Working as a Classical Dance Teacher in China – An Interview with Gessica

Today we’re interviewing Gessica Cipriano, a classical dance teacher in Jishou, a city located in Hunan Province.

If you’d like to learn more about Gessica and her adventures in China, take a look at her YouTube channel.

Working in a Chinese university

Gessica, first of all thanks for agreeing to answer my questions. Many people ask us how to find a job in China, so let’s start there. How did you get them to take you on as a classical dance teacher at a Chinese university?

Since 2015 I traveled throughout the United States and a little bit in Germany to learn what type of work opportunities can be found abroad in my field, and I dreamed a lot about these two possible destinations. I never actually thought of China and knew nothing about it.

In Spring of 2017, the university’s own international office saw my professional profile online and contacted me about the classical dance teacher position that was open, asking me if I was interested in applying.

Originally I didn’t think I’d want to consider the offer, because even though I’m inclined to traveling and moving around, I never considered Asia, other than a far off fantasy of Japan, but only as a tourist.

However I believe that China literally “called” me in some inexplicable metaphysical way, because, despite my rational side’s unwillingness to accept the idea, my subconscious began suddenly experiencing sleepless nights, almost unwitting daydreams and fantasies about this far off and mysterious world.

So, during yet another sleepless night, I started looking online for more information about this University, in Jishou in Hunan Province. There wasn’t much information available, but despite that I decided to start the application process.

Did you have trouble getting a work visa?

Preparing my application was long and tiresome, because I received only partial and imprecise instructions, in the sense that I wasn’t given a complete list of documents to provide. On the contrary, every week I was asked for new documents, or to resend certifications but in a different way. This took me almost three months.

I had to provide my resume, a letter from my previous place of employment, postmarked copies of all my diplomas and their English translations (after having them all translated, I was asked to have them also translated into Chinese, but the budget for an agency was about a thousand Euros, so I insisted on sending the copies in English), a criminal report (which you can get from the courthouse), various medical exams at my own expense (which they made me repeat once I got to China, where I insisted they were paid for by the school) which is a first step for applying for a visa which can be done in Milan (because I’m from Turin), as well as an entrance visa for China, for which I used an agency.

For the classical dance teacher position I needed to have a degree in dance, or another degree plus a diploma from a prestigious international dance academy. In my case, there are no dance universities in Italy, but I have a specialist degree in Health and Psychology and a diploma in classic-academic dance from the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, so I was able to satisfy the necessary requirements.

Before Jishou I danced professionally in Italy, France, Germany, Finland and the USA; I was known and supported as a choreographer in Turin and New York, and I launched a dance school in the province of Turin, which I continue to direct thanks to the help of a collaborator/substitute and modern technologies that allow me to send videos and update material to cover in my absence. Periodically I manage to come back and personally see how it’s going with the students and to put on shows, for which I do the preparation work long distance.

Classical dance teacher in China

Why did you choose China, and in particular, Jishou?

China chose me. And I, despite the initial reluctance, decided to accept.

You’re not the first person this has happened to! What are your students like? What’s the main difference between your Italian students and new Chinese students?

Last year at Jishou University I worked with first year kids, 27 boys and 22 girls who are studying to become professional dancers in traditional and classical Chinese dance. This year I teach two groups of 21 girls each who are working toward becoming dance teachers. Their ages are between 18 and 20 years.

Normally in Italy, in a dance school there are lots of young children, especially girls, from kindergarten age on upward, and as the age goes up the groups are smaller. Fortunately I had the opportunity in the past to teach girls between 17 and 20 years old, and I enjoyed that, so I was happy to accept an assignment with the kids at JiDa (Jishou Daixue, Jishou Univeristy).

Did you have any trouble settling in with your workmates? What language do you speak in?

Before deciding to take on this adventure, I asked the University’s international office if people on campus spoke English, and they guaranteed me that they do. Unfortunately, the reality is different, as very few people are able to understand or speak English.

In my department I became friends with two coworkers – one teaches music and speaks English well enough, the other teaches dance and we communicate in English. On campus I’ve also made friends with students (not mine) who I’m able to communicate with.

The students for the most part don’t speak English and some know a few words. Fortunately I teach dance, which doesn’t require words, but rather observation, repetition, will and effort: I show them the movements repeatedly so as to make them clearer and more understandable to the kids. If I need an explanation we use an automatic translator installed on my cell phone.

All this might give the impression that I live a dry and isolated life on a human level. It’s really not like that. Here’s where I was able to personally experience what I studied in college: psychology and anthropology explain that humans’ need for communication allows them to find alternative means of expression, and that simple language is erroneously considered the only thing responsible for successful communicative intention.

As a result, between technology, looks, slowly-spoken English, halting Chinese, gestures, intuition, lines and imitations, “I speak” with others and have also established friendships (and I’m giving these friends informal English lessons by meeting in the park, at the library or in a coffee shop, in exchange for some clarification on the obscurity of the Chinese language).

Living in Jishou, in Hunan

When did you arrive in Jinshou? Moreover, I know that this is a city without a lot of Westerners. Can you describe your experience to us?

I came to Jishou a year ago, thinking I’d stay for a year, but I then extended my contract for another year. Last year on campus we were five Westerners: two English, a Spaniard, an American girl and I. Not seeing many Westerners around doesn’t particularly bother me, but I have to say that in the beginning I was a little lost while in stores and didn’t know what to buy because a lot of the food was unknown to me. Or I didn’t know what to order at the cafeteria or restaurants without an English menu, or realize that here they have very different customs, which left me feeling that I could do something wrong or strange at any time.

