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Early August 2007…Red Horse Lake (Chi Ma Hu (赤马湖)) summer teaching camp, rural Hunan province.
PART ONE OF THREE – INTRO TO THE CAMP AND ENVIRONMENT
Disclaimer – most of the names in this chapter have been changed to protect a) the innocent, and b) random idiots.
I’m writing this in Hunan province (湖南), south of Hubei, in an English camp in rural China, the Chinese version of the ass end of nowhere – a place called Red Horse Lake, chi ma hu, aka 赤马湖, about ninety minutes, by bus, west of Changsha (长沙), Hunan’s capital.
This little adventure started when Barry rolled up to my joint with a six pack, and told me about this mate of his who was starting some kind of English camp in Hunan, he was recruiting teachers, so he was inviting them to come out for a night or two to check it out. So I said yeah ok, let’s go.
To get there, we got a train from Wuhan to Changsha, and, as far as we knew, we’d be picked up at the station, and we’d go straight out to this place, which was fifty minutes out of Changsha. In other words, we were expecting something simple to happen.
When will we learn.
Our first wondrous surprise was that we’d be waiting three hours in the office, doing nothing, with six people “working” (four were asleep, and another two were playing computer games), because, apparently, the bus only went from the camp to Changsha and back twice a day. Yippee, we sarcastically thought, as we started twiddling our thumbs and playing eye-spy.
Our second heartwarming surprise was that the fifty minute trip was actually a ninety minute one, about half of which was over roads of dirt and rock. The teachers in the van with us were all pretty cool, though – there was instantly some kind of rapport. I’ve noticed that China, and some places in particular, attracts the most bewilderingly strange cross-section of people, and, in this regard, Red Horse Lake is right up there with the best of ‘em…but lots more on this later.
We got there, chowed, and got allocated rooms, and then me, Barry and Tom went down to this little wharf on the lake and had a few beers and a chinwag. I instantly liked the environment – a calm, quiet, natural-looking lake, maybe a k and a half from our part of the shore to the opposite bank. However, apart from the lake, I could make out bugger all of the place, since it was too dark to see anything (this place isn’t drenched in neon like Wuhan). I figured I’d have to wait ‘til tomorrow to actually suss the place out.
About seven hours later…..
So…how can I describe this place physically, after the next day’s sunshine let me see it?…it’s difficult, mainly because I can’t figure out what this place used to be, and who it was originally for. But here goes…it’s a big resort, with small rooms with nothing save for the bed, air conditioner, TV, dunny and shower. The rooms are in wildly varying states of disrepair, and they overlook an Olympic-sized, currently waterless swimming pool. To one side of this, there’s a basketball court, and on the other, a volleyball court, which is overlooked by coliseum-style concrete seats/steps, which are in such a decrepit state, it’s like an ancient, deserted Roman city. There’s also a courtyard with buildings curiously painted with murals of western landmarks – Mount Rushmore, Big Ben, Hollywood, the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House. The other main buildings consist of a) the main teaching rooms, and b) works in progress. The latter have areas that will be – eventually – western-style restaurants and bars. At least that’s part of the grand vision…more on this soon too.
So who was here first? The massive pool would say athletes, and the western toilets say foreign athletes…but the fact that the rooms are small, and have no fridge, kitchen, cupboards or basically anything, says that they weren’t used to staying at the Hilton. The same goes for the roads getting out here (more specifically, the lack thereof), and the state of the place in general gives a new meaning to the real estate industry euphemism “renovator’s dream”…so who was this joint intended for, and when? It’s just really weird.
Whatever it was, the deal nowadays with this joint was, apparently, this – it’s been deserted for ages, and a small bunch of people (locals and foreigners) have taken it over to create a “total immersion environment” in which to learn English. In other words, there are no classes as such (there are, but they’re so informal they hardly constitute the term “class”); instead, this place has the vision of becoming a foreigner-run place, full of cafes and restaurants ‘n’ stuff, where students can attend loosely structured classes during the day, and hang out and use English at night. Cool and noble vision.
We did two main things that day. Firstly, we went up to the local “town”, which is…well…how can I describe it…it’s rural China, mate!! Just walking around this place is like being in a 3D National Geographic magazine. It’s just sublimely surreal – dirt streets connecting the thinly-tarmacked “main” roads; tiny frontless shops with fridges on the pavements; more than a few buildings made of simple wooden frames, none of them more than a storey tall; kids kicking a lone ball around; streets covered in drying chilies or garlic; sounds of insects, kids playing, mumbles of people talking from far away; an olfactory world that doesn’t assault your senses on a minute-by-minute basis the way Wuhan does as you walk around its streets; a chicken or five wandering around…I knew then that this wonderful, simple, unpretentious place was the China that I’d flown over an ocean to see.
