Teaching the People’s Republic

I came to Shaoyang to train teachers. What I found was a class of people -- and a country -- in a state of flux

Topics: LA Review of Books, China, teaching, Communism, Chinese Economy,

Teaching the People's Republic(Credit: Reuters/Tyrone Siu)
This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

BETWEEN 1999 AND 2001 I lived in Shaoyang, a city in Hunan province famous for clementines and murder. The clementines were best when green-skinned and sour; about the murders, I cannot speak.

Los  Angeles Review of Books Though ‘Shaoyang’ means ‘the town on the north bank of the Shao river,’ it spreads along the junction of two: the pale green Shao Shui river — whose colour is said to derive from a slumbering dragon — and the wider, brown Zijiang. In 1999, the city’s population was just under half a million. From the rampart above the old city gate, one could look over an expanse of roofs whose thick gray tiles were like scales. The streets were lined with peddlers and stalls; most of the shops had roll-down shutters instead of doors. On the pavement, people washed vegetables, impaled eels on a nail, and welded engine blocks. Outside some of the restaurants there were dogs in cages that no longer bothered to bark.

I taught in a teacher training college on the edge of town. Behind the students’ draughty, six-person dormitories there were just rice fields. When you asked what their parents did for a living, most said, ‘My mother is a peasant,’ or ‘My father is a farmer.’ The students were between 18 and 21, but seemed to me far younger. The girls’ pencil cases and bags were covered with pictures of baby rabbits and kittens. They loved to sing songs. Any mention of boyfriends or kissing made them giggle and blush.

But despite their childishness, these were far from halcyon days. They were fined if they missed the compulsory six a.m. morning exercise drill or were late to class. Most of their free time was spent listening to political speeches or picking up litter round campus. Their only response to this situation was to say mei ban fa, which means ‘this problem cannot be solved.’ This is a verbal shrug, an admission of helplessness. Most students were only at Shaoyang Teachers’ College because their scores on the gao kao, the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, were too low for them to get into a decent university. Most did not want to be high school teachers, because the pay was low (from 800 to 1,000 yuan per month, half of what postal workers or train conductors were paid) and working conditions were poor: most school classes had over 50 students, and there were few facilities beyond a blackboard and textbook. Those who professed an interest in teaching usually explained their decision by parroting phrases like, ‘Teaching is the most glorious job under the sun.’ Though some did seem to believe this, many also spoke of pressure from their parents, who viewed teaching as a steady job. But even those who wanted to teach were adamant that they wanted to work in the city, not the countryside.



When I asked the students what their ideal job was, many said they wanted to go into business, be a manager, or work as a translator for a foreign company. Their English was too valuable an asset to be wasted on teaching. They wanted a job that would make them rich and take them far away from the villages and small rural towns where they had spent all their lives. Some spoke of ‘jumping the dragon gate’ (Liyu Tiao Long Men), a saying that refers to an old story of how a carp can be transformed into a dragon if it swims to the top of a waterfall. This was originally used to refer to success in the imperial civil service exams, but nowadays is a metaphor for courage and perseverance against great odds. The fact that my students were at Shaoyang Teacher’s College meant that they had already failed to transform themselves once; the search for a job after graduation would be their second chance.

In previous years this ambition would have been praiseworthy but irrelevant: for years most graduates had been assigned their jobs by the government. Those who didn’t like it could only say mei ban fa. But in the mid 1990s the Chinese government began to loosen its control of labour and trade and brought in economic reforms (known as gaige kaifang). Businesses and factories that had been propped up by the state now had to compete in an open market. While this led to many closures and redundancies, it also created new opportunities. It became possible for people, including my students, to imagine getting jobs in distant cities, maybe not even as teachers. They were the first generation since the founding of the People’s Republic of China to have the chance to exercise choice and control over their working lives. I had looked forward to finding out where they ended up, what jobs they got, who they married, but after they left the college, and I left China, we gradually lost touch. Though there had been Internet cafes in the town since 2000, few of my students regularly used email. On the rare occasions I got a message, it was brief and not very informative.

Haven’t seen you for many years! How are you doing now? Do you still remember me? Grace — in Shaoyang Teacher’s College? Wish you happy!

