Cold comforts in Kowloon

27th October 2000 at 01:00
Overcome your fears of being able to 'hack it' teaching in Hong Kong. The weather may be freezing, says Kathy Heys, but the welcome is warm

The plane landed three-quarters of an hour early. It was the final straw. No one would be at the airport to meet me. Only the thought of all those who had said it was a foolish idea and that I'd never "hack it" kept me walking down the plush carpet of Chep Lap Kok International Airport.

Opinions on my proposed two-and-a-half-year stint in Hong Kong had varied from the euphemistic "you are brave" to my mother-in-law's forthright comment: "You're being stupid." I desperately wanted to walk back on to the aircraft and take the return flight to Heathrow.

But I decided to change some currency - I had been in such a rush at the end of term that I had not acquired any. I headed for the Thomas Cook bureau to change pound;100, enough to last me through the weekend, when I would surely return home. Then I saw them through the frosted window standing in Arrivals, three men laughing as they held a poster on which was written my name: the principal, the English co-ordinator and an English teacher. I felt touched. In Britain, such a reception would be unlikely. Off we drove to my first week's accommodation.

My English co-ordinator had booked me into cheap but comfortable university housing. In those jet-lagged first few days, it was bliss to have someone make my bed. At 7.15 the next morning, my boss - the English co-ordinator - took me to obtain my working visa.

My Native English Teacher (NET) application revealed the intractability of Chinese bureaucracy. I expected a long wait. (The Government pays for and allocates one NET teacher to each secondary school, mainly to teach English conversation.) After ham and eggs at a crammed fast-food outlet - everyone eats out in Hong Kong - we went to Immigration Tower. There I discovered the British passport's power, being fast-tracked past the Filipino maids left waiting for hours.

Lunchtime on my first full day in Hong Kong and I was at last alone. Sitting in the sun at Victoria Harbour, watching the Wanchai-Kowloon ferries, I felt optimistic. But, in the following days, both jetlag and depression lurked. I could not get my phone card to work and had to rely on people calling me. With the eight-hour time difference, I found that weekends were the only practical time to talk.

I needed to rent a flat so my sons and friends could visit. But no one had bothered to mention that I was not to be paid for three months - later reduced to two, thanks to the intervention of trouble-shooting Mary from the British Council. Landlords require three months' rental, two months' rent as a deposit and one month's rent in advance.

Then there is the culture shock. I went to look at six flats. As soon as the agents saw my blue eyes and white face, they knew I had a housing allowance and the price hike would have done credit to Sir Edmund Hilary. Every flat cost more than my allowance, though the rate was "negotiable". The flats themselves were pocket tissue-size.

The baths were too small to lie in. My sons would have been too tall for the beds. The kitchens had no ovens and the furniture and fittings were horrible. I paid to stay where I was for another month.

At 7am, I leave for work. Being late is a heinous crime. Everyone signs in and out. I was not a form teacher. Oh, the bliss after 30 years of not having to write form reports. Assembly precedes registration and the whole school lines up outside - unless it is raining, when the students remain in their form rooms and the head prefect announces the daily messages over the tannoy from the principal's study.

Hong Kong seems ill-equipped for cold weather. I arrived in January and, as most hotels have no central heating, I resorted to wearing bedsocks and sweaters in bed. I had to buy a complete new wardrobe. I even taught in a fleec, unlike the boys and girls who wear school uniform at all times: blazer, shirtblouse and tie.

Teaching here is like taking a time machine back to the grammar school era. Pupils stand when I walk into a classroom, greet me formally and always stand to answer questions. They are more obedient than a lot of pupils in Britain and inattentiveness is characterised by sleeping rather than misbehaviour.

The textbooks in the library are a testimony to Britain's colonial legacy - Rudyard Kipling, Dickens and The Bront s. Trying to get them to speak in class is akin to plucking spines from porcupines - and when they do, it's with deafeningly quiet voices.

Staff at the school have been very kind. One teacher invited me to celebrate Chinese New Year at her home, followed by an eight-course meal in a local restaurant with friends and family. Another set me up with an email address and a computer at work which operated in English rather than Chinese. There are so many other examples of kindness.

Food is relatively cheap though, of course, there are very expensive restaurants. In the shopping mall adjacent to where I live, there are Spanish, French, Japanese, Thai, American and Australian restaurants. Proficiency with chopsticks is a must. I have tried lots of new dishes: shark fin soup, which looks like dish water but is, in fact, very tasty; jelly fish, which tasted like I imagined rubber bands would taste. But I claimed satiety to avoid eating eel.

In the "wet" markets and on the promenade, there are lots of live animals and fish squashed into cages and tanks. The Chinese like their food fresh, but I try to avoid seeing their throats slit. It is the sheer number of lobsters and hens jammed into cages which I find cruel. It is also a culture shock in restaurants to find chickens and fish served with their heads attached.

The public transport system is excellent: the MTR tube (Mass Transport Railway) and buses are fast, cheap and frequent. I have no desire to drive in the melee of Kowloon traffic, and parking and petrol are both very expensive. The signs on public transport are in English and announcements are in both Cantonese and English, so it is easy to find one's way.

Manners, though, went home with the colonials. Announce-ments that descending passengers should be allowed to exit are completely ignored by ascending passengers.

Ex-pats are extremely helpful. There is not the time nor inclination to observe strict British social etiquette. First impressions are very important. If you are liked, you will be invited out. If you are disliked, you will not. The Australians and the New Zealanders are friendlier than the Brits, who seem to have been here longer and have their established cliques.

Classes of 45 are common. Teachers work a half-time timetable. During examinations, staff only work mornings and have afternoons free for marking. At my school, teachers have to make up for absences by covering for others, and doctors' notes have to be provided if absences exceed one day. Britain could profit by doing this.

At the time of writing, I have just received my first pay, and my family will be out to visit soon. Life is improving - if only it was warmer.

Am I enjoying it? Yes. Would I recommend the experience? Yes. I have been extremely fortunate, however, with my school whose staff members have shown me nothing but kindness. Other NETs appear not to have been so lucky. There are problems ahead: income tax is deducted annually rather than monthly and I have been spending as if Father Christmas was sponsoring my platinum card. I have been told that the debilitating hot temperatures of summer will make me long for this cold weather.

Nevertheless, it is a wonderful experience - and a financially lucrative one too, as I am fortunate enough to be paid the maximum. Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and China are only a holiday away.

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