Wednesday, March 03, 2004

I keep my curtains drawn almost always. As my sister put it, my room is a batcave. I don’t know when I developed this habit, or why, but it has been with me for some time. The plus of living in a batcave is, on days like this when my first class isn’t until 10A, I can sleep in without interruption. When I did eventually decide to emerge this morning, I slipped on my school issued pink rubber slippers, accented with Chinese characters and soccer balls (a Dalian thing, I think), and clapped into the kitchen in search of some breakfast. My eyes adjusted to the bright light of day and lo! it was snowing out! Everthing was dusted with half an inch of the the white stuff and fluffy chunks slowly came down to make their contribution. A survival instinct, developed during my time in Boston, kicked in. IT IS SNOWING--MUST DRINK TEA. I ran downstairs for some hot water. (You can’t drink the tap water here. Everyone has a giant thermos to carry boiled water and every building has a boiler.) IT guy was downstairs. “It’s snowing!” I told him. Nothing like stating the obvious. “Yes. It’s very cold today,” he said. I heard Benny, he and IT are roommates, down the hall. “Benny! It’s snowing!” I ran over to him and he acknowledged me, but without any humor. “Yes. I’m busy. See you later.” He said something in Chinese to IT guy and they left. I looked at one of the women who keeps up the building. She doesn’t speak English, but no matter, I pointed out the window and said “Look! Snow!” She looked at me, then grabbed her elbows and said “cold.” These people don’t know how good they have it.

Today’s classes were Business Administration majors. We started the class with a warm-up exercise using “he,” “she,” “his,” “her,” something the Chinese have a huge problem with as they don’t make gender distinctions in their language. The exercise was pretty simple, I admit. The students stand up, one assigns “he,” “she,” “his,” or “her” to five people or objects in the room, passes the buck to another student then sits down and it goes until everyone is sitting. We got to the back of the room where there were three girls who hadn’t gone, but were sitting. “Why are you sitting?” I asked. Three blank stares. I repeat my question, this time very slowly (I find blank stares often mean that I am speaking too quickly) Pause. “This is too easy,” one girl explained, “we know this already.” Another goes on to say that the previous foreign teacher went over the material and they felt that they don’t need to participate because they already understand. “Are you prepared to read a text and not make any mistakes,” I asked half-threatened. More silence. The bravest of the girls said she’d probably make some mistakes. “Then what’s the problem?” I asked, “the other students are doing it.” The Chinese are very much like the Japanese in that conformity is a big deal; most will fold under peer pressure. More silence. I asked another student why she thought we were doing the exercise and she, rightly, said it was because Chinese people often make gender mistakes. By this point all eyes were on me and the three girls. The students still standing and waiting for their turn were looking nervous. I looked back at the girls. If any foreigner were ever prepared for a stare down with Chinese women, it would be me (thanks, Mom). One girl managed a weak, “it’s too easy.” Not wanting to make the situation more uncomfortable than it was, I said “Fine. If it’s too easy, it’s too easy. Fine.” I quickly finished up the warm-up.

The rest of the class went poorly, at best. Lot of sighs, yawns and praying (that is heads knocking against desks). The classes here are set up a lot like how they were in grade school. The good students sit up front while the bad students sit at the back and pick their noses. At break one of the “up front” students told me “We would have more patience for your class if you sang some songs.” What the fuck is up with the Chinese and wanting me to sing songs? Another girl chimed in, “Yes, we like songs.” “I don’t know any songs and I can’t sing,” I said definitively. “That’s okay, you can teach easy songs,” the first guy offered. “What kind of songs?” I asked. The girl said “Love songs! We like romantic songs!” I desperately scanned the are for something to affirm that I was in fact in an institute of higher learning. “Maybe,” I said.

Romantic songs girl then asked me if Chinese students were any different from American students. I looked around to see my college sophomores giddily flipping through fashion magazine and girls, with arms linked, sitting in each others’ laps (they also hold hands, and as much as I’ve seen it, it still catches me off guard). “Yes,” I said. “How?” she eagerly pressed. Not wanting to get too into it, I told her that in my experience, many college students travel great distances to go to college, far from their families, and they must become very independent. I added that in class discussion in very important. “The students always speak in class,” I said, hoping she’d catch my drift. “Oh,” she said, “what else?” I knew any other response would reveal certain frustration, so I said “they’re just different.”

