In 1988 I experienced the unique situation of being the only foreigner in a southern Chinese county. Here's what happened.
INTRODUCTION...February 1988: I set out to start on a teaching assignment in a closed area of China where I was to be the only foreigner in Yishan County, population of about half a million Chinese
PART 1...THE INVITATION:I had to get an invitation from the Ministry of Education in Nanning, capital of Guangxi Province in order to accept an offer from the Hechi Teachers' College, Yishan County, Guangxi Province, People's Republic of China. Why? Because Yishan County was closed to foreign visitors due to a lack of adequate tourist facilities. The name of the county was changed a couple of years ago to Yizhou and thrown open to foreign tourists, but things were different back in 1988.
From a background briefing which I had prior to departure I learnt that the Hechi Teachers' College trains teachers in a variety of faculties and, after graduation, sends them out to the middle schools of Guangxi Province, mainly in poor country areas, to teach a varied syllabus, including English as a foreign language. My job was to introduce a method of teaching English known as "the communicative approach" and not only to train the English Department undergraduates in this approach, but also to improve their communicative competence in the English language.
I had quite a journey before I reached the College. I flew to Guangzhou (Canton) via Bangkok and Hong Kong where I was met by Mr Ye, a foreign affairs official from the Guangzhou University of Foreign Affairs. He gave me the VIP treatment I was soon to experience as a "foreign expert" in the People's Republic. He ushered me past the somber-looking customs people into a mini-bus and on to the University. I was quite travel-tired by then and was grateful for the comfortable double room with an ensuite bathroom (Western style) where I was able to get a good night's sleep.
Next morning after a tasty Chinese breakfast Mr.Ye told me that the University was founded in 1965 and was the first institute of higher education in central and south China. It is set in a beautiful and tranquil part of Guangzhou's northern suburbs at the foot of a mountain called Baiyun (White Cloud).
After breakfast I had a marvelous experience: a visit to the Flower Market in Guangzhou, part of the Spring Festival when Chinese celebrate their New Year. The whole of the city's central area was closed to traffic and transformed into a gigantic pedestrian mall. This arrangement enabled citizens and visitors to wander through row after row of stalls filled with exotic flowers, small trees, fish and birds offered for sale by peasants from the rural regions of Guangdong Province.
On the way into the city in a bus with Mr.Ye, his wife and a party of foreign experts from the U.S.A., we drove slowly through milling crowds rushing through the streets on foot, on waves of bicycles, in buses and other vehicles. The sight was so unusual to my eyes that it left me breathless!
For another two days I wandered around the University campus and climbed Baiyun Mountain on the top of which is a fascinating lake. The scene was something from a delicately woven Chinese greetings card. At the other end of the lake was a restaurant of Chinese architectural design and along the shore to the right I saw small coloured boats swaying side by side waiting for someone to hire them. Time, unfortunately, prevented me from the pleasure of rowing out into the middle of the lake and enjoying the tranquil ambience from that vantage point.
After a few days of these simple, yet unique pleasures, and in spite of the wonderful hospitality, I was anxious to reach the destination where I was to live and work in the large county of Yishan. The thought of being the only foreigner in this county of over half a million Chinese excited me and I wanted to get on with it. The ever-attentive and obliging Mr. Ye assisted me to catch a train to the city of Luizhou in Guangxi Province where I arrived at 7am after a journey of 24 hours.Part
2...THE ARRIVAL: The Dean of the English Department at the Teachers' College, Mr Zhou Yi, together with some senior teachers and a representative of the College President greeted me at Luizhou Railway Station. Three hours later we drove through the gates of the College.
My first experience of a well-established Chinese custom came the evening after my arrival at Hechi Teachers' College. I had been installed in my spacious, self-contained apartment -a privilege for a single person- and now it was time for my welcoming banquet. Because a "foreign expert" is regarded as a VIP (at least in that remote part of China) the banquet was hosted by the College president, Mr. Liao, and attended by three vice- presidents, several senior teaching and administrative staff, some local dignitaries (including the county's Head of Security and a representative of the Governor) and the driver of the car which had transported me from Liuzhou to Yishan. It was jolly affair with lots of welcoming speeches and a convivial atmosphere which increased in volume as the Chinese wine enlivened the spirits of those present. I wonder how you would have liked the food which included frog, sautéed chicken gizzard and liver, and fried duck's legs in sauce. All this was complimented by the rice wine and a plentiful supply of local beer.
Next morning I had a hearty breakfast of rice noodles, corn porridge, some small spongy cakes, a doughy-looking off-white morsel with a sweet centre and a couple of bowls of warm milk.
Part 3...SETTLING IN:Once I began teaching I realised the size of the College. The English Department had nearly two hundred students and, in those days, was one of six departments offering courses to about a thousand students. There were four hundred teaching staff. The students came from all over the prefecture of Hechi, a remote mountainous area composed of several counties with a population of nearly five million people. Most of the students belong to one or other of the fifty-five minority nationalities that make up the truly multi-cultural nation of China. The majority of Chinese people are the Han nationality, but the minority people have a total population of over four million. Having students from such a variety of backgrounds provided me with a rare educational experience.
Another bonus for me was that my students lived, worked and played on the College campus. I was, therefore, able to assist their learning during most of my waking hours because I lived, worked and played with them. This was quite a contrast to my situation at Curtin University in Western Australia where my main contact with students was during official lesson periods.
Being the only foreigner on campus I had quite a lot of attention from what I called "staring squads" both at the College and in the little town of Yishan which was situated opposite the campus on the other side of the beautiful Long Jiang (the Dragon River). After a month or so, however, everyone had become accustomed to my face as I walked through the town or the College grounds; and so my walks were then usually punctuated with friendly "hellos" from all, including the delightful children from the kindergarten opposite my apartment block.
On one of these walks I met with a Chinese custom which slightly nonplussed me at first. On my daily walks to the town area for shopping I would pass many residences. In summer many of the occupants would leave their front doors open because of the heat and sit in the front room eating their meals. As I passed by they would call out friendly greetings to me and, lifting their bowls towards me, indicate that they were inviting me to join them. At first I was at a loss to know how to respond. However, I learnt from the students (who always insisted on accompanying me on these forays) that the gestures were merely symbolic and traditional and that I was not expected to accept. After a while the custom ceased to embarrass me and I was able to handle it by smiling and saying, "Xie xie" (Thank you very much) and move on without offending anyone.
Many of the students, the town people and, certainly, the rural peasants (as the farmers were known) had never before set eyes on a foreigner. After a time, though, they all got used to me: the "staring squads" diminished in number and finally dwindled to the occasional small circle. As a result I constantly got invitations to banquets within the College and in the homes of town residents and teachers from other educational faculties.
One school called the Construction Primary School invited me to a music and dance performance staged especially for me. At that event I was presented with gifts and was made an honorary instructor and member of the equivalent of our cub and scouts movement: the Young Pioneers. This entailed being the centre of a ceremony during which I was presented with a neckerchief to wear as a symbol of the honour bestowed upon me.
All of these experiences were new to me as I had never lived and worked in an Asian country before. The Yishan experience was unique because of the status thrust upon me in my role as the only foreigner in the whole county.