Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Part 3: Stay at home mum starts her own business

In Part 1, Stay-at-home mum Melissa, discussed her values and goals with a career counsellor. In Part 2, she began studying and discovered that she loved learning and the course she'd selected, but faced some unexpected obstacles including unemployment. In Part 3, Melissa has thought about her transferable skills and now puts it all together! 

Melissa begins her own business
“I used my research skills to find more about being a personal concierge and found iCALM which was really helpful. And so now I’m a personal concierge and my business is called Allow Me To Assist." www.allowmetoassist.com.au

Finding the right name
"It took weeks to get a business name I was happy with. I wanted the name to tell the story and wanted a logo that fitted. It had to be easy to read, appeal to older people and not be ambiguous. I’d never had thoughts of having my own business, but it’s the door that opened and I love what I do, even though it’s not what I’d planned."

The importance of trust
"One of the important things is to meet people and make genuine connections. I usually set up a personal meeting first and that’s my client’s opportunity to check me out and get a sense of my trustworthiness.

My clients need to feel ok with me, to see if I’ll fit in with what they need. People might need me to fill a gap when life has got overwhelming, they might ask me to do their banking, shopping, take their car for a service or feed the cat! They need to be able to trust me with their credit card or car, so building trust is a large part of what I do."

What I do
"I’m getting known now, and have some really good client testimonials which is great. Some of my regulars call me their fairy godmother, because I’ve helped out during family emergencies. 

Not everyone has access to extended family to call on when things get too much for them, and they need to be cloned to be in two places at once. I have your back, and can get you out of time related trouble.

I’ve got my weekly and fortnightly regulars; I take some elderly people out for mid week morning tea and specialty shopping, or even to medical appointments because their children are working in the city. Others call on me occasionally when something major is happening, like a 40th birthday party, when I help with the organising, invitations and decorations.

I also do packing support, debriefing, making coffees and supplying food when someone has just shifted. I’ve reminded businessmen that important family events are coming up, and am always very discreet! Tact, diplomacy, and confidentiality are important.

Some people are intimidated by doing things online – I’ve shopped and sold things on eBay, I’ve booked a cruise, and even sold a car. It’s extremely varied!”

What a journey! From a stay-at-home mum wondering what to do with her life, to studying, to running her own business, Melissa has been challenged, overcome unexpected obstacles and found a rewarding work-life balance which complements her personality and supports her personal and family values.  And for her to say “I couldn’t have done it without you, Sue” is a very humbling thought.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Part 2: Stay-at-home mum returns to study as a mature aged student!

In part 1, Melissa spent time with her career counsellor.  After those meetings, she reflected quietly, and thought long and deeply about what we'd discussed as well as about which options best supported her values, her finances as well as the time she had available. She decided that further study, although challenging, would be right for her.

Melissa begins classes in Criminal Justice at TAFE!
"I was so, so scared that first day. I found where I had to go, took a seat and tried to be invisible. I felt so out of it and so different to everyone else that I felt sick; it was horrible. But we started with a meet and greet game which broke the ice. It was funny! In the afternoon the teacher got us  moving around which was good, because it broke up the little cliques that had started forming.

The students were chatty and inclusive, they were young, helpful and supportive. It was amazing!

I discovered that I was a thorough researcher and the other students really appreciated that, and enjoyed working in a group with me which was an unexpected surprise! They had things to teach me and I had things to teach them. It was fantastic and I loved it all!

At 42 I wasn’t one of them, but I was included.  I felt like a woman with a brain and not just a mum. I was so excited to be studying something I loved."

... and describes the experience of further study:
It was like someone had opened a door in the small, comfortable house I was very familiar with. But even though I knew the house very well, and had lived in it for many years, I’d never noticed a little door hidden in one of the walls.

I opened this door which had been hidden, and it was extraordinary! Beyond the door I found a mansion – a whole rich, amazing area with so many incredible rooms that I’d had no idea were there. It was wonderful, and it was welcoming me.”