* * *

In April 2010 I went back to China to find out what had happened to two former students I had managed to keep in touch with: Huo Wenli, who now lived in Shanghai, and Wang Xiao Long, who was still in Shaoyang. Wenli had been one of my brightest, most politically savvy students, who spent his free time preparing for gala performances at which the students sang and danced to celebrate Labour Day, the founding of the People’s Republic of China, or the role of women in building a strong and healthy Socialist Motherland. I was sure he must have received an excellent reference from the college and help in finding a job. Of all my students, he’d had the best chance to reach the top of the waterfall.

I met Wenli on the gleaming platform of the Dongchang underground station. He was wearing a brown leather jacket with padded shoulders over a grey T-shirt. On his chest a woman opened her mouth in either a gasp or a scream. Half her face was drawn in a pop-art style; the rest was pixellated. His trousers were cream-coloured and tight, without being skinny, and ended in a pair of worn Converse trainers. There was nothing to differentiate him from all the other fashionably dressed young guys on the Shanghai underground.

“You made it!” he said, and smiled, and the sight of his teeth — their discoloration and uneven spacing, the gums that appeared recessed — immediately built a bridge to the boy who had gasped in wonder at photos of Hyde Park; who had come to class with mud on his clothes from helping his relatives work in the fields. But there was no time to reminisce. Already we were moving down tunnels lined with pictures of buildings that looked sentient, like a dead rabbit, or an explosion of spikes.

“These are EXPO buildings,” said Wenli. “Many countries will be there.”

“Will you go?”

“Yes, I am very interested in architecture. We have too many ugly buildings. We must make them modern.”

Outside it was a warm afternoon and the buildings seemed modern enough. For two or three blocks, they were high and impersonal, their windows reflecting the clouds.

I asked Wenli what he was doing in Shanghai, expecting him to say he worked as a translator or in the media.

“What am I doing?” he repeated, as if the question baffled him. “I am a teacher, no, not a teacher. A trainer. I train students for the IELTS exam.”

“Do you like the job?”

“To be frank, I do not. I am not a real teacher. Just help them pass some test.”

“What about the students?”

“Some are assholes, some are lazy, some are stupid.”

“So why do you do this?”

“For the money,” he said, and smiled, in a way that was either rueful or proud.

We turned off onto a small street where two girls were hitting a shuttlecock back and forth, watched by a third girl who was texting while eating sugar cane. We passed a hairdresser’s, a small supermarket, then Wenli asked me to wait. He disappeared into a small shop whose windows were covered by photos of afflicted skin. I saw boils, rashes, nodules, spots, blotches, welts and what appeared to be some sort of orange mollusc. As I stood there, wondering what else to ask Wenli, I remembered two things about him. The first was that his sister had killed herself after years of emotional problems. The second was that his final dissertation — a brilliant analysis of how corporations choose their names — had been almost entirely plagiarised. Neither seemed profitable avenues of conversation.

Wenli came out holding a red plastic bag. He took me to a small restaurant below street level whose walls were covered with posters of waterfalls, flower-filled meadows, blond women with electric guitars astride Harley-Davidsons. After we ordered, the waitress — a short girl with a fringe you could use as a ruler — asked us to pay in advance.

“How come?” I asked, because in Shaoyang (and most other cities in China), one usually pays after eating.

“It is because this place is so busy. So many come here from outside. People don’t know each other, so they don’t take any risk.”

I asked how he had gone from not wanting to be a teacher in Shaoyang to being a teacher in Shanghai.

“First I went to Kunming, because our college has many links to that place. I thought I could get a job in a company. But it was very hard, for three months I try, but the competition is too strong.”

Kunming is an entire day’s train journey from Shaoyang. In European terms, it would be like a French person travelling to Russia to find their first job. But there was nothing unusual about this. It is estimated that there are over 200 million migrant workers in China, moving from city to city. Though the vast majority are in search of jobs in construction or factories (about which both Peter Hessler and Leslie Chang have written excellent books), increasing competition amongst graduates has meant that even the best students are often forced to look for work outside their own province. Between 1998 and 2008 the number of undergraduates increased by five times, which has led to a corresponding increase in graduate unemployment. A recent study found that in 1996, 93.7 percent of graduates found work, compared to only 68 percent in 2009. Given these odds, I expected that the leaders of Shaoyang Teacher’s College had tried to help Wenli, whom they often spoke highly of. Whenever I mentioned his name to Dean Chen, the head of the English Department, she said, “He is very active!”

