china, expat,

Teaching English in a Small Chinese Town of 1 Million

Daddy Sep 10, 2014 · 7-min read
Teaching English in a Small Chinese Town of 1 Million

I taught English at a university one year – a nice step up from teaching at a kindergarten – in a town most Chinese people have never heard of. At around 1 million people, Fuqing had a Starbucks, two McDonalds, a Wal-Mart, and Wanda mall, but it still feels like you're out roughing it. I can't think of a better way to explain what it was like than through these postcards that I didn't illustrate.

The Entrances

This is more or less the entrance. Off to the left is an informal gate that everyone uses because it goes down a slope to the main road where you can get a bus or a three-wheel taxi. The school itself is a bit far from the quaint downtown, but rest assured there are plenty of filthy restaurants all down the slope. One of my favorite eating experiences happen on this slope where I discovered zhibaoyu ("paper wrapped fish"). They take a whole fish, cover it with oil, garlic, and peppers; wrap it in paper; and cook it at your table. When done right, the top flesh will be soft, and the bottom will be crispy. Careful not to flip it over! That's bad luck because your boat fill flip over too. I think normally it's a shared dish.

I'm not sure to what extent this existed, but it was back in a corner towards the official entrance of the school that only cars took.


These are the student doors I was fortunate enough to never have to live in. The rooms held 6-8 beds without mattresses, a single bathroom, and clothes were washed by hand. Outside all the balconies would be fluttering with clothes.

Sports, Let's Go, Yeah!

The sports field I never used. I jogged to the gym which was past the dormitories above, past a random temple I never saw monks at, around the base of Four-Horse Hill (legend has it a man was quartered there), and up the elevator at Wal-Mart. Next to it is an apartment complex, where someone lived that sat next to me in Norwegian class when we were studying abroad in Norway.

My Domain

These stairs lead up to the building I taught in, perhaps the one in the background, but I can't be sure. The classrooms have an earthy feel from the temperate air leaking through all of the gaps in the windows. The teacher's desk has a microphone and a cord that connects to a projector, and from there I look out onto rows of wooden desks at all the homely faces of girls too poor to be pretty. The 90% female audience was not only relieved to have someone who wasn't old enough to be their dad, but someone they could date - and they might if they thought I was half as good looking as I did back then. It was a massive boost of ego to have all those twinkling eyes watching you, as you have the control over the room and get to tell people your age what to do and how to do it. Only my impotent salary of $1000/month plus housing kept me humble.

On the roof of a classroom building was a hutch rotting away. I could see the benefit the awning above it had, by looking at the hutch next to it fully exposed to the elements. If I didn't do something, it would be next. Because "stealing" is such a strong word, I claim that I merely "rescued" it. After all, it never left school property. One night while all my students were trapped under the piles of homework I gave them, I took the hutch apart. After three or four hours of pulling it apart and moving it in loads, it was all finally on the roof of my teacher's apartment. Any free time went into sanding every piece by hand, and then eventually staining it. I'm not even sure how many hours went into getting this finished, but I imagine upwards of fifty. That's how much free time I had. I hated waking up on Monday morning knowing I would have to work 8 hours: 2 hours on Monday, 2 on Tuesday, 2 on Thursday, and 2 on Friday. I supplemented my income teaching 100 kids over the course of a couple hours, teaching the teacher's kids, and teaching a rich family that owned a shoe factory and a junior college.

Music Hall

This is the music school, which has pianos in the basement in the same condition as my hutch. There were two that had a full working keyboard where I tried to learn Louise Armstrong's "A Kiss to Build a Dream On". I was not successful.


The only time I went in this building was when Fuqing U hosted an English speaking competition of universities throughout the region. I was the coach, and my little person thing won the competition and went to Beijing!


This is library that I don't think I ever visited, but this is where graduation photos were taken, and since I taught seniors, I was in them. The end of the year brought its own challenges because failing students meant they couldn't graduate and get a job. While I felt like a superstar, my students came from simple backgrounds and couldn't afford better schools even if their college entrance exams allowed it. I gave plenty of opportunities for them to succeed, even going as far as giving extra credit for which class could give me the most pictures of me. I told them not to toupai ("steal capture") me, and I was curious how much they did anyway.

The issue wasn't that my class was hard. Most of the grading was based on effort. Due to different value systems, plagiarism is rampant in China, and upon discovering half of my students did it on an assignment, I gave a lesson on plagiarism and let them revise. Some students still cheated and got a 0.

For the final exam, I wrote a two page essay full of writing mistakes we'd gone over in class related to organization, redundancy, and misused words. There were like 30 and I asked them to find 10 and explain why. Some of the very same students that cheated on the writing assignment, plagiarized each other on this test. The English department advised I give them another test. Of the 5 retakers, I think 2 or 3 cheated on the make up test. The ax was held high above my head, with one girl even following me back to my apartment (nice try). The English department said that I should give the students the lowest passing grade, but they would honor whatever decision I made. It was a tight spot indeed. In the end, I couldn't import my moral framework onto them, when really I am sort of a guest here. It wasn't fair to the other students, but it wasn't my place to rock the boat.

My students left to do great things, and I went to Taiwan for my first ever cycling trip.

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Technophobe gracing tech companies in the Global 500, Fortune 500, a Kickstarter unicorn, and several little dinky places. Bike touring is my sanity factory.