Melissa isn’t the first person to describe this amazing sense of wonder and tearful joy when they realise that further education is something they can not only do, but embrace wholeheartedly. It opens a whole new world of possibilities and the joy is almost overwhelming. 

But back to her description:
“I felt important, valued and engaged. Our society needs to encourage all sorts of people to retrain and use their skills. I studied with a diverse group which made debates interesting - lots of passionate people argued and had to explain their point of view clearly.  They had their opinions challenged and changed by someone with a broader or different experience. It was great!”

"I had to learn to hold my tongue and not jump in with an opinion too quickly, I had to listen and try to work out where a different opinion comes from. As a parent my perspective was valued, and because I’d read widely I was able to enrich a lot of discussions. The young students were respectful which I hadn’t expected.”

and assignments …
“My first assignment was given that first day! I had to do a powerpoint presentation. I had no idea what to do or where to start. The bloke next to me knew all about them which terrified me. I went home and googled them – I watched a YouTube tutorial and worked out how to do one, then I had to learn about the topic and put the two things together!  I got a HD (high distinction) on that first assignment – it was like a wholesome drug and I wanted more HD’s! I loved putting it all together and seeing the result. IT WAS GREAT!!

I’d wanted to work in law enforcement, or in the courts with welfare agencies. I’d think of one thing and it’d open more doors. I’d love to have gone on and done criminology, but it was just too expensive.

I quickly realised there weren’t openings in the police force after the change of government and changes to funding. There were so many who’d lost their jobs or been redeployed that I didn’t have a chance.

Job hunting
After graduating, I spent the next 12 months applying for jobs and going for interviews. It’s hard when you don’t even get email acknowledgement after you’ve submitted a complex job application that’s taken hours to do. It’s soul destroying to apply for job after job and hear nothing at all, but after all that study, it was really nice to spend time with my family again!

I kept wondering what else I could do to get a job. I was getting desperate and began to wonder if I could possibly create a business myself using my new skills and my previous work experience.

I itemised my skills and thought long and hard about my transferable skills. I began looking at job trends in the US, and what new kinds of job markets were opening up there. I figured if it was early stage there it’d come in here pretty soon. I read about personal concierge which gave me a term that I could research further.

In Part 3, Melissa puts everything together and creates a small business from scratch.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Part 1. Stay at home mum wants to return to work, but doesn't know what to do.

From stay at home mum to business owner: Melissa Gemmell

It’s not every day you answer the phone to be greeted with “I’ve been wondering how to introduce myself. You won’t remember me, but …”

However, some clients are memorable and I hadn’t forgotten Melissa! When I saw her about four years ago, she was a vibrant, enthusiastic stay at home mum, keen to re-enter the workforce when her children entered primary school.

She followed on by saying: “Seeing you changed my life, and I’ve been meaning to phone and thank you.”

Well if that’s not an invitation for a lengthy follow up over coffee, I don’t know what is! 

Melissa clearly had a story to share, and her frustrations, challenges and ability to overcome obstacles with good humour, and then to look at her transferable skills creatively, is well worth retelling.

We’d planned to spend an hour together, but that extended into more than two!

The frustration of being a stay-at-home mum
Four years ago Melissa was full of energy and ideas, but completely lacking in direction.  She was frustrated with her inability to focus on something that would strengthen her skills, support her values as well as earn an income; so she’d called me for some career counselling, to work through her ideas and learn more about what motivated her.

Melissa had left school and had gone straight into a job without any formal training. She enjoyed a variety of administrative positions and changed employers with little conscious thought of career progression or what her options were.

She married and had two children 18 months apart, but found that the change of pace from a fun, hectic work and social life to being home alone with young boys lacked the challenge she craved. She loves her children dearly, but “kid world” though rewarding, wasn’t fulfilling on its own, and she dreamed of something to “break the monotony of being at home.”

“Parenting is such hard work, it’s relentless and exhausting. I was consumed by being a mum and ‘I’ disappeared. I wanted to find myself again and have friends and a social life.”

