children in China (not in Shanghai area) has led to increased security at primary schools. In the video below, you’ll notice neighborhood policemen chatting outside the school gate. They are there at school opening and closing hours, along with several teachers assigned to “gate duty.” You’ll also notice that children’s (and teacher’s) foreheads are scanned with a device that reads out their temperature: those with any hint of a fever are denied entrance, a precautionary measure taken to avoid an H1N1 influenza pandemic.

Video: School Security

I went directly to the school dorm building and carried my bag up to the 4th floor where I knew the teacher’s dorm rooms were. After that, I called Guoming and asked him if anyone was expecting me. He didn’t know but said he would find out so I headed for his office. On my way there, I passed two school administrators who I remembered from 2008. I excitedly told them (in Mandarin) it was nice to see them again and offered my hand. One just looked at me dully, nodded and appeared about to walk on by but the other noticed my hand waving in space and quickly grabbed it with both of his to welcome me warmly. This little incident served to remind me that not everyone at the school seemed to welcome volunteers, and I remembered that this fellow wasn’t overly friendly on my previous visit. I tried to not let his lukewarm welcome bother me and moved on toward Guoming’s office.

After a warm reunion with Guoming, he called the head English teacher, Miss Liu (Carol) and we went to her office.  I remembered Carol fondly from 2008 as one of the three teachers who escorted me to the ferry on my last day. She welcomed me back and asked me if I was in a hurry to start teaching. Another Xu Bo volunteer, a young Norwegian girl named Silje (pronounced “Sill yeah”,) would be finishing her volunteer assignment on Friday and Carol suggested I could just sit in on her lessons for the next three days and then take over from her on the following Monday. I had met Silje very briefly at the volunteers’ flat over the weekend. I also knew from communication with Jessie, director of Xu Bo, that Silje had expressed dissatisfaction with her assignment at the school.

Silje and Carol

I had lunch in the staff cafeteria with Guoming, Carol, and Silje, who seemed happy to have another volunteer show up. In the lunchroom, I recognized about 75% of the teachers and staff from my 2008 tenure. Some of them greeted me with kind “hello’s”, others exchanged shy nods or smiles and a few offered warm handshakes. Since Karen was home with her baby, there were only two or three teachers with whom I felt very close: Guoming, Carol, and Lilly Wang. Lilly had taught 1st grade in 2008 and had always worked hard to help volunteers feel welcome and get acclimated to the classroom.

I think there are many nice people at the school but the language barrier kept me from getting to know them very well in 2008. Carol introduced a young teacher (new to the school) to me and told me she would be my advisor. She seemed a little nervous talking to me, but I thought she was probably preoccupied with getting her lunch. After lunch, I sat in on Silje’s two afternoon lessons. As the sole foreign volunteer at the time, the school had her teaching every class in grades 1 through 4, once per week. This translates to 15 classes per week and, on that afternoon, she had one 1st grade class and one 2nd grade class. Silje warned me that she found this particular 1st grade class to be “impossible.” She was right. The kids were not listening to her and only quieted after a loud scolding from their regular teacher, who sat in the rear of the class, grading homework. I felt bad for Silje because I know how miserable teaching is when the students aren’t listening. I admired her for trying her best under the difficult circumstances. I wanted to make some videos for Silje but didn’t want to capture anything that might give her nightmares – I took the video below in a different 1st-grade class on Thursday. Even though the kids are better-behaved here, you still can see how holding 1st-graders attention is a real challenge!

Video: Fidgety First-Graders

That evening, Jessie asked me how Silje was doing and I told her about the “difficult” class. Not surprisingly, Jessie immediately called the school’s headmaster, who promised her that this class would not be a problem again.

On the evening of my first day, Guoming invited me to his home for dinner. About 5:00, he and his daughter and I were picked up in front of the school by his wife, who drove us to their home, just a few minutes from the school. They had moved to a new condominium about two months earlier. Before that, they had lived in an old, very small condo near the school. They had moved into that condo in 2007, when Guoming’s original family home was one of many taken by the local government and torn down to make room for the expansion of the massive ZPMC company on the island.

ZPMC Ship-loading cranes

ZPMC’s ChangXing Island plants make a large percentage of the world’s ship-loading cranes and provide a lot of manufacturing jobs on the island. In return for surrendering their home, the government gave them the small condo near the school. And I do mean small, even for the three of them (see kitchen photo.)

Tiny kitchen in old condo

They also gave him an option to buy a new, nicer condo at a very steep discount: about 40% of the price that others would pay. So, the family lived in the small condo for about 3 years awaiting completion of the new condo complex. When it was completed in April, they decorated it and bought beautiful new furnishings before moving in. They retained ownership of the old condo and left most of their old furnishings so they could rent it out to another family. It seems like a pretty good deal overall and certainly Guoming thought so. Although forcibly moving residents for the expansion of a private industry wouldn’t fly in the US, when you consider the number of island jobs created by ZPMC, it’s not hard to understand why the government made that decision. Although Guoming’s family was inconvenienced for several years, they ended up with ownership of two homes and a second stream of income. You have to wonder what Mao would think about the government helping to create new landlords :-).

Zhou Hai Qin prepared a wonderful meal in their beautiful, well-equipped new kitchen, including a really delicious chicken curry dish. Her mother arrived shortly after I did and helped with preparing and serving the meal. The five of us enjoyed the delicious meal at their dining room table, where we watched an episode of Funniest Home Videos on their wide-screen TV as we ate. It was broadcast on an English station and seemed to be the American version of the show but narrated in British English. I felt so welcome and lucky to hve such wonderful friends… and happy for them in their beautiful new home. After dinner, Guoming’s mother-in-law stayed with Yao Yun and Guoming and Hai Qin took me to visit Karen Gu and her new baby. They were staying at Karen’s mother’s condo while the baby was very young. Upon entering the bedroom=”” where mom, dad and baby were ensconsed, Karen explained that local custom is for the mother to remain in bed together with the baby for the first month.

Video: Beautiful New Baby Yi Lin

I’m writing this post in July and I’m happy to announce that Karen and Gu Chao liked one of the English names I suggested for Yi Lin. Welcome, Katherine!

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