But when I asked Wenli if he’d had any help from the leaders, he quickly shook his head.

“The college leaders are not so important. Maybe if I stay in Shaoyang, the leaders will know some people. But Kunming is too far. They do not have guanxi.”

Guanxi has several meanings. It can simply refer to a person’s contacts, but can also indicate the way they were obtained. When used in this second sense, guanxi often connotes corruption. In 2010 China came 78th out of 178 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, which focuses on public sector corruption. The Chinese government does not deny the existence of the problem and regularly announces anti-corruption initiatives, which usually involve the indictment of some high-profile figure, such as the recent dismissal of Bo Xilai, though no top-ranking member of the Party has ever been convicted. In January 2011, Beijing’s prestigious People’s University began offering a master’s degree in how to investigate corruption.

It’s often difficult to distinguish between cultivating guanxi and doing someone a favour. Many of my colleagues asked me to do things on behalf of their friends, most typically visiting a local school. Though I was usually glad to do so, after the visit the friend of my colleague would take me for a meal, get me drunk, then ask me to give private lessons to the sons and daughters of the leaders. In most cases, my refusal was taken gracefully, but there were several instances where it led to a spate of gift giving, and once, with a red envelope full of money being put into my pocket. When the man refused to take it back, I put the envelope on the ground, which made him roar with rage. I was told that this was such an insult that the man would have beaten me if I had been Chinese.

The difficulties of guanxi were not the only reason Wenli didn’t want the department’s help. He asked if I remembered a teacher called Mr Liu.

“Vaguely,” I said, and conjured a man with a mischievous face who ignored me unless he needed help with phrasal verbs.

“Mr Liu organised many of the performances. We went to his house often, sometimes in the evening, so he could teach us the dances. But he also put his arms round us. Some classmates say he try to kiss them.”

“Was that true?”

Wenli hesitated, then said, “Mr Liu was my friend. But I think it was true. He did not do this with me but I believe my classmates.”

“So how did you get a job?”

“I was very lucky. But I was unlucky too. I was lucky because someone from my hometown was working in an office, and they told me there was a job. I went to see the boss of the company and he agreed. The salary was low but I did not care. I worked very hard, and it was boring, I had to check a lot of forms, some in English, some in Chinese. But I was glad to have a job.”

In the end, it was not his qualifications that had got him the job, but a connection formed in his hometown. However, it was exactly this kind of friendship that nearly got him killed. Wenli told me that after three years he left his job in Kunming and went to work in Guilin (the capital of Guangxi province, only a nine-hour bus ride from Shaoyang). He was in business with one of his childhood friends — doing what he wouldn’t say, only that there was a lot of money involved — but quickly realised that their business was illegal. When Wenli told his partner he wanted to quit, he was locked in a room. His mobile phone and wallet were taken, and guards were put outside the door. When, on the third day, he escaped through a toilet window, he found himself alone in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, being pursued by two angry men.

“I had no money, no phone, I was just running, but then I remembered a coin my friend gave me when I left college. It was in a small pocket of my trousers for years, I never take it out, not even when I wash them. It was only one yuan but it was enough to make a call. I phone my friend who works in Kunming police department, and he says he will call his uncle who is the police chief in Guilin.”

“But they were still chasing you?”

“Yes, but when they get me I tell them about the police. Then they go away.”

He smiled, took a mouthful, then said, “After I leave Guilin I hear about this job and I come here. Now I am a… a niu bi.”

“A what?”

“A cow’s vagina. It means that I am someone who is up and coming. If I stay here four years more I will get a household permit for Shanghai, which means my kids can go to school here. Or maybe I will sell it. On the black market it is worth 200,000 yuan.”

With the exception of some of its more dramatic details, Wenli’s story echoed that of many other migrant workers in China. Leslie Chang writes in Factory Girls about the many ways in which people from the countryside are tricked or swindled when they first come to the city, and also about the way workers jump from one factory to another in an attempt to improve their salary and conditions. A recent survey of young graduates in six major Chinese cities found that 30 percent changed their jobs at least once a year, and 70 percent changed their jobs every three years.