The Chinese educational system revolves around rote memorization and English is taught piecemeal. On more than one occasion I have caught my students writing row after row of vocabulary words like “reconnaisance” and “contemporary,” for their other English classes. Before my hour and a half of Oral English, my class of 31 must endure another hour and a half of Business English. The class is taught by a Chinese English teacher who uses a giant textbook with lessons that revolve around things like “the affability of his rhetoric falls within the constructs of established...” They have a ten-minute break, then come to me where I grapple with convincing them that their friend Mary is a “she” and most sentences really do need verbs.

Foreign teachers are hired, almost exclusively, to teach Oral English--to be the real McCoy in sound and ear. What has happened, and I don’t if it’s because most teachers here are inexperienced and often poorly educated themselves (this is changing), or if it’s the Chinese view of Westerners, is that proper lessons have been replaced by a foreign song and dance. (I can’t imagine the students get away with all this singing and dancing with their Chinese teachers.) I was told by the other foreign teacher that for many students, Oral English is a bit of a blow-off, and given the work load from the other classes, a welcomed one. (This isn’t always they case. I have four or five students in every who really do make an effort to learn.) So the schools bring in these foreign teachers, at a pretty penny, I might add, they garner the prestige of having “foreign experts” on their faculty and very little learning actually goes on. I can only think that the school is aware of this, but I have seen no effort on their part to create an effective learning environment--as a teacher, I haven’t even seen a syllabus, a school calendar or any indication of what is expected of me and it took them a week to get me the class textbook. The book, and you can only call it that because it’s two covers with pages between them, is hated by students and teachers alike; with good cause--it’s crap. I expressed my concerns to a teacher at another school and he assured me that all of this is completely normal. “We had quite a rigorous training session before I started teaching,” he said. “Really?” I begged with a glimmer of hope in my eyes. “Yes,” he said, “it went something like ‘teach English good.” Enough said.

I pulled teeth until lunch and I felt so bad that I let the class go without any homework, EXCEPT THE GIRLS IN THE BACK. Ooooohhhs! poured from the walls. The rest of the students scampered out and I made my way to the back of the room, conscious to keep it cool. I took a very diplomatic approach to it all and in a way that bordered passive aggressiveness (I hate passive agressiveness--it is so unlike me), told them that I appreciated them expressing their opinions and that communication between students and teachers is very important. Then I told them they had special homework. I assigned them to go home and write down 20 things they wanted to learn and find more interesting than my exercises. They didn’t know what to make of it. One girl said “20? Too much.” I replied, “You’re very clever, you can come up with 20 things. Each.” Smiles all around and I let them go to lunch. We shall see what they come up with, but I swear, if I get three identical or highly similar lists, fucking-A, they will do it again!

To spin things 180 degrees, one of the three girls returns to class moments later with an extraordinarily (by Chinese standards) tall guy named Michael. “His oral English is very good. He wants to meet you,” she says. (At least she got the “his” and “he” part right.) Michael starts rambling away in very good British-tinted English. “I’m very nervous,” he said. I’m went about packing my things and he followed me around the room, out the door, down the hall and down the stairs. “I like English very much,” he announced. “Here it comes,” I think. Canuck prepared me for this: he wants English lessons.

Michael is a third year computer science major. He explained to me that he took all of the English courses available in his major. After that he was left to his own devices. “The other foreign teachers, the Australian guys (he said ‘guys’), they were good friends of mine,” he continued. So good, in fact, that one of them let Michael sit in and audit one of his classes. “But then that ‘terrible woman’ who is in charge found out and made me leave because I was not paying for the class. Now, I am not allowed in this building,” he said as we left the building. “I WANT to pay for a class, but they won’t let me.” Aside from being the tallest person I’ve seen in China, next to the little kids at the English Corner fiasco, he speaks the best English. The Chinese English teachers speak pretty well, but their listening skills are crap and they can’t follow natural conversation (too many contractions, phrasal verbs and slang). Michael, on the other hand, has a keen sense of linked sounds and uses a lot of slang himself. You can tell he’s spent a lot of time with English speakers. “The students in this building don’t care about English. They don’t want to learn. I WANT to learn.” You can’t say he isn’t observant.

