Leaving Xiangnan: Hunan’s Premier Comedy Club

The fog resting on Mt Doom

The fog resting on Mt Doom

In my piece about Chenzhou, I mention arriving by night. Well that night was nearly a year ago and my journey was to start work at  Xiangnan University (XNU). I hoped this would restore my finances after a nightmare year in Taiwan and secondly be a fresh start. To some extent it has provided on the former footing but sadly disappointed on the latter. The more you discover about Xiangnan the more eerie it gets; a little like Twin Peaks, Lost and Under the Dome rolled into one!

Most Universities in China have a cute dinky woman with a beaming smile as their point of contact, their job is usually to assist you, the foreign teacher. They are great until… you’ve guessed it.. you sign the contract. This one is called Fiona. I wonder sometimes whether she likes foreigners at all, if she is being malicious or just a bit dippy (I think a little of both). Indeed the only surprising thing about Xiangnan is that they did get the work visa and residents permit, beyond that it is a very familiar story. If you are new to China and have questions, your best bet is to ask a student because you’re very unlikely to get a response from Fiona, après sign.

Westerners have been coming to XNU for at least 10 years, so either they still don’t understand us or they simply couldn’t care less. The TESOL ‘game’ is most certainly alive and well here. Let’s examine this a little more closely. Firstly, the contract states you cannot work freelance gigs outside of the university but some have made quite a hefty income from that with no repercussions. Quite the opposite in fact. And where does this work come from?

Enter our next contestant in China’s finest sleaze-bag competition, his name is Cable. Some would argue he has a heart of gold and if you’re adept at said game and earning at least 20,000rmb extra on supposedly forbidden freelance work you’d think so too no? Cable is the director of Foreign Studies, except he doesn’t direct and is more interested in his business which he runs out of Guangzhou (no one really knows what it is but he spends a great deal of time there).

The next thing we were told is.. it is also ‘forbidden’ to sleep with the (female) students, however this would eventually reveal itself to be an empty threat. Even if XNU becomes aware of – what is to any other university – unprofessional relations or misconduct, they are so desperate for staff they seldom fire anyone (mostly because it has cost them to sort out the visa and of course the age old reason.. loss of face). So long as you’re arrogant, unethical, think the world revolves around you and the student is a willing participant, you’re good to go. Great news for those more interested in themselves and their needs though it can make things difficult for the rest of us, or rather those playing by the book; for better or in my case for worse.

The only example I’ve come across of anyone being fired is someone the year previous who threatened the computer expert and his girlfriend. The former is an Indian guy (you will come across him soon enough), he is pleasant but well connected to the universities hierarchy – if anything is likely to get you fired it’s him. The ‘Under the Dome’ effect is this.. everything comes back to either Fiona or said Indian guy who seems to know everything even if you haven’t said anything to him directly and this can only be coming from Fiona or others in the main corridors of power so be prepared for a lot of Chinese Whispers. To recap, at XNU you can screw the girls and even lock them in your apartment for hours on end – I’m not kidding! No problem, but should you insult the Indian guy and his trusty Russian sidekick… bye bye.

Moving on.. the contract states a round trip airfare will be reimbursed to you on completion of the year but this is only if you hand them a plane ticket receipt in time (not mentioned on said contract) which if they’ve told you they aren’t renewing it – assuming you want to spend another year in Twin Peaks – doesn’t give a lot of time to decide where to go. Bottom line, you can ignore just about everything the contract says or take it with a colossal dollop of salt! It has of course been carefully crafted to suit them NOT you.

Now to the classrooms. To put it mildly they’re way past their sell by date. You’ll be using chalk, there are no whiteboards, so don’t wear your finest threads or take your MacBook to class (just my opinion, you can do as you please with your belongings). They do however have computers and projectors; it’s just a question of whether they work or not. Expect to play musical classrooms – you’ll need to have your wits about you to get one before your colleagues do. Power outages are also very common. The students, who are mostly lovely but very lazy, also have access to the pc’s in the evenings so if you’ve downloaded material it might disappear. The other thing to note here is if you install a VPN on the pc to show your students stuff like Flickr photos say, this too can mysteriously vanish. I had to download Adobe programs several times because someone kept deleting them.

