Notes on working in China (the bossing-teachers-around edition)

As you may have heard, I have changed jobs. By this, I mean I am no longer unemployed. Or at least, unemployed in the technical sense. I have a day job now, and it isn’t teaching. Nope, I’m back in the director’s chair again.


Why yes, I am the boss to be feared.


The last time I did this gig was about 4 years ago, in Istanbul. It was a tough job but somebody had to do it.  Long hours of time-table tweaking, attempting to design business English curricula that made sense even though I’d never worked in business in my life, begging teachers to overcome their hangovers, and of course, all those speaking tests. Some of them not even in Istanbul. Some of them I was flown out for, just for the day. The agony.


Doing speaking tests for multinational pharmaceuticals on the beach in Antalya. In January.


And then there was the commute.


Aw, c’mon guys, won’t you RoboCops just let a gal go to work?


Just kidding. That was only once or twice a week, at most.

And then there were the long hours.


When you work 12 hour days, you ask for the tea extra strong.


After nearly a four year hiatus, I have returned to the director’s chair. Or as I’d now like to call it, the Throne of the Queen of the Fire Spiders*. I have no photo of said throne yet, as my office is still under construction. It’ll probably come from IKEA or something.

I currently have two temporary offices, where I have been slogging away for the past month, trying to create the school’s summer program from scratch.


Until the renovations are complete, this is my office


The ground floor of the building where the school is being built contains a traditional tea house. A modified tea house, actually, as it’s pretty small (only 3 cubicles) and is run by a fellow who happens to also be a renowned distributor of high quality Maotai, the booze of choice for high ranking government cadres. You can see on the wall behind the counter the collection of aged tea bricks and bottles of fire water. When I’m out at the school, this is where I make my office.

For the record, I’m drinking instant black coffee (no sugar) and not Maotai and Coke.

Most of the time, however, this is my office.


Please pardon the rumpled duvet on my desk


I spent the past month designing a full time summer program and hiring teachers for a school that so far only existed on paper. It’s a good thing I do well with the hypothetical.

It’s actually very exciting. A brand new school, conceived by a trio of rather awesome local fellows who wanted something a bit more adventurously creative and joyful for the kids here. A place where they could perhaps undo some of the damage done by an exam-based rote-memorization system that makes kids rather resentful of learning by the time they hit the end of high school.

A place where we might do a spot of gardening, say, and art projects and creative writing and other fun things.


A rather convenient nursery behind the school


And I suddenly found myself in charge of all of it.  In the words of one of trio who started the whole thing, Jackie Shen (not to be confused with Jackie Chan, though he will try to convince you otherwise), “This is your school now. You can do anything. We give it all to you. What colour do you want the walls to be?”

(For the record, the walls are chartreuse, tangerine and a lovely minty blue, as per my wishes)

And, as expected with having it all, it’s a lot of stuff to have. Or rather, a lot of stuff to sort out.

Which is why I haven’t had a day off since April.

Which is why I woke at 7am today, still half muddled in a dream of organizing folders on my desktop. I had just finished moving all the documents for Unit 1D into their proper folder when I became properly lucid.

Yes, my life is that sexy.

Things are coming together though. The local staff have all been hired and they’re a lovely bunch. I have rustled up a curious posse of artists, magicians, zoologists, chemists, teachers, mathematicians and linguists from all over China. Most have Masters degrees, all have passed the brutal test of trying to have a long conversation in English with me (trust me, this is not an easy feat in any language).

They all came together on Friday for our welcome meeting.


Green velvet and full snack selection: how we roll, yo.


We had about three hours of speeches by the board of directors and by Mr Zhang, my co-dean (again, not to be confused with codeine).  As I was seated at the head of the table next to Mr Zhang (an important place to be), I had to maintain my focus and smile, nod, clap, get slightly teary, and then clap again at all the right places, even though I coud catch only every fifth or sixth word.

Something along the lines of:

I…and….very….tomorrow…book… [clap clap clap!]…Together we…school… [smile?]…and…and…people…also…go?… furthermore… five…I think…then…after…so…what…learn… [clapclapclap!].

For three hours.

And then I had to give my welcome speech in English, with only the faintest idea about what had been said for the previous three hours.  My brain at that point was in a state of heightened muddled putty.

Then, that evening, after six hours of working on curriculum in my Maotai bar/Teahouse office, my newly hired underling- my deputy while I’m away, the wonderfully named Scotsman, Pablo-  joined us all at a fancy banquet hall somewhere out in the middle of…somewhere for our Big Welcome Banquet. I wish I had photos of it but I was too busy fielding toasts.

All twelve new local teachers toasted me, and the three directors, and Mr Zhang, and some other fellows who were there.

And the dishes kept piling up on the giant Lazy Susan in the middle of the enormous round table: A whole fish, on its side, covered in what looked like used coffee grounds (but weren’t); a massive platter of braised bear paws, all cartilage and fat and skin and bone;  a tureen of spongey Chinese-style chicharrón in broth; a bamboo steamer filled with purple potatoes and corn on the cob; braised beef slices still on the bone; crunchy candied beans and walnuts; peanuts in vinegar; cucumber and celery sticks in vinegar with little slices of chili; bowls of prawns and glazed chicken feet.  And about a dozen other dishes. It was an impressive feast.

For the record, Dynasty red wine is remarkably smooth and pleasant and I was able to toast everyone who proposed one without lasting damage.  The men brought out the Maotai at one point and the evening took on a decidedly joyful turn. The magician made table linens disappear. Jackie Shen regaled us with tales of piloting helicopters and tankers (because he’s badass like that).

A fine start to a new job with a bunch of guys who named their education company Fire Spiders in Chinese.

Yes, Fire Spiders. It doesn’t get more awesome than that.


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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.