The aim of this blog, is to present a balanced view of life at Shantou University, and in particular with the English Language Centre (ELC). I hope it helps prepare future teachers.
When being interviewed for any new job, the best possible scenario is always painted, while less desirable features are often glossed over. It is always difficult to get a clear picture of what to expect. especially where a new country is concerned.
I will begin with questions that intending teachers might ask.
What is there to do in Shantou?
Shantou City is limited and should not be taken as typical of other cities in China.
Dining. There is one Western style restaurant. Isle Santo is well run by an Austrian owner and serves quality Italian/Austrian style food and beverages. There are good pasta dishes, pizzas, beer (Hoegaarden) and fine imported wine list. Staff are also well trained.
The L.A bar, also serves reasonable Western style food, but the service can be hit or miss. The ambience is ok early but turns into a karaoke style later.
There are also a number of Chinese style night clubs, with lots of loud music, where Bourbon is mixed with green tea and drink are expensive. Westerner tend to be treated as curio objects in these place and will get a lot of attention from local clubbers.
Other than that there is very little to do unless you are into KTV. The city is basically a huge grubby container port with little in the way of beautiful historic sites and a history of smuggling that has resulted in the loss of infrastructure funding. Container trucks ply most roads and road rules are considered to be advisory only.
How far from downtown is the campus?
That depends on the time of travel. It can take up to an hour during peak times or down to 40 minutes, by bus. The number 39 bus is adequate and is air conditioned, costing just 2 rmb.
Returning late at night is a different matter. The 39 bus does not run late, so a taxi is needed and here one needs to be prepared to bargain. The denizens of Shantou are renowned for their desire to get money out of people and being a round eye, long nose Westerner means they will inflate the cost or most things.
A general rule of thumb is that between 35 and 40 rmb is a fair price to pay from downtown to the university. However you may be asked for up to 80 rmb. Set the price before you get in and be prepared to walk away if the driver dose not want to reduce the price. The chances are he will come back to you and do a deal.
Other options are to engage a regular driver, a little more expensive, but often the vehicle is clean, reliable and the driver is cautious.
How do I get to and from the airport?
After being on campus for some time it is likely that you will want to escape to somewhere else during the breaks. The new airport is a huge upgrade on the old ex military departure point and you don’t need to go through town now.
Again a driver is you best bet.It will cost 120 rmb, but the car is clean and reliable, and the driver cautious. One recommended driver is Tom.
What is the campus like?
It is small leafy and green. By comparison to other campuses in China it is quite picturesque with most of the streets lined with mango trees. There is a small pond in a park like setting and a large reservoir.
There is a gym, tennis courts and two swimming pools. All can be used by faculty, although the swimming pool is only open for a short period. There is also a very new state of the art library complex.
As a result of the park like environment many locals are attracted to the university for picnics, this can result in a crowded place on weekends. It is also often used as a learner driver circuit, with many husbands bringing their wives here to gain driving experience, as there is less traffic than outside.
Cars can be a problem as speed limits and road rules are, like in most of China, ignored. To date only a small number of minor accidents have been recorded on campus.
Can I get my own vehicle?
Yes, sort of. China is not a signatory to international licenses, but a local driving license can be obtained with the right connections and at a cost. Electric and under 50cc (Mopeds) motor scooters can be bought and are relatively cheap, around 2500 rmb. A group of adventurous teachers purchased some and they are a lot of fun to explore the country side with. However, shortly afterwards a dictate went out that foreign teachers should not ride motor scooters on campus. This was also accompanied with a notice at the ELC admin building that no whoring is allowed also. It would seem that Western stereotypes regarding motor cycles exist in China, even 50cc scooters. Like many other rules and regulation China wide such a dictate, regrading motor scooters, has not been implemented
What are the classrooms like?
There are mainly 2 buildings, E, which is cleaner and relatively new, and the G&D buildings which are older, moldier and dirtier. Both have air conditioning units in the classrooms.
In the old building the computers are also older – all of the computers operate using XP, now that Microsoft no longer updates XP, problems such as viruses will become an even greater problem in the future, also take care if using your own USB drive. In the G&D building there is a choice of either English or Chinese operating system and other software, in the E building only Chinese. There are digital projectors, but they are like many things in China, or at least Shantou rarely maintained. It seems that the policy is don’t touch it till it completely breaks down. This results in poor resolution with students finding it difficult to see what is on the screen.
