Personal

上海

Shanghai. In truth I am currently in Beijing’s Capital International Airport, sitting down at a Starbucks, pondering about the last two months, and waiting for the second leg of my flight home, which will leave me in Amsterdam before I’ll be able to on-board the last flight to Porto.

A few months back an email popped up in my inbox. It advertised a summer in China spent teaching. I have only tutored before and had no experience of teaching. They covered the transport costs and paid a modest amount for the experience, so it looked promising nonetheless. Without thinking much about the topic, I sent my CV. Soon I had my first phone call in order to explain why I was interested in this opportunity, and what were my thoughts about teaching. Since I have heard many things about the educational system in Asia, I wanted to see it first hand, and having teaching experience would be a quick way of quickly grasping the differences between the Western and Oriental educational styles. So I moved on to the second interview (with the naked mathematician) in which I was challenged to present a topic of my choosing in 10 minutes. It was fun preparing a lesson in detail, and it was a good way of them assessing my ability to teach. In the end, the lesson went smoothly and I got my offer to join this program. After some struggling with the Portuguese Embassy in London I finally got my passport and Visa in order to fulfill my summer plans.

I think we know all we want to from your application process, but what about the internship itself?

The internship would take place between the 2nd July and the 21st August. I booked my flights so that I would arrive three days earlier, in order to explore Shanghai before work starts. During my flight I saw for the first time the Eiffel Tower. It was a shame that I saw it from the window of a plane, but I am confident I will see it in person sometime soon. The long flight continued all the way to Shanghai and for the first time I would see China. Without a working phone and without understanding a word of Chinese, my first goal was to find my way to the school Campus. I had the address, I got myself into a taxi and just gave the driver the written address. We were driving for over an hour (which I didn’t expect), and the driver tried to make conversation on occasion. It was hilarious given that he didn’t speak English neither did I speak Chinese. At one point we managed to discuss how I was going to pay, to which I showed him my debit card, which I discovered isn’t that useful to pay for taxis, so after he complained for a while we stopped at an ATM, I got the cash, and we continued the trip. I made it alive to Campus, and met part of the staff, which received me very well.

That seems like a good start to the summer

It was, and upon arriving I was surprised at how huge and well protected the campus was, having security guards, barbed wire and cameras everywhere. At first it felt like I should be worried about being robbed in the streets around us, but soon I found out my concerns were not justified. Even though I arrived 3 days earlier in order to explore Shanghai, my lack of discipline regarding JetLag resulted in me sleeping most of the day and being wide awake during night. During those 3 days staff was bringing me breakfast to my room, and on Sunday I was awake but sleepy 15 minutes before Catherine brought me breakfast. Since I knew I was almost falling asleep, I left the door wide open so that she could just leave my breakfast in and I would eat it as soon as I woke up. I ended up not waking up until 6 PM, by which point breakfast was no longer something I could eat. Thankfully the next day the remaining interns (as we called ourselves) arrived and my sleep scheduled adapted to what I had to do.

So who are these interns?

The full group was me, Adam, Andrew, George, Issac (not to be confused with Isaac), Nayan, Maria and Jian. The eight of us would be responsible for preparing lessons and taking care of all the teaching for the following 3 weeks. This would prove to be a fun challenge. I ended up spending most of my time with George, who was both my room mate and my maths mate. I don’t think I could have had a better coworker: both hardworking and undoubtedly prepared, we made every class work smoothly and efficiently. It was fun working with him and the others. We had a small working place in the office, which was in fact a classroom with the tables rearranged to look like an office. All the interns and remaining staff worked together there and we would end up spending many late nights preparing materials together, listening to music, playing games and just having chit chat until it was time to go to bed.

That’s a very lame introduction of the interns.

It is, so here’s more.

Adam played the guitar and sang surprisingly well, almost as well as me, but the thing that always surprised me was his pop culture references. Always spot on.

Andrew had the girl fan-base that Issac wish he had. I could introduce both of them better, but I prefer to leave the reader with just that idea.

Nayan was an half native since he studied in Shanghai during high school. He introduced me to many of the local flavors I wanted to taste, and always had the drinking games prepared to have everyone say more than they should. The games worked well. Mostly.

Maria was always keen on exploring Shanghai and making the most of this summer, wanting to always make the best of each situation.

Jian was cool and calm. He had the vibe of someone who has everything he needs to be happy sorted, and didn’t need others to approve of his condition. I aspire to share in that way of being as much as he transpired to have it.

That seems decent, but I haven’t heard about any teaching yet. Did you actually do any work during the summer?