Many women who long to re-enter the workforce express similar sentiments to Melissa. They find their personal needs are put on the back-burner for such a long time that some forget who they are; they yearn to rediscover some balance where their needs are not only acknowledged, but fulfilled.

Melissa’s experience of career counselling.
“Sue gave me a deck of Values cards and working with them changed my life. I sorted them and then we discussed them. The process seemed simple, but it encouraged me to think deeply about what’s important to me in the long term. (There's more on this process here)

I know myself much better now after doing those cards. I’m far more self aware and that’s been really important in thinking about what career would support my values - even though it didn’t work out how I’d planned.

I’m now aware that part of me really loves the bubble of a group. I love bouncing ideas off others.  The Values cards were a guided way to improve my self awareness.  It’s brought it all into consiousness. It challenged my thinking and it started the lifting of the fog of parenting.

I sat with it all for along time. I couldn’t have forgotten or ignored what I’d learnt about myself – I’d changed and it was great!

One thing Sue asked me was “If you only had 5 mins to read the newspaper what would you read?” “I gravitate to human interest and crime, the background stories to victims.”

All of that got me thinking deeply. Jobs that seemed suitable for a mum (I wanted to be home for the boys after school) and a follow-on from what I’d done before I had kids, wouldn’t be satisfying now.

I’d have gone crazy with cashiering. It wasn’t intellectually stimulating – which is what I need! Career counselling helped me see and accept that I also need human contact and something fast paced. I now know and acknowledge who I am, and what I need.”

Choosing a course to study
I had an interest in criminal issues and found a course in Criminal Justice at the local TAFE. It sounded good!

I was so scared when I queued up with all the young people who had their parents nearby to pay their fees. I felt I didn’t know anything and wouldn’t fit in, it was so long since I’d studied at year 12!

How much would it cost? Would I be able to keep up? Would I be overloaded if I enrolled in full time study? It all seemed so intimidating and I didn’t want to set myself up to fail, so I chose to go part time.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Part P - Teaching in China - Pets

"They eat dogs in China you know."

How many times have I heard this statement and wondered what the underlying message was designed to be. For goodness sake, other people eat snails, snakes, eels, kangaroo, lambs, deer, fish, pigs, horse, insects and all sorts of creatures. It's what many humans tend to do to fill their bellies - often because they enjoy the taste, sometimes through necessity. If the need arose, I suspect I'd gnaw on some foods that right now I'd prefer not to think about.

And just to put the record straight, not all dogs, fish or snails in China are destined for the dinner plate. Many of them will become pets, kept for their beauty, serenity, good fortune or plain lovability.
The Chinese word for fish is similar to the one for abundance, so keeping fish as pets has special significance, fish also represent fertility and happiness.
I'm not too sure who is the star of the cheerfully posed photo above, though the little blue runners on the pooch were striking!
An expat enjoying walking the dog in dappled sunlight.
Puppies for sale in a market in Xuzhou. Not all were in prime condition and I suspect puppy farms are as much a problem in China as they are here. The little ones I photographed were in good condition and bouncing around healthily.

Every morning we'd look out of the hotel window and see groups of people training their dogs, chatting or walking briskly along before the heat of the day became unpleasant. Often the dogs would be off-leash and we nervously watched as the traffic streamed past and the dogs roamed free. But not once did one come close to being splattered! Although small dogs were most common, there were some large animals as well - Samoyed, Chow Chow, and others I didn't know.
One lunchtime our hosts asked us to give some suggestions about which dishes to order. I looked at some meat and suggested it could be a nice change. Bonnie, our interpreter looked at me with horror and simply said "Oh no, that wouldn't be nice"


"It's dog."

Even though dog is on the menu at various restaurants, it's clearly not the meat of choice for everyone!

It's odd though, while I'll cheerfully eat some animals, others aren't quite as tempting. I don't pretend it makes sense and my somewhat more logical brain says that if I'll eat one animal, then why not all of them? My brain then tells me that if I'm unhappy about munching on dog then I shouldn't eat any meats at all.  I'm obviously not as rational as I like to pretend I am!