The toilets are as jaded as the classrooms. The only western lavatories outside your apartment are across the road at the state of the art Wyndham Grand Hotel. This means that if you’re in need of a secondary release for lack of better words and you’re not too enamoured with Chinese squat affairs you face an uphill run to your apartment – coincidently in the building furthest back up the hill or a run across the road to the hotel, either is about 10 minutes away with the teaching block between the two and once the summer heat kicks in you’re not going to want to run anywhere.

This brings me to the apartments themselves which are quite nice but as mentioned are in completely the wrong place. Bear in mind, if you are new to China that these have no elevator so expect a lot of running up and down stairs and hills! The winter and early spring are best temperature wise and for those of you arriving (2015-16) the flats are now finished (at least I think they are). It has taken the best part of a year to install glass for the balcony windows and insect screen guards which were installed without notice while we were teaching, so don’t expect a courtesy call from Fiona asking if she and/or workmen can enter your apartment. Yes, the university owns the apartments but is it too much to expect a courtesy call? At XNU that’s a resounding affirmative, so don’t leave anything you may deem sensitive lying about and be sure to shut down your computer.

The only other problems you may encounter are with the food (very spicy if you don’t know) and from your lovely colleagues; some of whom I mention in a previous blog. Again if you’re good at playing the game, have a great poker face or as the American’s would say kissing ass you should be ok, otherwise be polite but give a wide berth to anyone white! That said the Chinese are not entirely innocent either, I have mentioned Fiona and Cable, and now introducing the cherry on the top, Happy, yes, that is his name. He is another director and along with Fiona and Cable has been running the show at XNU for a long time. These three make the Keystone Cops look like Sherlock Holmes! It is my belief that the university will never progress with these three in power (as the real director can’t speak English and even if he could probably wouldn’t care).

XNU is one of the worst ranking universities in China and they don’t seem too bothered to change this. One week I showed my students Back to the Future and asked them if they had a time machine where would they go and why. Many said they wished they had studied harder in middle and high school so they could have gone to a bonafide university which pretty much says it all. XNU is an establishment with very skewed priorities, they reward those who do wrong and make a mockery of those who don’t.

Before leaving Happy told me they were hoping to attract more foreigners and they wanted more female teachers. The university is nowhere near ready for either (save the Desperados washed up on the shores of Asia it already has). The toilets are a sobering experience for male teachers never mind women. No one likes to answer any questions so don’t ask; passing the buck is another game Happy and co love to play. The only certainty at XNU is the comedy club is set to continue. On departing, I swore I saw a log lady, you have been warned. To conclude, here are some of the pros and cons about life in and around the campus…

XNU pros

It’s a pretty easy existence.
If you’re a novice teacher it might be good as a starter before moving on (even better if you can score a gullible student to help you if you know what I mean).
The apartments are nice inside and have sufficient air con/heating – providing there are no power cuts! But beware there is no elevator and the walls have ears and the doors prying eyes!
The students and shop staff are very friendly and will help with most things.
There is a nice community vibe particularly on the more bohemian west side of the campus with music shops and sushi among other eateries, quirky stores and characters.
You can see the stars (neither pink nor falling), there is little pollution to obscure the view.

XNU cons

It’s a good 30 minutes bus ride from town and miles from the (high speed) train station.
The buses can be very crowded – it does not occur to the bus operator to put more buses on busy routes! Also like many other cities of this size, the buses stop earlier than is considered the norm to us westerners, so a night out will rely on a cab, which can be in short supply after said time.
You were hired because you are white and make it look more international than it is.
You won’t get much notice of things like holiday dates so booking trains and planes before the Chinese New Year can be a headache (again don’t expect any sympathy from the lovely Fiona).
Staying put can also be problematic as the campus effectively shuts down for a month as do all the eateries and bars across the street.
Communications are as much as joke at XNU as anything else, don’t expect any help or fairness from Fiona and co if you have a problem, they don’t care.
There was no orientation and everything I did learn came from students or other foreign staff, such as where the medical centre is. *unfortunately you now have to pay for paracetamol, as you can gather I got a lot of headaches during my time there.

Good luck to the new incumbents and happy gossiping (if indeed that’s your thing). It will be the real determiner in how well you fit in.

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