Classroom furniture is flexible, that is it is not nailed in place, but it is preferred if it is left in rows, that being the default setting, so group work requires extra effort and time in arranging desks at the beginning, with the expectation that they are to be put back at the end of class.
There is a teachers lounge and toilets on each floor. Lounges are mostly dusty with students and/or teachers sleeping in them, while toilets are squatters and not cleaned to a Western standard. Small open mesh bins are used to discard used toilet paper and in the women’s toilets used sanitary products. Rats have also been spotted in the old buildings.
New teachers are mostly given classrooms in the old buildings, the newer building being taken up by mostly established -older- Chinese teachers.
What are living conditions like?
Here again there is some variation, in size and quality. Starting at the top
3 bedroom apartments “A” buildings. They are relatively spacious and the furniture is quite new. All three bedrooms are largish. The draw back with some of these apartments is the kitchen, which is dark with no natural light and fitted with a single electric hot plate, a rice cooker and very little work surface.
The bathroom is functional, but you do need to get use to the idea of a wet room with the hand basin in with the shower. Water is hot and reliable.
Air conditioning through out for heating and cooling.
A further draw back is the location of these spacious apartments, they do get a lot of passing traffic: pedestrian and motorbike. Or they are located so close to the hill that little sunlight reaches them and they are damp.
2 bedroom apartments “B” buildings. These feature one double bedroom and one small narrow bedroom. The advantage of these apartments rests with the kitchen which is open to the dining room, and has lots of natural light. They are also fitted with a double burner gas cooktop and have a little more work surface. The bathroom is also more spacious with a separate shower.
There are older and newer 2 bedroom “B” apartments. The layout is the same but the old ones do not have hot water in the kitchen or bathroom vanity. Some furniture is also different. The older ones have a large wooden cabinet in the lounge room and only a vinyl sofa, while the newer ones get a low cabinet, a small vinyl lounge and two arm chairs. The older apartments do not have overhead lighting in the living areas but are equipped with floor lamps, which can give a nice romantic ambience, but are difficult to read by.
The newer apartments have A/C for heating and cooling. The old ones only for cooling, while a single plug in oil radiator supplies heating.
There is also what is known as the network centre, where apartments are small and cramped.
All apartments are supplied with television sets, some newer than others.
Note the Housing Department will not remove any items from the apartment.
What type of apartment will I get?
There is no discernible policy for the allocation of apartments it appears that it depends on the rank at which you are employed. Even if you have requested one type of apartment there is no guarantee that that is what you will be issued with once you arrive. Upgrading is possible depending on length of stay.
Are the apartments maintained?
The short answer is only if you ask for it. Issues that have occurred with apartments are:
Gas leaks. The gas bottle for cooking is stored in the kitchen and regulators are not changed unless they leak. A good tip is to keep the apartment well ventilated.
Mould. Some apartments seem to attract more than others. Ground floor apartments are said to be the worse, with some growing a great deal of black mould especially in the small room. The benefit of the ground floor is a bigger outdoor space, very useful for entertaining.
Mould is a problem throughout the tropics with its hot damp climate and not limited to Shantou. Leather goods are particularly prone.
Electricity. This is cheap and mostly reliable, however some older devices such as lamps have been known to give shocks. There is also a shortage of power outlets and like in many apartments anywhere in the world they are not in the right spots.
Water. It is not advised to drink the water from the taps. Water for drinking can be purchased and is delivered to the apartment with a phone call or text request. The same applies to gas and service is normally quite prompt.
Is there internet in the apartments
Yes there is and it is supplied free of charge. There is a limited download allowance, while it is also subject to the university firewall and national censorship. It is also possible to get an independent contract with unlimited download connected to your apartment at your own cost, which is not subject to the university firewall and therefore faster. There are of course ways around the Great Firewall also.
Are the apartments secure?
Yes and no. All apartments have key coded entry doors, needing a six figure number to get in and are monitored by security cameras. However, the entry code is often distributed to delivery men – gas and drinking water, cleaners and visiting students!
Are students allowed into faculty housing?
Technically no, but the English Language Centre (ELC) encourages it as part of extra curricular activities.
Now this brings me to the teaching culture and professionalism of the ELC department.
What is the teaching culture and collegiality like?