My previous posts about Teaching in China were our ArrivalBanquets,  Culture and Comfort foods, DrivingExerciseFabulous Food,GamesHistoryIllnessFrom Jerilderie to JiangsuKenny (which is about toiletsLists and Communication Misunderstandings, Non-verbal communication followed by The Observations of an Onlooker, and the next will be Questions!


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Part O - Teaching in China - The observations of an onlooker.

If you're female, tall, blond and blue eyed you'll be noticed in a country where most people have black hair. That's a given. There's no way you won't turn heads and create both obvious and discrete comment from children and adults.

If a bloke has a generous amount of face foliage and is older, you'll not only turn heads, but will have people constantly queuing up, asking to have their photo taken with you.

When you're a foreigner staying in a non-tourist Chinese city, be prepared to be stared at. Staring isn't necessarily rude, but is more along the lines of "Did I just see what I think I saw? My eyes must have been deceiving me!  I'll just have another look to check." This is often closely followed by a nudge to a friend, a hurried conversation and more staring eyes.

Put simply, if you're in the above categories, and don't like being stared at with curiosity, wonder or disbelief, dye your hair a dark colour or shave the beard off. For the introvert it'll save a lot of angst, and isn't uncommon among foreigners. You won't blend in, but you will be less obvious!

Staring can range from the cursory glance, to the prolonged unblinking stare, to the positively amusing triple take, complete with audible gasp and bulging eyes.

In the photo below you can see this in action. The lady in the blue/green blouse on the left is staring at the beard. The man in the black t-shirt in the centre of the photo is staring at our blond colleague.
I'm following along behind, bemused, insignificant and practically invisible ;-)

On the escalators however, it was another matter.  People couldn't stop and stare. They'd be travelling up the escalator chatting away and were unable to stop or backtrack to get a better look at the gweilo. I'm sure some of them would need to have had a neck brace fitted afterwards as their necks snapped round with such speed!

Walking along behind either Candy or Ian was often entertaining! You'd always know where they were by the synchronised turning of heads. Ah yes, they must be that way .... hmm, no more people looking, time to backtrack and follow the signs! On one occasion in a crowded market I couldn't see Ian, and simply gestured to a stall holder, stroked an imaginary beard and with a huge grin and wink, he pointed me in the correct direction. A beard can be a very useful item for a wife!

My previous posts about Teaching in China were our ArrivalBanquets,  Culture and Comfort foods, DrivingExerciseFabulous Food,GamesHistoryIllnessFrom Jerilderie to JiangsuKenny (which is about toiletsLists and Communication Misunderstandings. Next up - Pets!


Monday, August 25, 2014

Part N - Teaching in China - Non-verbal Communication

First impressions are said to be gained within seconds of meeting a person; even before you've opened your mouth ... and it's easy to get it wrong. 

Non-verbal communication includes our dress, hairstyle, posture, age, how we smell, and they all contribute to the impression we give to others; and once that impression has been gained, it can be extremely hard to overcome, particularly if it's negative.

Non-verbal cues are understood to represent approximately 2/3 of communication and as with spoken language can easily be misunderstood, especially when culture is added. 

Those of us from backgrounds where eye contact is direct, can find it difficult to adapt to the lack of eye contact between men and women in countries where this is inappropriate. How close we stand can  also present problems, with some westerners finding they keep stepping backwards to attempt to maintain a comfortable distance, while the person they're talking with (who comes from a close contact culture) finds themselves advancing to close the gap! All these and more (see below) could be important to discuss with teacher-students.

The type of clothing we wear conveys non-verbal cues about our personality, background and financial status, and impacts on how people will respond. 

As a teacher visiting China in a professional capacity, how should one dress? The recommendation for the women was: no skimpy outfits or flaunting the cleavage, no shorts, nothing too strappy or revealing, try to cover the shoulders (though that seems to be changing) and remember it's going to be really hot and humid, so quick dry is good. Great! This sounds like my work wardrobe! 

Thankfully, I'd carefully folded my work clothes before leaving home and they'd survived relatively well so the first impression was professional, conservative, and with funky functional shoes that didn't cause blisters and that I could stand in all day. 

