It’s Henan College of Education, but not as we know it — looking back on 10 years of China

I first came to China in 1999, so 2009 is a big year for me, just as the Chinese government is gearing up to celebrate its 60th anniversary. So here’s one of my articles looking back on those 10 years, and considering how things have changed, and impacted my life. Enjoy!

Henan College of Education — located in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, China — has a certain nostalgic pull for me. It was the place where I began learning Chinese, thanks to Wang Bin. It was where I first kissed Christian, my first Chinese boyfriend, and, from my perspective, first real love. It was where China schooled me in its rhythms and ways — always something new, always a learning experience. Even long after I left Zhengzhou, my mind often returned to Henan College of Education, and I even felt a certain allegiance to the people of Henan Province (some of whom would even call me a townsman, or  老乡).

But all of that is changing because, at the end of this year, Henan College of Education will not be the same. Oh, the institution will still survive, but it won’t be the Henan College of Education that we knew.

I discovered the shocking news when I casually wandered onto the campus in early July. It was 5pm and I had agreed to meet with Shelly and Lisa, two of the Foreign Affairs Office employees who remembered me when I was an English teacher there 10 years ago.

Shelly and Lisa had hardly changed. Shelly, the senior of the two who was planning on retiring at the end of the year, still had the same stout face, short permed hair, dyed black with an almost carefree flyaway pinned down with a bobby pin, and air of correctitude right down to her perfectly folded hands. Lisa, the younger and more warm of the two, had the same cap of short straight hair around her head, a smart gray belted dress that reached to her knees, and the same friendly sparkle in her eyes behind her glasses.

“You came just in time,” said Shelly as she sat behind her mahogany desk, a reminder of the authority she had accumulated over the years. “Henan College of Education will be closed for good at the end of this year — and moved to the new campus.”

Indeed I came just in time. Over all of these years, I had lost contact with these people, never knowing that the school in its present form would no longer exist at the end of 2009.

But why? It all comes down to two Chinese characters: 改制, which essentially stands for “change form.”

The “Change Form” directive came from the government, and specifically targeted schools such as Henan College of Education — a school that had primarily existed for the education of teachers that had previously graduated from a technical school and were already on the job. The Chinese government found that, since now teachers in China were required, in general, to get a four-year undergraduate degree in order to work, Henan College of Education was becoming obsolete. Unless it could change to start educating undergraduates instead to become teachers.

But how could Henan College of Education do this in its current location? It was located right in the center of the oldest area of Zhengzhou, where the streets are lined with stately Oriental Plane trees, and snack shops let their plastic tables and stools spill out on the sidewalk, and peasants park their tractors at the intersections to hawk the freshest seasonal fruits. The school was surrounded on all sides by apartment complexes, restaurants, and company buildings, and its small size (about 50 yards by 50 yards, with the highest buildings having a sixth floor) couldn’t accommodate a large class of undergraduates.

So, they decided to do what cities around China have done — look to the suburbs. I had already seen this at work in Hangzhou, where nearly every institution, including my Chinese husband’s Hangzhou Teacher’s College, was relocated to a place aptly named “college city” (because that’s literally all there was there).

“You must go see the new campus tomorrow,” beamed Shelly as she stood up to escort me and my husband John out the door. “Helen, our newest assistant in the Foreign Affairs office, will accompany you on the bus over. Be here by 8:10am.”

Of course, we agreed — John and I were endlessly curious about what this new campus included.

So, the next day we boarded a campus-run direct bus to the new Henan College of Education. About 45 minutes later, after we had left the familiar, cozy streets of the city center, and the science and technology district with gleaming new skyscrapers bending and swaying towards a new future, we came to the fringes of Zhengzhou, where there was open spaces, large roads, construction sites, and makeshift wooden shacks hawking “big pot chicken”, fried noodles and rice, and other fast and tasty delicacies. And just across from one of these shacks was the white gates to the new campus of Henan College of Education.

