If variety is the spice of life, then routine can be a sweet sprinkle of sugar in the face of such a massive change like moving to the other side of the world. I moved to Dongguan by myself in August 2018; Dongguan is in the Guangdong province in the south of China, just above Hong Kong. With a population of over 8.26 million, it’s a thriving populus with a perfect blend of rural and urban living, not to mention incredible weather. I worked for a state school teaching kindergarten pupils with ages ranging from 2-6. After such a drastic lifestyle change, I felt like I needed a touch of stability to help me manoeuvre this strange new world. After some trial and error, this is what my typical teaching week looked like:
My love/hate relationship with my alarm wakes me up at 6am (a time I had rarely ever seen before coming to China), and I go through the slow but steady process of becoming an actual functioning human. I need to be at school for 7:30, so I gather my things and stand outside my apartment to order a Didi (Chinese Uber) to take me to work. This may sound like an excessive way of commuting, but when it only costs 93p (¥8.40) to get your very own chauffeur to take you there, it’s an offer too good to pass up.
Once there, I stand at the door to greet my students and watch as they make their way to their classrooms either still drowsy with sleep or with enough energy to power a small town. Each Monday we have an assembly in the courtyard where the Chinese national anthem plays while a select number of students parade and then hoist the Chinese flag up the flagpole.
Once assembly is over, I prepare to start my teaching day. A typical day starts with me teaching 3 classes – one at 9:00, another at 10:05, and the last at 11:00 – ranging from 20-30 minutes each depending on the age group. Lunch is at 11:30 and is provided by the school for free which saves me packing a lunch everyday. There are no classes until 15:00, so I use this time to either prepare any work that needs to be done, and then having a peaceful snooze while the kids also nap in a rare silence. After the break, I only have two classes, and then I finish my day at 5:30 and enjoy the 20-minute walk to my 19th floor apartment.
Every Wednesday I come to school and greet the kids and their parents as normal, but at 8:10 every week like clockwork, I’ll be summoned by the school administrator with a microphone in her outstretched hand, signalling that it’s time for me to start the assembly. As someone who holds a Performing Arts BA, Wednesday mornings are my time to justify my degree choices. I stand in the front of the courtyard with an amplifier behind me and all my students in squirming, fidgety lines before me, and say “Good Morning everyone!” in my best emulation of a children’s TV presenter. After asking questions like “How are you?” and “What is the weather like today?”, we get to the good stuff.
The books in the curriculum I was given all feature a small lamb character named Mimi, and Mimi has an accompanying album of earworms that would give Baby Shark a run for its money. So I usually start with one of Mimi’s greatest hits with iconic lyrics that include ‘…I’m a snail, I can slither, slither, slither’. Throughout the assembly I’ll do 3-4 songs accompanied by choreography I had to learn especially (which is surprisingly complex for songs aimed at kindergarteners, but they keep up with me all the same), until their energy levels have gone from haywire to a more manageable simmer and I send them to their classes.
Throughout the week, I try to be good and cook my own meals, but Thursday evenings are my gift to myself where I go to the same restaurant near my apartment and tell myself I’ll order something new, but inevitably order the same thing every time because it’s just too good not to. After a long day of teaching, I walk my normal route home but walk an extra 30 metres to a restaurant on the corner with neon lights that reflect off everything in the immediate vicinity and can be seen even from my 19th storey apartment.
Walking inside you are instantly welcomed by a remarkably realistic tree surrounded by flowing water and various hues of fish, as well as a kindly greeter who presents you with a smile and a menu as they show you to your table. I became a regular to the point where I had my own table and the staff often knew my order before I’d even sat down. I place my order of greens cooked in garlic, chilli cooked cauliflower, and of course, a vat of rice which you’d think one person could never eat alone (an assumption I proved wrong many times). In terms of price, the cost for a drink, two dishes, and a bucket of rice came to ¥67 (£7.39), so it never broke the bank to eat out.
Now, there was an obvious language barrier between myself and my usual servers, so from time to time they would write me a note on a napkin or piece of paper which I would spend the duration of my meal trying to translate, saying something like ‘you look nice today’ or a note accompanied by free red bean bread as a token of gratitude for being a regular.
The first order of the weekend is always a lay-in. After a lazy breakfast I usually take a Didi to the nearest subway and take the 20-minute journey to Hongfu Road (¥8/88p) if I want to go shopping or explore the city. A visit to the local mall could never go without a detour to the bookshop. One of the biggest and most beautiful bookshops I’d ever been to and I could barely read any of it; the irony was not lost on me, but neither was the tranquillity of everyone enjoying the calm and quiet together.
I also quickly made friends with one of my students’ parents who spoke very good English, and so many weekends she would take me out with her family to see new parts of the city I probably would never have found otherwise. I also befriended the school nurse who lived in the same apartment complex as me, and she then introduced me to her friends who took me to karaoke, went to the cinema with me, and often invited me to dinner with their families, so I was never alone unless I wanted to be.
Over the February New Year break, I also took a trip to Hong Kong with some Chinese colleagues who kindly helped me navigate the way; we had to take a train from Dongguan to Shenzhen (¥58.50/£6.45) which takes just over an hour, and then after a few more train stops we had to go through passport control, so make sure you bring your passport!
Alternatively, if I wanted a quiet weekend, I’d take the opportunity to explore new places or stroll through some of Dongguan’s stunning parks. Lihua Park is a ten-minute Didi away, neighboured by hectic city noises, but filled with enough crickets and flowing streams to make you think otherwise. Alternatively, Qifeng Park is the place to go if you want to stretch your legs; home to Huangqi Mountain, it boasts a 180-meter hike if you want to see the iconic red lantern that perches atop its summit. Some locals believe that the lucky lantern is the reason behind the fact that Dongguan has never faced effects of war or mass sickness, and also the cause of the city’s prosperity in recent years. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it certainly has a good view.
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