We arrived in Yangshuo after a 5 hour journey by plane, train and automobile from Vietnam to Guilin China, full of enthusiasm and passion and the usual pangs of anxiety that go with starting any new job. Getting to the school headquarters a little earlier than expected, we climbed the steps to the outdoor seating area, where a large poster of the Principal Teacher greeted students and teachers alike, with encouraging words for their English Language learning. We took a seat at one of the benches and began chatting to two wonderfully pleasant Chinese men who were seated close by. One was clearly a student, with his head buried in his English textbook preparing for his day’s lessons. He was clear bait for any new English Language Teacher, and so I asked him how he was finding the English lessons, whether he felt that he was progressing in his learning of the language and what he thought of the school? He said that he was enjoying his studies and that his English was improving day by day. The other gentleman joined our conversation and I asked him about the area, and did he know much about the school etc. From his knowledge of the area and an identity badge hanging from his neck, it was clear to me that he may have been one of the local taxi drivers trying to grab a fare from the students and teachers on the first day of the new term. To pass the time we chatted away to him, explaining that we were from Ireland, on a trip around the world and were in Yangshuo to teach English to the students at Omeida for the Summer. We tried to get as much info from him also about his dealings with the school and what he thought of it. Once we heard the school chimes for the start of the day, we politely excused ourselves and made our way into the school to meet Jake, the Education Director at the school. After various introductions, instructions and induction, we came across the “taxi driver” guy still hanging around outside as we were leaving. Smiling at him again, we bid him farewell, before we were stopped in our tracks by another member of the Omeida Team for a brief introduction that went something like….”Martine and Colm, please meet Odar, the Principal Teacher”…and then my chin dropped! Throughout our conversation earlier he never once mentioned he was the Principal of the school! My mind did a frantic video rewind of what we had chatted about, for damage limitation purposes of course! And Odar, the Principal, sporting a wide cheeky grin across his entire face, had me in the palm of his hand from that day on. A genuinely, down-to-earth guy..who no doubt thought that morning “what sort of eejits am I employing who didn’t recognize me, even with a huge poster of me hanging right in front of them?”.
And so began our eight-week teaching experience at Omeida, under the governance of this funny, inspiring, unassuming and kind Chinese man. Odar is a shrewd business man as well as the Principal Teacher of this world-class school. One evening over dinner he told us the story of how he had grown up in a nearby rural Chinese village. I had shared with him how shocked I was to see the poverty of the children in Vietnam and seeing rats running alongside where they were playing. He explained that he grew up in very similar circumstances. He always had a love of English from the time he was a young boy and during his time at school he would sit with an English book hidden under his desk and read and read. He is the “Rags to Riches” real life story, and because of this, he is respected and loved by not only the students and teachers and staff at Omeida, but by everyone for miles around. Even the mention of his name to the poorer people of the community who line the streets of Yangshuo trying to earn a crust, brings a smile to their faces and yet another wonderful funny story about him. As the new “foreign” teachers at the school, Odar and his team made sure we had everything we needed, including a warm welcome, top-class accommodation at a small family run hotel nearby, and the local mode of transport in Yangshuo, bicycles, to help us get around and settle in. We couldn’t have asked for more, and over the next eight weeks we happily went about teaching at the Summer Camp, just a few minutes bike ride from our base. The hours were long, which is pretty standard for the people of China. They think nothing of working 15 hour days or more without flinching. We worked seven days a week, sometimes from 8.30 a.m. until 10 p.m. at night with the most beautiful Chinese children ranging between 5 and 23 years old. And while we taught classes indoors most days, we also had the fabulous task of taking these students around Yangshuo on outdoor activities visiting some of the most scenic places in China, and indeed the world. It most certainly didn’t feel like work a lot of the time, but an equally fantastic journey of learning for us.
Teaching at Omeida was certainly a life-changing and whole new learning experience for me as a new English Language Teacher in China. One Monday afternoon, it was time for me to carry out my usual assessment interviews with the new students who had just arrived at the school campus. A tiny young boy of about 6 years old with beautiful ebony innocent eyes, tottered up to my desk for his assessment. And so I began the usual conversation with him, asking him very basic questions about his favorite things and his family. Each time I asked him a question he froze in fear and just stared into my face, watching my every expression. A few minutes into our chat, I realized that he was just too terrified to utter a word in his own language let alone be able to have a little conversation with me in English. I called his Chinese language teacher aside to see if he was ok. Her response was that I was the very first “foreign” person he had ever seen and so my face and eyes etc. were comparable to him seeing an alien for the first time. The poor little mite was so fearful that the interview had to end immediately until he got to know me better and felt secure and safe. And this became a regular occurrence each week with the younger children. After this, I placed my little “Irish Granny on the Run” fluffy teddy on my desk and chatted to the children for a bit about Teddy before engaging them in any English language questions…lesson learned for me on that one for sure!
