The Great Divide of China
Story and photos by Megan Eaves

Teaching English in East Asia can be a bizarre experience for many reasons, but a teacher finds that China's unheated classrooms expose the gap between rich and poor, East and West in a raw fashion.

China travel

I'm not sure how I could've mistaken them for anything else. The winter blisters I that started appearing on my students' hands around late November were an anomaly at first. It was stupid of me not to know, but I chalked them up to the weird phenomena you see in China, kind of like the "summer bruises" I kept seeing between May and August, described to me later as the result of self-pinching which is supposed to cool the body. How could I have known the winter blisters were actually frostbite with all these other weird health problems on the loose? Besides, isn't frostbite something people get when they are climbing Mount Everest and one of their gloves ices over and gets a hole in it and then their finger blackens up and falls off?

Frostbite is for the depths of Siberia. It is for documentarians lost at the South Pole without proper gear. Frostbite is not something I should be seeing on my Chinese students while I stand at my teacher's podium and hope for a call from my family in America who can afford to ring me long distance on the amount of money these kids could use to buy gloves to protect their poor fingers. But the kids just smile and joke and say, "Very painful teacher!" and smile again, telling me I'll be able to get the frostbite next year, if I'm lucky. Not this year. Next year.

I begin to see what a great divide there is between us, although I love them as my own and we laugh and joke, and we live in the same world of rickshaw cabs and chicken feet and Jay Chou pop songs ringing loudly from the speakers of clothing shops on grimy street corners. We live in the same world of Anji Vocational Education Center School, day in and day out, marble floors wet and the stench of the toilets wafting into the classrooms at the end of the hall. The dust from cheap chalk and scary head teachers walking down the corridor while I tell them about the names of different musical instruments in English.

I begin to see how irrelevant my class must be to them after sitting 7 to 9 in cold classrooms on back-less benches. They meekly ask for a chance to "go WC" or "hot water" and return later to heater-less dorm rooms, after trudging down the school lane with the big blue and red thermos bottles filled with boiled water—the one thing that has a hope of keeping them warm in a wood slat beds with no heaters.

China Christmas

We make a game of it, trying to describe the weather in winter versus summer, and all they can muster is, "Very cold, teacher! Very cold." And I agree, pulling the collar up on my chalk-smeared wool peacoat as a bitter breeze blows through the open classroom windows, bringing with it the smell of coal from the factory down the street.

Later, will I look back on this winter, remembering only how I drank Ovaltine laced with cheap brandy to keep warm at night and how no one in central China has good heaters. And I will remember the smiling faces and the disregard for the cold, and how everyone was always in a good mood, despite the constant shivers and numb toes.

Fay comes in to the teacher's training class. She and Kevin are the only two that come with regularity and Kevin's got a new haircut I comment on. Fay asks how people in western countries reconcile science and religion and I'm astounded at this profound question. She rubs the swollen bit of frostbitten lobe on her left ear and takes my haughty, eye-rolling answer that we don't reconcile it. She asks if there are any religious scientists, and I tell her no, there aren't, even though I know it's not true, but I can't figure the answer to that question out myself and I don't want her to know I'm just a fraud. Just a stupid twenty-something who studied a little language and jumped ship for better pay, adventure, and a chance to bitch about the lack of good heating in this country.

Knowing the answer before she's given it, I ask her about her ear, and she looks down with meek eyes. It's nothing, she says, struggling then for the word to describe the condition. I tell her its "frostbite" and she launches into three more questions about the word and its pronunciation and origins. So I answer her questions, trying to forget that my friend stands before me with frostbite on her ear and knowing there is nothing I can do about it.

I begin to see how frivolous I am, whiling away my New Year's Eve in some foreigner bar in the richest city in China, grumbling with other teachers—my kindreds. Grumbling about the hours and the changes in schedule and the terrible heaters and how it's like pulling teeth to get them to just say the "th" sound or just quiet down. I don't care if you listen to your mp3 player, just quit talking.

China girl

Annie is sitting in the second row of my first year English class, rubbing one gloved hand against one bare hand. Jamie behind her does the same, and I ask them why are they sharing gloves. Annie tells me that her parents live in Jiangsu Province—a five-hour bus ride away—and she never sees them. So much for gloves, I think, offering mine.

I begin to see how this great divide between still doesn't stop my students from loving me and wanting to know more about me, just one more chance to talk to me. To rest a frostbitten palm on the gray teacher's podium for a few seconds of time with the foreign laoshi; a smile, a hug. Please teacher, hug hug hug. And here, I can't tell if it is a grand canyon between us or a common bed we share. Still, they are the ones with frostbite on their fingers and I'm left to search frostbite on the internet because I'm worried one of them, not me, will lose a finger.

Travel writer and wanderluster, Megan Eaves is the author of This Is China: A Guidebook for Teachers, Backpackers and Other Lunatics and Insiders' Guide to El Paso, and runs the Irish travel website Having traveled to 25 countries and lived in four, she is an expert on Ireland, China and the American Southwest, where she grew up, and also often writes about her adventures around Europe, especially Prague, where she is currently living. More about Megan and her writing is on her website,

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A Dollar and a Dime in Vietnam by Richard Sterling

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This Is China

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Insiders' Guide to El Paso

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