The Road to China

Chapter 6: Burnout


Life doesn't imitate art too often, nor does it often imitate Hollywood movies, which should not be confused with art.  Many who have been reading this travelogue have commented that my journey so far is movie material, but up until now I would have been disinclined to agree.  Not anymore.  Let me tell you a story... 

It all began when I was first starting to experience teacher burnout.  All new teachers experience burnout within their first few months -- it comes from pouring yourself into the job, trying very hard to make each day interesting and engaging, trying to be the best teacher you can be, with no goals from management or adequate textbooks.  I know that my efforts were having the intended effect - the students were raving about me, and after a few weeks there was a string of teachers who would show up to audit my class, taking careful notes about everything I did.  Even the folks who recruited me said that both schools want me to stay forever.  Apparently, this level of foreign teacher appreciation is not as common as one might expect.  As a result I imposed even more pressure on myself to keep this level of effort up.  

Sometimes teacher burnout is compounded by having different classes whose lesson plans cannot be shared.  Sometimes it's made still worse when the papers to be graded start to pile up, along with the realization that if ALL of the grammatical mistakes are to be corrected, there'll be no sleep until February.  My logical half recognized these symptoms right away, and understood that this is normal, it is a matter of adjustment and that it will pass, and even knew what needs to be done to get myself through this period.  My logical half also understood that it is the students, not the teacher, who should be doing most of the work (all I should be is a coach), and that there are tricks to reducing the number of grading hours spent.  My emotional half on the other hand didn't care about any of that.  It was so overwhelmed that it just wanted to either quit everything and just work at the holiday school (see Chapter 5), or renegotiate my contract, asking to be rid of the 4-hour class -- my biggest anxiety.  

The Weather Started Getting Rough

Why that class is an anxiety has been covered in previous chapters, but as we all know when we are exhausted such problems seem to intensify.  The students really are good kids, most try very hard and usually "get into" whatever task I put in front of them, whether it's competing in groups to see who can think up the most Adjective-Noun combinations that begin with the same letter, or writing an in-class assignment that has to be an entire page long!

One night after a particularly tiring 4-hour session I stayed late, utilizing the school's high-speed Internet access (as intermittent as it was fast!) and answered a backlog of about 40 emails which all required a thoughtful response.  It was literally a dark and stormy night, and the thunder followed the lightning by less than a second.  It was scary - for the first time in about 30 years I actually had to cover my ears because the thunder was so loud.   Intermittent blackouts came next, followed by a permanent one.  I packed up my laptop, and went outside, hoping to get a good picture of the lightning.  

Then I heard an unusual noise coming from my classroom.  "Strange", I thought to myself, "it's 9:30 at night.  Why are they still there?"  I walked in to find my class huddled together, sitting in a dark room with their evening teacher.  (They have a THIRD 4-hour session at night??  Those poor kids!)  One of the girls was crying - the darkness and the thunder got to her.  Some of the other kids weren't doing so well either.  

In the dark more than usual

A distraction is in order!  I immediately started singing "Jingle Bells", a song I had taught them just hours earlier to end my class on a happy note (no pun intended).  They sang VERY LOUDLY.  Then I ran next door and grabbed my flashlight and Xaphoon, and when I returned I played a couple of Chinese songs that I had been trying to learn.  That got them started.  For the next hour everyone took turns leading a song, and singing as loudly as they could.  One kid who was very smart but whose goal in life is not to apply himself (every classroom has one) showed off his outstanding voice, and both of us respected each other's abilities just a bit more after that night.  

As the singing and playing continued, nobody noticed that the storm had passed as quickly as it came - there was no more thunder and the intense rain was long gone.  Everyone went home in the dark, having undergone an experience that brought all of them, including me, just a little bit closer to each other.  

After that night, my mild disdain for the responsibility of teaching them evaporated; I even started to feel sorry for them for having to put up with three 4-hour blocks of teaching every day on a wide variety of subjects.   I do not want to let them down; I signed up to teach them English and they are counting on me to do just that.  I will not quit this job.  I will find a way to stay the course.  I WILL find a way.


Jewish High Holidays in Beijing

The Torah inside a very Chinese Ark. 

"There are Jews in every part of the world!" I remember my Grandmother telling me when I was younger.  Maybe, but I was unable to find any in Nepal or Namibia when I was there.  And with the Jewish High Holidays coming up, I had this fantasy that I would do some research, find a well-established community of Chinese Jews here in Beijing, and have a very unusual service for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kipur worth writing home about.  