The whole area looked more than 10 times the size of the original campus, except all of the buildings were white and appeared no more than 6 stories high. The style of architecture was decidedly not Chinese, but rather something that was reaching towards a modern, clean feeling. There was grass covering the areas without sidewalks or roads — planted with trees that still were propped up by wooden supports, which meant that they had been transplanted there from a countryside tree farm. And there was an Olympic-sized track and stadium for sports meets and recreation.

As we approached the foreign teachers’ building, a white, four-story structure that had an almost antebellum south feel to it, I could understand Shelly’s words with regards to the teachers at Henan College of Education: “They don’t like living out there,” she smiled, as if to hide the embarrassing truth — that everyone would have to move out here, like it or not. I could understand their misgivings. Beyond the school and its resources, there was nothing around the campus. It may have been a dream for the planners (a school in suburbs — why, no distractions for the students to get in trouble!), but it was a nightmare for the foreign teachers.

It made me think of Christian, my Chinese boyfriend then, who had once nicknamed me “pretty prisoner” because the school locked its gates at night, making it difficult for me to get out and see him in Zhengzhou.

Helen took me and Jun for a walk to tour some of the buildings. The insides were as white and immaculate and gleaming as the building facades themselves — even the floors gleamed. I was almost startled by how pristinely clean everything felt to me. It was a far cry from the rough, dusty concrete floors standard in the classrooms I used to teach in at the old Henan College of Education. And she showed me some of the news about their progress in the “Change Form” directive — at some point, the place would even change its name to something with “university” in it.

Then we went to the foreign teacher’s building, where one of my old Chinese colleagues, Steve, was now the head of the English department. At a school banquet, Steve had once coaxed me into drinking beer, which led to baijiu (the killer hard liquor of choice at every banquet), which led to the worst headache of my life — so I knew I needed to tread carefully in his presence.

“Ah, Jocelyn, it is so good to see you! And you look more beautiful than before!” he declared with his cherry-red lips. I began to wonder what he wanted. And the more I listened, the more I realized what it was — my services, once again.

“You know, it’s a pity you arrived so late. The campus is deserted now, you see? All of the students are heading home for the summer break. If you had only come a few days before, why, you could give a lecture to the students!”

“A lecture about what?” I asked.

He laughed, taking my question as something rhetorical. “Will you excuse me?” Steve then stepped out for a moment, allowing us to take in his office — a space he was quite proud of. His office was the most hilarious juxtaposition of work and relaxation I had ever seen. There, on one side, was his mahogany desk with a Dell computer and expensive leather chair of authority. And on the other was a cot covered in a bamboo mat with a pillow covered in a flowery pillowcase. It would never go over in the US — but in China, where noontime naps are the norm, no one would bat an eyelash.

Steve then stepped into the room excitedly. “You know, there will be inspectors coming to look at the new campus and this building, and they want to see pictures of our foreign teachers. So I was wondering if you would be willing to take a picture for us, to use for our, how do you say, marketing?”

Yes, Steve had been manipulative in the past at times, and he did contribute to one of my worst drunken afternoons. But that was in the past, and if a picture could make this guy that excited, how could I refuse?

Before I knew it, I was standing outside the foreign teachers building, in a patch of newly transplanted bamboo, smiling for a digital camera. “Beautiful!” Steve exclaimed as he snapped the shots, with a cigarette dangling from one hand. And he couldn’t help but take a picture with me as well, his arm around my shoulders, as if to nullify all of the tense office negotiations we had lived through that year.

We shook hands, with the promise to keep in touch, and waved him goodbye as we boarded the bus back to Zhengzhou. Though Henan College of Education was no longer the place I’d known, I felt fortunate to have seen it before the transition was complete. And, just as a traveler touches every place they go in some way, so did I leave a part of myself behind — a picture on the wall, and a new picture, of Henan College of Education, in my mind.

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