Songjiang High School #2 – My New Home! (looking back 10 years later)



this is the campus where i currently teach...i live on campus

(In the last installment, I had just arrived in Shanghai at my apartment on campus where I met another English teacher Jennifer who helped me navigate the culture shock when I arrived and, in as much, made my time in Shanghai much zanier than it would have been otherwise. Sadly, Jennifer moved back to the States a year and a half later.)

Michael and Roy, who as you may remember picked me up at the airport, carried my luggage up a flight of stairs to my apartment in the building that as I said earlier looks like Chairman Mao’s Love Bunker. Michael opened the door into a small kitchen. While I looked around the apartment, he dialed his mobile. Above the metal sink was a streaky window with a paint-clogged crank. Next to it, I saw an ancient camping-style stovetop connected to a propane tank under the cabinet.

In the living area were a very worn, lopsided love seat, a desk, and a refrigerator, which was making a loud clanking noise. Beyond that was a door that led out to the balcony, a narrow ledge covered with cement dust, and a line for hanging out wet clothes.

From the living room I walked into the somewhat large bedroom. There was a television, a wide bed with a dingy fabric-covered headboard, and a wardrobe of dark wood. Behind a set of heavy drapes, a door and two windows looked out onto the second balcony.

To the left of the bedroom doorway was the bathroom, which housed the washing machine and the tiniest clothes dryer. Later, I would realize the clothes dryer was a luxury. Most Chinese drip-dry their wet clothes on balconies or makeshift utility rooms. At most of the apartments that I rented while I was there, the washing machines were small and old and persnickety. No matter how little I loaded into these mall clunky machines they seemed to always overload. One person could easily pick them up and carry them if that gives any indication of how flimsy they were. I had even seen them riding side saddle on bicycles. No joke.

The shower hardware was old but in good shape. Everything, though old and worn, seemed fairly clean and manageable. As I thought about my new life, I looked out the back door of the living room. Beyond the balcony was a big hole in the ground. This hole I assumed was a building site. I would learn during my years there that there was always construction everywhere. Old neighborhoods sometimes vanished overnight to make way for high rises or new schools or malls. There are a lot of malls in Shanghai. There are also lots of skyscrapers. Sometimes there are mall in skyscrapers.

There was a knock on the door. Michael opened it. A young Chinese guy, probably in college, or just out of college, stood there. He was tall, thin, with beautiful skin. Due to my lack of sleep this was somewhat soft focused and dreamlike. He seemed to be slightly floating a few inches off the ground. For some reason he made me think of Golden Earrings’ dreamy druggy masterpiece “Vanilla Queen.” Snowflake in the sun, you make me feel so bourgeois…You’re the bright nocturnal Vanilla Queen, your mask is sterile dignity…”

“My name is Logan,” the Vanilla Queen spoke bringing me out of my revelry. “I will show you the campus. It is quite beautiful.”

”Nice to meet you,” I told him. “I’m Tyson.”

“These are for you,” Logan handed me a survival kit / care package that included keys to my apartment, bottled water, a phrase book and a map of Shanghai.

“Logan will show you around campus,” Michael told me. “We will leave now.”

“Oh, okay,” I answered. I was a bit confused. I was not sure what was happening. I felt a bit like Dorothy after she had just landed in Oz. I was tempted to ask where are the munchkins but I thought better of this.

“Shall we go?” Logan asked stirring me from my daydream of Oz and Dorothy and the Vanilla Queen and floating young beautiful Chinese men. While Logan and I walked around the campus, I was somewhat in a daze by my new bizarre surroundings and the whole experience in general. At this point, I felt like I had stepped on the set of Bruce Lee’s ‘Enter the Dragon,’ Leslie Cheung’s “Farewell My Concubine,” or some yet unnamed film that has yet to present itself perhaps directed by Ang Lee. Who will I be in this film?

The campus was wooded in parts with a lush small park with a fishpond and a bridge running the width of the pond. In the park were stone pathways that wound up and around a small mound that was not quite a hill. There was a wonderful crispness to the air. The birds chirped, happy to have the spring well on its way. A few of the trees were starting to bud. Monkey Grass grew alongside the pathways.