The problem with having such fantasies is that they set your expectations, and then when your expectations aren't met you become disappointed, even though there really was nothing to be disappointed about.  For example, when I finally did find a small Jewish Community in Beijing, I discovered that it was comprised entirely of Western expatriates, usually accompanied by their Chinese girlfriends or wives.  It was held in the third floor of a very affluent event building, and was even presided over by a visiting Rabbi from Israel.  

Not a Ming-Era Synagogue 

In other words, it was very much an American Reform service, filled with people who are not really there for spiritual fulfillment, but rather for a cross between a desire for the familiar and not wanting to feel guilty for abandoning thousands of years of tradition.  It was just like home.  I was disappointed.  Further research revealed that there ARE no Chinese Jews anywhere in China, not even in the legendary city of Kaifeng, where there was an active Chinese Jewish population since 1163.  My grandmother, may she rest in peace, was wrong. 

But once I got past my self-generated disappointment I became amazed by the people I found surrounding me at this service.  It takes a special character to uproot yourself from a wealthy western lifestyle and live in China for many years, as most of these people have done.  It takes an unusually open mind, a spirit of adventure, and another ingredient I can't quite articulate but it has something to do with being willing to leave all of your friends and family behind.  Let me give you a small sampling of some of the stories I heard while mingling after services:

  • One person I met worked for the World Health Organization, and was part of the team responsible for uncovering the true numbers behind SARS in the early days, and getting the government officials to radically shift away from the initial reaction of denial and under-reporting ("Classic Soviet Behavior"), and become more open and deal with the problem swiftly and properly.  
  • Another was a lawyer, whose self-appointed personal mission is to help reform the Chinese legal system, thus providing a solid foundation to allow China's economy to continue its rapid expansion.  

"Did you hear about the recent court decision about the Dow case?"  I hadn't; so he summarized it for me: The President of Dow visited a friend in China; and the friend make a very nice Chinese-style Dow logo and gave it to him as a gift.  The President liked it so much he had used it in Dow's letterhead and marketing materials.  The artist found out about it and sued, saying it was a gift and that just compensation was due if it was going to be used commercially.  Recently the Chinese court came back with its decision: They awarded $42,000 (dollars) to the artist, not the $600K being sought because the artist couldn't prove hardship, mental anguish, or loss of income as a result.  

"Can you believe it?", he said with excitement.  "They actually treated it as a Jurisprudence case!  In the past, the Chinese court would have said 'Aw, it's a big American firm, so let's just hit them with a large penalty!'"  Another small step for mankind.

  • Another was in the jewelry business, who has lived here with her husband for 24 years.  "I can't write a book about my experiences; I've been here too long!".  She gave me the names and locations of two of the largest sources of Chinese jewelry which sell to very profitable international exporters.  If you want to know where they are, please wire a substantial sum of money into my account.
  • Still another expatriate was a New York businessman, who has built up a nice-sized import-export business.  He is here with his wife, children, and grandchildren as the "source"; he has a large warehouse in California with about 12 employees and a lot of large steady customers on the receiving end.  Recently he financed an Indian restaurant in Beijing; it's been so profitable that next week they'll be opening an Italian restaurant nearby.  

 In all, a nice evening with very fascinating people!


National Day

Even if you didn't know that China's biggest official holiday ("National Day", commemorating the birth of the People's Republic of China) was just around the corner, you would not be oblivious to the fact that security has been beefed up here big-time in the weeks leading up to the October 1st event.  Security guards (who are usually omnipresent anyway at the entrances of all buildings) and army personnel have been walking the streets in large numbers.  Checkpoints have been set up along the roads.  "What are they worried about?", I asked naively.  "Are they concerned about terrorism?"  

What they're worried about is another political uprising, like the kind that shook the country in 1989 at Tiananmen Square and, although nobody realized it at the time, catalyzed their increased pace of economic reform.  It's kind of ironic to me that they would not want something that ended up being so beneficial to the country to ever happen again.  But no matter.

We all get a week off for the National Day Holiday, but first we all have to work weekends to make up for the time we'll be taking off.  I taught on Saturday and Sunday - just the thing a burned-out teacher needs -- and plan to spend a few days in Shanghai during the break.  I'll tell you all about that and the huge festivities of National Day when I come back next week.  

Until next time...

"Yours Truly, Gary Friedman"


September 29, 2003

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