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Landing in China

Adventures from the early days, living in Wuhan, China.

By John Oliver SmithPublished 2 years ago Updated 28 days ago 15 min read
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The constant everyday haze enveloping Wuhan, China

Patti looked out the window for signs of something other than tall cement buildings and traffic jams but all she saw was grey.

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She saw people pulling carts piled high with heavy items of all sorts, and her deep fatigue took over. She worried perhaps that she, and her new husband of six weeks – John – had made a terrible mistake. They were on a bus, making its way through an endless Asian city that was to become their new home for a year – Wuhan, China.

The first kitchen

Patti and John had arrived about 3:00 am the previous night to their 1-bedroom apartment on the school campus, where they would be living. After the 12-hour flight from Vancouver to Guangzhou, followed by a 2-hour flight to Wuhan, then a 90-minute drive across the city to get there, they were exhausted. The apartment was dusty and despite the close and clinging heat, looked cold and uninviting. The furniture inside was only basic and cheap and there was nothing other than an old mattress and coverless pillows on the bed. The couple had been warned that this would more than likely be the case, so they had linen with them in their suitcases. They rummaged through and found one sheet and 2 pillowcases. They filled the pillowcases with clothes and neutralized the heavy old stained mattress with a single cotton sheet. The temperature inside the apartment was the same as outside the apartment – a very uncomfortable 40 degrees Celsius. There was no need for any covers. They lay down next to each other and escaped into their first sleep together in China.

The view from the veranda looking south

They, along with all of the other new teachers, woke up early the next morning, boarded another bus, and traveled to a very busy health clinic, decorated with endless streaming and bustling rivers of people. It felt like they were cattle being herded as they were shuffled mindlessly to several different hospital departments to be prodded and poked in efforts to get a few checkmarks on paper. There were nearly 30 new teachers and twice that many Chinese people in the clinic, going through the same exercise. So, the process consumed most of the morning. John felt nervous, as he had always suffered from ‘white coat hypertension’. His blood pressure escalated at the very thought of being checked by a doctor. He was a little concerned, irrationally of course, that he (and Patti) might get sent back to Canada if he did not ‘pass’ the physicals. To add more unnecessary pressure to the situation, during John's test, the nurse doing the checking, was smoking and the room was hot, very humid and filled with an irritating cigarette haze. She argued vehemently with a co-worker while attempting to fit the cuff on John’s arm. The environment was hardly conducive to the serene surroundings John needed to ensure a low systolic and diastolic measurement. Sure enough, his BP shot up the mercury-filled glass tube, to a figure of 170/90, which only added more stress to the whole situation. Little did they know at that time, that once one had landed in China to teach school, they are basically there until they decide to leave. Foreign teachers were a rare commodity and none were ever sent back.

At 7:00 am - one of the quieter streets in Wuhan

After the physical exams were complete, Patti, John and the rest of the new teaching team were taken to a very ‘Chinese’ fast food restaurant and asked by the Chinese guides and supervisors, what they wanted to eat for lunch. None of it looked even remotely like the Chinese food they had ever eaten in the West. In fact one of the first items Patti spotted on the picture-menu was a plate of chicken feet. One could order a rice combo of either two, four or six feet. Instead, they pointed at something that looked slightly less adventurous and inherently safer. They were pleasantly surprised with their choice, as it was spicy and extremely tasty.

After lunch, the first-day adventure continued, and the group was taken to a reputable HKB (Hankou Bank) Union Pay Bank. The Chinese secretaries from the school helped them to get foreign accounts for payroll purposes. The process could be better described as an ordeal and it ate up the better part of the afternoon. Because Patti was ‘only the spouse of a teacher’ she was told she wouldn’t need an account immediately and that she could get one in the coming weeks. Consequently, she sat and stood and shuffled and leaned in the 40-degree heat while everyone else did their business. The bank personnel did not speak English at all. Patti hoped that someone Chinese would be along to help her when the time came! No one explained her situation exactly, but she hoped it wouldn’t cause any problems with getting work herself. When John was offered his teaching contract, Patti was told that it might be possible for her to get a job but not to count on it, because she didn’t have a degree. She had previously completed a 100-hour ESL (English as a 2nd language) course in Vancouver, in the hopes of getting some work in China. As it eventually turned out, that was a good decision at the time.