What are the pros and cons of a city where there’s hardly any Westerners?

A pro is that I live a real experience in contact with another culture without too much Western interference (there is some, through the media, but it’s filtered through their mentality).

A con is that, especially in the beginning, what was obvious to me isn’t obvious to them, and vice versa, so that I was often (and still am) a source of entertainment for those who don’t grasp the sense of some of my actions or reactions.

Many locals have never seen a Westerner in person before now, so especially in the beginning they turned to look at me with great wonder, pointed at me while speaking excitedly amongst themselves, some followed me, or stretched their necks trying to see what I bought at the supermarket.

At the beginning of the last year, even the students on campus did similar things: flinching at the sight of me, whispering as I walked by, curious as to what I was eating in the cafeteria, taking videos with their cell phones, surprise pictures taken by putting their cell phone in front of my face with a sudden and precise gesture, or more polite requests to take a selfie together, their faces red with shyness and emotion.

Then I got used to it, even though I still at times have someone stop me to take a picture together (which I generally refuse), or asks those with me why I don’t have black hair “like normal people”, or unknown kids challenge those with the most courage to come up to me and say “hello!”.

Living in Hunan

I know that you’ve adopted two “Chinese” dogs. Can you tell us how you managed that?

Yes. When I got here I noticed a dog on a chain behind the building where the school assigned me an apartment. The dog was living without water, with a bowl full of rotten food, being forced to walk in its own excrement next to a garbage pickup: a pile where everyone tossed their trash in anticipation for a cart that would periodically pick it up (fortunately they now put a dumpster there and the cart passes every day).

The dog seemed very old and sickly but friendly, so I decided to pet it every day and gave her the name Spicy (because at that time I still couldn’t believe that these people could each such incredibly “spicy” food for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and also because this dog had red fur). Then one day she wouldn’t let me get close, and I thought she was sick and that sadly, or fortunately, the end was near.

The next day she was perky again and… she had two puppies! Considering her scrawniness and condition I never thought that she could be so young and pregnant. So I had two girls – who then became my friends – help me negotiate with the owner so that I could have her. The negotiations were hard, long and extensive, but in the end I got the dogs (for an exaggerated price, obviously), and took them with me and took care of them.

One of the puppies didn’t survive, but the other did, who I’ve called Tofu, since it’s white and Chinese, and in three weeks it’ll be a year old. Someone told me that my dogs are a favorite breed in Japan, which is the shiba inu, but in China they’re only known as stupid, ugly and dangerous local dogs.

They do look like shiba inu, but I wouldn’t know if they are, nor do I care all that much. My plan is to bring them to Italy. I’ve already filled out all the forms – a process that takes a lot of time and money, but they have made my apartment a “home” and fill my life with love.

Here dogs are generally not well received and are often ignored, if not badly mistreated. There are also restaurants that serve dog meat among other specialties. In general dogs are looked down upon, like wild, dirty bringers of sickness. The tendency here isn’t to domesticate them, so they live in the countryside and woods in an almost feral state, and could have rabies.

The first few times I walked around with Spicy (Tofu was still too little to walk outside) many people shouted upon seeing me, gave me dirty looks and went the other way. Fortunately there are several kids who love dogs, whom I became friends with.

In China, especially here, having a dog is a luxury. It means you have time and money to waste, and only certain breeds are considered to be acceptable: poodles or golden retrievers. Small dogs in the house are kept in cages, as are many cats (in fact I was strongly told by the veterinarian to keep little Tofu in a cage, but I didn’t listen).

Dogs are only accepted in the cheapest restaurants and half of the restaurants and street-food sellers and a pair of coffee shops I know. In addition, you can’t travel by taxi, bus (though I brought Spicy a few times) or trains.

What’s your favorite city in China?

I still haven’t visited enough of them: at this point only Jishou, Fenguang, Furong Gen, Changsha, Chengdu, Beijing, Tianjin, and Hong Kong. Of these, for sure Beijing and Hong Kong for the international artistry that you can find there, but Chengdu also took a piece of my heart. I still plan to go to Shanghai, Xi’An, Zhangjiajie, Hainan Island, and I hope many other cities!

An obligatory question here on SDC: what’s your favorite Chinese dish?

Fresh Jiaozi and sweet congee. But also vegetables and tofu (I don’t eat meat) in a hot pot, the yin-yang version, whose white broth gives some peace to the palate when the spice gets to be too much!

The YouTube channel

Where did the idea to start a Youtube channel dedicated to China come from? What type of content do you publish / intend to publish?

I’m not a youtuber, but I post videos when I’m inspired and, especially, when I have the time. Really my channel is only dedicated to dance, my experiments, creations and performances, my work, artistic collaborations, and my young students of EvolDanza, the dance association of which I’m president.

Later, I also added my Chinese students (and I’m in the process of posting many other videos on the Department of Music and Dance at Jishou University, especially my students, but my many tasks have me going slowly). Recently, after walking the Great Wall (the Mutianyu section, which I strongly recommend because it’s rarely crowded since it’s a little bit far from Beijing compared to the first section), I thought of expanding the channel to include the most meaningful moments of my travels or my visits to shows and places that mean something special to me.

I also have in mind making a section dedicated to Spicy and Tofu (my adopted dogs from Jishou), to share their incredible story and sensitize people to respect animals, a subject that’s close to my heart (which is not very evolved in China, though I fortunately see seeds of change in many young ones).

Gessica, thanks for the time you’ve dedicated to us and our readers, and we wish you a pleasant stay in Hunan!

PS. If you’d like to contact Gessica, you can do so through her YouTube channel.

Photo Credits: Photos by Gessica Cipriano

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