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

Enlightening! A short story from China.

Training school demo class Shangdi Beijing

Enlightening! 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.

“So what do you think?” grinned Candy, as we shuffled inside the apartment. There was an engulfing silence as S and I undertook a brief inspection. I looked at S, she looked at me. We both looked at Candy. Candy grinned back cluelessly. Dear, oh dear.

There were no words to describe what we thought of the apartment. A conventional dictionary-sourced response may have resulted in something along the lines of filthy or disgusting. But in reality this joint was a whole new level of awful that required a yet to be invented adjective.

“Um… is a little dirty,” giggled Candy nervously.

“Maggie told us this place was brand new?” I said, with a bleak shake of my head. Now Candy was stuttering incomprehensibly. And making a pig’s ear out of trying to get Maggie on speed dial.

Unable to make contact, Candy was clearly at a complete loss as to what to do. It was ten at night and we both had to start work in just under forty-eight hours. The apartment, with all its immense dreadfulness, was at least a five minute walk from our school. At this point it made sense to stay, even though I really wanted to put my foot down and demand a new place.

I could only imagine how much hassle it would be for the agency to find us a new apartment at such short notice. “I guess we better sleep on it,” I told her, with a defeated yawn. Hence we bade Candy good night. On her way out, she treated us to more of her signature nervous laughter, apologising all the way out of the front door and down the stairs.

Short stories from China

Enlightening! A short story from China.

Dragging our luggage inside from the hallway, we decided to go straight to bed and pray for a morning miracle. Perhaps the place wasn’t as bad as we thought! Maybe we could whip it into shape with a positive attitude and some elbow grease. Possibly the agency could send some some kind of Chinese Mary Poppins who could sing a song and magically sort everything out.

Enlightening! A short story from China.

“Sorry guys, but it’s going to take more than a spoonful of sugar to fix this shit”.

Enlightening! A short story from China.

After the draining tedium of Camp America, we finally caught up on a decent night’s sleep. Consequently, we awoke to bags of newfound enthusiasm and a steely resolve to transform our miserable hovel into something resembling a home.

Firstly, we made a list of things the agency needed to sort out. There were broken light bulbs, an unresponsive stereo system, faulty electrical sockets, a fridge that wasn’t cold and a soiled section of carpet in the bedroom. They’d had also lied to us about the telephone, the microwave and kitchen utensils, all of which failed to exist. “I seeeeee,” said Jordan, another agency rep with a slightly different type of nervous laughter.

“I will tell Maggie. Maybe in a few days someone can fixing”. 

Holding out little hope of any meaningful assistance, we got dressed, downed some coffee and jumped onto the Beijing subway at Shangdi. Thankfully, it was just a short, three-stop journey to Zhichunlu, home to a colossal Wal Mart.

Enlightening! A short story from China

Enlightening! A short story from China.

We emerged two hours later armed to the teeth with bulging bags of cutlery, plates, cups, cooking utensils and a bin. We also grabbed an iron, a mop, a broom, pillows, toilet roll and a shit load of cleaning products. Back at our Shangdi fleapit, we rolled up our sleeves and got on with what had to be done.

Dirty apartment cleanup Shangdi Beijing

Ready for action! The great Shangdi clean up, August 2009.

Enlightening! A short story from China.

We swept and mopped the floors. I spent over an hour scrubbing the kitchen, with its grimy black stove and crusty counter tops. It was exceptionally hard work and, to compound matters, some parts of the apartment proved so dusty it sent S into a coughing fit.

I was going to suggest we open the windows, before realising the air outside was probably worse! And  then our spirits suddenly lifted when S happened upon a vacuum cleaner in the bedroom cupboard. “Oh lord, what are the chances this thing actually works?” I pondered, before plugging it in. “Yes!” cried S, punching the air, as the hulking thing churned into life. 

Dirty apartment Beijing

Adventures in hygiene.

