Friday, February 27, 2004

Benny asked me Wednesday if I wouldn't mind visiting his community the next evening for "something like English Corner." "Just to talk with some people from my community," he said. Glad for the opportunity to get out and see "real China," I agreed. Benny also added that in exchange for my time, I would get some money. Bonus!

English Corner is something of a phenomenon here. Learning English seems to be high up on the list of "things to do" for a lot of people and schools and communities have set up weekly English Corners for people to get together and practice their English. I have read and heard from other teachers that being invited to English Corner goes with the territory of being a native English-speaker in China.

So Benny comes by Thursday and we're escorted into the city in a slick black car (they don't seem to have other types of cars in China). There was another gentleman in the car, his name I never caught, and apparently he is the director of the community we were visiting.

China is highly organized (hear me out on this one.) The levels of government are broken down into smaller pieces, just like in the States--federal, state, county, etc.--and here, at the lower levels, there is the community, then the street. In the city, the street breaks down even further into buildings. The community we were headed to for "something like English corner," was the Red Rock Community (that's the translation, anyway.) All of this was explained to me on the way. Mr. Director didn't speak a whole lot of English, so I relied on Benny for interpretation.

Half way there, Benny also says to me, "they want you to give a little speech." Speech?! I asked him what they wanted me to say and he said "tell them something about English. About how to learn English." Now as an English teacher (or so I am now), you'd think this wouldn't be such a difficult topic, but really, when you think about it, how many things can you really say about learning English? Practice a lot, talk to other English speakers, watch English movies, listen to English radio...the options are limited. We continued on our trip and I thought about the things I could say and then Benny added, "there's also going to be some singing and performance. It's kind of a ceremony." What?! The gears slowly turned in my poor mono-lingual brain; my "talk with some people in the community" at the "kind of like an English Corner" was quickly developing into some much bigger.

The conversation in the car was light and casual and Benny mentioned to Mr. Director that I was in search of dried soy beans for my recently purchased blender/juicer/soy milk maker. They pulled the car over right then and there and stopped for beans. Mr. Director got me two kinds, regular soy beans and some black beans that I should add to the mix, at a one to three ratio, to improve the flavor of the milk.

We get to the community center to find a huge and growing group of people gathering for the GRAND OPENING OF THE RED ROCK COMMUNITY ENGLISH CORNER. My nerves started in. I was introduced to various leaders and directors (including the district director, a relatively high ranking party member). I soon discovered, a native English speaker was promised for the event--ME, in grubby jeans and all.

We were lead into a room to wait and Benny asked me "so what are you going to say." I told him I thought I should say nice things about Dalian and then tell them to practice a lot. Something like that. He said "they want advice on how to improve their English. And remember to speak very slowly and use simple words." Anxiety started flowing from my extremities into my torso.

We were called into the room and given seats close to the front. The crowd had grown substantially--there were probably more than 100--and it included small children, housewives, politicians, a block of soldiers in stiff green uniforms and round caps, grandfathers and students. Two hosts took centerstage, that is the front of the room under the portraits of the "five great leaders," the first being Mao and the last being Deng. (I didn't recognize the others.) I sat politely as they rattled away in Chinese.

At one point people got up, presumably as they were introduced, and Benny got up next to me. He sat back down, then hit my leg, which I took as a cue to get up. Unfortunately, it was not my cue to get up, and he grabbed me to sit down again. "I will tell you," he yell-whispered. A number of people got up and spoke. An elderly man, who Benny explained was an English teacher, talked for awhile, then brought out an easel with English phrases written on it. Then, out of nowhere, he broke into an abbreviated rendition of "We Shall Not Be Moved." I did my best not to react as the only reaction I would have produced at the time was shocked laughter. I whispered to Benny, do you know this song?" "No, do you?" he asked. "Yes, it's an American song." I said. "What is it?" he asked, surprised that I knew it. Not wanting to get to into it, I told him I'd explain later. Elderly English teacher did a beautiful job singing the song, but all I could do was wonder what these people would think if they knew it was a song sang in the Black churches in the South before it became a political song during the Civil Rights movement. I did notice the "Jesus is my savior" part was removed from the Chinese version, however.

Eventually I was approached with the microphone and I got up in front of the crowd. Hundreds of eyes looked up at me with grand attention. Another teacher relieved some of the pressure by introducing me in English. Then he said "Do you have a song for us today?" Song?! "No. I don't. I can't sing." I said in desperate honesty.

(Anyone who knows me knows that, while I enjoy singing, if that's what you want to call the brutal noise that emanates from my throat, I am no damned good at it and really self conscious about it. Some of you smartasses will say "what about karaoke?" to which I reply: 1) how many months of karaoke Thursdays had it been before I actually had the nerve to get up a participate? and 2) how many drinks had I had before I even did that? The last time I sang publicly, while of sound mind, was in grade school.)