Most of the campus was made up of historic old brick buildings with verandahs running the lengths of the buildings. Logan pointed out the mortar scars from the war with the Japanese.

this is an example of the building that i teach in....there is a breezeway that connects the classes to each other

“From the Japanese War when we were not friends,” he said. “I will show you your classroom and your office now.” He no longer seemed to be floating.

“Great. Let’s go.”

We made our way out of the park and onto a very wide driveway that I later learned served as the parking lot as well. Since a fraction of the staff and none of the students drove, there was not much use for a humongous parking lot as at American schools.

Logan and I walked along the wide drive with campus buildings on one side and the sports field, gymnasium and basketball courts on the other. We made our way to the back of the campus, the opposite end of the front gate.

This building where Logan led me was, without a doubt, the most modern building on the campus. Just inside the side entrance of the building was an elevator. Logan pressed the button for floor 6. In the elevator, Logan told me that the top floor, 7, held the library.

“There are some English books there.”

We got off the elevator and walked down a long corridor with classrooms on each side. All of the classrooms were empty though we were there in the early afternoon on a weekday. This gave the 6th floor a bit of an eerie, abandoned feeling.

During my time in China, I would learn how competitive it was to get into good public schools. Students have to test into the best schools there. With the booming economics – people who were once workers now owning factories, the new Chinese had way more disposable income to buy expensive apartments, new cars, second houses and to send the one child of the household to private school if for some reason said child did not test into a key high school. Thus, the key high schools opened and are still opening private schools in extra rooms within their doors. Private companies ran these private schools. This brought in revenue to the key high schools and lent the private schools prestige. A Sino-Australian company that placed teachers and funded these private schools employed me.

All of the classrooms were empty except for one, which was next to a majestic wood banister staircase. Logan and I popped into the classroom. Aforementioned Jennifer was sitting talking to four students.

“Here are your students,” Logan told me.

“Hi, I’m Tyson,” I told them.

They mumbled some names to me that I did not catch.

“Nice to meet all of you. I look forward to being your teacher. I will talk to you later,” I told them as Logan and I left the room.

After we walked out of the classroom, Logan and I walked farther down the corridor, past the stairway and into a roomy, airy office with windows that ran the length of the office.

“Here is your desk,” Logan said as he led me into cubicle and pointed to a very modern brand new desk with a new Dell desktop, which being 10 years ago desktops were the norm there. Later, the company provided me with laptops. This whole time, Logan was somewhat tentative about everything. He was friendly, yet reserved. He asked me no questions.

“Oh, you must be Tyson. I am Jo,” an older woman sitting at the desk next to mine greeted me. She then added for emphasis, “I am not Josephine. I am Jo.”

“So nice to meet you. I am still somewhat overwhelmed.”

“Yes, yes, this is China after all,” she agreed. “Well, this has been a bit like Waiting for Godot.”

“Oh?” I loved the Beckett reference.

“We have heard so much about you and have been waiting for your arrival with much fanfare and ado.”

“Oh, that is so nice to hear. At the moment, I suppose I feel a bit like Godot,” I told her not knowing what I meant exactly but enjoying talking with another native English speaker.

“Oh, yes, yes, well, the great Sheldon sent for you and we are quite enamored with him. After all, he is a great man, a cultural icon even; one might say.” Jo had a very proper Australian accent. Later, she told me that she started teaching at the end of the Great War. Sheldon is the man who I had corresponded with and who was now no longer the Headmaster. That story will come later. People left schools and companies frequently. I suppose it is a testament to me that I stayed with the same company the eight years that I was there but then they kept upping my salary and giving me better opportunities as well.

“Oh, and that is Maureen,” Jo pointed to a woman a few desks down.

“Hi, I’m Tyson,” I told her as she waddled up. She was a stout little woman of Asian lineage.

“Nice to meet you,” she replied.

“Logan is my tour guide,” I told them both as I looked at Logan. “We are finishing the tour of the campus. It was very nice to meet both of you. I will talk to you both later.”

Logan and I made our exit.

