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The Shanghai Diaries – Work

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When my wife and I made the decision to come to Shanghai there was only one of us who had secured a job – her. We traveled across the world, leaving family, friends, school, and careers behind, and only one of us was going with some sort of moneymaking ability.

The thing is, when we first sent our resumes to the school where my wife now works, we did so expecting to not get an offer (if any came at all) until the following school year. We sent the resumes, you see, this past summer, and most schools have already hired their teachers for the coming year way before then. Thus we planned to continue doing our own thing this year, and then make decisions about China sometime during the Spring/Summer of 2008.

As it turns out, the school had an open position (for reasons that were never fully disclosed) and thus my wife (being the person of our couple-hood who has a background in education, and is herself much more educated than me) got the offer. There were some discussions and hints that I might be able to secure myself a position there in the months to come, so we came to this country much earlier than expected.

We were not worried too much about my lack of job. From our research we discovered that my wife would be making enough to support the two of us without any problem. When talking with my family, who were already in Shanghai, we were told that I would have no problem finding tutoring jobs, or substituting, or even filling in full time for a teacher who became with child, or got very ill, or up and left the country.

In fact, weeks before we came over, my brother-in-law had secured me a job tutoring a middle-aged women in the language of English. She was a little wacky, he said, but the pay was good and the work easy.

We moved here and settled in, and the day came to start tutoring her. I came with the bright eyes of a schoolgirl just out of college ready to teach the world.

How disillusioned I became so quickly.

Initially I was told my student was planning on moving to Singapore in the spring of 2008. From there she planned to travel the world, and it was for these travels that she wanted to speak English.

I created what I thought was an excellent plan to help her along. We would study for three hours each day. In the first hour we would study grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure from the books she had already purchased. In the second hour we would hold conversations about different subjects so she might learn to speak more properly. We were also to do some role-playing where she could practice talking to taxi drivers and shopkeepers and such.

In the third hour I thought we would do listening activities – listening to recorded broadcasts of NPR and the BBC, thus rounding out the basic activities needed to understand a language – reading, speaking, and listening.

Unfortunately, my student would have none of it. Suddenly she didn’t need to practice things like shopping or traveling in a taxi. Without a word her goals went from world traveling to only being able to understand the television.

She has satellite, you see, and many of the channels are English language stations. She seemed to think she was paying good money for channels she couldn’t understand and now she was willing to pay good money to me so she could understand these English stations.

As ludicrous as that sounded to me, it was still a paycheck, and I agreed, but we weren’t done.


She also didn’t need to have conversations because that was a waste of time. She did agree that listening exercises might be good, but she felt those were a waste of my time. She promised she would do those on her own time.

For me, what was left was grammar and vocabulary from a book. Even here she was regimental in the methods I was to teach her. Basically our classes consisted of me reading a sentence and then having her repeat them back to me.

Read. Repeat. Read. Repeat.

Ad infinitum. Ad nauseam. Ad boredoutofmyskullium.

Sometimes we’d mix it up and instead of me reading a sentence I would read a single vocabulary word and she would repeat. If we got really crazy she’d tell me the definition. Well, she’d tell me the definition if she wasn’t sure of it, for the words she knew she’d only say “Yes, I see.”

Imagine sitting in a room (and un-air-conditioned room I might add) for a couple of hours, doing nothing but saying random vocabulary words and hearing, “Yes I see.”

Still it was a paycheck. Still I endured – for a few weeks anyway.

In the end I quit. Not because I was too bored or because she would never listen to my ideas to help her learn the language. No, I quit because the schedule was too screwy. We were supposed to meet for twenty hours a week, Monday through Friday, from 2:30 until 6:30, but nearly every other day I would get a text message asking me to come earlier, or later, or not at all. Makeup times would be on weekends.

Under normal circumstance I might have stayed with this. I’ve worked weird hours before. Though it is annoying, it is tolerable, but as we are in a strange, exotic country for a relatively short period of time, this was too much.

The schedule would make me miss the Chinese classes I had already paid for. It would virtually make me eat every meal by myself. I would rarely get to see my wife, and I would most certainly miss out on plenty of sightseeing.

So once again I was unemployed.

Not long after, a friend of mine came to the rescue. She hooked me up as a private teacher for two young British boys. I teach them English, history, and geography in the mornings. The pay isn’t nearly as lucrative, but the work is much more enjoyable, and I’m free to do as I please with my wife of an evening – and that’s worth so much more to me.

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About Mat Brewster

  • yes, i see.

  • Mat Brewster

    Thanks Mark. That’s already become a catch phrase around here along with “pardon” which is what she’d say when she didn’t understand me.

    She was a nice enough lady, but she just didn’t understand the best ways to learn a language. Not that I’m an expert as I fumble my way through learning Chinese.