After lunch we took a stroll round the neighbourhood. Old women were walking small white dogs. The dogs had pink, protruding tongues and looked incredibly pleased. When we got to the end of the block, Wenli realised he had forgotten his bag. He sprinted back, and when he returned, held up the bag like a trophy.

“What’s in there?”

“Medicine. It was made by an old man from Sichuan who is very wise.”

When I asked Wenli about his classmates, he said he knew of three girls in Changsha, two boys in Nanjing, another in Guangzhou. There was only one problem. I knew most of the students by the English names they used in class, whereas Wenli only knew them by their actual Chinese names.

“What about Tommy? Do you know where he is?”

“Who is Tommy?”

“He was in your class.”

“Do you know his Chinese name?”

“Um, no. But he was from Xiangtan and was good at basketball.”

“Was he tall?”

“I think so.”

“Oh, I know him. A very fast runner. I don’t know where he is.”

Wenli and I walked till the end of the block, and then there were no more shops or houses, just a two-block expanse of rubble. It was as if there had been some localised earthquake. The one surviving wall was marked with a large, spray–painted character I had seen on the walls of too many houses, shops and restaurants. It meant the building was condemned.

Though this had been common 10 years ago, the rise in house prices in cities like Shanghai and Beijing, coupled with preparations for the EXPO in the former, and for the 2008 Olympics, has accelerated the rate of demolitions. In Shanghai over 18,000 households were destroyed to make room for the EXPO. According to Wenli, this had been very unpopular.

“Some people are angry. They say they have lived here all their life and do not want to go because of an exhibition that is for rich people. They say they cannot afford to live in the city and must go outside. They say—”

He stopped because on the pavement ahead a man and woman were kissing. It was not a peck on the cheek or lips but a passionate pressing of mouths. Judging by Wenli’s reaction, this was a rare sight.

We walked for a block; the buildings resumed; I stopped to buy miniature mangos. As I smelt their almost-poisonous sweetness, Wenli said, “I had three girlfriends this year, and they are all bad. Mean and very crazy. They are all rat girls.”

“Why do you call them that?”

“Because they are born in the year of the rat.” He sighed. “My relatives say I must get married soon, but I tell them it’s better to wait. But things have changed a lot. Now a girl will have sex before she gets married, but if she has sex, she often wants to get married. But if you do not, it is OK.”

We turned off the street into a residential compound where the air smelt of honeysuckle. A bicycle smoothed by. The flats were five storeys of white-tiled concrete with red numbers painted on their sides. I followed Wenli to one that had a large paper character stuck to its gate.

“What does that mean?”

“Double happiness.”

We climbed two flights, then Wenli opened a door. We stepped into a small hallway, took our shoes off, pushed our feet into fluffy slippers. The flat had a lounge, two bedrooms, a kitchen and bathroom. I knew teachers who had worked for twenty years in Shaoyang that lived in sparser, more cramped conditions (and earned less money) than Wenli.

When I went into the kitchen, Wenli was filling a pan with water. He put it on the stove then said, “I must cook the medicine.”

He opened the red bag and took out a second made of thick paper. It contained various brown items with a dry, pungent smell. I couldn’t tell if they were rocks, plants, or the innards of some creature.

“What’s that?” I said and poked what looked to be an ear.

“I do not know,” he said, then, smelt it, touched it with his tongue. “Fungus. And that” — he pointed — “is bark.”

I picked up what looked to be a fossilised pomegranate. “And this?”

“That is the house of wasps.”

“Really? Are you going to eat that?”

“Of course not. I will put it on my skin. But when I was a boy I knock down bees’ nests. We eat the honey, and sometimes we eat the larvae too. I think I was very wild then.”

He emptied the bag into the pan, then brought the water to the boil. I asked how much longer he planned to stay in Shanghai.

“Till I get the household registration. And I want to get a lot of money.”

“What will you do with it?”

“When I was younger, I wanted to travel the world on my own. Now I only want a home, a wife, some children, a dog. But I don’t want to work all my life. I want to stop when I am 45, or 50. I would like to live on a mountain, maybe learn about medicine, so I can treat people for free.”