Our week consisted of teaching English to Chinese children through fun activities and classes to help them to gain confidence in speaking with “foreigners”, i.e. English speaking tourists. A new group of children would arrive on a Monday and stay on the school campus until the following Sunday morning when we would host a “closing ceremony” for them before they left. These “closing ceremonies” would inevitably end up with the students in tears having to leave, and often the teachers, including me, quietly sniffling in a corner as the children watched videos on a big screen of the week they had spent with us. We hosted Barbeque parties where English speaking tourists were invited to join the children at the school to chat to them and to help them learn about other cultures. Hosting Talent Shows at the end of every week before the children left for home, where there were jaw-dropping moments watching the children sing and act out their own cultural performances with such confidence. It was often hard to believe that these were the same shy, nervous children we had interviewed at the beginning of the week.
One of the tasks assigned to me at the start of the Summer was to come up with a “Camp Song” for the students of the Summer Camp. And so, the most obvious one for me was one that I’m sure, like me, many of you will be familiar with from those school tour days back home in Ireland where we would sing at the top of our voices on the school tour bus “Every where we gooo, (every where we goooo), people always ask us (people always ask us), who we are (who we are) where do we come from. And we always tell them (and we always tell them)…we’re from Dublin”…and so on. I just converted the “we’re from Dublin” to “we’re from Omeida, great great Omeida” and bang, that was it. Every group activity began and ended with this song, and the Chinese children would chant it loudly at the top of their voices “we’re from Omeida, great great Omeida”. They totally loved the excitement of it and every opportunity that arose they would burst into the song, much to the amusement of everyone around at all of the tourist sites we took them to visit.
Each week we would also have a “Bamboo Minority Dancing” night, where all of the “foreign” teachers learned how to do the local “Minority Bamboo Dance”. We dressed up in the local costumes and jumped and danced between Bamboo Sticks being shuffled on the ground by six Chinese Teaching Assistants to the beat of the local Chinese traditional songs. The dance was difficult, made even more difficult by our fits of hysterical laughter as we tried to avoid tripping over the constantly moving sticks. The children put us to shame when it was their turn to do it and were totally amused at these “aliens” in funny costumes struggling to stay upright throughout the dancing. During these eight weeks, we became children ourselves and every single day brought with it the most wonderful experiences with some of the most colourful characters I have ever encountered. And this was what our working days were like… adventure after adventure, each day better than the next. Exhausting for sure, but this was living life to the full and worth every single minute of it! Our fellow teachers and the staff at Omeida became like family to us, and in particular the young college students who became our teaching assistants while we taught. These teaching assistants were trojan workers and nothing was too big a task for them. They cared for the young students with patience, love and commitment from sun up to sun down until the young children were tucked up safely in their beds at night. They took care of the children “in loco parentis”, the same, if not better, than any parent would. With all of these people we shared absolutely everything …the highs and the lows of our time in Yangshuo. If one of us expressed a longing for western food or an item that we needed, all hands went on deck to find it. I had fresh French bread delivered to my door by one of the foreign teachers (who has now become one of my close friends) because I was having serious withdrawals from the lack of western food. The ex-pat community in Yangshuo really do become like family, as I’m sure most people living away from home in other countries have experienced. However I believe Yangshuo has the X-Factor on this having lived here for these three months.