We did, so let’s start in order. During the first week we met our inductee, Dara, who was responsible for introducing us to the program and making sure we had all the information we needed to do our work properly. It was a crash course both on getting us all to know each other by asking silly questions such as “Would you rather be hairy all over or bald?”, and actual work, but it turned out to be just what we needed to get started, and her energy transpired to us, making it all work. Little did we know how much we would miss having someone responsible for keeping the interns up to date, a need which hopefully will be satisfied in following years.

Good to know you had a good inductee, but that is not your work. What did you do?

My responsibilities consisted of preparing teaching materials, teaching, correcting / rating personal statements and occasionally do presentations to the students. So let us go through them.

  • Teaching: We were given some materials used in previous years, but other than the topics and some rough guidelines we ended up preparing a lot of the materials ourselves. This worked well because we ended up knowing exactly how to teach the material. It turns out that to teach a topic, it does not suffice to know it well, you need to imagine what is like not knowing it, and how to best introduce it to someone who has no idea what you are talking about. It is a great exercise in understanding the fundamentals of a topic, and I recommend teaching as an exercise to everyone. There are other parts which are more classroom related, but after this summer I stand with a belief I had before, which is that the greatest gift a teacher can give a student is curiosity. I can go through hours of boring practice, after which a student will be proficient at a topic, more so than experts in the area, and yet leave with a feeling of disgust for the topic, never wanting to see it again. However if you successfully fire up their curiosity, they’ll be engaged for a long time trying to understand how it works, getting a better understanding than an ordinary student would get. I was satisfied to have one of my students write to me, at the end of camp, that “I love how your eyes twinkle when you meet an interesting problem”. Sharing that mathematics, or any subject, is still interesting after four years spent not doing much else is what I wanted to convey to my students: any topic can be interesting if you approach it in the right way, and I am glad I could contribute to that part.
  • Personal Statements: This was the boring part. I feel, maybe wrongly, that in mathematics personal statements aren’t very important since there is so much that interviewers can test you after twelve years of learning. Nonetheless, it was part of the application process for University and part of my responsibilities to help my students with the entirety of their application to University, so I helped. Even though this was the least enjoyable part of the work, it was more bearable to see all the cases of Chinglish and the hilarity that ensues. I will not share specific examples since these references concern privately written personal statements, but consider that after two months of me trying to learn Chinese, I still can’t pronounce the difference between 吗 (question marker), 马(horse) and 妈 (mother). I can only imagine the funny sentences that I might have said to my students. If any of my students is reading this and thinking that they made such mistakes, I just want you to believe one thing: life is full of mistakes and mistakes is something to be proud of. That is how you learn and grow, and as long as you work hard not to make the same mistake twice, you are good to go. As a side note, it took me six months upon the start of University to understand the difference between saying “hill” and “ill” since in Portugal we don’t have the “h” sound. After many weird looks and giggles from other people, eventually I improved my English and now I understand and control the two sounds. But this improvement only happens if you don’t shy away from making mistakes. So go ahead, make a fool of yourself, and know that even if people laugh at such silly mistakes, they are harmless and you are learning a lot in the process.

You forgot to talk about the presentations.

They are not that interesting.

Fair, so what else did you do?

We explored Shanghai a lot! We went to the Bund, the Pearl, had hotpot, KTV, and traveled outside Shanghai during weekends too. But first let me explain KTV since I’ve never seen it before. KTV is basically karaoke with no one but a group of friends in a small room. This sounds simple enough, maybe similar to sing star in a friend’s house, but it is so much more than that in Shanghai, with entire floors dedicated to KTV rooms, with a wide selection of songs and an environment that is hard to recreate in a friend’s house. We ended up doing it several times, including for mine and Issac’s birthday, and in the last day with my first batch of students.

What about outside Shanghai?

We visited Suzhou, Hangzhou, Beijing and the Shaolin Temple. Those were some four amazing visits. We saw temples, climbed mountains, walked the Great Wall of China, explored the forbidden city, revisited history in Tiananmen Square, scared old ladies, immersed ourselves in nature and in cities. So much was done and felt in such a short period of time, it is hard to describe all that we did.

Wait, wait, wait. Scared old ladies?