Shoes you could stand in all day?!


My students wore glittery fancy shoes with heels! Sparkles, bows, faux gems, platforms and colour! Flats are definitely not the popular shoe. Sigh. As for my comfy sandals which had gone paddling in Nanjing - they looked decidedly worse for wear, they'd changed colour to an uneven, slimy, murky, puke green, and .... was that rust on the rivets, and mould growing on the leather? My feet felt decidedly underdressed! 

Look at the shoes! With gems, colour and bows. They're fun!
I wish I'd thought to ask my students to pose for a shoe photo! 

Unfortunately I'd assumed that there'd be an iron in the hotel - there was, but it didn't work so I felt very embarrassed to be in a perpetually crumpled state after I washed my clothes the first time. The supposed trick of hanging the item in the bathroom when you're having a hot shower so that the steam de-crumples the item doesn't work even when you wish really hard. Sometimes, all you can do is explain the problem, then ignore it, walk tall (Did I hear laughter back there? Yes, I know I'm the shortest person in the room, but being tall doesn't only refer to height, it can be manner as well!) and carry on as normal.  

I've mentioned before that much of my teaching has been with mixed nationality groups, and I've noticed that wherever they're from, it's relatively easy to identify the nervous student, the serious student, the stressed, the humourous, the cheeky and so on.

I've also had the experience of attempting to communicate with someone whose spoken English isn't strong and seen the blank face combined with the nod of agreement - and known that the message hasn't been received! 

It's an odd experience however, to suddenly find yourself doing exactly the same thing!

Picture this scenario - you're in a conversation with a hesitant English speaker, or someone with a strong accent and you have absolutely no idea what they just said. Unlike the janitor clearly conveying his meaning about not putting toilet paper in the toilet, in this instance the speaker isn't gesturing towards any specific nearby object and there are no cues about the subject. The words have come out with emphasis, but they're a confused fuzzy blur. The standard response is to ask them to repeat the sentence. Your ear is tuned in now, all will be fine...

but no
so you ask again
and they patiently repeat what are presumably words, with added emphasis and volume
um, still no

could you possibly try again please, perhaps use some different words? I'm having trouble understanding

so they launch into a frustrated, animated, loud, but ultimately futile attempt to force the meaning into your reluctant brain, and finally, in the desperation borne of complete and utter incomprehension, you decide to nod and smile and hope that what you're smiling about and presumably agreeing to is safe, inexpensive and legal! They must think I'm so thick ... and so, when it happens with students I have some understanding of how it feels. 

Are they smiling with nerves, nodding to avoid the embarrassment of admitting incomprehension, laughing to cover shame, or is it the nod and smile of agreement?

Sometimes though, no effort at all is needed. When you take your lead from your non-English speaking support staff, the non-verbal communication including smiles, touch and hugs are all that's important!

Other important things to remember: 
  • Allow time and silence for the other person to respond. The length of time to respond could be longer than we're used to and it's important not to rush in to cover it. Listening to unfamiliar words, working out context, considering and forming a response can take a while. It's important to be respectful and not to step in to cover that silence simply because we're not used to it or find it uncomfortable. It can erode attempts to find the right words and undermine independence. Careful observation of non-verbal cues will let you know if the struggle is too much and you can gently ask if the person would like help without being pushy or dominating.
  • Self deprecating humour can be confusing or misunderstood. 
  • Be careful of sarcasm and put downs - at any time, but especially between cultures. Even in English speaking countries some humour can be misunderstood and create tension - it's relatively easy to back-track and clarify when you both speak the same language, but a challenge otherwise.

There are some good non-verbal communication teaching suggestions here: 

My previous posts about Teaching in China were our ArrivalBanquets,  Culture and Comfort foods, DrivingExerciseFabulous Food,GamesHistoryIllnessFrom Jerilderie to JiangsuKenny (which is about toiletsLists and Communication Misunderstandings. Next up - Observations of an onlooker!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Part M - Teaching in China - Communication problems. Being malicious or merely an unfortunate misunderstanding?

