JISHOU, HUNAN — So, I’m staying another year here. As it was last year, the decision was an easy one to make.
Logically speaking, it doesn’t make too much sense. Jishou is a small city, with few (Western-style) amenities. It takes at least two hours to get to the nearest airport. And Jishou University is an also-ran in the rankings of China’s institutions of higher learning.
My friends in bigger cities in China have encouraged me to look elsewhere for teaching jobs in China. One said, “The pay will be better, and the students will be more excellent.”
Yes, and no.
No question about the pay. If I moved to Beijing, or even Changsha, I could probably double my pay pretty easily. Of course, my expenses would also increase, and I’d have the hassles of dealing with big-city life. (Changsha has 5 million people. Beijing has 22 million, making NYC look like a small town.) Big cities have higher costs of living, so it’s questionable whether moving would increase my net income to make moving worth it.
I’ve lived in small cities for the last 32 years, two that were minuscule (60,000 population each), one just a bit bigger than Jishou (800,000) and another of 2.3 million. While it is generally true that living in a small community means a small salary, the trade-offs compensate for the comparative lack of dollars, or yuan.
Food costs are low. Taxi fares are low (since Jishou is so tiny). The people are friendly. If I should decide to rent an apartment, I could probably do it and not go broke. A friend here in Jishou showed me the three-bedroom flat she and her fiancé have bought for ¥240K (about $35,000). It’s got wood floors, a nice kitchen, big bath, and a view of the river. That kind of money might get you a squalid shoebox in Beijing.
And there’s the advantage of being one of very few foreigners around for miles. Western teachers in Beijing or Shanghai are a dime a dozen, and often treated that way by employers. Here, I get considerably more respect.
So I could get more money if I moved, but at a price.
Moving to a bigger market does not mean I would get better students, however. I’ve taught for 25 years, and I can’t imagine finding another group of students who are any more diligent and serious about their futures than the ones I have now.
One of my former JiDa students now working in Beijing told me she’s frustrated with some of her co-workers who graduated from the top unis like Xinhua U or Beijing U. “They’re bookworms,” Jaycee said. “They have no social skills.”
To get into a top university in China, a student has to score very well on the 高考 gaokao, the annual college entrance exam. Parents and schools program teenagers’ lives so densely with classes, tutors and test preparation courses that it’s no exaggeration to say some students have done nothing but study for the two years preceding the gaokao.
So, if you judged my students just on their gaokao scores, you might be inclined to believe they are second- or third-rate students.
But you would be very wrong.
As many American educators (but not politicians) know, test scores do not measure the quality of the student accurately. It’s one reason why American universities and colleges look at other indicators besides an applicant’s SAT or ACT scores: their extracurricular activities, grades, difficulty of courses, school location, family background, to name a few.
While I wish I could say my students are like the children in Lake Wobegon — all above average — I would not trade my students for all the tea in China. Certainly, a few are a little on the lazy side. Others are what we in the States might call “C students” — hard workers but lacking some extra ingredient that enables them to excel. But most of them are very good students. I care for each and every one, no matter what their grades.
Besides, I’ve learned almost all their names, at least their English ones.
My working conditions are pretty damn good, compared to the horror stories I have heard from other foreign teachers. My class sizes at JiDa are modest by Chinese standards, 25 to 40 students, so I can teach them effectively. I get paid on time every month. I get along well with my Chinese colleagues. I have a comfortable apartment, rent-free. If I need a jug of drinking water delivered to my flat, it comes within hours instead of days. My foreign affairs officers are extraordinarily helpful, and they speak really good English.
Then, there are personal considerations. I have friends in town, not just student friends who will someday leave Jishou. I can find my way around town almost entirely on my own. The weather here leaves a little to be desired, but it’s not much different from Louisville’s, and I put up with that for 25 years. The air is clean and breathable (except for downtown). There are no sandstorms, typhoons, earthquakes, or rioting.
It’s not idyllic. What place is? I am mourning the loss of two cherished friendships. One person whom I considered a dear friend has not talked to me since she left for Beijing a year ago. Another friendship I ruined myself by being culturally insensitive about male-female relationships in China; she and I are cordial to one another, but that’s about it for now. And there’s the little issue of being divorced after nearly 24 years of marriage. These feelings of course would follow me wherever I go.
For the time being, I see no reason to pull up stakes and go somewhere else. Been there, done that. As my Facebook page says, I’m happy in Hunan. We’ll see what another year has in store for me here.