He stirred the mixture, then turned the heat down. At the time, I thought his dream was romantic, unlikely, but totally genuine. There was a clichéd appeal to the idea of the country boy who comes to the city, finds success, but whose heart remains in his hometown.

Wenli rubbed the medicine onto his shoulders and back. He had to leave it on for two hours, which meant us staying home. We started drinking beer. After three bottles Wenli said, “Do you like Nintendo?”

“Yes,” I said, and so we played Super Mario Brothers together. At first it was like we were playing separately, but slowly, with the loss of much life, we learnt to co-operate.

We had just beaten the boss monster at the end of the third stage when his mobile rang.

“Excuse me,” he said and started speaking, first in standard Chinese, then in a mixture of it and Shaoyang dialect. The latter sounded jagged, almost crude, whereas the standard parts were smooth. It was like when I used to hear my students speaking Chinese amongst themselves. Students who were sweet and demure in English could also be foul-mouthed bullies who drove their meeker classmates to tears. In the different languages, they might have two completely different personas, but there was no contradiction. Like Wenli, they could choose to be both.

* * *

Wenli hadn’t made it to the top of the waterfall, but was definitely rising. The same could not be said of Xiao Long, another graduate of the college who had seemed to have a promising future, not least because he spoke the best English of all the students. This was in no small part due to the fact that he had been very good friends with the foreign teachers who taught in Shaoyang before me. But his greatest strength was his immense self-belief: it was this that gave him the confidence to approach a native speaker, and to practice his English without fear of making mistakes. After graduation he got a job teaching in a junior high school on top of a mountain, but he was clear that this was temporary, just so he could have some work experience. He had bigger plans.

After Xiao Long had been working for a few months he bought a motorbike. He used to turn up at my flat without warning on Friday evenings, usually with the intention of spending the weekend with me. Often I was glad to see him, because unlike most of the other students, he wasn’t intimidated or shy around me, and didn’t bombard me with questions like, “Can you use chopsticks?” or “Why is London so foggy?” His favourite subject was a British girl called Zoe who had taught in the college before me, whom he still had a huge crush on. Success for him did not just mean a good job with a high salary and the chance of going abroad, but also having a foreign wife. Though he often speculated about sex with girls from other countries, all these musings about Thai or German girls invariably led back to Zoe.

When I left Shaoyang in 2001 Xiao Long was almost ready to go to Dongguan, in Guangdong province, to look for work. Given his confidence, and fluency in English, I expected he’d have little trouble finding a job. The following year, I got an email saying he had an excellent job, and after that heard nothing from him, other than an email wishing me a Happy Xmas some years. I had planned to visit him in Guangzhou, and was surprised when he wrote back to say he was in Shaoyang. He was supposed to meet me at the train station, and seemed to be looking forward to it. “BIG REUNION!” he texted me, followed by, “IT WILL BE XMAS!”

Unfortunately I was a little rusty when it came to reading a Chinese railway timetable. I thought I could change trains in Hengyang, the second largest city in Hunan, but when I arrived it was 10 p.m. and the next train to Shaoyang wasn’t until 5 a.m. The station was on the edge of town, and there were no hotels nearby. I was contemplating putting all my clothes on and trying to sleep in a corner, when a man and woman in their early thirties asked where I was going. When I told them, she said, “So are we.” I asked her how much she wanted. She looked at my clothes, then suggested a price. I suggested a sum that was smaller, but still too much, and this satisfied us both.

Soon we were speeding along an unlit, potholed road on which the main traffic was juggernauts whose lights blinded us not only as they hurtled towards us, but also when they overtook: on their sides there were lights that shone backward. I wanted to close my eyes, but didn’t, because I thought that if I saw the crash coming I might be able to do something in those final seconds — such as throwing myself to the floor — that would mean the difference between severe injury and death. The only distraction was the succession of SMS messages I was getting from Xiao Long. Most of these involved him trying to guess the identity of the gift I had brought him. “MUSIC PLAYER?”, “DVD?”, and, “SOMETHING SPECIAL?” were among his guesses.