Misunderstandings can happen between people who know each other well, in loving long term relationships and between friends who respect each other deeply. It's easy to inadvertently upset someone with a careless word uttered at the wrong moment or when someone is feeling tetchy and out of sorts. 

We all have sensitive buttons, which when pushed, can occasionally result in an out of control reaction, a cruel explosive retort, or smouldering resentment.

It's far too easy for misunderstandings to take on a life of their own and expand with a putrid, nasty, writhing intensity. They have the potential to erode relationships beyond repair, and unless efforts are made to clarify, and for apologies to be made and accepted openly and honestly, without strings or malice, the hurt or bitterness can last a lifetime.

If it's this easy for divisive misunderstanding to occur between friends from a similar background and speaking the same language, imagine how easy it is for misunderstandings to happen between people who were born in different countries, speak different languages, but also have different world views and expectations about communicating. Aspects of communication also include things such as dress code, how far to stand apart when conversing, whether it's normal to defer to the older person, their relative status, whether to make eye contact or not and whether touching is acceptable or not. It's complex!

I overheard an exchange where a teacher from the United States was deeply offended and insulted, by a word used between our Chinese organisers who were speaking Chinese between themselves. What on earth could have happened?

It turns out that the Chinese word “nei ge” which translates at “that one”, can sound like the taboo word nigger to someone from the US who understands and has lived with the culturally laden impact of the "N word" which I'm assured wouldn't be uttered by a white person. People from other English speaking countries, may, however, be completely oblivious to the sound of the word, and not even notice it in a Chinese conversation because it's not part of their culture and history. The strength of the taboo of saying the word is huge in the United States, but ... 

Remember you’re in China. Different world, different challenging history, different problems, different assumptions and expectations, and different taboos. 

Most Chinese people you meet and interact with will naturally speak Chinese to each other. They won’t have any idea that their conversation where they're referring to a book, a bus or a pair of cute shoes as “that one” could possibly offend anyone, and they’d be perplexed at any angry reaction to their conversation.  If for some reason they did happen to be speaking about people they're hosting, they won’t knowingly choose an offensive word! They have their own problems, and insulting or offending one of their visiting teachers definitely won't be on their list of things to do. 

If you hear something hurtful whether you're at home or abroad, step back and think calmly; ask for clarification. (Which is what happened in the instance above.) Don't let a private conversation and a foreign word sweep you into a reaction which could get embarrassingly awkward if you make a scene.

A misunderstanding is easy, and if it happens, finding a time to discuss the cause could also lead to a rich conversation about history, oppression, taboos and similarities and differences between peoples. 

Remember too that our words, expressions, body language and habits can also cause offence. I mispronounced my host’s name and referred to him as a glob of snot. To his face. More than once. Thankfully he was gracious enough to laugh it off and accept my pathetic and inadequate pronunciation and patiently try to teach me to say his name correctly - again, and again, and again.
A hug is good at any time, but especially if things go wrong!

I'm sure most people have a story about communication and misunderstandings which have either led to problems or to more open discussion and deeper understanding. You're welcome to share ...


My previous posts about Teaching in China were our ArrivalBanquets,  Culture and Comfort foods, DrivingExerciseFabulous Food, GamesHistoryIllnessFrom Jerilderie to JiangsuKenny (which is about toilets) and Lists! Next up - Non-verbal communication

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Part L - Teaching in China - Lists, lists and more lists!

I'm a list kind of person! You can find illegible, hastily scrawled lines, (which may or may not be wrods) on tiny scraps of paper, on the back of a crumpled receipt, crowding both sides of tatty and torn envelopes, and on occasion, on a full sheet of art paper spread neatly on the dining room table. In the latter case the idea is that this approach will hopefully keep diverse ideas from colliding chaotically and assist in achieving the desired result in an organised fashion.

That's the dream anyhow.

Sometimes it seems the sheer volume of my lists would rival the legendary one of Father Christmas (or Santa if you prefer) who appears to manage to collate columns of naughty and nice children, itemise their behaviour, keep it updated and have it ready and correct in time for dissemination of gifts sometime on Christmas eve.

