Two of the first things I noticed when I arrived in China just over a month ago were the amusing English names Chinese children choose for themselves and how bad their teeth are.
I remember from school and university that the Chinese students I came across had traditional, even old-fashioned names like Derek or Geoffrey. While there are a good number of Johns, Stephens, Lilies and Sarahs, with the odd retro name chucked in for good measure, this has changed.
My children include a handful of Cinderellas and Disneys, one Snow White, one Dragon and lots of Candys, Yo-Yos, Sweets or Cocos.
Now the name Candy takes us to dental care. As wealthy children of families who can afford to pay to have more than one child and send them to a fee-paying school, one would expect their teeth to be healthy. Wrong. Sugar-infused black stumps fill the mouths of half my children. I'll let you make your own mind up whether the cavities are caused by their confectionary-inspired names, indulgent parents or a protein-deficient diet!
I'm teaching in the kindergarten section of the bi-lingual school that is around seven years old. It was built as part of a huge complex that includes shops, grand houses, apartment blocks and parks. It is a wealthy area in stark contrast to neighbouring Xintang, an industrial suburb of Guangzhou which is said to account for 60% of all of the jeans made in China.
One of my first experiences at the kindergarten was to help with Halloween. On the Friday afternoon each class dressed up and went around trick or treating every other class, a sure shortcut to poor dental health.
Later in the evening a 'haunted classroom' was created with scary decorations and several English and Chinese teachers dressed up and strategically placed around the room. Then the whole primary section of the school, around 400 children, trooped through the classroom screaming or asking for sweets.
Although celebrating of Halloween is not unusual, the pleasure the Chinese teachers derived in scaring children was hilarious. At least half of the children cried. Others protected themselves with kicks and punches to the gonads of their teachers (this almost brought tears to my eyes). Some children were armed with slingshots. In Britain we complain of living in a nanny state with Health and Safety madness, but when cornered by children brandishing weapons, I was screaming for professional danger assessments and reels of red tape to stop the anarchy!
Which brings me to Kung Fu. Differences in education systems are to be expected, but the small things stand out. For example, from the kindergarten up to the senior school all the students have a daily Kung Fu regime. The same moves are taught to the same music in every school year.
Another showcase of difference is sports day. The sporting events are the same as in Europe, but the national anthem is constantly played and there is a carefully choreographed opening ceremony. For the two weeks leading up to sports day there was no last minute technique honing or discussion of race tactics. Instead, all spare time went on perfecting the opening ceremony! If there had been a London bus and David Beckham, the occasion would have matched, if not surpassed, London's commercial for the 2012 games at the last Olympics. For me, the precision of five-year-old children doing Kung Fu was far more impressive.
I have also been asked to contribute to the school by judging the Chinese teachers' English competition. Two weeks ago I listened to 22 teachers talking for up to three minutes on randomly selected and highly diverse topics. For example: 'Have automobiles improved modern life or caused serious problems' or 'Which is more important, book knowledge or life experience?'
The contestants on the whole spoke excellent English and offered very interesting insights on every topic. Although not politically controversial, each debater came up with liberal answers to many of the questions, which was in itself quite surprising.
To sum up, I've landed on my feet in Guangzhou. I'm paid well and contracted to work only 20 hours a week. My food and accommodation is included and my flight was reimbursed up to around £500.
If you are looking for a teaching job in China, please shop around. There are so many jobs available that you can afford to negotiate. But in the large cities it can be hard for westerners to find good value accommodation. If I can be of help, please ask! I hope you enjoy my future posts.