Yet another lesson for me happened when we were assigned a group of 83 University Students on our last week at the school. They were young adults who were majoring in English and in addition to the usual classes, we had the task of accompanying these students on a cycling tour of about 20Kms round trip to visit some of the most beautiful sights in Yangshuo, one of which was to climb a nearby mountain called “Moon Hill Mountain”. Now climbing the mountain was via 800 steep steps in sweltering temperatures. The struggle was real! When we arrived at the foot of the mountain after cycling along the most beautiful scenic route, myself and Colm held back to the rear of the group so we could see and supervise all of the students ahead of us as they climbed. Naturally, being used to the high temperatures and at almost half our age, they climbed up at a much quicker pace than we did. Desperately struggling up at the half-way mark, we came across a group of young Chinese students lazing in the sunshine at a stone bench. The natural teacher in me questioned them as to why they hadn’t continued up with the rest of the students. I got the usual teenage response “oh it’s too hot” and “we can’t go any higher, we just can’t”. Well, I kindly but firmly told them to get up off their “behinds” and continue the climb to the top, reprimanding them that they would regret not doing the climb like their fellow students who would have the most beautiful photos and memories of the sights from the top of the mountain over Yangshuo. They reluctantly agreed to continue, but still complained and moaned, saying “our friends will be coming down soon and we’ll be late reaching the top now, and the teachers won’t be happy with us”. I was naturally becoming impatient with them at this point and told them that I was twice their age and was prepared to continue the climb and that they were to get their a**es in gear and do it and not worry about “teachers not being happy with them”, as we would explain to the other teacher that was with us that they got delayed. I assured them that it was “mind over matter” and that we would all do the climb together singing the “Camp Song” and that would keep their minds occupied as we climbed. And so we did, belting out the song all the way up, with me singing the lines of the song and them repeating “we’re from Omeida, great great Omeida”! Sure enough, their Chinese student friends passed by us on the return journey down, greeting them with laughter and jeering in Chinese as they passed, despite my disapproving glares. With continuous words of encouragement to them as they continued the climb I thought…”I’ll have them sorted, they’ll be at the top in no time and will be delighted with themselves”. And so, we reached the top some forty minutes later, only for them to do a swift turn around, in a state of panic wanting to go back down. I was gob-smacked! What on earth was wrong with these students? I asked them what their hurry was going back down and one young girl said “our bus will be leaving soon”! Now I was at the end of my tether with them trying to lie to me to get out of enjoying the views from the mountain top. So, I told them to go enjoy the views and stop the nonsense, sure weren’t they on their bikes with us? It was then the penny dropped…. They were students from a different college, with a different tour group! Another video rewind in my head for damage limitation…and bang… that I had them chanting all the way up the mountain “we’re from Omeida, great great Omeida”! Oh nooooo! No wonder their friends were laughing and teasing them… and no wonder they wanted to get away quickly… in their eyes they had met this mad western woman who was making them sing songs they had never heard of all the way up the mountain. As soon as they saw my face, and the realization dawning on me, they ran. No time for me to apologize or explain that with 83 Chinese students it was difficult for me to differentiate between them! The lesson? Know who your students are. We went out with 83 students and could have come back with 90! How would I explain that one to the school authorities? 😂😂😂
Exploring this part of China is like opening a beautiful Pandora’s Box of nature. It is a backpackers’ paradise on earth! It is so spectacularly beautiful that it appears on the back of the 20 rmb Chinese banknote. Yangshuo town is bordered by the Li River and Yulong River and surrounded by lush, soaring karst mountains. It is in these mountains that the locals bring their deceased loved ones to bury after the most colourful ceremony that goes on for twenty-four hours after their passing right up to the moment of burial. Family members go out into the mountains during this time to carefully chose the “perfect” burial place nestled in the mountains. The “wake” can be heard for miles around, with Chinese musicians commissioned by the family to play Chinese dirges and requiems on wind instruments. Fireworks can be seen and heard going off right through the night in honor of the deceased. The bereaved families dress in white to resemble the white clothes worn by the corpse, and carry the coffin of their loved one covered in flowers, respectfully and in silence through the town to their place of rest. They scatter yellow square pieces of paper and red rose petals along the route as they go. Having witnessed such a funeral during our time in Yangshuo, I can only describe it as almost tribal, and such a celebration of the deceased’s life. It is extremely moving to witness, even for a stranger in its path.
