It's not unusual for U.S. citizens to spend time abroad, for pleasure or for work. It's not that unusual for them to live for extended periods of time overseas - raising a family there and building a career there. But what about living in a communist country? For ten years? That's the story of one north Georgia native.
Hahn Hanrahan was born in Athens but grew up in Gainesville.
After working in radio in Athens and Gainesville for a time and graduating from college, he turned his attention to a teaching career. But he felt like his calling was not in this country but abroad. So, he began investigating - and, before he knew it, he was in South Korea, teaching at an English language school. Within two years he moved to Dalian, China, and began teaching at City Institute, Dalian University of Technology (DUT).
Over the past few weeks, Hanrahan, who is 40 and single, answered, by email, a number of questions about his job and life in China. This is his story.
*How and when did you decide to go into education?
After losing my job at WNGC (in Athens), I knew I had to finish my degree. Both my parents were teachers and it just seemed the logical thing to do. I knew it would be something I'd enjoy and I am glad I changed majors from Theatre to Education. I've never had any regrets.
*When and where was your first teaching job?
Upon graduation from Brenau University, I applied at several schools. The first one to call back was St. Anthony Catholic School in Atlanta's West End (and I ending up teaching) at St. Anthony for two years. Sadly, at the end of the 2000-2001 school year, the Archdiocese of Atlanta decided to close St. Anthony and Our Lady of Lourdes, our sister school, and merge them with a third school outside of the city.
*What did you teach?
I taught fourth grade. So, all subjects, of course.
*When did you take your first job in Asia and where?
When living in Gainesville, I was looking for overseas teaching jobs, but only got a firm offer from an English language school in Jeonju, South Korea. The location and subject was not what I wanted, but it was still overseas. I took it.
After about eight months, a friend approached me asking for my assistance with opening a language school with him in Donghae, South Korea. I lived there for a year until offered a university position in Shenyang, China.
I asked myself that when I first took the job in Korea. I had preferred to have gotten a job in Europe, but those gigs are so difficult to get. It's much more competitive there. Not many people are as keen on Asia, so the market can a be a bit more teacher-friendly. Having made the choice to come here, I have to say I am happy I did.
*What did you teach there?
I taught basic English to elementary and middle school aged children.
*How long have you been in China and why China?
I arrived in China on February 28th of 2003. So, I've been here for almost ten and a half years. I really was not happy teaching in a "cram school" and I wanted to do some actual teaching. Being offered a university position was what sealed the deal.
*What are you teaching in China?
Mostly I teach Public Speaking, Debate, or European Culture to juniors. In the past, I would occasionally teach an "obligatory" conversation class to freshmen. I've been at the school now for over six years and luckily I get my choice of classes.
*Did you have to learn Chinese?
I have learned some Chinese, but not enough. I have been here for ten years and I know I should at least make an effort. Having lived in Korea where they have a phonetic alphabet made it easy to learn the Korean language. I suppose I have a mental block when it comes to learning the written Chinese language.
I have enough survival Chinese, thus I can give directions to a taxi driver. I can bargain. I can order food and beer at a restaurant. Basic knowledge of Chinese is definitely crucial. (EDITOR'S NOTE: Part of this answer was taken, at Hanrahan's request, from an interview he gave to New Dynasty Digital City Guide and Lifestyle Magazine in 2010.)
*What's a typical school year like?
I work eight months a year and have four months off. Generally I work from September until the end of December, will have January and February off. Classes will begin again in March and I will work until the end of June.
*What's a typical school day like?
Oh, well, it depends on classes. I generally teach 16 hours a week. However, as I am the senior teacher in the English department, I only taught eight hours a week the first half of (the latest) semester. So, I had two hours on Monday; two hours on Tuesday; Wednesday and Thursday I had off; then Friday I had four hours. I did have to keep some office hours to advise senior students with their Senior Thesis.
*Are the schools at all levels run by the national government or do is there local control such as our school boards and, in Georgia, the Board of Regents?
Some schools are government run, some are locally run, and some are private. For example, my university is a private school, yet affiliated with a national school. Some of the "private schools" have higher standards than full government run schools (because) the Presidents of the private schools desire to have their schools become government run.
*I understand the structure of the university/college system in China is is similar to what we have in the U.S.
