Some time ago I was returning to Shanghai on the three-day boat journey from Hong Kong after Spring Festival. Other foreign teachers on the voyage regaled me with stories about colleagues who had "done a runner" without completing their year's contract in a Chinese educational institution. The foreign teachers' grapevine was always reporting the frustrations suffered by those who had answered China's growing demand for English teachers.
Teaching in any developing country is challenging, but many would agree the Chinese situation throws up unique strains. There are mysterious obstacles to establishing a familiar style of relationship with Chinese colleagues and students. Equally mysterious is the impregnable wall of bureaucracy.
As I sympathised with the second or third-hand "bad experiences" that my colleagues recounted, my heart sank lower, for I was sailing back to complete the first half of my two-year contract in a Chinese college. But in my own crisis-moments of wanting to throw in the towel, I had one advantage. My placement had been arranged and was overseen by the Amity Foundation whose pastoral care of its teachers is second to none.
Amity is an independent voluntary organisation with a unique status. It was the creation, in 1985, of a handful of Chinese Christians who wanted to help people in China. The teachers it employs are told they are not to consider themselves evangelists but rather "to serve as a channel for people to people contact". With the opening-up of China, the world community faces the enormous task of building mutual respect and breaking down prejudice on all sides.
There was a time when such an idealistic aim, whether in the context of a Christian or other development organisation, would attract young teachers into a period of overseas service. Such horizon-expanding and ethically-sound work would then, it was assumed, enhance the adventurer's employment prospects on returning to the UK.
Assumptions have, in general, changed. Today's young graduates or newly-qualified teachers, burdened with student loans to repay, no longer feel free to opt out of the system even temporarily. They also confront the all-consuming anxieties about "missing the boat" in an uncertain employment market and the fear that today's technology-orientated employers will not value a period of so-called altruistic service in some far-flung land. The result is, according to recruitment agencies for overseas posts in development contexts, a fall-off in applications in recent years.
The pattern for Amity's recruitment in Scotland, however, differs from the rest of Britain. This may indicate that some young Scottish graduates have a more scholastic vision of their future development, and seek personal and spiritual as well as professional fulfilment. Whatever the explanation, a disproportionate number, 30 per cent, of Amity's recruits in the five year period to 1994 have come from Scotland. Almost all of them have been young, single graduates.
Despite the more positive Scottish trend, the Amity Foundation has had to address the overall downward turn in applications for its two-year contracts in Chinese higher education institutions. A new focus for recruitment is retiring teachers and their spouses, who don't necessarily need a teaching background. Older teachers have all the obvious bonuses of maturity. Couples have the further benefit of mutual support. Recruitment takes into account life-exper ience whether or not in teaching,and so attendance on an intensive TEFL course is sometimes the proviso for acceptance.
The basic principle of Christian altruism is unfashionable in both East and West. Amity promotes this "alternative" concept through its yearly intake of about 80 foreign teachers recruited from Christian backgrounds, both Catholic and Protestant, in a dozen countries.
Altruism in practice means choosing to teach in a less than convenient location with relatively primitive resources, and living simply on a small salary. This choice arouses Chinese students' curiosity, being at odds with the other Western import, materialism. There are lucrative TEFL appointments to be had in eastern China's burgeoning cities, where the nouveaux riches are able to pay mega bucks for everything, including education. But Amity caters to the poor majority, and specifically, the rural teacher-training colleges which students enter at 18.
Here they are destined to join a profession which pays less well than driving a taxi or selling eggs in the market. These colleges are often underfunded, demoralised, and generally unable to pay a foreign teacher's salary. Prospectiv e secondary school teachers have normally been assigned to their future occupation without the level of choice enjoyed by British students. They may be unwilling to accept joining one of China's lowest-paid, but in developmen t terms most vital, professions.
Newly qualified teachers are required upon graduation to return to their home towns and villages to teach. Here they will have no further contact with foreigners or the stimulations and better amenities of the larger towns where they have been studying.
China's luckiest graduates make it to the big cities, where they are pitted against each other in the race to get rich in business. The Amity teacher's challenge is to encourage those left behind - students who often see themselves as the losers.
The average British school teacher is experienced at dealing with unmotivated, reluctant students, and can make a real contribution in these colleges.
As a single teacher, I found my stint in China to be, among other things, a lesson in self-knowledge. I had shaming confrontations with my own prejudices and character-shortcomings in a situation of real isolation. Nor had I put much effort into Amity's intensive Mandarin course. However,I learnt a lot, "spiritually grew", and forged lasting friendships with Chinese students and teaching colleagues as well as within the highly supportive network of colourful and fun-loving Amity teachers.
Having recently returned to the UK, my impression is that British schools harbour many embattled, if not broken down, vocations among older staff members. It is a shame that the end of a teacher's professional life is precipitated by such spiritual wear and tear. Although I found China a difficult place to live, professionally it is to be recommended as a rejuvenating experience of grass-roots, non-bureaucratic, hands-on teaching where involvement with students is the only source of job-satisfaction and results are direct and personally rewarding.
Amity's activity has a deep and not immediately measurable impact on all nationalities involved. If it can be described as a mission, then it is certainly one in which the benefit is wholly mutual.
* To apply to work with Amity in China telephone Jill Hughes (China Liaison Officer) on 0131 225 5722, or write to Church of Scotland, 121 George Street, Edinburgh EH2 4YN (interviews from January 7 for July 1997 appointments).