Yes. This is a funny albeit short story. On our trip to Beijing we rented an airbnb for four nights. The apartment was awesome, I was particularly fond of the stains in the bed cover, the shower that wasn’t physically divided from the the rest of the bathroom and it would flood the entire bathroom every time one of us showered, let alone all six of us :P Anyhow, before all of this, we went to building 401 in a certain street in Beijing, and our room was 1605 (16th floor, 5th room). The corridor looked interesting, feeling like we were playing slender man in real life and our goal was to find home. We arrived at our room at midnight. Since it was so late our host just said that the key was in the door, and for us to walk in. We tried opening the door, to no result. We knocked, but no one answered. We tried to find the key under the carpet, but it wasn’t there. We found a small bell on the side and eventually a lady came to the rescue. It was late at night so, understandably, she didn’t open the door. The conversation went something along these lines:

  • Lady:Hey.
  • Us: Hey.
  • Lady:Who are you?
  • Us: We booked an airbnb for tonight and this is the airbnb we booked. Can you open the door?
  • Lady:No you are not staying here for the night.
  • Us: We booked it online and paid for it.
  • Lady:This is my home.
  • Us: But we booked it online, we have the booking receipt here.
  • Lady:No, this is my house, I’m not letting anyone inside.

By this point we asked Jian to check the booking. Turns out building 401 was the owner’s building, we were sleeping in 406. Our bad. Without her ever opening the door, we apologized, and went into the correct building where indeed the key was on the inside of the door, the door not being locked. For a while we wondered what went through the ladies mind. 7 foreigners, young and able, knocking on her door at half past midnight demanding to get in cause that was our apartment for the next four nights. I hope she managed to sleep that day, but i am not sure she did.

Poor lady.

Looking at the bright side we might have spiced up her life. That’s always good :D

Not by scaring people.

Fair. Anyhow, we explored China a lot and we learnt a lot in the process.

Such as?

I’ve mostly been talking about what I did as a tourist, but we also got to experience what it is like to live in China. The first thing that many might notice is the lack of toilets as we know them in Europe. Instead, we have squat toilets, which consist of a hole on the floor. A fancy whole, built exclusively for the purpose, but a whole on the floor nonetheless. Surprisingly enough, I honestly think I am going to miss squat toilets. They are equally useful, and nowhere nearly as much of an issue as I thought at first. And my legs got stronger too. And better for bowel movements. They are better all around. Maybe I should get myself one back home :D

Secondly, WeChat and Alipay. They are everywhere. All of your finances managed on your phone, everything centralized. This is a sensitive point if you consider how much control the government has about all your spendings, but from the point of view of a tourist who used the app for two months, it is so practical. No money to handle, just a bar code and everything follows swiftly. All payments to friends, shops, wages, everything. It is so much more convenient. And then there are the apps inside that make it all even more useful, most of which sadly I didn’t use. Renting bikes, where 1 euro allowed you to ride for 7 hours, or movie tickets, or ordering food, or anything. It was like looking into the future. I wonder what it would take to bring the tech back home, because I definitely enjoyed having it at my fingertips.

Thirdly, and probably the most obviously, the language barrier. I’ve been to Mozambique, Panama, Brazil, and a few European countries. What they all had in common was that the population was generally fluent in either Portuguese, Spanish or English. Any of these are enough for me to get around easily, but in China I had none of them. You might find the occasional English speaker, and definitely there were many of them in the program, but that was not the general observation outside the confinements of campus. It was a new experience to me struggling to convey simple messages, and having to signal for most things I wanted. I’d like to say my Chinese helped, but other than very basic things I failed at communicating. I need to practice more.

As an interesting side story, today on Beijing’s airport I started talking to one of the security guards at one of the checkpoints. She kept asking for something I didn’t understand. I gave her my passport, which she refused. My boarding ticket, which she also refused. At a certain point she just gave up and told me to continue through the checkpoint. I believe I got through a checkpoint without the proper checks just because she thought “I’m tired of trying to speak, I’ll just let him go”. I still have no idea what she was asking for.

Is this all?

Definitely not. I mentioned a 3 week camp which I taught, but after that one we moved to a new one, where we were joined by more interns: Adina, Cam, Henry, Leo, and Richard smells. Henry ended up working a lot with me and George, and was a great addition to the team. And the students liked him a lot, which me and George always wondered about. Obviously we weren’t jealous of it. Obviously. He saved me from a lot of work in the last day. I needed him to take over a class last minute, even after me and George confirmed that he wouldn’t have to, and he did so smoothly. What a guy. That together with his keenness on being a good teacher made him a pleasure to work with. I remember one day him teaching modular arithmetics. Since he studied computer science, he wasn’t as fluent in some parts as much as a mathematician, so I explained those and the attention and effort he showed then is something that a teacher wants to see in every student, and it makes teaching worthwhile. Seeing him doing all that so that he could do his job to the best of his abilities was a delight.

