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"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Camp America, a short story from China.

Camp America a short story from China circa 2009

Camp America, a short story from China.

After a prolonged period of stability, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and traveling.

It was a warm, smoggy Beijing morning as we boarded the private coach at Dongzhimen Station. Taking our seats, I guessed there were around fifty people onboard that day. Straight away, my ears picking out snippets of crisscrossing conversations, I realised that as so-called Europeans, S and I were heavily outnumbered. 

Zac from Oregon had packed a “sweater” in case it got cold at night. Steve from Philadelphia was wearing a new pair of “sneakers”, fresh from a Beijing market stall. Elsewhere, Sandy from San Diego flashed around a picture of her toddler nephew, dressed in nothing but a “diaper”. Everyone agreed the photo was “awesome”.

Camp America a short story from China.

Dongzhimen Station, Beijing.

Our group leader Justin was at the door, ticking off names on his clipboard. Tall, blonde and blue-eyed, with a Good Will Hunting Bostonian accent, he looked like a man who had the weight of the world on his shoulders. Which, as I later found out, wasn’t far off the mark. 

“Just a few minutes guys and we’ll be getting underway”. 

S and I found ourselves sat next to Joel and Hannah, a timid couple from Ohio who looked genuinely overwhelmed. “We only got here last night,” whispered Hannah, wide-eyed. “It’s our first time outside The U.S.”. The poor girl looked like she’d just landed on Jupiter. “Do you know anything about where you’ll be teaching?” asked Joel, tapping his fingers against the window, the bus pulling gently out of the station.

Camp America a short story from China.

In a bus, surrounded by Americans.

Camp America, a short story from China.

S and I did not know where we’d be teaching. Nor did we have any idea where we would be living. In fact, we were similarly clueless as to what this training camp was all about. And what exactly lay in store over the next three nights. However it all turned out, I felt sure we were in for another adventure.

“All things going to plan, we hope to be in Miyun in about ninety minutes” announced Justin from the front of the bus. We’d never heard of Miyun, not until I finally did some research online the night before. My reading revealed that Miyun was a suburban district of Beijing famed for its stunning scenery, including canyons, waterfalls and the Simatai section of The Great Wall.

Not that we’d be getting to see any of that, as the entire camp would be taking place at a country house hotel. All we could do was cross our fingers and hope the place was better than most of the hotels we’d stayed at during our China travels. 

Miyun Beijing China

Miyun District, Beijing.

Camp America, a short story from China.

“Hi I’m Richard!” said the geek-handsome twenty something in the next seat up from mine. Slender and pale, he wore thick, black glasses and a bright green Woody Allen T-shirt that read: “What would Woody do?” 

Softly spoken and with an endearing shyness, Richard told me that he and his girlfriend Risa had been teaching with the agency for a year. Thus they were attending the camp purely as support to Justin. Helping to supervise activities, answering people’s questions, giving advice and so on. 

Camp America a short story from China.

Camp America, a short story from China.

While I chatted with Richard, Risa introduced herself to S. She was a smart, pretty girl with mousy hair and matching cheek freckles. In contrast to her low-key boyfriend, Risa was very outgoing. Boy oh boy did she love to talk! So much so that it was often hard for S to get a word in edgewise.

Richard and I formed an instant bond on that coach trip. We shared our backstories and exchanged favourite albums and movies. Liberal, self-deprecating and frighteningly intelligent, Richard hailed from Corpus Christi, Texas. I remember being surprised by this, as he seemed to me the most un-Texan person imaginable.

“Well… I do have a cowboy hat somewhere at home,” he drawled.

Impression Inn Miyun Beijing.

Our Miyun base.

With all the chatter, we arrived at our Miyun lodgings in no time. Our hotel was a country residence called Impression Inn that offered simple rooms set around a large garden. The garden was gorgeous, with impeccably kept grass, scattered flowerbeds and a rocky, fish-inhabited pond. En route to our designated room, I spied some geese waddling down to the water. It was an idyllic scene, although I couldn’t help but fear they’d be part of the menu before too long.

Camp America a short story from China.

Camp America, a short story from China.