The streets were about a billionth as crowded as Wuhan, and I quickly realised that even the attitude towards foreigners here is gorgeously different – when they spot me, or us, and I say ni hou to them, most of them beam – a real, genuine, beaming smile. Little kids stand at doors and yell “hello!!” at us, and I’d reply with both hello and ni hou. When they’re with their parents, the parents beam seeing their kids talking to us, even if it is just hello. A minority of people just keep on staring after you say hi to them, but it’s a different kind of stare than the stares in Wuhan’s gargantuan metropolis – it’s like they’re genuinely stunned, because they’ve simply never seen a foreigner before; which is in stark contrast to the Wuhan-style stare, the one that that says “wow, there’s one of those weird things again, I’ll stare at it a while and see what it does”…which foreigners in Wuhan get 24/7. That’s what it’s like in Wuhan…sort of. There’s so many variables to it, it’s hard to definitively describe what it’s like. Suffice to say that if Wuhan locals unashamedly follow you for blocks to stare at you longer, well, that’s just a normal day there. Here, many of the locals react to you much more positively and genuinely – out here, they just seem to be more immediately welcoming, and not a come-into-my-shop-so-I-can-squeeze-cash-out-of-you welcome like in Wuhan, but more of a come-into-my-home-and-we-can-have-a-drink-together welcome. The difference in feel between city and rural China, if this place is anything to go by, is astounding.
After that, we watched a few classes to see how things were run, and meet the people running them – three people I met today, unfortunately, had done the bolt by the time I came back (I had to zip back to Wuhan for a day to pick up some stuff). These included an older couple – Helen, and someone who called himself G. They were both very cool – her background was drama, so she taught that; G’s passion was dancing, so he taught that. There was also an Egyptian guy called Shereif. Wanted to see them again I did, but bugger off they did.
I saw as many classes as I could, and I liked what I saw. Very easy, free, informal.
At night, after eating at six pm at a restaurant nextdoor to the main gate’s foyer (populated by just us), we went down to the wharf/dock, which is home to two or three people – including, apparently, a former champion water skier. Inside this little room, I saw a photo of her, a photo sitting neglectedly but proudly in a frame with a coating of grey dust, of her getting her medal in the early nineties. It seems that you can find champions in odd places – one is currently living in a run-down shack, on the shores of a lake, in a part of remote rural China that very few people have heard of.
Ok, now my life in Red Horse Lake as a teacher. There’s been so much cool stuff, so much weird politics, so many cool people, and so many fun classes.
A quick aside…while leaving Wuhan again for Changsha, I was lugging about forty kilos in thirty-six degree heat (expecting to spend a weekish in a place where you can’t just lob down the corner shop if you’ve forgotten something), across a massively overcrowded road, and, once at the station, I found that I’d missed the fuckin’ train by one minute…when I discovered this, I gave any of the locals who cared to listen a short but extremely thorough course on English profanities and various ways to use them.
Just thought you’d like to know.
So, my first day back…I got up at six to find the electricity off. Ok yeah fine, no worries. After a coffee (self-brought – never assume there’s coffee when you travel in China), I went to the brekkie room for a presumed rendezvous with people; but, alas, not a single soul graced the room. Hmm…ok, I thought, no biggie. So I walked around, happily exploring and moseying, bumping into a few pleasantly bewildered locals (what they were doing I had no idea)…basically, I walked around for over an hour looking for another foreigner and failed. Admitting defeat, I retreated to my room, figuring that if anyone wanted me, they’d know where I was.
And, lo and behold, David – a cool Canadian guy who was, as far as I could tell, my second boss – rolled up. He filled me in…there were no classes today, Tom was in Wuhan, the other teachers had bailed, and Juliet (more on her later) was off gallivanting in another province. Also, he told me ever so casually, a hundred and twenty ten-to-twelve-year-old students were rolling up tomorrow at eleven. Hmmmm. So, after discussing my actual role there, and what to do on this particular day (nothing), he left me there, feeling both happily filled in and euphorically confused.
NEXT WEEK – CHAPTER TWO : THE PEOPLE AT RHL
#hunan #redhorselake #chimahu