“You are too short to teach.”
A tall interviewer called me off the stage when I had just given my name. He gestured at me as if he was giving the death penalty. Teaching was the only iron rice bowl that would fit my circumstances. Now what was I supposed to do?
Days before the 2009 Spring Festival, I desperately paid an agent who guaranteed me a teaching job. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, I took a smelly night train from Hainan to Guangzhou. It was a nightmare. I slept standing against a strange shoulder in the crowd without any awareness. Everyone was leaning against each other, except those who could afford a seat.
The nightmare worsened when I arrived at a suburban dormitory provided by the agency. There were twelve bunk beds in a room and twelve people shared the same shower with a single toilet. Two days later, the toilet blocked. The shitty water ran all over the place. It smelled really good. No plumber would come till after the Spring Festival. Thus the daily instant noodles had no smell.
This pushed me to get a job sooner. But they all rejected me for the same reason – my small size and my weak appearance. Not until one month later did I find a school that was calling for half-pay volunteers. I took it immediately.
The school was the Migrant Workers’ Children School in Shantou City. It looked like a small factory, but it had a nice cozy feel. There were seven classrooms for seven grades of students. All desks and chairs were blue plastic. All teachers were either retired or fresh graduates. At 5pm every day, we would each carry a bucket of hot water to the toilet and together stand on the squat for a quick shower. Of course, the sexes were separate.
During the first week, two school buses took us to the three main areas where most of the workers lived. We gave them handouts like a communist would hold a farmer’s hands in the Mao era. There was a fascination in that, on the bus, I was reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and, off the bus, I was experiencing a meditative moment of walking into the irregularly shabby tents that were home to them. Especially the moment when a woman bent over the waste digging gold with her face covered by flies.
This sight motivated me to teach more responsibly and to seek more diversities in life. I noticed that the parents smiled often and the children were happy. I found my students’ neat resonant reading voices tranquilly peaceful. I was totally drawn by these books in Chinese: The Interpretation of Dreams and The Second Sex. Meantime I focused my weekends on writing my Chinese novel – An Oasis in Wasteland.
Life then was fulfilled with originality and simplicity. I had such complete satisfaction that I felt no ending was needed by my Chinese novel. It was a perfect year of teaching. The perfection nurtured me as an oasis of spirituality. I was inspired to experience more.
Therefore I moved to Shenzhen, working in sales till I quit to write two English novels within four years. I then came to Shanghai out of curiosity and tried to sell insurance. I stumbled into the art world.
However, my family claimed that I was absolutely wrong. They repeated it during my August family trip morning, noon and night. Their biting criticisms almost crushed me. I had to compromise with the idea of returning to education. Actually it felt more like the sand in my hourglass was running out and it was time to start over.
Now I’m officially working for New Stage English and teaching international chess at different international schools. Because of this job, I have seen remote parts of Shanghai that I would never have visited.
All this happened from 2009 to 2019. It is only a decade. Only a circle. How would you like to begin a new life, if you happen to be at the starting line?
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About Heather Cai:
Heather is the daughter of a subsistence rice farmer from Fujian Province, China. She tells stories from her experience as one of the poorest. She writes her dream to share with the world, a very personal place. She has now written two English literary novels and is looking to being published in the UK. Her passion is a splendid cocktail or milkshake of word, image, music and art. She likes collecting books, DVDs, papers, stones, shells and leaves. She desires for all forms of natural beauty. She is currently teaching kids chess in Shanghai.
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