by Dina Lyube
I fly to Tianjin for three weeks to teach English to high school students who want desperately to study in Canadian universities. They need to take a language equivalency test; many of them have already failed the IELTS, and now they are taking a new test called the CAEL (The Canadian Assessment of English Language) hoping to do better. Their plight seems hopeless. I sound like some deadbeat teacher, I know—but it's the truth. Their English is incredible, considering they are Chinese kids living in China, but it is nowhere near fluent, nowhere near the level required by the universities in Canada. They consistently fail the practice tests, all fifteen students. I don't know if any of them pass the real thing. I leave the day before they take the test.
In Tianjin, I live on campus. The school is an international English academy, and for the majority of students, it is a boarding school, from elementary onward. Some of the children come from as far away as Mongolia. I cannot imagine sending my children—my two boys aged six and four—to a boarding school nine months of the year. It would tear my heart to pieces. They would grow up without me, taught by strangers. I try not to judge the parents of these children, try to be culturally sensitive. I fail. I judge everything, from the boarding school, to the eccentric Canadian teachers they hire, to the stark, crumbling city itself.
Tianjin is an apocalyptic city. I shouldn't say this. A few weeks after I leave, there is a huge explosion in the city, blocks away from the school. I could have been caught in that inferno, but I was safe at home in fresh-aired Calgary, inhaling great lungfuls of mountain air in cool mornings of blue skies and pale suns. I was lucky; I could be dead. What does that mean? Should I live my life differently now? Maybe it means nothing about me. It means everything about the people whose loved ones have died, who themselves are injured, whose condos have burnt and whose vehicles were scorched to skeletons.
The city was apocalyptic even before the explosions: a city of gaping construction sites and newly erected glass towers. There is a great, empty lot bordering our school, a huge lot of nothing—garbage, refuse—among the modern towers. The sidewalks are made of tiles that undulate underfoot, crumbling. Cranes sway from deep crevices in the earth. The air is sick with smog. The sun is blood-coloured in the haze.
I sound like I hate my time here, but I don't. I return to my dorm after dismissing class at six, and I am free of familial responsibilities. I have essays to grade, and even so, I have so much extra time. Time to watch television and read in bed; to wander the streets endlessly and stare at China as an outsider. I gain steps on my fitbit. I walk through rubble streets and decrepit bodegas and glassy mammoth buildings and stylised gardens and shopping malls. I am alone.
I am free but plagued by loneliness. At home in Calgary, I am choked with responsibilities, but I am never alone. I have my husband. I have the boys. I have my family. I have few friends, and even without friends, I am surrounded by voices, by supporting hands. In China, I have no one. I am here with another teacher, a woman twenty years my senior. She is very kind and outgoing, friendly and easy to get along with. I cannot connect with her, or anyone. I regress into a depressive state. I hide in my room and eat junk food and drink Chinese beer. I read my book and watch movie after movie on my laptop, and retreat into an unreal world in my mind—I skirt the edges of my sanity. If I didn't have my family to ground me, would I live there always, in my fantasy world?
When the teaching gig ends, we go to Beijing for four days as tourists. This is where my loneliness really balloons. I stay at a hostel, surrounded by eager young travellers, and I am unable to relate to a single human. I wander the streets alone, at night, in the flickering neon signs, beneath the dark haze of the low sky. This is what my life would be if I didn't have children, if I wasn't married. It would be dark and lonely and destructive.
I fly home. China is so far away, I can barely recall it now, sitting at my kitchen table. Everyone is asleep. I am listening to music, coasting the melancholy wave. Tomorrow I will be woken up early by kids demanding waffles. It will be my last day off before the workweek—I'll be teaching, then rushing to get the kids, to fix lunches and dinners. It helps me focus, the scramble of life. Otherwise, I run of the risk of getting lost in my own self-doubt. Why am I always alone? Why can't I connect with people? Why don't I care? Is it selfishness that keeps me isolated?
I learnt in China that what I will do, if given free reign, is sit alone and fall deep into the pit of myself, eat garbage and drink too much, and escape into my own fictions. That is no way to live.
Dina Lyube is a freelance writer currently living in Canada. She also teaches English as a second language, and has taught abroad in Japan, South Korea and China. Lyube loves to travel, and probably won't stay in one place for very long. Her short fiction and travel writing has appeared both online and in print. She is currently working on her first novel.