Back in China!

I moved back to China on August 12th, and it’s been the best decision I’ve made in the past 3 years! My school is reliable and established (Dulwich as an entity is nearly 400 years old!). My apartment is beautiful and surrounded by roses and wildflowers. And, my pets are comfortable and pleased. It’s very easy to walk the dog where I live and most everyone around me has pets, both cats and dogs. There is a large pond in the center of my community that connects all of the surrounding neighborhoods to my school. I suppose it reads more like a koi-filled canal, but it is a lovely place to walk the dog. Beanie’s hair is also growing back quite nicely after his “flesh-eating virus” in Cambodia.

Beijing has incredible weather. It’s similar – maybe – to upstate New York. So there is a nice autumn and a longish winter – two of my favorite seasons. The city is huge, so it offers a variety of all sorts of things that people can get involved in. There is a big swing dance community here, a thriving arts scene, awesome food culture, interesting history (more than 3,000 years of it), and a lot of outdoor activities (hiking, biking, swimming, running, horseback riding, golf, etc.).

There is little to no feeling of past or present Covid here. The expat population isn’t back to where it was prior to Covid, but it’s growing nearly every day. There are currently around 50,000 expats living in Beijing (down from 150,000 in 2020). These numbers might not be exact, but are referenced from an introductory presentation given by my school. 

The things I am finding difficult are few and far between, and I am learning through these challenges. It’s hard to get money to the United States, US airlines are no longer an option to fly in and out of China, and my school’s established art curriculum feels a bit prescriptive, dated, and too reliant on technology. Translation, too, is sometimes iffy, but that’s generally more entertaining than anything else. 

When I first moved back to China in August, I was having to transfer money to a random person on WeChat (a Chinese app) and they were sending money through PayPal to my account. It was ridiculously expensive – I lost a lot of money this way. It was also tricky: I was sending money to someone I did not know and who I have never met and hoping * TRUSTING * they would transfer the money to my account  like I asked. Thankfully no issues there. But, it’s a bit nuts to do this with complete strangers! I kept asking friends if I could PayPal them money and then they could transfer it into my account, but everyone thought I was crazy. Unfortunately, these are the kinds of things you have to do when you live in faraway places. There are always ways to do things, but they are roundabout ways. Thankfully my school has now started transferring money to my account in the US for me, which is nice and less costly. But even sometimes that doesn’t work because I bank with a very small and somewhat backwards bank in the States who occasionally freezes my account when money shows up from China. Oh! What fun! 

The curriculum we use in art is based on the British Art and Design Curriculum. I teach 10 classes a week, each for 180 minutes. The entire year is planned out and mirrors the homeroom class instruction that each year level is learning. So, if Year 3 students are talking about health and well-being in their homeroom class, we are also doing a project that relates to health and well-being in the art room. I teach Year 3 – 6 students, which is essentially Grades 2 – 5. While I am quite pleased at the ease made available to me by starting at a school where the whole year is planned out for me, this is challenging. There is no room for one-off projects or student collaborations or large-scale projects: all of which I excel at facilitating. It is also important to me that teachers allow for worldly things to enter the classroom. If a dignitary passes away, we might stop what we are doing to pay our respects and draw portraits of that person. If a famous church catches on fire, we might discuss its importance to architecture and culture and do a watercolor inspired by this famous building. It’s also really important for students to have time to free-make and free-draw. Both of these activities allow for students’ brains to recharge, inspiring imagination and creative problem-solving. I am also a huge fan of the arts permeating through every part of campus; making sure the arts are a part of Sports Day, Open Houses, Interdisciplinary collaborations (particularly with Music and Drama), Professional Development activities, Winter and Summer camps, campus art shows, and parades featuring signage and wearable art during special holidays. I like to plan new things weekly, try out new projects yearly, and create community through the arts in the schools I work in. This is where I am feeling like I am coming up short in my new position. I love my co-workers, but there isn’t room for new experiences or whole-school art things. And that makes me a bit sad, and feeling lackluster.

Due to the Design part of the British Curriculum, the art teachers at my new school are in charge of teaching cooking and kitchen prep to our students. While I certainly consider cooking and the culinary arts a creative venture, it is definitely not what I am trained in. And, since living in Asia for the past 12-ish years, I have all but stopped cooking at home. So, jumping into a teaching kitchen with 24 students cutting and grating things is a bit daunting. It’s also quite a bit of prep for each class – weighing out ingredients, wiping down surfaces, carrying over aprons, figuring out a clean-up routine, managing technology with students who have doughy hands, etc. It’s a lot! But, I have learned that even if the lesson is tough, when the students taste something that they have made on their own, there is a special moment: a little glimmer in their eyes and a gleeful silence throughout the classroom. It’s delightful to watch.   

It’s difficult teaching what I am told to teach. But, I am enjoying the learning aspect of it and it is keeping me on my toes. It’s interesting to use Seesaw as a facilitator. I definitely think we could use less technology in the art room, but it does seem to help with assessments. I just think students are on devices way too much during their lives, so art should be that one place where they don’t have to do that – they can take a break from looking at screens. I am certainly not against technology as a whole. I just think – as with anything – there is a time and place for it.

I won’t be going home for Christmas this year. Because there are no US flights coming in and out of China, the flights to the US are very expensive, generally operated by European airlines, and have multiple stops along the way. Teachers are given a stipend for flights to use throughout the year. I used part of mine to fly to Budapest for a presentation I was giving at Global Art Teachers Exchange – more on that soon. And, I will use part of mine to fly to Scotland for Hogmanay. But, the remainder I will use to fly home for the summer in July. Our stipend changes next year, so I am trying to get in some important visits before that happens. 

Aside from a few minor stressors here and there, it has been so nice to be back in China. I know I have said this a billion times, but in the effort to kick a dead horse: thank goodness the past two school years are behind me! They were two of the hardest years I have ever experienced and I can definitely feel a positive shift happening. I plan to be in Beijing for a while and am very much looking forward to it!

Coming next month: My first experience at GATE!