"We were told that you're a very good singer," said the English teacher. "You have been misinformed," I said. "You don't know any songs?" he queried. (I was later informed that the Chinese love to sing and all Chinese people can sing and apparently, at the drop of a hat, will.) I thought about it for a second and the only song I could think of that I knew I wouldn't foul up was "Happy Birthday." I looked at him, obviously jilted. "No."

The silent disappointment was deafening.

He then told me to tell them something about English. I rambled through a thank you, said I was happy to be there, told them I'm a teacher, told them I was impressed with Chinese students, then told them to practice speaking at English corner, find original sources of English material, movies and what not and to practice some more. Benny got up and translated for me. Then he looked at me for more. "That's it," I said. "That's it?!" he asked with a look that indicated I needed to say more. "That's it."

We sat back down and a couple of people came over and talked to Benny. Then Benny said they wanted me to do a skit. "Sure," I said, "what do they want me to do? Tell them to give me something," I said. "You don't know any?" he asked. What they hell did I think I was? Some magical instant English machine programmed with songs, theatrics and volumes of sound learning advice? Then he told me that they wanted me to correct some people's pronunciation. Okay, I told him. People went around the room and practiced phrases posted on the walls, but somehow I was never given a mic and no attention was ever directed my way, so I sat their quietly and listened to heavily accented attempts of "what is the day today?" and "I am happy everyday." Then Benny told me that I should answer questions. I told them I would be happy to do that and they gave me a mic. More talking in Chinese, then silence. A teacher finally asked me whether British-English or American-English is harder to learn and I told him that British-English is harder for me to learn, but shouldn't make a difference to anyone trying to learn the language. Then he asked which I thought was better and I said it didn't matter, but he looked at me for more and I said American-English is more popular, especially for business. "I think so too," he said with satisfaction.

More people came over to talk to Benny and this time around they didn't seem very pleased. Benny said I needed talk more and I told him flat out, "I would be happy to do what they need me to do, but I have no idea what is expected of me." They look at me angrily and talked to Benny some more. Benny leaned in and said "They don't want to pay you." Fine by me. I had no idea what was going on from the get go and by this point I just wanted to leave. "Okay." I said nonchalantly.

Young children got up to speak and sing. Benny told me all young people in China know Edelweiss, which was proven, as was a keen fondness for anything by the Carpenters. The ceremony ended and I made to leave, but got swarmed by young children. In nearly perfect English, I was bombarded with "My name is Ling, what's your name?" and "You look very young, I was wondering, what is your birthday?" and "Do you like Chinese food? What is your favorite?" I was floored. These 8-year-olds spoke the best English I have heard since coming to China and that includes my university students and their Chinese teachers. The crowd dispersed and we headed to leave, but then I was stopped. They wanted my picture in front of their English Corner sign. I obliged and we headed out.

Dirty (maybe dirty is too strong, but definitely unfriendly) looks abounded. We lost our escort to a cab and I was stared down as I made my way. Benny made goodbyes and I maintained a look of confusion, anxiety and I-didn't-do-anything-wrong, though I really felt that I did.

Benny invited me to dinner later and I declined. We made it back to campus (after a tour of the city with a cab driver who, after having gotten lost, stopped the cab in the middle of the street and asked a guy on a motorcycle for directions) and then Benny insisted that I have dinner with him and his roommate in a sly, but clear "I'm not asking, but telling" way, and as he is my liaison to the school, I obliged.

My failure to perform at the English Corner made me "lose face." When things don't go accoding to plan or social expectation, someone will inevitably lose face, and the proper thing to do is to make an effort to minimize casualities. Everyone in China operates not to lose face. (I was told that part of why SARS became such a big problem was because the government tried to keep a lid on it in effort to save face.) Being a Westerner, even a part-Chinese one, this isn't that big of a deal to me, however, I took Benny, and the people responsible for bringing me to the ceremony, down with me. Although I feel a bit bad about that, I know I wasn't the source of miscommunication and it's not like I was unpleasant or intently rude to anyone. At the end of the day, all I can say, with a heavy American accent, is "Oh, well." Benny did eventually apologize for the way things turned out, and we chalked it up to general miscommunication and left it at that.

Much of this face stuff was explained to me by another teacher. I also described the event to the Canuck and he said what probably happened was money changed hands and an English song and dance was promised, unbeknownst to the song-and-dancer. Song and dance was not delivered so people got pissed, people lost face and I wasn't paid. Canuck said that that happens all the time in China and as a foreigner, even a sort of foreigner, I should expect more of this kind of shit in the future.

Good did come out of it all, however. I scored a sack of beans, I hung out with awesome little kids, AND, this is the best part, I can be confident that I won't be asked to anymore English Corners! Not all foreigners can say that.

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