In contrast, though my lists have been enthusiastically begun, they can often be found in various states of crumpledness and legibility, in different rooms of the house, tucked into pockets, pinned to a cork board or held securely by a super strong magnet to the frig. Neat they aren't.

Which all becomes a bit of a bother when attempting to be in control and organised for a teaching gig in China. There are lots of diverse things to keep in mind - from the mundane: passport, visa, money, comfy shoes and suitable clothing; to the more fun: What will I take as small gifts and as iconic Australian food for the students to sample? That's not to overlook the teaching materials, but that has a list of its own!

I insist  with clear eyed confidence which I don't genuinely feel - "If it's on the list it'll get done!" But really, this is more wishful thinking than an accurate statement. Skittish thoughts are corralled onto slips of paper though few seem to be crossed off as quickly as I'd like.

Surely an electronic version would be more reliable and less likely to get lost!

In an effort to collate some of those ideas into a retrievable list just in case there's a next time, here are some ...  

Notes to self : What to take?
  • Tim-tams(they went a bit soft in the heat, but were popular) 
  • Eucalyptus lollies in the bag with the Australian flag on
  • Milo - don't bother! (It turns out it's commonplace in China - who'd have thought!) 
  • Download useful apps before you go - it makes life easier 
  • Gmail on phone is mostly ok
  • Zip-lok bags, elastic bands, bulldog clips, stick it notelets, decks of cards, plastic envelopes, permanent marker, (all available there cheaply)
  • World map, country maps, (buy Chinese one there) globe stress ball (good for games and rough country information
  • A-Z notebooks - great for new vocab words for the students.
  • Photos (family, wildlife, scenery - especially beach) 
  • Calendars with Aussie pics
  • Recipe leaflets - the free ones from supermarkets
  • Buy a SIM card as soon as you arrive from one of the hole in the wall places - about $10 and you can then use wifi at cafes etc easily. They'll set it up for you if you ask nicely.
darn I've forgotten the other ideas already!
Lists on the hotel window - planning and re-planning the programme. This is what happens when 2 Aussie and 2 US teachers collaborate and pool resources!
More lists, this time the classroom ones related to films the students would normally watch and their assessment of them.

My previous posts about Teaching in China were our ArrivalBanquets,  Culture and Comfort foods, DrivingExerciseFabulous FoodHistoryIllnessFrom Jerilderie to Jiangsu and Kenny (which is about toilets)! The next post is about Misunderstandings in communication.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Part K - Teaching in China - Kenny


But isn't that a quirky Australian film, probably seen by few people overseas?

Indeed it is, but the topic of the film is relevant - toilets, portaloos, poo, human waste. It’s a topic we all have experience of, but which is rarely discussed in polite circles – until you’re travelling!  

If you haven't seen the film, try to find it, if you can't find it, there are some good clips here. It's a delightful mockumentary, full of Aussie slang and home grown philosophy. (More here)

Whether you refer to "it" as the convenience, the rest room, the john, the bog, the WC, the outhouse, the powder room, the dunny, the small room or whatever, it's something we need to ask the way to, and learn the signs for, when travelling.

When you're away from home, toilets, the lack of them, the cost, their state of cleanliness, the pong factor, whether you could find one "in time", whether you need to take your own paper or not, often seems to steer the conversation. In a sense, it's a bit of a bonding experience, something we have in common. Tall tales are told, some real, some embellished - though often there's no need for wild embellishments!

Squatties are common throughout much of the world, but sometimes it seems as if people from the west are affronted by anything other than a white porcelain structure, sanitised to within an inch of its life which has preferably never been used by another person. Not a positive note to begin a working trip to a lesser known school, in a city in China, well off the tourist beat!

But first Shanghai, where I was confronted with a loo where complexity ruled, and which needed skill and understanding way beyond what I've acquired.
Help! Which one is the flush?