Next, we stopped into see Elizabeth, the newly appointed Head Mistress, a Chinese woman who had studied in America. Her office was an enormous corner office opposite the corridor from the teachers’ office. On one wall was a bookcase that ran the length of the wall. The vases and framed photos and various certificates were meticulously placed on the bookcase. The office looked as if it belonged to a psychiatrist or on a movie set. Something about it was too organized and a little too perfect…a little too empty. But then, I had just left New York where my boss, the English Chair at John Jay College, had stacks and stacks of papers and books and magazines in his office.

Elizabeth stood there sizing me up. She was close to what I expected. She was friendly and quite beautiful, yet there was a severity that ran under the surface. She had the look of a schoolmarm – with her hair tied back in a tight bun – who might also happen to be a heartless murderess on the side. Though she tried to be warm and outgoing, I sensed an unthawing iciness about her, something cold and hostile. She left me somewhat unnerved. Something about her reminded me of a Sean Connery era James Bond villain.

“Here is 1000 rmb,” she said as she handed me a wad of bills. “We will take it out of your pay. Are you hungry?” she asked.

“Yes, I am, very hungry,” I told her.

“Logan will take you to eat,” she said. “You may prefer to get supplies for your apartment at that time.”

“Yes, that is a good idea,” I replied

She saw me out. Logan took it from there.

Sadly, unbeknownst to Jennifer and me until much later, Jo and Maureen pitted against us to make us look unprofessional. Headmistress Elizabeth provoked this when she told Maureen, who in time I nicknamed Bird Flu, that we were making much more money than she was. There are lots of reasons this is. The tightfisted head of the company hired Maureen. Jennifer and I were both hired by the great Sheldon and I assume he made us seem very desirable for the company.

Also being of Asian descent, Maureen was not offered as much because the students want English speakers who LOOK like English speakers. Maureen and I split the oral English classes in the public school area of Songjiang High School #2. She took half and I took the other half of the classes. There were 14 Senior One (aka sophomore) classes. I actually had students from her classes ask why I was not teaching their class. They thought it had to do with their levels not just bad luck.

Also, Jennifer and I got star treatment from the company. We both were paid well to judge numerous speech contests. I was jettisoned to the bamboo forest in Anji shortly after I arrived in Shanghai to officiate a prestigious regional speech contest. I was often asked to be the face for the company to attend events at key high schools. And, as I mentioned earlier, my salary climbed exponentially every time I signed another contract with the company.

When I started in Shanghai, I had only been teaching a year and a half. Maureen, who was in her sixties, had been teaching all of her life. I am sure this seemed incredibly unfair to her that I would be making so much more money than she made. Why Elizabeth told her this I still can’t figure.

But the truth is, the students liked me better because they wanted someone to pal around with as much as someone to teach them. Since these kids were in boarding schools, an important part of my job was to be their pal, to make them want to speak English. Maureen was much more severe than I was with the students. I quickly learned that the students were more like clients than students. A principal told me once if I could just get them to learn a little bit that was a success.

In the beginning before I realized that Maureen (Bird Flu) had a vendetta against me, I tried to be her friend. Even when she weaved tall tales, which was often, I would listen as if whatever preposterous story she was telling was the absolute truth. I will get to her story of disappearances in the near future.

Furthermore, in my defense, I always wore a suit when I had meetings with the owner of the company and when I judged contests and anytime I was representing the company. I know both the owner and the manager of the company noticed this because they would comment on it.

I remember once being a bit dismayed when another teacher was at the company office renewing his contract and he was wearing gym shorts and a t-shirt and old tennis shoes to meet with the owner. This teacher thought nothing of this. I thought it incredibly inappropriate. Nevertheless when I wore a suit to class, I was told I should dress more casual so that the children weren’t intimidated.

Of course, all of this I learned over time. One thing that I realized immediately when I arrived is that because I am an American Citizen I got special treatment. The Chinese kids are fans of Hollywood. They wanted the American accents they heard in the Hollywood blockbusters. I remember the first day at the third school that I was placed a student just stared at me like I was a television the entire class. After class he told me that watching me teach was like watching a movie. I was flattered naturally and this helped me to get into the heads of my students who had been watching pirated copies of Batman, Spiderman, Super Bad or what ever other films they happened across. And as time went on, there is the chance that the real me disappeared and the other me, the Hollywood me, taught. But this, I do not know for sure.

(Follow this link to read the blog that I kept while living in China )


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