Don's Diary

November 8, 1996

June/July Bid farewell to registry duties at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, London and embark on a one-month teaching English as a foreign language course in preparation for two years teaching English in China. The tutors had warned that the course would be tough and my group is relieved to learn that everyone has passed.

August A week's sightseeing in Beijing, then on to Wuhan where the temperature is a modest 35oC. Met by Shao Xuemin, director of the International Co-operation Office, and assistant director Christine Gao, and driven in an air-conditioned car to the campus alongside the East Lake. We pass a tea plantation and I spot a water buffalo working in the fields beyond. Meet the acting head of English, Mme Ge Ya Fei, and go over my timetable.

Three days before the new session begins the department office is totally devoid of the frenzy that marks the admissions process back home, where former colleagues in various parts of the University of London will be running round like headless chickens. See a real headless chicken in the local market where poultry, fish and frogs are sold live and killed for the purchaser.

Am told that there will be 14 overseas students and five foreign teachers. Two Canadian teachers duly arrive for the graduate school. Meet outgoing university president Zhao Pengda just returned from the 30th International Geological Congress in Beijing. He is a member of the China 21-1 Committee, which is about to begin work on allocating funding for the 21st century to the top 100 universities: 64 institutions are already assured of their status, but the remaining 36 places will be the subject of fierce competition. It all sounds depressingly familiar.


The session begins on September 2. Set the alarm for 6.30am. This is a belt-and-braces measure as the public address system bursts into life at 6.25am from Monday to Friday with music and news, heralding the first period of high water pressure - water is available for 7.5 hours a day and I am getting used to filling flasks, Chinese style, for use at other times; meanwhile work continues apace on a second large tank to supply the campus.

Walk to Building 2, about a mile away. The first-year students are easy to spot as they are all in uniform for their 20 days' military training. This apparently includes rifle practice, but fortunately I do not encounter any live ammunition.

As I plod up the stairs to the seventh floor - the lift hasn't worked in years - I console myself with the thought that it will help keep me fit.

The students are eager to practise their English. Many confess that they lack confidence, but they are all capable of carrying on a conversation about most subjects. By the third class we are having heated debates on issues such as the desirability of students taking part-time jobs. On Teachers' Day one group presents me with a beautiful piece of calligraphy wishing me a long life free of care. I write an article for the student newspaper on first impressions of China.

New university president Ying Hong Fu and the vice president visit the department accompanied by a cameraman to record the proceedings for university television, and host a banquet for overseas students and staff at which I meet research students from Iran, Morocco and Libya.

Buy myself a bicycle and discover leg muscles that the stairs have not reached. Tell myself I must build my strength and eat moon cake at the mid-autumn festival.

October The first-year passing-out parade. Monday's classes are moved to Saturday to give a four-day weekend for National Day. Invited to lunch with the professor of mineral physics and his family, cut out British film reviews for my audio-visual class and try to catch up on learning Chinese.

L-text = /Now I have settled in I invite students to the apartment on two evenings a week to practise their English. Most are far from home, which may be a three-day train journey away. They feel that their dormitory system helps to prevent loneliness.

Am invited to visit a female dormitory on Saturday to see for myself. They have clearly worked hard to make their spartan surroundings as bright and attractive as possible; they take it in turns to clean each day and the ten bunk beds are all made, suitcases stored tidily in one corner, and the bowls and buckets for washing (water has to be fetched from a lower floor) are all neatly arranged near the door.

On to the Student Club, where couples waltz to the strains of the Blue Danube each Friday and Saturday. Begin to wish I had paid more attention to those dreary ballroom dancing lessons at school. Start worrying about my radio debut on November 5. Doubt whether gunpowder, treason and plot will be on the promised list of prepared topics.

After 20 years as an administrator in the University of London, Marion Andrew is now teaching English at the China University of Geosciences, Wuhan, in the People's Republic of China.

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