One thing which hadn't been mentioned in our introductory classes preparing us for teaching in China, was the fact that communal toilets are apparently all the go in Chinese schools.  Extremely basic, half swing doors, like in an old western cowboy movie, provided some semblance of privacy between the "business area" and the outer corridor.

I was taken aback on the first day of teaching to have teacher-students come up to me during the lesson, show me a wad of paper or tissues, and in one case a sanitary napkin, and ask if they could be excused. After a couple of instances of this and me thinking "whoa guys, waaaaaay too much information!!" I gently, and politely but firmly, reminded them that we're adults here, and if you need to go, just discretely get up and leave the room; if you want, make eye contact with me, but there's no need to ask! The same with phone calls - if you need to take or make a call, just get up and go outside - no problems! Really, it's fine!

But back to the communal nature of the toilets. Staff and students don't have separate toilet areas - on its own I can't see the possibility of sharing the area with students gaining traction in Australia. My teachers were genuinely surprised that we don't share and I wondered how many foreign students have innocently made their way into staff toilet areas to be greeted with icy stares or rude comments. That's something we definitely need to let international students know in their Intro to Aussie Customs lectures!

The other aspect is that communal also equates to no doors. There were small dividing walls and .... oh hang it all, it's too hard to describe - I'll show you a picture.
Old, but clean and perfectly serviceable, with a trickle of water coming from the cistern up there on the wall going in to the trench bit to wash away the waste. No graffiti, no foul slogans or drawings on the walls, no paper strewn around. Being on the dreaded toilet duty at this school wouldn't be much of a problem! But yep, communal ... um, and very chatty and natural, but different to what we've been brought up to accept as usual. But that's all it is really isn't it, what we've been brought up to accept as the norm, and we just assume that the rest of the world is like us until we come upon different ways to live. It's just another of those things that makes you think, and wonder, and question if we've become a bit too precious about bodily functions. As if it's shameful to be human and we hide from the reality that our bodies produce waste.

Then the naughty part in me kicks in and thinks it'd be good for the pretentious, arrogant, self important, condescending, sneering, smugly entitled Aussie pollies and the people who pull their strings, to have the daily experience of this kind of communality. It'd be a healthy reality check for them, and a reminder that they're no different to everyone else; the poor, the unemployed, youth, disadvantaged, asylum seekers or others they vilify and treat with contempt.

Someone said to me "Why do they use squat toilets?" and apart from a vague - "That's just the way it is here and it's probably better for us", I really had no good answer. I've read a bit since I got home and they are accepted as being much healthier for us (there's lots of information here) and it'd be crazy to change what works ... except for the actual sewerage system which struggles and gets pretty pongy at times.

Some useful information: BYO paper, and never, never, never put the paper in the system, whether it's a basic squat toilet, one with auto flush or a sit one in a hotel. There's a bin there and it's for the paper. Yes, the used paper. Maybe in posh international hotels and slick businesses in the major cities it's ok, but elsewhere don't, just don't. There's nothing quite like needing to call housekeeping and tell them you need someone to come and unclog the toilet, and then getting a kind, but firm lecture from the janitor explaining (completely in Chinese, but you magically understand every word) exactly what to do with the paper, and that it doesn't  ever, (have you got this?) not ever go in the toilet. It's like they're explaining to an extremely thick, dreadfully slow child - or just a dim-witted foreigner. As they say, When in Rome ...

Old habits die hard though, and it's difficult to remember ... What's the number of housekeeping again?

Slippery tiles, freshly mopped and damp, are one of the other challenges. Shiny wet tiles are scarily slick and treacherous - an accident waiting to happenIt's definitely the time for careful steps, and extreme caution no matter how desperate you are! 

And how do you know you're home again? When you go to the toilets at Tulla (aka Melbourne Airport) and see this:

You don't stand on the seat to squat and the paper goes in the toilet! Hooray! I'm home!

My previous posts about Teaching in China were our ArrivalBanquets,  Culture and Comfort foods, DrivingExerciseFabulous Food and History, Illness, and From Jerilderie to Jiangsu! The next one will be - The problem with Lists!