Bus Driver’s Fury, Carnival In A Chinese Classroom

Pu Guang school located in a rural district of Shanghai’s Pudong area.

A group of volunteers met at central Shanghai’s Hengshan Lu for a charity day trip organised by the Caribbean Association in China (CAC). The responsibility fell on yours truly, as the organisation’s Vice President, to lead the willing crew.

Today’s outreach was to a migrant school called Pu Guang located on the Pudong side of the city. This particular school has been supported by the CAC for a couple of years now and the focus is to bring a different English language experience through the means of cultural exchange and activities. We were about to present a complete in-your-face Caribbean vibes, hip-shaking afternoon to a bunch of 30 primary school students. All 18 CAC volunteers spaciously spread out onto a 50-seater bus as departed downtown.

Vice President welcoming the CAC volunteers on board.

We had tried to downsize but the bus hire company had no other smaller vehicles available. That was soon to prove the opening drama on our outward journey. Technically the area we were going to was still classified as Shanghai but it might as well have been a village in its own right. After just over an hour’s drive out towards the East China Sea coast, long gone were the imposing high-rise developments.

Dated low-rise apartment blocks and one-level high street stores outlined the main streets of the ‘village’ which was basically a collection of simple farm houses surrounded by land growing all types of vegetables. The main crop of choice was wheat and there were sizable patches all ready for harvesting. Unlike the efficient layout of Shanghai city, here the road names were sporadically placed. Our bus driver, from Shanghai himself, was showing clear signs of frustration as he juggled a map (with microscopic writing) making reading it and driving a monster transporter – a potential hazard.

Each kid received a CAC gift bag with school goodies.

After looping up and down the main road, he abruptly pulled up to the side where he asked us to call the school up for him. Getting the teacher contact on the phone, the localised instructions given were still too baffling for our driver. It ended up with the teacher hopping on his little scooter to come out and meet us. We then had to follow him to the school’s location. A huge bus travelling at a scooter’s speed was not the most popular act on the road that day as impatient drivers were honking their horns behind us.

Then came the moment to do a near 360 degree turn (remember, huge bus doing this!) and the scooter disappeared down a side country lane. As group leader, I was sitting in the front row and therefore had the unedited version of the impending volcanic eruption – a.k.a. angry driver. Squeezing down the first few metres we passed housing and parked trucks with barely enough room to slip the new thinned out iPhone 5 through. Inevitably some of the tightly-planted vegetable patches lining the lane got an unwanted soil-turning as the bus wheels rolled over them.

Our bus driver unhappy with getting stuck on a country lane.

Another twenty metres and signs of smoke coming out from the driver’s ears were becoming visible. The leading scooter did a sharp right angle turn. The driver hit his oversized steering wheel with two hands. His side window slid open and he started to hurl abuse at the teacher on the scooter. Basically, the corner was impossible for a bus to turn into and the lane ahead was getting smaller. The ignition was switched off and the driver stormed off the bus. The molten lava was now beginning to stream down the side of the volcano with mounting pace.

I would never want to be at the receiving end of an irritated Shanghainese (expect shouting to be at deafening levels and a resistance to back down that would make any champion boxer quake in fear). But watching the drama unfold for others was extremely addictive viewing. Within minutes, our bus was surrounded by locals all checking in on the action. The bus had stopped in the middle of two lanes crossing each other. To our left – a truck and a couple of motorbikes. In front was a mini van. To our right was a tractor. And behind us were two cars. No one was going anywhere.

With the bus immobile, we disembark to walk the remaining 100 metres to the school.

As the person in charge of the trip, I felt I had to do something but with my Chinese not good enough do deal with such situations, I asked Phil (former CAC treasurer) to step out and try and calm things down. All of us peered out the bus windows to witness our driver in the middle of a circle of people widely throwing his hands emphasising an already obvious problem. The moment Phil tried to reason with him, his arms were forcefully clamped down as the driver’s non-stop babbling overpowered him. We were already ten minutes late for our scheduled start time.

All that stood between the stationed bus and the school were a couple of wheat fields. I jumped on the bus’ microphone and informed our group that we’d be getting off the bus and walking the last 100 metres to our destination.

Caribbean pied-pipers, as local kids curiously follow us through the fields.

For a moment, we thought we’d had to roll up our trousers and wander through the mud but thankfully there was a small lane through the middle of the crops. Seeing us disembarking, our driver started to simmer down and we left him to try and work out how to turn the bus around for our drive home later. Like a bunch of foreign pied-pipers, we had a line of local kids all excitedly following us shouting “Hello!” every other second. This was big news. First a big bus clogging up their lanes, to then have a load of outsiders walking their streets – they were certainly making the most of it. We arrived at the school gates to a double military line up of school kids all clapping for us. Moving into the central courtyard area, which also acted as a basketball court, we did some introductions and a short warm up of ‘head-shoulders-knees-and-toes’.

We then went into a one of the second floor classrooms which had old desks and chairs all crammed in lines. Despite its somewhat poor-looking state there was, surprisingly, a projector with a drop down screen. We split the class of 30 into five groups each with a couple of CAC volunteers per group. Phil and CAC treasurer Christal opened up with a short PPT presentation on the Caribbean. The kids particularly loved the carnival costumes which was perfect, as our main project for the day was to make carnival masks.

Pu Guang students and CAC volunteers busy making carnival masks.

We had brought art paper, glue, scissors, feathers and a load of decorative beads, stickers and other shiny bits for the students to get creative with. For the next hour and a half, each CAC volunteer assisted and encouraged the mask-makers to recreate some of that carnival dazzle. We even had reggae music playing through the classroom speakers. (Although, they didn’t need to know that it wasn’t actually from the Caribbean but from the late South African reggae star Lucky Dube.)

Then it was time to do a mini show-and-tell Caribbean-style! Cranking the speakers up, soca music set the carnival mood and each group was led up the front en-masse with some carnival whining (nothing x-rated of course!). We took time to appreciate each group’s hard work and as the children returned to their desks, they were given a gift bag filled with school and recreational goodies courtesy of the CAC.

The children were clearly inspired and energised from the whole experience which, in turn, made our CAC group feel honoured to have been given the chance to share with those 30 kids. A quick group photo outside and goodbyes to the staff and students, we were soon trekking back through the wheat fields thankful to see that our driver miraculously managed to turn the bus around. I wasn’t about to ask him how he did it, but as we got back on board he was apologising like crazy to us all for causing a scene earlier. To which I replied, “mei shi” – it’s nothing, don’t worry!

A corner too tight sets our driver off with CAC’s Phil trying to calm things down.

Our driver was having none of it…he had had enough!

We had no option but to get off the bus and walk through the village to the school.

Stopping mid-field for a quick CAC group country photo!

Local village boys excited to see the outsiders near their home.

Two smart lines of students welcoming the CAC to Pu Guang School.

Ice breaker outside doing head-shoulders-knees-and-toes!

Phil showing the students carnival from my birth country – the Bahamas. 🙂

CAC treasurer Christal and CAC volunteer Snow explaining the mask task.

Distributing the materials to start the project.

Soon, the whole class is buzzing with creativity.

CAC secretary Barbara giving a hand cutting.

Pu Guang students getting into the carnival fun.

Proudly Caribbean! (left to right) Antigua, Grenada, the Bahamas and the Trini Flag!

One group’s completed masks.

Feather-inspired carnival masks!

One of the groups moving to soca music and presenting their masks to the class.

Kids with their masks and CAC gift bags.

With two of the Pu Guang students.

CAC crew returning back through the fields to our bus ride home.