On Monday the 27th of June, at 6am, some friends drove outside my house to pick up me and my blue suitcase. They drove me to Buchanan Bus Station, from where I took the bus to Edinburgh, from where I took the plane to Birmingham, then Dubai, then Hong Kong, from there the ferry to Macau, from there the taxi to the University of Macau campus, and at 10pm local time on Tuesday the 28th of June, I dragged my blue suitcase alone in the heat of the night in an unknown country trying to find my dorm.
What was waiting for me was a double room which would end up being occupied just by me, and cockroaches. Big, nasty cockroaches with a vengeance. Now, I had never seen cockroaches before in my entire life, so I didn’t know what they were when I first saw them. There was one on the floor, two in the toilet bowl and one lurking in the mouldy shower curtain. When I first got to my room I moved the bed to gain access to a power outlet to charge my phone, and saw the most horrific insect that I had ever laid eyes upon which was not a spider. It was dead thank goodness, but it had a striped fat elongated body the length of my middle finger, which, believe me, is long. It had legs and two tiny tentacles or possibly teeth in the front. It was a monster. Now, I didn’t realise that it looked nothing like the other insects, which turned out to be cockroaches, but grouped them all together in my head and sent an SOS to my dad in the form of a WhatsApp message asking what on God’s green earth was the unholy creature under my bed. The picture may not have been the best but my dad was so confident in identifying it as a cricket that I started calling all the new big black insects crickets. Needless to say the entomology gene does not run in my family. It took a few days till I was publicly shamed for this by my new friends, but hey, live and learn.
The next few days consisted of intense training and getting to know my new friends (which, for an introvert like me, is equally intense and exhausting). The need to be constantly alert and also the fact that I had been completely burned out by the inbound trip made my jetlag almost nonexistent. However, the culture shocks had been so massive that I was not feeling great the first few days. It was too hot, it was too humid, it was too different. I had thought that living in Singapore had made me more adaptable to Asian lifestyle – it had not, at least insofar as Singapore is a very mild and heavily westernised glimpse of Asia. When I first set foot in Macau I was in a different world, and I did not like it. I keep telling this to everyone who’s kind enough to ask: the strangest thing was that for the first time in my life (well, post-pre-teen life) (post-pre-teen?) I was in a situation where I could potentially not communicate with anyone. This frightened me to no end. I could not longer take English for granted. And my four other languages were of no use. My dead languages sure as heck weren’t. And let’s not even talk about Elvish.
Linguistic application time: I realised that more than anything, it is language that groups people, at least in my head. Of course it was strange being the only Caucasian as far as the eye could see, but that did not make me uneasy. It was the fact that these people and I did not share a language. The faces weren’t exotic; the languages kind of were but that was not the problem; the situation, however, was.
Anyway, once I made friends and settled down and met my students, things started to go very well indeed. I made some amazing friends and the students seemed to like me, and I adored them. Some of them were being difficult in the start just to test my limits, but after swallowing my frustration and being very firm the troublemakers ended up being my best students. The teaching was very free-form and chilled but there were a couple rules that the programme organisers wanted us to follow in our classes: the first one was that the students had to speak in full sentences, and the second one was that no Chinese was allowed.
The first rule I didn’t always bother to follow just because it wasn’t practical, but on a much deeper level I disagreed with it completely. Nobody speaks in complete sentences in informal situations, so why train students to do so? When you are asked a yes/no question, it is perfectly fine and acceptable to answer with a single word. Same goes for other questions. So there was that.
The other rule was a good one but very difficult to make the students follow. I don’t blame them, they had differing levels of difficulty in expressing themselves in English, and obviously Chinese came naturally to them all. For a week or so I tried my best to call out the use of Chinese, but it was largely fruitless. Then I came up with my masterplan. In one class the students were divided into two teams and competed for which team could come up with the most food items in English. One category was drinks, and a group of smart-alecks started listing different kinds of juice: apple, orange, mango, pear, lemon… Lemon? I asked them if they seriously thought lemon juice was a thing, and ever the integrous students, assured me that lemon juice was definitely a thing and that I should certainly award them a point for it. So next time we met I decided to put them to the test and brought with me some delicious lemons. I sat in the front of the class, pulled out a lemon from my bag, and started peeling it as you would any citrus fruit, without saying a word. Some students were confused, some amused, and the group of ‘lemon juice’ fame caught on and started laughing nervously. I then separated the lemon into segments and put them into a bowl in the middle of the students’ table and told them that as a reward for speaking Chinese you get to eat a segment of lemon which you so seem to enjoy. The students absolutely loved it. There was next to no Chinese in my classes after that, and even when there was, the other students were sure to call him or her out just for the pleasure of seeing them suffer.
So yeah, I enjoyed getting to know my students, but I also realised through this experience that I did not want to become a teacher. I always thought that being a teacher meant being someone who is knowledgeable in a particular subject and who passes on that information to others – however, on school-level anyway, the subject you teach is pretty much immaterial (pun intended, Italian speakers). You are not a teacher of X. You are a teacher. That is the profession. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes, the classes themselves are just what the students see. And even there it’s not really about what you teach, it’s about management of class dynamics, it’s about interpersonal relations, it’s about balancing democracy with benign tyranny, it’s about solving administrative problems that have absolutely nothing to do with the subject itself. And I’m not cut out for that. Or if I am, it’s an ill fit. I care too much about my subject to let classroom management get in the way of sharing my knowledge. I don’t have the necessary skills or patience for dealing with troublemakers. Other people are called for that, but that’s no longer in the realm of linguistics, it’s something completely different, and I’m not good at it. Of course I could learn. But why try to correct an ill fit when you already have a perfect fit?
This is turning out to be a book I’m writing, but I’ll just get most of it out. Apart from teaching there was a lot of touring around Macau. The bus service is excellent and it’s dirt cheap – not just the bus but everything, eating included. I ate out a lot and tried such exotic things as chicken feet and jellyfish. The former was actually delicious if you didn’t think too much about what it was. The latter was fine, the taste was that of fish so it wasn’t too bad, but the consistency was too weird. I was almost – almost – sick that night, but my iron-coated stomach handled it just fine. I also had the most epic eating sessions with an Australian girl who I shared a room with after we were all forced to change dorms, and we had the most amazing time devouring watermelons and packets upon packets of Oreos and Timtams while watching Bridget Jones.
Macau was also really safe for solo travel, as I experienced one Saturday when I went out walking for the day on Macau Island (we were based in Taipa). I walked from the new Grand Lisboa to Largo do Senado to the Ruins of St Paul and finally to A-Ma Temple. It’s fine as long as you keep hydrated. I explored Taipa too with friends, and went to both Hac Sa beach (with a larger group of friends for barbecue and a swim) and Cheoc Van beach (with just two other friends). The trip to Cheoc Van beach was magical – first we walked around Coloane in the evening, went for a bite of something, and then for a night swim under the stars. There were flying fish all around us and so many seashells to be gathered. We continued our walk even after the swim in the dark with bats around us and crickets (actual real crickets) chirping the night away. At midnight we returned to Taipa for some barbecue before returning home. It’s still one of my favourite memories.
As a final note before I sign off for now is that I ended up picking up Mandarin. The group was small (we started out as five but ended up as two) and we had a lovely time learning to speak. I even got given a Chinese name, Ai Miao Ke (fourth tone-fourth tone-third tone) and my three weeks of learning Mandarin culminated into ordering soy sauce in Chinese on my last day – and I received soy sauce!