A normal afternoon, outside the Shopping Mall

The next stop on the tour was a visit to a very noisy little electronics shop in a large and bustling pedestrian mall in an area known as Guanggu. The Chinese-speaking school secretaries helped each of the new English-speaking teachers (and their spouses) to buy a mobile phone. Since no one spoke English in the shop, all the teachers were extremely grateful that the secretaries were with them. Because the group ended up purchasing over 30 phones that day, the Chinese secretaries were able to barter and bicker their way to a pretty good discount. This was everyone’s first experience at witnessing the process of wheeling and dealing to purchase something in China, and in Wuhan no less, perhaps the most famed city for that ‘game’. The phones themselves were basic models and were programmed in Korean so, it often became a little frustrating when instructional messages came up in a completely different foreign language. It seemed like one new language at a time was more than enough at that point. At the time, the phones were nearly state-of-the-art – they were compact and offered 3G capabilities. It was John’s first cell phone ever, so he was no longer a cell phone virgin! He ended up playing with it for hours, fascinated, like a little kid would be with a new toy.

As mentioned, the mobile-phone shop was situated in a gigantic shopping mall. The new teachers decided to explore it's hundreds of shops on many different floors, after their telephone adventure. There was a huge sign running down one side of it, declaring it to be the longest walking street in Wuhan. The place was packed with what seemed like half a million people. Most of them were young and dressed in a very trendy manner. There were no non-Chinese people walking around at all, so a large group of white ‘Canadians’ attracted more than a considerable amount of attention. People pointed and stared. Some giggled. Others approached the teachers in the group and motioned that they would like a photo with them. The teachers, feeling very celebrity-like, always smiled and obliged. They wondered if this is what China was really like and, as it turned out, it was what the country was really like. The experience was unbelievably refreshing.

Hurry up + Heat = Snooze Time

Wuhan was in the middle of China so it was not really a tourist destination. There were thousands of high rises and thousands more being built. It was estimated that there were over 30 000 construction cranes in operation within the city. There was lots of crazy traffic, so the city resembled a chaotic dance – cars, buses, bicycles and mopeds. The mopeds (scooters) were loaded with tons of stuff and sometimes, with up to six live people on them weaving in and out and around each other.

The HOV lane

They liked to honk their horns. There were signs saying, “not to” beep horns but they were ignored for the most part. Horns were an essential piece of equipment on a Chinese vehicle – signal lights, however, were vestigial at best.

Market Streets everywhere

A day or two later, John and Patti found themselves a couple of blocks down from the school waiting for the 901-bus. They were told that the bus normally travelled straight down Minzu Dadao (the road the school was on). Several 901-buses went past without stopping. They were packed so full of passengers. People were standing on the loading steps at both the front door and the back doors of the bus. It looked difficult to get on or to get off of the bus. Finally another 901-bus approached and then stopped. Two passengers attempted to disembark through the front door but the bus was too crowded so they finally crawled through an open side window and jumped to the ground.

Crowds in China come in many forms

That bus was also packed with standing room only. Patti and John got on through the front door and were jammed in so tightly, that they were almost on the driver’s lap. They were able to see, firsthand, the harrowing ride as they held on to each other and were held upright by several Chinese riders. The riders giggled as they watched John and Patti get thrown around but they were also very helpful in making sure the couple were kept safe on the ride.

Every bus ride in Wuhan was an adventure in every possible way.

Everywhere Patti and John went, there were always lots of Chinese people of all ages, and with babies. Chinese babies were so adorable and so cute! On the bus, one of the little babies stared at Patti and smiled at her. It pulled at her earrings for most of the ride. Every rider-queue at every one of the shelters where the bus stopped at, or went past, was massive. It seemed impossible that any more riders would actually be able to even get on the bus, let alone find a place to stand or sit once they boarded. But the driver continued to let more and more people on until finally, the back doors of the bus were not able to close completely, because of all the people leaning against them. Patti recognized the building where they got their phones earlier in the week and the bus stopped on the street near the entrance. They pushed and shoved to get people to move out of the way, saying “sorry”, (in English) as they fought their way to the somewhat less-crowded street outside of the bus.