Having settled into the room, S and I joined Richard and Risa in the garden, where we wasted no time in ordering coffee. I had a million and one questions about the camp and our job prospects. As a result, I could hardly hold myself back in seeking Richard’s counsel. “It’s gonna be… interesting” he said, choosing his words carefully.

“Justin’s doing his best to keep things professional. But there’s a lot of chaos in the background”.

Impression Inn garden Miyun Beijing

Richard at Impression Inn.

A short while later we were joined by Marc and Amy, a young couple from New Jersey. I was in the early stages of my Bruce Springsteen explorations, hence Marc was quick to turn me onto his album Nebraska. “Essential” he nodded earnestly.

Camp America a short story from China

Marc and Amy from New Jersey.

Camp America, a short story from China.

Before we had the chance to converse further, Justin appeared to call us all into the meeting hall. “Here we go” winked Richard, as everyone filed inside. “The fun starts here”.

I wouldn’t have described the welcome meeting as fun exactly. Justin’s opening speech came across well enough, with a few jokes and plenty of references to the cultural challenges awaiting us. “Nothing wrong with a good noisy spit” he quipped. “It’s all in the throat!” 

By the end of the talk, he’d introduced his audience to the mantra “T.I.C” (This is China). Basically, if we could deal with the culture shock, keep our heads and maintain a smile, we’d be fine. Not actually bad advice as it turned out.

Camp America a short story from Miyun Beijing

Justin doing his thing in Miyun.

Justin then called upon a few people to come up to the stage and talk about why they’d been attracted to a teaching position in Beijing. First up was Paul from England, a plainspoken northerner who told us he’d soon be turning thirty. Not wanting to spend the rest of his life rotting in a soulless office job, for him Beijing was a chance for “adventure, amazing food and pretty girls”. 

We also heard from Zac, a Californian surfer who stood up simply to say “China dude…. fuck yeah!!!” But the most memorable of the bunch was definitely the tattooed meathead from Atlanta who called himself “40D”. 

“40D gonna take a year off before I get a real job” he grinned. 

“China’s gonna be AWESOME!!!”

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The next act saw Justin introduce a chunky, middle-aged man from Arizona. Rosy-cheeked and wearing a gaudy Hawaiian shirt, he reminded me a bit of John Candy in Cool Runnings as he laboured up to the microphone.

“Hi I’m Greg”, he puffed. “I’ve been teaching in Beijing a looooooong time”.

He paused here, clearly expecting a laugh. When none came, he proceeded to perform what was essentially ten minutes of bad stand up. With imaginary tumbleweeds floating across the stage behind him, Justin eventually put Greg out of his misery. Looking more and more strained by the minute, he then announced a break for lunch.

“Well, that was entertaining!” I smiled, reflecting on what had been a strange hour. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet” chuckled Richard. As if on cue, there came a sudden outbreak of whoops and hollers as 4OD appeared with an armful of bottles. 

“Jeez, do I need a fucking beer!” he gasped.

“Aaaaalright, party time!!!” cheered a faceless accomplice. “T.I.C. motherfucker!” chimed another. Within seconds, they’d cracked the bottles open and the stall was set for what I would soon christen Camp America. 

Impression Inn Garden Miyun Beijing

Camp America, a short story from China.

I had been expecting Justin to have a word with 40D and friends. But instead, he chose to turn a blind eye. After lunch, we were all encouraged to get to know each other. It was the classic “write three sentences about yourself, two false, one true” setup. 

“Maaan, it’s true. I got expelled from college for setting a shopping trolley on fire and throwing it from the fifth floor” 

revealed Jammin’ Andrew from Wisconsin. “Why would he even share that?” whispered Steven, a sickly looking boy from Baltimore who kept an inhaler in the top pocket of his shirt. He looked like the kind of guy who’d spent the majority of his childhood being terrorised by people like Jammin’ Andrew. 

Frankly, it was a relief when the day’s training came to an end and we broke for dinner. The hotel had laid on a buffet and to be fair it was a decent spread. At this point pretty much everyone started drinking and within an hour the party was raging.

Dinner at Impression Inn Miyun Beijing

Dinner time at Impression Inn.

Camp America, a short story from China.

Soon, the garden had transformed into a grassy graveyard of discarded beer bottles. With the 40D crew getting increasingly rowdy, a bunch of us decided to set up camp over the other side of the pond by the swings. A good vantage point, we figured, from which to witness the unfolding carnage. 