Yes, in China there are three tiers of universities. Tier one schools would equate to junior colleges in the U.S. Tier two would be regular colleges. Tier three would be full universities. I've worked at all three.
The education system is backwards here, though, not in terms of education, but in how the admission process works and how much a student may pay.
Schools admit students based on their "GaoKao" scores. The GaoKao is a nation-wide exam given to all students their final year of high school. (As an aside, there is much nation-wide cheating that goes on and many articles have been published. Here's one as an example: http://www.smh.com.au/world/chinese-students-and-families-fight-for-the-right-to-cheat-their-exams-20130621-2oo6o.html#ixzz2XanoTKzx ) The GaoKao determines a student's entire future. Good scores equate a good university. Poor scores can leave a student working in a restaurant for minimum wage.
Students with high scores can go to great schools such as Beijing University or Tsinghua University and their tuition is quite low, as little as $2,000 USD (U.S. dollars) a year. Students with low scores are sent to colleges or junior colleges and pay as much as $14,000 USD a year.
From an early age, parents try to get their kids into the best kindergarten, the best elementary school, and the best middle school, so they can get their kids into the best high school and then best university.
The better schools are considered to be government run, while the least preferred are private schools.
Still, all education is based on Confucianism and rote learning. Students never question teachers. Nothing is student-centered. It's all teacher-centered.
*What is your annual salary in U.S. dollars?
Oh, it's so small, I'm embarrassed to say. It's about $15,000 a year. But, that is actually quite a livable salary in China.
*Is there anything such as tenure for a college professor in China?
No. I wish. Every year I sign a new contract. At least at my school, I have proven myself and, as such, my dean has gone to bat for me many times whenever I've requested any additional benefits.
*What can you tell me about college/university sports in China? Is it strictly intramural or is there an intercollegiate system in place?
Most schools don't really have any kind of organized sports, but there are some intramural teams.
*Is there anything at all that compares with the NCAA and its structured, big-time college/university sports programs?
The Chinese University Basketball Association (CUBA) Is the closest thing there is to the NCAA.
*What is the dominant sport(s)?
Basketball and soccer
*Have you become a citizen of China?
I don't think I'd ever become a citizen of China. Even if I wanted to, it's just not common. Race and nationality are closely linked in China. Sadly, no matter how long I live here, I don't think I'd ever be considered as an equal.
I've kept my U.S. passport and the benefits are too great to ever give it up. I can travel to most countries visa-free and that's a luxury Chinese passport holders do not enjoy.
After receiving my first visa in 2003, I simply renew my residency every year. Upon signing my contract with my university, the school will handle all the paperwork required to renew my residency. I go to a local government office building once a year, have my photo taken, and wait a week for my new residency. Once that is done, I will register with the PSB - Public Security Bureau - and I'm all set for another year.
*I understand you follow news from the U.S. and Gainesvile, in particular, very closely and even vote in local, state and national elections.
Of course. Gainseville is where I grew up. I have a close connection to the city and the people. Working at WDUN I also developed a close understanding of the local politics. I was so ignorant at 19, but had learned so much in the several years I worked there.
*Is the voting something you've only recently started doing?
Oh, no! Growing up in Athens, before moving to Gainesville, my mother was very involved in the League of Women Voters. In Gainesville, both my parents were politically active. They'd support various local candidates and I'd be taken along to the fund-raisers.
Once I was 17.5 (years old), my mother registered me to vote. She still worked for the League of Women Voters in Hall County, and was a member of the State organization.
She would always work on the League of Women Voter's Voting Guide each election season.
I have to say, voting and being politically active was just something I was raised doing.
*Why do you vote given your long (in miles and years) disconnect with the U.S. and Gainesville?
Simple answer to this question. If I don't vote, I can't complain. Distance has nothing to do with it. It doesn't matter whether I'm voting in local elections or state elections or national elections. If I do not vote, I can not complain. Voting is a right, just as is free speech.
*What's it like living in a communist county?
In most respects, you'd hardly guess it's communist. Everyone is out to earn a buck or two. Most local restaurants and shops are all privately owned. There are a few local restaurants I frequent and they are all owned by local families.
*Do you feel you are being "watched" all the time?
Not at all. Now, I do have to register once a year with the PSB and give them my home address and phone number. Usually, when I walk in to the office, they know who I am and know I have a little dog. They are quite friendly. I've never had any problems.