It was in keeping with our last meeting ten years ago. I was supposed to be leaving Shaoyang in 20 minutes, and still hadn’t worked out what to do with the many cumbersome leaving presents I had been given. I was considering breaking up a tea set when Xiao Long said, “Maybe I can help you?”

“Do you want them?”

“Of course not,” he said, as if I were a fool for suggesting it. “But I think I can get money for them.” He picked up the needlework sampler featuring two grey kittens. “Not a lot,” he said, then looked at me reprovingly, as if I had thought these cats priceless. “But a little is still good!”

“What if you can’t sell them?”

“I will give them to a woman. You know, women really like gifts.”

The final cohort of texts came after I had been en route for two hours. “WHERE R U?” was quickly followed by “HURRY UP”, then “I CANNOT WAIT”. The last was worrying, as he had arranged my hotel. I texted that I would be there in under half an hour. “HAD TO GO SEE YOU TOMORROW!” was his reply. My emotional return to Shaoyang consisted of being dropped off outside a building I didn’t recognise, on a street I didn’t know, at one o’clock in the morning.

I stood there several minutes, then began to walk. When a taxi appeared, I stopped it and asked the driver to take me to the best hotel in Shaoyang. She nodded and asked no further questions. At first, as we drove, I recognised nothing, but couldn’t tell if this was because things had changed so much, or because I had forgotten. Then we were crossing the river Shao Shui, passing giant statues of rhinos. For centuries their task has been to keep the dragon trapped in the river.

My driver took me through a gate I had never noticed before. We drove between dark apartment blocks, then stopped in front of a hotel with a lighted fountain outside. The lobby was vast and its walls were covered with red velvet and mirrors. The floor was marble and almost all the guests were middle aged or elderly men wearing well-cut suits. I had not known that such an opulent hotel existed in Shaoyang, and it made me wonder if the rest of the city had been similarly transformed.

But the great prosperity of China’s east coast has yet to reach most parts of the inland provinces. Next morning I walked through streets whose buildings were still the two or three-storey white-tiled buildings that I remembered. The most obvious changes were better roads and that the shops now had doors. On the pavements people were selling tights and socks or cutting the eyes from pineapples. Wild dogs ran in and out of the traffic. There were no shopping malls or multinational chains; the nearest was a faux-McDonald’s called Peter Burger.

As it was in the town, so it was in the college. There were new dormitories and teaching buildings, but the classrooms had not changed. The long rows of desks and benches were still bolted to the floor. The teacher’s desk was still high up on a concrete platform. As for the blackboards, I wondered if they were the same ones I had written on a decade ago. They were topped with slogans in coloured plastic such as ‘Better Every Day!’ and ‘We can have the Moon!’

The English department had moved to another building. When I walked into its office I saw a women in her early sixties wearing black slacks and a maroon tunic that buttoned at the collar. This was Dean Chen, my old boss, who I had liked, because although she was never particularly helpful, she wasn’t obstructive either. As I watched her mouth open, and eyes widen, I felt like one of those long-dead characters in a soap opera who return in order to boost ratings. Only then did I consider that it might have been courteous to inform them I was thinking of popping in after a 10-year absence.

After an exchange of pleasantries, Dean Chen asked why I had come back. I paused. ‘Curiosity’, though close to the truth, didn’t seem an adequate reason.

“I’m doing some research about English language teaching in China,” I said, and when this lie was accepted, added, “Would it be possible to speak to some of the teachers?”

“Of course,” said Dean Chen, then left the room. I checked my phone and saw I had seven messages from Xiao Long. Given he had more or less abandoned me, I saw no reason to reply at once.

Dean Chen never returned, but after a while a young teacher called Sunny introduced herself. We talked about problems in the classroom, the main one being that the exams were still designed to test the students’ written English but not their spoken. As a result, students tended to direct their efforts more toward the former. Her English was excellent and had a mild American lilt, the result of her spending the previous summer in California. I was about to ask more — it was unclear how a low-paid teacher in Shaoyang had arranged this — but was interrupted by a knock on the door. As we turned Xiao Long said, “There you are!” He was wearing a black and white striped sweater under a bright orange jacket. His hair had receded so much he looked like a middle-aged Mao Zedong.

