I’ll never forget my trip to Dunhua in northern China in 2008.
Some things really stick in my mind.
Waiting to check in, the old faithful trolley bag was once again at my side, still in good shape after all these years. Just before it was my turn, two monks in brown robes had a nose to nose heated argument. I guess one must had have left the other’s prayer beads on the kitchen table or something. Never seen that one before!
On board our flight, after ten minutes there was an announcement over the intercom
“We are very sorry for the delay but the plane is broken!”
Ah, Chinese domestic flights as reliable as ever! With this alarming news, an image of a guy covered in oily overalls under the plane hitting an adjustable spanner with a hammer instantly sprung to mind. Somewhere along the way that was just a bit too much information and there was a ripple of worry throughout the plane.
“We apologise for the delay but we are pleased to announce the plane is now fixed!” came next.
Great, and so with it another image of the same guy sparking a ciggie as he walked away uttering casually
Finally we made it onto the runway though there were planes all queued up awaiting take off due to the weather. Chinese people are notoriously bad at queuing for anything and I imagined all the local pilots pushing in ahead of the other foreign planes causing a giant airliner traffic jam at the end of the runway. As we finally prepared to take off, that final friendly little ‘ping’ on the tannoy reminded us that we’re about to accelerate. I wondered if there was a single button for this sound on the control panel and pushing it was the co-pilot’s favourite job. Perhaps he even overdid it, irritating the captain on a regular basis.
Upon arrival, my friends Ms Sun and Zi Hu were there to meet me. They were going to show me the sights and the first thing at the top of their to-do list was a guided tour round their school. There, the discovery was that this was a middle school not the comfortable adult training centre that I’d assumed. Chinese school kids are usually extremely hyper active as they have to be well behaved at home around the parents. School is more like a great taste of freedom and a riotous cacophony emanated from each classroom. As we walked down the corridor, to me the Antichrist lurked behind those doors. The thought of actually engaging in any kind of contact sent a shiver down my spine.
A nice school though; the walls painted half white and the lower half an emerald green. Chinese calligraphy and paintings were hung up on paper filling various sections creating a pleasing feel to the building in its simplicity as I headed towards the stairs leading to the foyer.
“Where are you going?” came Ms Sun’s raised tone from behind. “Don’t you want to meet the kids?”
“Well errrr” are the only noises I managed to utter.
“Come on. How about you start the class off? Its only just beginning” already opening the door as if it was already a done deal. With extreme reluctance and a painted smile as wide as the Grand Canyon I followed Zi Hu and Ms Sun into an instantly astonished horde. Luckily I could check their homework and use the text book as well as playing a few games and with the hawk eye supervision of my two friends it went really well.
After being mobbed for half an hour at the end of class we managed to escape and go to the office to meet the head teacher and owner Mr Gao. When we walked in I was taken aback in that he had only one eye and he was blind. I’ve been helping people with various disabilities for years but that was a new one on me.
“Hello Mr Gao. Nice to meet you at last. I love your school.”
“Very good. You can call me Michael. Do you like Dunhua?”
A man slight in stature it was hard to believe that this guy was the founder of his own school. Indeed he looked like he could break really easily if he fell down or banged himself on something. His fragility suggested that he may be a continual sufferer of ill health. His clothes were easily too big for him, draped over skin and bones like sheets with sleeves working their way over his hands.
After polite introductions Michael started telling me about his school. Rather than the usual assertiveness you would expect from a head teacher, he had a quiet almost breathless whisper to his voice matched with an amenable smile.
“I started learning English thirty years ago. We had no money then and I didn’t go to school. Someone gave me a small radio and I learnt my English from listening to an English speaking channel”.
Amazing hey? Most people don’t realise, but English is a difficult language to learn, let alone single handed from the radio. To be able to speak with such fluency is a remarkable achievement.
“One day a mother brought her son to see me. She asked me to teach him so I gave him lessons in my bedroom. When he started speaking English more people heard about it and brought their children for lessons. Finally I had to move to another place to teach them as I had so many students. It was a real classroom. We continued until I opened this school.”
After the office we went to a restaurant where Michael paid for the whole lot. Such hospitality for the single Westerner was quite overwhelming, though the feeling of this guy’s accomplishment left me filled with far more emotion. Throughout the whole time people would stop and say hello to Michael and he was clearly something of the local celebrity.
It just shows you what you are capable of and what you can do if you really apply yourself .