Kids in China are especially precious

The two of them went into a pharmacy and a girl approached them and nervously asked if she could get her picture taken with them. John and Patti agreed. The girl motioned for them to follow her. A second woman handed Patti a box from one of the shelves. Luckily, before they left for China, Patti had read an article warning to be careful about that sort of thing - that sometimes people would attempt to get models to do some free advertising by asking to have a photo taken with a Westerner holding their product. Patti looked at the product that was thrust into her hands and noticed that it was a large package of condoms! Patti handed them back to the woman and shook her head, "No!" On leaving the pharmacy John laughed and remarked, "Oh that would be a great conversation starter at the beginning of class - my students seeing me on a billboard somewhere holding a box of condoms!"

A few mornings later, John left their apartment for his 1st day at school – it was a Professional Development Day - one where he finally met the rest of the teaching staff and where he was able to prepare for the busy start of the year. Patti still did not know what she would be doing, if anything. She was a little worried, because she had met some of the people, who had been there for a while and one, who was told the same thing as her ( that there might be a job somewhere in the school), still hadn't found any work there. Some of the other foreign teachers and their spouses informed Patti that she should go to the other schools or universities in the area, as there were always people wanting to have conversations with a native speaker of English. That is what Patti eventually did, since nothing else came up.

Chinese folks were always looking for extra help with their English

On the first Saturday of the new school year, Patti and John travelled again to the big mall. They found a little music shop. Patti, being a musician, wanted to buy a guitar. It needed to be a cheaper model to start with as the first payday was still a long way off. Surprisingly, the young man that was assisting her, spoke some English. That made the transactions much easier. He told her that he was in a Heavy Metal band. He started playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on one of the guitars there. Patti sang for a bit, but stopped before they got to the 'wind on down the road' part of the song. Patti eventually found a nice sounding guitar for 1000 RMB which was about 200 Canadian dollars at the time. The young shop-keeper, being impressed with Patti’s talent and the opportunity she had afforded him to practice his English, threw in a guitar case, a capo and some guitar pics as part of the deal. Patti was then the proud owner of her first Chinese guitar.

Guang Gu Shopping Mall at night

After their shopping was finished for the day, Patti and John stood by the side of one of the busiest streets in Wuhan, in an attempt to flag down a taxi. They waved and gestured for about 30 minutes. There were so many people there at the mall on the weekend. Every time a taxi stopped near to them, throngs of people pushed forward and got in before the couple did. At last, Patti became pushy herself. She gave all of the other would-be clients her best 'Westerner' dirty look and deftly jumped, dragging John along with her, into a cab ahead of everyone else. They gave the school address to the driver verbally, but he didn’t understand them. They still hadn’t met a single cab driver in Wuhan who spoke any English at all (and, as fate would have it – in the eight years they ended up living there, they never would). They fumbled into pockets and bags, and looked for the School Business-card containing the address written in Chinese characters.

Wuhan was a city of 11 million in transition from rural . . .
. . . to ultra urban

It was hard to know if it was their bad pronunciation, or the fact that they were foreigners, but the Chinese folk didn’t appear to even try to understand their Chinese. It was like they didn’t believe John or Patti could possibly be able to speak it. Sometimes they truly wondered where they would end up when they hopped into a taxi and ventured off. Patti often felt like giving up, as she seemed to go blank whenever any communication was necessary. The words were so different to anything she had learned before, it seemed like a huge mountain to climb, even though she had learned to speak both Italian and French very proficiently in the past. John, on the other hand, learned some Mandarin and easily remembered the words and phrases he had studied. Actually, John and Patti eventually made a good team - Patti was very good at getting the general meaning of what was being said, which she translated to John. John would then tell Patti the appropriate Mandarin response and Patti would repeat John's phrases back to the Chinese speaker. Anyway, when all else failed, there was always Chinese charades and sign language to get them what they needed or to where they wanted to go.

