As I became more familiar with my surroundings, I started to realize that I needed to earn money. I needed to find a job. It was one of the reasons I came to China in the first place. I had just completed my first TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) course, which was a very basic course, and trained me to teach foreigners English. I had just finished high school, I had no teaching experience and I only had that TEFL certificate. As I updated and sent out my resume to different schools, I knew that this was going to be difficult unless someone decided to give me a chance.
One of my hosts, Gigi, suggested that I give private English lessons to children until I could find a more stable job. We created a fun job advertisement and sent it to all the parents who lived in our apartment block. The problem was that it was almost Spring Festival – the Chinese Lunar New Year – and most families had gone back to their hometowns to reunite with the rest of their families and spend the two week holiday with them. We would have to wait for at least two to three weeks before hearing any response.
With Spring Festival so near, everyone started to redecorate their houses and offices. Glowing Chinese lanterns hung from anywhere it was physically possible (and even places where it was not): the streetlights, the ceilings, the windows, the doors. New Year’s blessings were painted onto decorative streaks of paper in Chinese symbols and hung outside all entrances. Everything was the colour red – it seemed as if overnight the country had been painted scarlet – and pictures of roosters were everywhere (it was the year of the rooster).
Flowers were also a big part of the Spring Festival. There was an annual flower market held just for this event where New Year’s decorations and millions of flowers were sold to an ocean of people. I had never before seen such colourful and beautiful flowers. They were so unlike the flowers I was used to in South Africa. The colours were rich and plenty – just like their history. They had an air of aristocracy that amazed me. How could flowers make me feel as if I was a pauper staring at the Queen? My host family finally picked the precious petals they wanted, which must have been difficult, as I would probably have tried to buy them all and then end up being deported for suspicious flower spending (or something along those lines), and we headed home with our own little Eden.
The next day we visited Gigi’s family at her brother’s home. He lived in the same province and it took only an hour to drive there. While we were on the road, I gawked at my ever-changing surroundings. My head frantically turned from left to right to ensure I didn’t miss any scenery. It was my first time travelling deeper into mainland China and I had so far only been in Hong Kong and Shenzhen (which were both large cities). I was keen to see the rural areas where it seemed the Western world had no influence. I was slightly disappointed to see that the cities were closely situated and that the rural areas in between were only view-able for a fleeting moment before we entered the next city.
When we arrived at our destination, I noticed that it was situated on some type of military ground. It wasn’t difficult to notice – there were guards in military uniform, big and official-looking buildings, a large Chinese flag waving at us from the top of its pole, the distant chanting of an actual army. Gigi explained that her brother worked for the army and that this was a military college. I felt the need to look down every time we passed a guard, just in case they arrested me for being foreign and having blue eyes, and it wasn’t difficult to think that – they looked like they would arrest Mother Theresa for being a nice person.
I met the family and was surprised at how welcoming they were towards me. They could speak little English and I could speak none of their regional dialect, yet that didn’t stop them from encouraging me to try different foods and explaining stories and instructions things through hand gestures and sounds. They showed me around their apartment and it looked like any other Western apartment… except for the bathroom, which seemed to contain no toilet.
I immediately started panicking because I knew we were going to be spending the night there and I knew I would have to make use of this simple hole in ground. They must have noticed the sheer horror on my face because they started laughing and lead me to another bathroom which did contain a normal toilet. I was extremely relieved, but knew that toilets weren’t that common in China and the holes were far more popular. I would have to adapt or pray for a miracle.
I hoped for the latter.