By the end of the day our Shangdi apartment was sparkling! And then we were off to a local plant shop for some much-needed greenery. Spontaneously, we decided to pick up a couple of Japanese Fighting Fish as pets for our reinvented home.

One was a feisty, bright-orange killing machine that we called Bei”. The other fish, deep-blue and somewhat lethargic, we named “Jing”. Totally clueless as to what Japanese fighting fish actually were, we foolishly housed them together. Having nearly ripped each other to shreds, we subsequently put them in separate bowls so they could live happier, longer lives.

Bei & Jing.

Enlightening! A short story from China.

Bei (right) and Jing. Not the best of friends.

With our pets installed, we threw a map of Beijing up on the wall and scattered our numerous plants about the place. The majority of this greenery found its way into our enclosed balcony, which we christened The Jungle. We thought it would be the perfect spot for some peaceful reading. Until we realised the balcony overlooked a primary school playground.

Enlightening! A short story from China.

S chilling in The Jungle.

In stark contrast to the hard graft of cleaning our living quarters, our first weeks at school were a piece of cake! As a brand new business we didn’t actually have any students to teach! Thus we began crafting decorations in order to make the school look… well.. more like a school.

In this regard it was S who led the way. Armed with card, colouring pens, glue and scissors, she created a giant tree for one of the classrooms. Working with her Chinese teaching assistant Lily, she then decorated the thing with craft leaves, apples, oranges and pears.

Classroom English training school Shangdi Beijing

S and Lily working on classroom design.

Enlightening! A short story from China.

Elsewhere, we dedicated various walls to the days of the week, months, shapes, colours, numbers, animals and the weather. I’d never been much of an arts and crafts guy, so I kept my contributions simple by making vocabulary cards. I felt sure the decorations would attract parents and play a direct role in the kids’ language growth. Day by day, piece by piece, it was starting to look and feel like a cosy little school.

Classroom English training school Shangdi Beijing

Enlightening! A short story from Beijing.

While we decorated, Trudy the school principal and owner sat glued to the phone trying to lure in potential students for demo classes. “Leighton! We have two girls coming tomorrow!” she trilled one afternoon. “Please, prepare a class that will make them fall in love. It must be enlightening!” 

The demo situation certainly took some getting used to. Basically, parents would bring their kids in for a free thirty minute trial class. Such classes had to be well prepared. But unfortunately for me the information Trudy gave me before each demo rarely harmonised with the reality come show time.

“Tomorrow there will be four children aged 4-6. They are coming maybe 16:00!” she announced one day.

So I scuttled off to my classroom to prepare a suitable lesson. I photocopied course book pages, devised a few games and prepared an appropriate song with props. The next day only one student turned up. He came forty five minutes early and had literally his entire family in tow. This included the dreaded grandmother, who kept interrupting my lesson to incessantly nag poor Kevin.

“Sit up straight!” 

“Speak clearly!”

“Listen to the teacher”.

On our second week the demos started to roll in thick and fast. Slowly but surely we got used to the chaos that each day brought. There was a fair bit of pressure, what with the parents watching my every move from the back of the room. Moreover, adding to the pressure, I had Trudy standing in the corner of the classroom sweating profusely and grinning like a maniac. 

Enlightening a short story from China.

One of my many demos, August 2009.

At the end of each demo everyone filed out and the parents would sit at Trudy’s desk for deep discussions. All but a select few spoke any English. I guessed their decision was purely made on intuition and Trudy’s skills of persuasion. Looking back, it was all a great adventure and an enlightening window into Chinese culture. 

Training school demo class Shangdi Beijing

One of my many demos, August 2009.

Enlightening! A short story from China.

Happily, new students began trickling in. By the end of the month we both had a handful of classes. “Thank you so much for your hard work!” gushed Trudy one afternoon. “Please let me take you to dinner tonight!” Trudy had been exceptionally generous since our arrival. She’d even treated us to lunch on several occasions, including a visit to the fancy hotpot restaurant across the road.