Now, IF anyone is watching me, it would be the locals. There is still a US/THEM mentality with many older Chinese people. So, I am not considered an individual. I am a product of where I came from. Thus, I represent ALL Americans. If I do something considered "strange" by the local community, they will think that every U.S. Citizen does the same thing. So, in that respect, I do feel I am being watched.
*Are there any specific precautions you have to take, such as what you say or do or where you go?
Honestly, not at all. I feel quite safe here. I can walk alone at night in the downtown area and won't worry about anything. To be truthful, I've never even give much thought to walking alone.
*Describe your home.
I live in an old apartment building. By Chinese standards 10 to 15 years is old. It's a seven-story building. Four apartments on each floor. My apartment is on the second floor. I have a large kitchen with a west-facing window. My living room has a south-window, as does my bedroom. I have a guest room and the window faces west. My bathroom is small. Just a western style toilet and a shower. My living room is large and I keep my desk with my computer in my living room.
*Does the university pay for it or is that your responsibility?
I do get a housing allowance. It pays my rent and nothing else. All utilities come out of my own pocket.
*What do you like best about living in China?
Not needing a car, having to bargain for everything, fireworks during spring festival, local markets with cheap fresh fruits and vegetables, everything within walking distance, banks open seven days a week, tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants with two or three tables and the best food anywhere, watching older people in parks practice tai chi, how safe I feel when I'm out at night. (EDITOR'S NOTE: This answer and the one to the next question were taken, at Hanrahan's request, from an interview he gave to New Dynasty Digital City Guide and Lifestyle Magazine in 2010.)
*What do you like least about living in China?
Not having a car; utter chaos on a bus - pushing, shoving, yelling; locals who will lie, cheat, steal and sell their grandmother into slavery for just a few fen; the "me first" attitude of many people; no matter how much effort I ever make to "fit in," I'll always be considered an outsider; and The Great Firewall of China, what expats call the general blocking of overseas websites such as YouTube, Facebook, Blogspot, and others.
*Do you miss the U.S.?
I miss Georgia. I miss Atlanta. I miss Gainesville. I miss my friends. I miss many things, but on the whole, I don't miss my way of life. I don't miss having to work so much and having nothing to show for it. I don't miss not being able to afford to travel as much as I do now. I don't miss high rent and high food prices.
*Do you get back often?
Last time I made it back to the U.S. was to Guam (a U.S. Territory) in 2003. I usually travel every six months and like to visit countries I've never been before. The greatest learning experience for anyone is travel. I've been to the U.S. I grew up in the U.S. I'd like to see some other countries before I return.
*How long has it been since you've seen your parents and other relatives? Do any of them visit you?
I am very close with my parents. I speak with my mother and father every Sunday. My parents visited me in 2004. Dad is trying to get me to return to the U.S. Though both my parents are about to turn 70 next year, they are both in great health. I think it's more for their own desires for my own good health than their own.
*Do you miss celebrating traditional U.S. holidays - such as July 4, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.?
Funny you should ask this. I used to have a few friends from the States and we'd have Christmas at my home most of the time. I'd cook a big roast, stuffing, lots of vegetables, and I'd spend three days working on several pies. It was a great feast!
For July 4th, my last celebration was with an American lady friend of mine and her Austrian husband. They invited about 15 of their friends from the U.S., France, Korea, Sweden, and other places and we had a cook-out at their apartment complex. It was so nice. I bought my dog, other families brought their dogs... kids were running around and playing. It was almost like being back in the States. I even brought a keg of beer. I got so many compliments. Just like home.
*Do you feel you will "live out your years" in China or eventually return to the U.S.?
Oh, no. I won't retire here and most definitely have no plans on dying here. I'll eventually return to the U.S. and work for a few more years until I retire. Who knows, maybe I'll become a pirate and live on a sail boat for the rest of my. Stranger things have happened.
*What advice do you have for anyone thinking of embarking on a "life's journey" such as yours?
Oh, my. What's the line from the song by Baz Lurhman? "Be careful whose advice you buy, but, be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth."
But if I had to offer some small piece of advice, I'd highly encourage people to make the time to travel and see as many different parts of the world as possible. It's the greatest learning experience anyone could ever have.
*If you had it to do all over again, would you?
Yes. With out a doubt. No question. I'd love to. I just wish I were younger when I started. Sign me up all over again!