Justin had positioned himself in a far corner of the garden with a few of the agency’s admin girls. I remember them watching the scene unfurl with a look of genuine horror. 40D and English Paul were having an arm wrestle. A New Yorker called Lou was stripping off for some guy to reveal a few of her more intimate tattoos. A beer pong tournament was in the making. None of these people, it seemed, appreciated that this was a training camp. A place where jobs teaching children were potentially up for grabs. At around midnight, a group of Chinese tourists arrived in the garden with a karaoke machine. 

“Is someone strangling a cat?!?” howled 40D.

One of the Chinese men could speak English and was not best pleased. Words were being exchanged, voices raised. I took this as a cue to exit, S and I heading back to the room. But Camp America remained in full swing long into the morning. At some point, half awake, blurry-eyed, I sat listening to a raucous group singalong of John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads.

Impression Inn Miyun Beijing

Impression Inn.

Camp America, a short story from China.

The next day’s training session kicked off at 10am. Predictably, half the camp failed to show up on time. We had already begun a workshop on classroom management when a few of the party animals began dribbling in. When 40D eventually appeared, he had sunglasses on and the hoodie of his sweater pulled up. He offered no apology. 

English Paul was the last to show up, forty five minutes late. His arrival was greeted by an ironic round of applause. “Paul!” chanted Team America. “Paul!!!” “Paul!!!’ Performing a mock bow, Paul lapped up the attention, his arms raised triumphantly as he made his way to a free chair.

“Justin, what the hell is going on here?” someone asked.

It was break time and there were about six of us standing in a conspiratorial circle. A few people were smoking. Justin was massaging his temple, a medicinal cup of coffee clutched in his other hand. ”You know…” he sighed, “I came into this thing with the best intentions. Get the right people for the right schools. But there are over 100 positions going and… they got impatient. They were literally like, Justin, open the floodgates”. 

Flag-China

Camp America, a short story from China.

“Hey guys I’m Mark!!!!” yelped the little man excitedly. Justin had introduced him as “an EFL expert”, “the most experienced teacher in Beijing”. But I’d felt something was off with Mark the moment I saw him. Was it his shifty eyes? His manic energy? The nasal Florida accent? 

In any case Mark had very few words of wisdom. He merely showed us a string of videos from his classes, along with some self-praising commentary. “Here’s me and my kids playing shopkeeper” he laughed, as onscreen a melee of children threw carrots and tomatoes at each other as if they were snowballs.

“Aw man, I get those kids so jacked up!!!” 

Camp America a short story from China.

Mark “all jacked up” in Miyun.

“Work hard and you’ll get it all back!” he told us. “My kids love me! For teacher’s day I get flowers, home made cards, the works. Man, I get those kids so jacked up!” His lecture went on like this for almost half an hour. “Learning’s gotta be fun, you know? Just attack them with language! Man, I get those kids so jacked up!!!”

“He got the Beijing police force pretty jacked up too” whispered Richard,

hand over his mouth. “Smashed up an ATM because it wouldn’t give him any money. Then got into a fight with a cop. Spent a couple of nights in a cell before the school eventually bailed him out”.  

“He’s probably the city’s most famous alcoholic” Richard continued. “And the whole reason he’s here today is that there are jobs going at his school. If Justin offers you a post at Marky Mark’s place, run like the wind!”

Camp America a short story from China.

“Sir, please refrain from assaulting the ATM”.

That evening, quite unexpectedly, an agency rep called Maggie came to our dinner table with news. “I have arranged demos for you both at a school!” she proclaimed. “You will also have an interview with Trudy, the principal. I will drive you there tomorrow. When you finish, we will come back to camp”. And then she was gone with a curt nod. “Great news!” enthused Richard, as Justin gave me a thumbs up from the buffet table.

“You see” smiled Risa, “it’s all coming together!”

The next day Maggie drove us to Shangdi, a nondescript neighbourhood in Beijing’s Haidian district. S and I had been up late the night before planning our demo lessons. Maggie hadn’t given us many details. All we knew was that we’d be teaching between four to six kids and that our classes would only last half an hour. 

“Don’t be nervous!” Maggie told us in the car. It was a mantra she repeated so often during that two-hour drive that she eventually succeeded in making me nervous.