Like many other educational institutions collegiality is a mixed bag. To begin the vast majority of teachers come from the US, or are familiar with that system having studied there. So you may assume a US orientation.
Christianity, while not taught directly, as part of the syllabus is of considerable importance to a significant number of faculty and does feature in extra curricular activities. Of late the incidence of this has been on the increase.
A range of experience and qualifications exists among the faculty body. A few hold PhDs and are serious about both teaching and research. The majority are Masters qualified, with most teaching for the first time or with limited experience. There are some older more experienced teachers as well. There is also an increasing number of differently qualified teachers, that is without TESOL degrees or teaching methodology knowledge. These include interns, returning interns and spouses of faculty, either ELC or other.
Note: Celta and Delta qualifications are not considered suitable by the ELC management.
Research is encouraged, at least to the level of conference presentations, and generous support is provided. Very little substantial research is developed beyond this stage.
Extra curricular activities are expected. Mostly this takes the form of English Lounge Monday to Thursday evenings each week as well as English Corner every Friday evening and special activities such as English Festival, debate club, speech contests, culture week and faculty talks. It is difficult to get clear guidance as to the exact number of activities or hours you are expected to undertake.
Teachers are, as mentioned earlier encouraged to entertain students in their own home, cooking Western food etc. This is problematic, with regard to power relationships, professional distance and the prospect of abuse.
What is the teaching philosophy?
In short – conservative. Following three years of an expansive approach, in which English for specific purposes (ESP) was encouraged and developed with specialist expertise, the new leadership has seen a retrograde step back to a general English approach.
Student evaluations of teaching and learning (SETLs) are taken seriously. An inflated average of around 90% is expected. This can and often does have the effect of teachers grading at the top end in order to gain good SETLs, particularly with mid terms. Many teachers are reluctant to fail students.
Personality counts. Like many teaching institutions where teachers live on campus in close proximity, the ability and willingness to socialize with ones peers is important. In order to get on intending teachers need to do this or will find themselves isolated from decision making processes. Having said that China is a top down society and the ELC at Shantou is no different. Decisions are made by the director and the inner circle. Difficult questions are not appreciated and meaningful discussion is rarely entered into.
Does the university pay on time?
Yes. However, it should be remembered that a large portion of one’s salary is paid at the end of the year, as a type of carrot or stick, depending one’s perspective. Note most people over extend themselves with the extra curricular activities to ensure their end of year bonus, as no clear policy or guidelines exist to follow in order to meet obligations. They are as stated unidentified expectations. Failure to meet the undefined expectations can result in a reduction of bonus at the discretion of the inner circle.
What is healthcare like?
Healthcare cover is provided, but there is a catch. As the cover is supplied from Hong Kong teachers are considered to be overseas when they need to make a claim. This means that they must pay up front and then claim it back. Should such a situation arise the university will normally cover the costs until it is reimbursed from the healthcare company.
The level of medical care can be of a reasonably high quality and the university will take care to make sure faculty get this. This also applies to dental care.
Can I get Western food on campus?
Yes, just outside of campus is a small cluster of shop and cheap eating places. The range of Western style groceries is increasing. Pasta is available, as is peanut butter, long life milk, condensed milk, Dove chocolate, Bread although it is sweeter than normal. German wheat beer has also been available recently as too has Australian wine and Gin and Tonic.
There are also two fruit stands and and on campus a small vegetable outlet that also sells chicken and other meat.
For more exotic goods, one needs to go downtown to Walmart or Lotus. Megan’s Advantage Stores, also stock a range of Western luxury goods, for when one needs a reminder of home.
In summary Shantou University is in many ways unlike other Chinese Universities. It is well funded, thanks to the LI Ka Shing Foundation. Therefore it pays better than many other Chinese Universities. Teaching standards are, however similar, and few students fail, which should give rise to some concern. The administrators of the university make all of the right noises about trying to internationalise the campus and attract international students. To do this they need to attract international faculty and set similar standards. Their ambition is largely thwarted by middle management who seem to be prefer to maintain what they have, that being as one head of department noted -”a mum and pop university where they can send their kids to get a degree.”
The best suited teachers to the ELC are; American, Masters qualified, with a modicum of experience. They should be outgoing, and enjoy spending a lot of time with students and the people they work with and come from a conservative Christian moral background. They should also appreciate that the management style is top down and that critical thoughts are best kept to themselves. They also do not ride motor scooters.