Sunny had to go and teach. As soon as she left the room, Xiao Long leant close and whispered, “Now I know why you don’t answer. You have been making a good friend.”

When I protested that I had only just met her, he said, “This is a good chance for you. Why not have a try?”

“She’s married.”

“That is no problem. In fact, you have a better chance. It means she will know more about the pleasure of sex.”

He nodded, and looked very pleased, as if this were something he had arranged. Then he grew serious.

“But I must tell you that you look much older. Really. You should take more care of yourself.”

I laughed, but must have looked wounded, because he added, “You know, we are friends, so it is OK if I say this to you.”

“Shall we go into town?” I said.

We spent the rest of the morning looking for people and places that no longer existed. A long street of old houses down by the river had been replaced by a stretch of karaoke bars that doubled as brothels. My favourite restaurant — a two-storey wooden house where it was best to keep one’s feet off the floor because of the rats — was now a rubbish compacting plant. When I knocked on the door of the man who used to develop my films in his kitchen (and only bothered to develop negatives he liked the look of) we were told he had died. Such changes were in no way profound, only to be expected; what surprised me was how reluctant my memories were to be updated. I had been honing my image of the town for a decade; although I had come to find out what had changed, what I looked for, longed for, was the things that had not. Of these, there were few: the Qing tower with grass growing from its walls; the old red teahouse overlooking the river; the temple on a hill whose lights I used to watch at night. And of course, the Shao Shui river, its waters still the colour of a jade milkshake.

“There are many changes here,” said Xiao Long. “Conditions are much better. Ten years ago, I could not stand it.”

“That was when you went to Guangzhou?”

“Yes, and I got a very good job. I worked in a factory that made circuit boards. I had to check the specifications on each order. I worked hard, but the pay was very good.”

“So what happened? Why did you leave?”

He sighed. “For a year, it was wonderful. But then I made a mistake. I got a number wrong on an order, and they made many boards that were useless.”

“Did they fire you?”

“No, but I was so embarrassed that I left the job. I came back here, and I didn’t tell anyone what happened. I told people I prefer to be a teacher.”

He paused as a lorry clattered by, packed with pigs whose snouts were poking between the bars. Then he asked if I ever played the stock market. When I said no, he replied, “That is good. I used to play but I lost half my fortune because I didn’t know about it. With the rest, I bought my car. It is very important for me, because my school is outside the city, in Tang Du Kou, about 30km from here. If you have some free time, I will take you.”

His car was blue and very small. Without the remnants of his ‘fortune’ he would not have been able to afford it on his salary of 900 yuan a month. As we left the city it started to rain, initially a light drizzle, then hard enough to bring the blossom off the trees. On the outskirts of Shaoyang the houses were two-storey, flat-roofed buildings covered in white tiles. But as the city segued to country, their ancestors appeared. Most were built of faded red brick and topped with sloping gray roofs. There were also older houses made from blocks of yellow mud. Slogans were painted on some of their walls, most of which were adverts for mobile phone companies, though there were also political messages. One of them read, ‘Not sending your kids to school is illegal!’ ‘Stability is the number one responsibility’ read another.

“Have you heard from Zoe?” he said. His voice had the same yearning with which he had asked the question ten years ago.

“She’s pregnant,” I said.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

He was quiet for a moment. He bit his lip. “I missed the chance,” he said. “And you know, I think I had a good chance, a very good chance.”

We drove in silence for the next few minutes. I thought he was driving too fast but felt oddly shy about him asking to slow down. The closest I got was to say, “So, do you like this car?”

“I love it,” he said. “But I had to stop driving for a while because my doctor forbid it.”

“How come?”

“I had an operation on my haemorrhoids because they were very bad. But now it is fine. It is wonderful to go fast again,” he said, then sounded the horn. Ahead of us, a pack of dogs leapt from the road. I watched them stream as one down the side of the hill, then separate in the fields. Against the bright red soil, their coats were a pale blur.

The road rose and fell. We passed two women clutching limp chickens. Ducks swam on a pond.

I asked Xiao Long how he felt about ending up as a teacher. I knew it wasn’t a sensitive question.