MOMA residential complex Beijing.

MOMA Residential Complex. Shangdi, Beijing.

Camp America, a short story from China.

The school was a small but brand new facility located in a swanky residential complex called MOMA. The entire place was positively otherworldly, a vast rectangle of green-white apartment blocks set around a garden of ponds, flowerbeds, rock formations and a children’s playground. Trudy, the school’s principal and sole owner, greeted us on arrival with what was clearly a meticulous charm offensive. She made us tea, treated us to snacks and gushed about how handsome I supposedly was.

Our demos were a piece of cake. As expected, we had just a handful of docile kids and they responded well. I did a vocabulary class on animals, S knocked out a rousing rendition of Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. All the while Trudy sat at the back of the class with her mute husband, smiling, clapping and making encouraging comments.

“Thank you that was so wonderful!”

she dripped, ushering us both onto the sofa at reception. And then she disappeared into one of the classrooms with Maggie for a prolonged round of negotiations. Some time later it was Maggie who emerged, a self-satisfied smile pasted across her face. “She wants you to start in September. Shall we make the contract?”

Camp America a short story from China.

Putting pen to paper.

As soon as we saw what was on offer, S and I knew we’d be fools to turn the job down. Richard had already explained how the agency paid teachers more or less the same salary, regardless of where you went. You could be placed in a school like Trudy’s, with small class sizes and an afternoon schedule. Or, you could end up in a state high school working nine to five and dealing with up to thirty kids a session. The only downside to our schedule was that it included a full Saturday. However, overall we felt she was offering a sweet deal. Consequently, we put pen to paper and became Trudy’s first ever English language teachers. 

Camp America, a short story from China.

When we returned to Camp America that evening we found the place turned upside down. A bunch of people had left to take the medical exam for the working visa application. Others had been shipped off to various schools around Beijing for demo classes. Those who were still at camp seemed to be in a state of limbo. 

I found English Paul hiding away in a corner of the meeting room, swigging from a beer can. Red-eyed and sniffy, he sat shaking his head inconsolably. “It’s all right for some people” he slurred miserably. “If you’ve got blonde hair and blue eyes. If you’re a Barbie doll type”. 

“But no schools are interested in old Paul”.

Out in the courtyard, I spotted Baltimore Steven deep in conversation with a school principal. He had his inhaler in one hand, a contract of some description in the other. The scandalous news of the day was that with no demo or medical to do, 40D and a few of his disciples had gone to visit a nearby brothel!!! Those with a more wholesome appetite were in the midst of a dumpling making class. With nothing better to do, I decided to join them.

Dumpling making Impression Inn Miyun Beijing

Richard and Risa try their hands at dumpling making.

The next morning, we all found ourselves subjected to an unspeakably boring lecture by a middle-aged Chinese man representing SAFEA (State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs). With his ropey English and humourless monotone, I don’t think anyone had a clue what he was talking about.

Instead, someone had managed to obtain a copy of Jammin’ Andrew’s CV, which was now doing the rounds and receiving universal hilarity. Elsewhere, S was playing hangman with Risa and an Australian girl called Rosey had fallen asleep. I was over the moon when one of the agency reps stepped in to save the day. 

“Leighton, your apartment is ready!” she whispered. 

“You can leave camp tomorrow morning!” With the dreary SAFEA man still droning away in the background, S and I had to suppress our visible delight. We were finally getting out of Camp America. We were going to the Beijing neighbourhood of Shangdi. To a new job… a new home… a new life. 

‘Camp America’ is the ninth tale from my short story series Challenged in China.

I’ve also written hundreds of travel reports from all across China.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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4 Comments

  • Mary Phillips

    Wow, this was a blast to the past for me. Good story.

    January 1, 2017 - 1:50 pm Reply
  • Mary Phillips

    When you use the word “carnage” I always love reading what comes after!

    August 15, 2020 - 7:10 pm Reply
  • William Charles Phillips

    T.I.C. is great advice. We got something similar. It started with how we would work hard to understand China and it ended with “and in a year or two you will leave realizing that you will never understand China.” So true.

    August 15, 2020 - 10:13 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha. Word.

      August 15, 2020 - 10:17 pm Reply

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