We get it, you liked working with George and Henry, the mathematicians, but that’s boring. Say interesting stuff.

Fair. I liked the bunch.

Leo was the party animal, which was harder for me to relate since I’m not as fond of clubbing, but his random trivia was consistently interesting, and always left me with the question “What possibly reason could there be for him to know such random things?”.

I particularly enjoyed Adina because the two of us remained strong when climbing the mountain near the Shaolin Temple. For hours we walked and walked, making it to the top and enjoying the views that, in the end, only five of the interns went up to see. she was good company during that long walk.

Cam’s smile was interesting since all the students agreed that it was a fake smile. I did not see it as fake, and he himself claims that was not a thing ever before, but his students disagreed. I can only wonder what sort of smiles he had during class that transpired such fakeness. I really wish I had gone to his classes.

Richard. Smells.

So far you only told us about the interns. Did you work with noone else?

We did. There was a second inductee, Tom, but I ended up spending little time with him since his responsibility was the new interns. We had Yao Yao and Potter who did an amazing job of coordinating camp with so little to go on. Kudos to them. We had Flora who made sure all the interns were well taken care of. And all the staff who worked wonders to make sure everything went well, be it Alex with IT, Betty with finances, Catherine with accommodation and weekend trips, and everyone else who worked in the background. But there’s a group of people that us interns are specially grateful to. The Teaching Assistants, or, as we called them, the TAs. They were there to reduce the teacher’s workload, by supervising students in the morning and evenings, by marking the students work, and doing anything needed in the moment (Thank you Cindy, Helen and HD! ).

So they helped you with the workload?

Yes, but also with all the breaks and jokes and stories that made the entire program enjoyable. Tia and her bear, or should I say beer, which I took very good care of, but in the end got torn apart and lost somewhere dark. Alice and her curiosity about Measure Theory. I feel like a nerd describing the “good times” as me teaching mathematics on top of the teaching I already had to do. But then again, maths is fun, so there’s that. There’s all the songs we sang in KTV. Tia’s brother was a delight. I miss you, 小胖.

Cool, glad to know you enjoyed something else other than work

There’s another thing! I do enjoy my maths, but I enjoy sports a lot. I might not enjoy aimless exercise, and by aimless I mean exercising in solitude, but be it football, handball, basketball, or any clash of physical prowess gets my interest, and as such I really enjoyed our late evening basketball and football matches. But most of all, I ended wrestling as well. I haven’t done that in ages, but by chance me and Issac ended up wrestling to see who got the middle bed in the Shaolin temple. I need to wrestle more often. Maybe I should try boxing. Also, winning felt good :D

You’re just saying this to tell us that you won when wrestling?

Obviously winning is great, but I genuinely enjoy exhausting myself physically. Do you not agree?

I do, I do. What else did you do?

I watched the students in the Shaolin temple learn martial arts, and do double back flips as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I was amazed by the theater session they showed us where their stage was the entire mountain. Seriously, there were people and lights all over the mountain, from top to bottom. I still don’t understand how they created the illusion that a building, which was just in front of my eyes, rose from the floor. No way they actually raised an entire building, but it was there, and it was going up. I went to Shanghai’s concert hall, which was gorgeous, even though the performance was a bit disappointing: I feel like the pianist butchered some great classics. I spent an afternoon reading in Pudong’s library, which is bigger than any I’ve seen before ( Thank you Flora for taking me to so many different places and being great company for my last two days in Shanghai ). I had dinner with the rest of CamExpress at the rotating restaurant in the Pearl, which oversees the never ending city. I watched national productions, namely “Dying to Survive”, which was a lot more emotional than the movies I’m used to watch. The weight of that movie was balanced by the lightheartedness of the comedy Mr Billionaire, which made me laugh all the way.

That is a long list.

It is. And there is much more. They were a packed couple months. I experienced a lot. Both work wise and personally. I made friendships that will last. There was conflict. But life is about taking the good and the bad.

Are you trying to get a moral out of this?

I wasn’t planning on, but I kind of feel like I must now. Because there is always bad and good in any situation, and we only appreciate the good after feeling the bad. We assess our well being by comparison. So there can be enjoyment in bad situations. There’s a choice between getting angry and frustrated at whatever bad comes our way, or making the most of it, and taking it as a learning experience. And whenever that bad happens, instead of spending your energy on frustration, it can be used constructively by working on it. By thinking on what can be done to improve the situation. By thinking on what can be done to make sure that it never happens again. By making sure you helped to solve another one of the many problems in this world. Because, in the end, “life is misery with a few dots of happiness”.