“It is not what I wanted,” he said. “I want to have a more comfortable life. A teacher must work very hard. When I first came back, I taught in a junior school on a mountain. The children were very wild, like animals. They were hard to control. One day I lost my temper with a boy and kicked him. He fell over and his classmates laughed and for weeks he was upset. I felt very bad. I have not done that again,” he said, then gently shook his head.

Xiao Long’s current school was a senior high, which covers the ages 15-18. We arrived at break time, when the students were outside, kicking balls, chatting, listening to music, reading out loud from textbooks. As we approached a boy on the top floor shouted, “America, America!” After that we stumbled through an auditory crossfire whose main bullet was “Hello,” but also included “Cool, man!”, “Hurry up!” and, “Look at the tomato!”

“You are their first foreigner,” said Xiao Long. “They are very excited.”

But as we climbed the concrete steps, the voices fell away. Heads bobbed in and out of doorways. All I could hear were whispers, plosive sounds of excitement; when Xiao Long opened a metal door, it was clear where the voices had gone. They had gathered themselves into the classroom, massing, acquiring more decibels than 50 small throats could otherwise muster. It was a sound I had not heard for over a decade: the noise of a roomful of people who seemed genuinely happy to see me.

The students were sat at small wooden desks, wearing coats and jackets because the classroom was unheated. A foot-high tower of books rose from each desk, the textbooks the students had to learn for the dreaded Gao Kao. In 2010, around 10 million students were competing for approximately 6.6 million places in colleges and universities. The exams take place over three intensive days in June, and though there are regional variations, Chinese, mathematics and a foreign language (usually English) are compulsory. Students are also required to write 800-character essays on such abstruse topics as ‘Why chase mice when there are fish to eat?’ and ‘What is light reading?’ There are also province-specific questions. In 2009, Hunan’s question was the single word ‘Morning’.

Once the students settled down, they began asking questions, most of which were like the ones my students used to ask, but with a difference. They still wanted to know about London, but instead of asking whether it was foggy, and home to ladies and gentlemen, they said things like, “Tell me about the River Thames?” or “What buildings do you like?” Instead of asking if I liked China, they asked what I liked about it. Though there were still many who looked as if they’d rather be kicked than speak English, those who did seemed more confident than I remembered. This was probably attributable to Xiao Long, who despite his reservations, was obviously a good teacher. When he spoke the students were attentive; they seemed used to hearing him speak English for long periods.

I answered the students’ questions until the lesson bell rang. The students waved and yelled a polyphonic goodbye; Xiao Long led me through a door at the back of the classroom. We entered a small room with a concrete floor and bars on its windows; its furniture consisted of a single bed, two tables piled with books and papers, a small sink, a two-ring cooker and a desk. On this there was a computer whose desktop photo was of a very different room, a spacious, well-furnished lounge with ornaments on its coffee table and flowers in several vases. Perhaps this was how Xiao Long wished his room to look.

We sat and talked and drank green tea from yellow plastic cups. He asked if I believed in zombies, and when I said no, he nodded, and apropos of nothing, said he was married to a woman from Shaoyang and that they had a daughter. When I acted surprised, he looked slightly ashamed, as if the idea of him marrying a foreign girl had been my dream, not his.

“You know, this is our custom in China. A man is supposed to get married when he is in his twenties. If he does not, people will say there is something wrong with him.”

I asked him how he’d met his wife.

“Someone introduced us,” he said, by which I guessed he meant a matchmaker.

Xiao Long refilled our cups with hot water from a red flask. Behind him, at the window, two boys waved at me. He blew on his tea then said, “If you know about me, you can know everything about China.”

At the time, this made me laugh: it seemed conceited of him to portray himself as an Everyman. But later, as we drove back to Shaoyang, I realised he was more typical than Wenli. The carp that becomes a dragon must be the exception. Just because my students had had new opportunities, that hadn’t made it easier to be from rural families. It was only due to a happy combination of good fortune, personal ambition, and perhapsguanxi, that Wenli was doing so well in Shanghai. But although Xiao Long had made a mess of the best chance he was likely to get, he refused to say mei ban fa. I had no doubt that he would try to keep on swimming.

“Next year I will get a new car,” he said. “I have a good chance to make some money on a copper business. If I get enough, I will visit you in London,” he said, and pressed the accelerator.

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