The scenery in the area is breathtaking for miles and miles around! For me, it is most definitely the “Shangri La” of Southern China. In 1998 President Bill Clinton and his wife Hilary visited Guilin and Yangshuo. President Clinton said after his visit that “nowhere is like Guilin, it has the best scenery under the heavens, but Yangshuo is even more beautiful”. Throughout Yangshuo you will find small farms and rice fields scattered everywhere. But you won’t find any farm machinery! Everything is done by hand, the ancient way, and elderly women and men in large coolie hats can be seen crouching in the fields tilling the land by hand, and carrying the fruits of their labor in two large baskets hanging from a long bamboo stick balanced across their shoulders. The main mode of transport is bicycle and getting lost down dirt tracks, along riverbanks, is all part of the huge adventure when cycling around. It almost feels like you’re a child again, setting out on a scavenger hunt each day, not knowing what you will find along the way. At the end of every road is yet another soaring mountain, and around every corner you will find jaw-dropping scenery and colors of nature that is every photographer’s dream. But even photographs of this wondrous place do not do it justice. I often had to blink twice to be sure that my eyes weren’t tricking me into seeing such beauty around me. Each Sunday we had our afternoons free, and so we sometimes de-stressed by taking a bamboo raft along the Yulong River with our very own Chinese rower steering the boat with one huge bamboo stick under his large Coolie hat. He would plunge the stick into the riverbed and push the bamboo raft down the river and over the weirs, listening to our excited screams as we approached each weir waiting for the raft to drop down yet another level into the water below. Large colourful umbrellas attached to the rafts, sheltering the passengers from the sun as they float along, and the lush green karst mountains reflecting on the glassy water, creates the most picturesque views of this beautiful corner of the world.
Along Yangshuo’s Main Street (West Street) it has bustling markets, with local street food. The dumplings and Guilin Noodles are totally scrumptious, and even the mere mention of them makes my mouth water. West Street on any day is filled with tourists enjoying the many restaurants and bars with local Chinese women shouting out their wares through microphone head-sets. Each bar has its music blaring in competition with the next one and it can be gritting on the nerves sometimes, but an experience to be had all the same. It was an ideal venue for our Chinese students to meet and speak with foreigners and they absolutely loved the buzz and activity of the town. It was also the meeting place for all of the “foreign” teachers to enjoy a rare night out if we had the energy at the end of a day with the students. I could write another ten pages on this piece, but, “what goes on in West Street, stays in West Street” 😂. Let’s just say, at the early stage of our stay (and before we all began work in earnest), the hotel where most of the “foreign” teachers were lodging put up a sign on the door to say there was a curfew, and that anyone arriving back at the hotel after 2 a.m. would not have access to their room as the doors would be locked. To explain that the World Cup was on and due to the time difference we had to stay out at the bar to watch it just didn’t cut the mustard 😜. There was no offer of a key to the door, so lucky for us, we arrived home (only on the one occasion mind, and only because our 25 minute walk home ended up being almost 2 hours, until we realized we were heading into the mountains instead of the town where our hotel was and had got lost!), at 6.10 a.m.! Luckily, the hotel re-opened the doors at 6 a.m. and we casually strolled in and up to our rooms as though it was the most natural thing in the world. I was quite amused that a curfew had been imposed on me, in my 50’s! It was quite nice to feel like a teenager again 🤪
And so our time of teaching came to an end, but we still had three weeks left in China before we had to leave for Vientiane in Laos. Yet again, the school went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that we could stay in our accommodation, free of charge, until we left. To say that we felt respected and valued being part of this organization is an understatement. Even after our contracts ended, they still took care of us, to the point that when I needed a doctor for a horrendous tummy bug that I had picked up, the school organized a lovely young Chinese student to accompany me to the hospital to be my interpreter. The hospital experience was another interesting one. I arrived at the hospital at 9.00 a.m. I had seen a doctor, who referred me to the area of the hospital that dealt with gastric problems by 9.30 a.m. I had tests completed in the hospital, results in my file going back to the doctors office, a diagnosis, prescription and medication in my paws, ready to leave by 10.30 a.m. And all for the sum of c.240 rmb, which equates to just over €30. With a population of 1.4 billion people, the healthcare system in China far exceeds the demand that we are dealing with in Ireland and yet there are no trolleys in corridors, or lengthy queues of very sick patients waiting to be seen. Albeit, when visiting the doctor initially you discuss your symptoms with the doctor while other patients in the line look over your shoulder. Luckily the people behind me were Chinese and most likely had no English and vice-versa.
With my health problem sorted, the teaching finished, and a comfy base to return to in Yangshuo, we had a full three weeks to explore some more amazing places in Southern and Western China. The public transport system, in particular the bullet train, allowed us such freedom to begin yet another adventure and at very little cost. Our first port of call…to take a bullet train to Chengdu in Western China to visit the Panda Bear Reserve and Research Centre!
Yet another “learning curve”, and one that will certainly stay with me in the context of how important it is for us, as humans, to protect and preserve the most beautiful and vulnerable species on our planet.
More to come….