It’s just after 7:30am on an inexplicably cool morning. Shanghai is invisible under the fog. It’s just as well as I’m still in bed, under several layers of duvet, strong, lightly milked coffee in hand. I may or may not be staring at the wall opposite . I’m freaking tired.
I just spent four days in a small, windowless room in a nondescript office block in the decidedly untouristy end of Hangzhou, interviewing 60 or so people, mostly university students wanting to study abroad. After about the third day, it becomes a bit surreal. Following the exam script becomes a meditative chant. Out of body experiences are not uncommon. Nor is forgetting your own name. Words start to lose their meaning and become a wall of sound. Kind of like Phil Spector for the linguistic set.
I’ll be revisiting that sitting meditation this coming weekend, with two more days of interviews booked here in Shanghai. In between, every single day is crammed so full that I’m not sure how I’ll manage. The workload is already spilling over into the following week. I’m not quite sure if I’ll have a day off before I fly home in mid-June. Seriously.
You know how I was technically unemployed for most of the past year? How I alternated sporadic jaunts to exotic locales like, um, Zhengzhou or Hefei or Hangzhou or Dalian with long mornings of lazy, experimental cookery and languid protests of aimlessness? Yeah, well, that’s done.
Sometime in late April, I was unexpectedly headhunted. The good kind, not the one where you don’t get to keep your skull and its contents. Apparently my guanxi was positively humming with superpower vibes. People who knew people who knew people high up in my old job (the one that vanished last June) contacted me and the next thing I knew, I was in wholly charge of setting up a brand new alternative after-school program and summer camp for 6-12 year olds.
I believe the title I was given is Co-Dean (not to be confused with Codeine), working in conjunction with a quietly pleasant retired college headmaster/ex-Red Army soldier who speaks as much English as I do Chinese (though he’s reportedly fluent in Russian, which could come in handy). I’m in charge of academics and teachers; he’s in charge of everything else. They’re hiring a translator to be our go-between.
To be honest, it’s incredibly exciting.
Over endless refills of pu’er tea and sunflower seeds in a teahouse cubicle (do those little rooms have a name? the ones with a curtain drawn across the front for privacy?), I was informed that this brand new start-up program was mine to mold and shape and tweak as I see fit.
They wanted an English immersion creative community, they said, a place where the neighbourhood kids could go after school and not just be stuck in their high rise apartments doing homework and playing video games alone while their parents were at work. Learning English would be a pleasant, natural afterthought, as the main focus was to be to counteract the deadening effects of the rote-learning at school. My suggestions of organic gardening, art, story telling, crafts and creative journalling were all met with enthusiastic nods.
And then they said, go to it. Can the summer’s curriculum be ready by the 25th of May? I nodded, my awareness of time and space being rather hazy at best.
Also, they said, we would like you to hand-pick the staff so you only work with people who share your vision. Again, I nodded. That would be nice, I thought, conveniently forgetting that this would involve days of interviewing dozens of applicants.
Also, we would need you to train that staff, to make sure they’re up to your standards, they added. I smiled and nodded again, bobbing like a Weeble who wobbled but didn’t have the sense to fall down.
Training teachers– not so hard. Preparing 3 days of workshop materials from scratch– hmmm.
Also, they added, can this all be done by June?
I nodded, smiled, and got to work. That was at the beginning of May, when I signed my contract.
I should also note that when I enthusiastically agreed to take on the commitments of this more-than-full-time gig, I still had about a dozen other prior commitments on my plate: 6 days of intense interviewing in May alone (mostly away in Hangzhou); unknown quantities of weekly essays to be marked, the last bits of my third and final walking tour that needed to be researched, written and photographed; an out-of-the-blue commissioned blather piece on a previous tour I wrote (now available on iTunes! Link coming soon!) for a local magazine; and one last blast of high school language expert fame leading a writing workshop down in Qibao (a command performance, I’ve been told).
In a moment of sheer lunacy, I very nearly signed up for a month of early morning Chinese classes, thinking it’d be handy when attempting to communicate with my lovely Codeine. I mean, co-dean. Doug, thankfully, talked me out of that one.
Although I’ve got more work to do than I can even fathom right now, I feel strangely okay. To be honest, I’m actually kind of happy. The aimlessness and low-level depression I’d been plagued with during my year of underemployment has retreated and I feel excited and inspired. I loved teaching my university-aged students (and am actually still tutoring one of them a few hours a week– add that to the work pile!) but I can’t say I ever felt excited about teaching academic or business English. The last time I felt this excited about researching and plotting out curriculum was…hmmm… back in Turkey when I taught kids. Hey, coincidence. Go figure.
See how happy (and thin! and young! My god!) I looked back then?