“We aren’t going to Huanggang City.”
This is apparently how a kidnapping can begin.
The first time I suspected something was wrong was when I heard this sentence, approximately 10 minutes after leaving Wuhan airport, Hubei province, Mid-East China.
The decision I made to teach in China was a snap one, and I had no idea then that it would end up in what can only be described as “friendly kidnap.” Although there was no bag being pulled over my head, no being bundled into the back of a van - in fact, the kidnappers were very friendly, full of smiles, and would continuously try their very best to be accommodating and generous hosts.
Huanggang City, the location where I had applied to teach, could be described as a university city with a healthy foreign community and a handful of English teachers, while still being in the heart of Chinese culture. Therefore you could live and teach in China with a certain level of control over how much you immerse yourself in the culture, and you could take a step back from it when you wanted to. Unfortunately I would never get a chance to find out if this is an accurate description since I went, instead, to Xishui.
“We aren’t going to Huanggang city” and the three hour car ride from the airport in Wuhan to Xishui was when I should have realised my perception of how this experience would turn out was optimistic and mislead. The motorway was long and wide, although very empty, as though it was anticipating the arrival of masses of people, when instead it has been, and will be, waiting a long time.
Flanking the motorway on both sides were rice paddies that went on for miles until your gaze briefly found some mountains in the distance. After almost an hour, the car crossed an impressive bridge over the famous Yangtze River. As I got closer to the mystery destination, some of the rice paddies made way for more barren terrain, and the road turned to bumpy dirt. After half an hour of this there was one more bridge to cross before we arrived.
Xishui is a pure and untouched small Chinese town that is 10 minutes by bus from one side to the other before you re-enter the rice paddies and rural China. I felt as if I’d never been more foreign and really understood the term ‘culture shock.’ It didn’t take long to discover that there weren’t any other westerners here, and that there probably never has been.
The first time I entered the school gates, the children were all outside, and being the first westerner most had ever seen, the reaction was unforgettable. I was surrounded by a large crowd of screaming children, all wanting to shake hands or hug. It was a toned down version of children meeting their favorite music or acting hero.
Then after almost 20 hours of traveling, I was given a book and told to start at 7:30 the next morning. Having never taught before, my first attempt at it would have to be done while still jet-lagged and with no time for preparation.