Dinners with Trudy were always a huge feast and she went to great lengths to ensure we were happy. As such, I thought nothing of it when she asked me to teach her son Happy in between my regular classes. It was, I figured, the least I could do while I didn’t have a full schedule. 

“One day Happy go to study in America!” she told me. 

“Please… give him all your wisdom!”

I really enjoyed my classes with Happy, a polite boy genius rocking the Harry Potter look. He was like a human sponge, no matter what I taught him he retained everything and had an amazing knack for pronunciation. “Happy really love your lesson!” oozed Trudy. “He always find your teaching so enlightening!” 

English training school Shangdi Beijing

Happy in class, September 2009.

However, as great as he was with me in class, Happy’s dynamic with Trudy was a whole other story. “No way!” was his default response whenever she asked him to do something. He also had quite the temper. In fact, I’d often awkwardly look away whenever he descended into one of his violent tantrums.

This usually involved him slamming doors, stamping his feet and flinging his school bag across the floor. On one infamous occasion he actually kicked his mum in the leg with a vicious kung fu move! I recall standing there utterly speechless. The poor woman had only told him to save his chocolate bar until after dinner!

Beijing International Book Fair New China International Exhibition Center

The Beijing International Book Fair.

Enlightening! A short story from China.

One day we arrived at school, only to be bundled back outside by a highly excitable Trudy. “Let’s go!” she sang, waving her car keys at us. “Today we go to the book fair… very big event! My school needs better books!” And so we drove across the city to The Beijing Exhibition Center. The traffic was so appalling it took us over an hour and a half to get there. 

The place was mind-boggling, with floors and floors of books in pretty much every language you could think of. The English section was humongous and every time I picked something up Trudy asked me “Do you like it? Is it good? I can buy it!” We ended up grabbing a bunch of classics like Hansel and Gretel, The Gingerbread Man and Rapunzel. We also came away with a pile of pop-up books, including Don’t You Dare, Dragon and What’s the time Mr. Wolf?

During that visit, we decided that my classes would follow the Primary Colors Series, an action-packed curriculum aimed at kids between the ages of six and twelve. The books followed the adventures of a group of children who travel around the world in their flying car.

Primary Colors 3 American English Student's Book

Enlightening! A short story from China.

Enlightening! A short story from China.

“Trudy sounds ideal!” exclaimed Risa, sipping from her glass of wine. “You guys have seriously lucked out,” echoed Richard. “Our principal doesn’t even know our names. And if you’re literally one minute late, she docks our pay”. 

We had finally gotten around to throwing a housewarming party. It was a great opportunity to hook back up with a few of our fellow Camp America survivors, including Marc, Amy, Baltimore Steven and Rosey. I’ll never forget how I had to go to Shangdi Subway station to pick them all up. Then lead them back to our apartment in a motorcade of rickshaws and motorbikes.  

Flat warming and wedding anniversary party Shangdi Beijing August 2009

Our Shangdi house warming party, September 2009.

We were just over a month into our Beijing adventure and things were going well. We were still in that glorious honeymoon period where everything was new and exciting. The pollution hadn’t got to us yet and the cultural differences that would begin to wear us down felt kooky and amusing. We’d also yet to see the other side of Trudy. Still, on that perfect night, with the wine flowing and the snacks rapidly disappearing, all was well with our Beijing lives.

‘Enlightening!’ is the tenth chapter of 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.

Leighton Travels logo travel reports and short stories.

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3 Comments

  • Memo

    Oh, no, not Jing! Your apartment sounds discouraging like ours only we were in late January with no heat except for the kitchen stove. Love remembering the “honeymoon” period. It had its exhilarating moments.

    August 15, 2020 - 10:33 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Yup, it’s Jing, the early years. Who’d have thought international DJ stardom lay around the corner?

      August 15, 2020 - 10:39 pm Reply
  • natty4t

    Always enjoy your short stories x

    August 16, 2020 - 4:29 am Reply

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