In one of the taxis they got into, their taxi driver, while on route, phoned his daughter and handed the phone to Patti, sitting in the back seat. This seemed strange because they appeared to be well on the way and going in the right direction. Patti started talking to the daughter and soon realized that the driver just wanted her to get some practice speaking English to a foreigner. She asked Patti, “Where are you going?” in a sweet little child's voice and when Patti responded “Maple Leaf School” the little girl laughed and replied, “You are talking crazy!” Patti repeated the process a few times but it eventually lost it’s novelty and appeal. The couple were relieved when they finally arrived in front of the school. The driver was overjoyed and proud that his daughter got to practice her English. They tried to give him a small tip but, he wouldn’t hear of it.

Hazy days were common in Wuhan

John and Patti spent a lot of Friday evenings strolling through a local night market area known as Mao Dian. Everything looked, smelled and sounded exciting – above all of the shouting voices, there was steam, sizzling sounds, bright colors and cooking smells with people cooking various odd-looking things on outdoor grills and throwing strange-shaped food bits in big boiling pots of water. All senses were called upon to process the activities. The market was filled with hundreds and hundreds of people. Patti and John wandered from stall to stall, trying to recognize something familiar. They at least recognized the chicken feet, which were considered a treat in Wuhan, and in the rest of China, but they were not sure about the rest.

Happy faces all around

No one in Wuhan spoke English, so they couldn’t ask what any of the foods were or what they might contain. Patti’s imagination took over and she imagined the worst. It did smell good though and her stomach was growling, so she asked John if they could stop and eat something. John said he didn’t want to eat anything that was unknown to him, but he would definitely be alright with going to a nearby restaurant. They walked around the area until they found a restaurant. When they walked into the restaurant and because they were 'white foreigners', everyone turned to look at them. And, they certainly were the only foreigners there on that evening. The place looked a little like a gambling den or something. Everyone seemed to being wearing dark clothes. They looked suspiciously at John and Patti as they sat down. All had cigarettes dangling from their lips and a glasses of white liquor in front of them. No one spoke English there either but they had pictures on the menu and English translations on some of the items. They appeared to have at least one specialty - Donkey meat. There was even one entrée called 'Fried Ass'! As well, there were other ‘ass’ variations. Patti finally settled for 'Braised Ass'. She felt that because she had eaten Horse meat in France in the past, it really couldn't be that much different.

John ordered a Bullfrog casserole! Astonished by his choice, Patti questioned, “What? You won't eat from the market but you'll eat Bullfrog?”

John replied, “Well, unlike out on the street, at least here, I know what I'm eating.”

They also ordered a dish that looked like fried potatoes. The donkey tasted alright and John ate a lot of it too. Patti tasted the Bullfrog just to say that she had tried it, but it was so full of bones, skin and fat, that she actually felt squeamish doing so. The fried potatoes were excellent, however and both of them finished that dish in a hurry.

Night markets were always bustling

Monday rolled around too quickly and it was ‘back to school', for John anyway. Patti met him in the school cafeteria for lunch. He wanted her to meet a British fellow who had a teaching degree now, but who was previously in Patti’s position a few years prior to that. He said that he could put her in touch with a couple of other schools and language centers that were looking for ESL teachers but it would mean a trip to Hong Kong for a visa as Patti was only there as a spouse.

Music was everywhere in Wuhan - truly the universal language

Another Brit, who was married to a teacher at the school, said he could introduce Patti to a guy who managed ‘Foreign’ singers. They met the first night they were there, and that is where he heard Patti sing. He played piano as well, so they made a plan to meet up to see whether they could actually play together. He liked jazz so Patti tried out a few songs she knew. He was very good on piano but, because he was a tad on the crazy side, Patti was not sure about the possibility of the two of them ever actually playing together. They spoke to a music manager and the contracts sounded pretty unrealistic – 3-month contracts, singing for four hours at about 100 RMB a night, 7 days a week, touring around China. Patti didn't think the rewards were that great nor would she ever see much of John if she took that on, but she told them she would think about it and possibly negotiate a deal at a later time!

To be continued . . .

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About the Creator

John Oliver Smith

Baby, son, brother, child, student, collector, farmer, photographer, player, uncle, coach, husband, student, writer, teacher, father, science guy, fan, coach, grandfather, comedian, traveler, chef, story-teller, driver, regular guy!!

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