We continue outside where a group of students were apparently waiting for me. A group of my better students. Skylar, who oozes “teacher’s pet” (but at this point, I need allies), apologized profusely for today’s class. “We were very boring,” she said. “No, don’t worry about it. Maybe I was just boring today.” I told them I appreciated that they worked very hard, and smiles all around, they went to lunch. Michael kept following me.

“I want to be your friend.” (I want English lessons.) “Did you come to China alone,” he asks. “Yes,” I reply. “I can be your guide!” he offers (I can exchange something for English lessons because I don’t want to pay.) “Do you speak Chinese?” he queries. “Idiar,” I make out. It means “a little.” “I can help you! he exclaims. (You need me. And I need English lessons.) We made it to the dining hall and he offered to buy me lunch (See! I’m a nice guy! Please give me free English lessons!). I beat him to the card swipe (we all have debit cards), but he bought me a manto. It was rapid fire questions all the way. “Are you a student?” he asks. “No,” I said. “You must be a recent graduate,” he concludes. “No, I graduated three years ago,” I inform. “But you’re younger than me,” he reasons. What?! “I never told you how old I was,” I retort. “The other students told me,” he said. The man had done his homework.

I told Michael I had to get back to my apartment because I had things to do. “Oh, you live on campus!” he said, “you must live in the foreign experts apartment!”

Ding! Two nights ago Canuck came down and asked me if someone had called that evening. No one unexpected had and he told me that someone he didn’t know just called and he was pissed about it. “It’s starting,” he said with a ring of paranoia. “They know where we are. Crank calls, students calling at 7A and pleas for English lessons. Goddammit.” He stomped off to find the foreign affairs liaision to ask if he had given the number out.

“Did you call the other foreign teacher the other night?” I asked. “Yes,” he said proudly, “I wanted to introduce myself, but the teacher said he was very busy and didn’t like being called by people he didn’t know. He seems very arrogant.” I explained that Canuck had taught in China for some time and he’s very protective of his time and privacy. Michael put two and two together. “So you must live in the apartment where the Australians lived! I have you’re number. Can I call you?” (Somebody should have my number. I don’t.)

So here I am trapped like a rat. How funny is it that I’m paid to teach lethargy with eyes while the one person on campus who really cares about English my is up my ass for free lessons.

“Maybe we can work out an exchange,” I offer. I’ve been meaning to get a Chinese tutor, but before I make that suggestion I ask him where he’s from to assess his accent. “This is my city. I am a Dalian boy,” he says proudly. (Michael is very different from any of the other people on campus that I’ve met--I’d go so far as to say that he has a personality. So far, the only people I’ve encountered with any kind of character are the local salesmen--but what is Michael, really?) Ding! Ding! Ding! Better than Chinese lessons, here is somebody who can get me off campus and into the real city! (This has been a goal of mine of late. The school is highly protective of me. I’ve asked them more than half a dozen times to show me where the local pool is and even for that they blow me off. The foreign affairs guy has gone as far as telling me that the buses to town stop running at 7P, when the signs on the bus say they go until 10P at least.) Furthermore, Michael is not one of my students and not a colleague--no conflict of interest and no claims of favoritism or excessive demands.

“Give me your number,” I told him. “I want to see the city. And what time does the main gate really close? I was told it was 10P.” He looks at me to gauge if I’m serious. “The gate never closes. Who told you that? I go out late to the movies all of the time,” he said. He walked me back to the apartment building, telling me about how much he likes English and how he hopes to study in England one day. Then he says, “Don’t forget. I’m Michael. Very tall. Like Michael Jordan. Easy to remember, right?”

I get back to my apartment and five minutes later Michael called. “Sorry to bother you,” he said, short of breath, “I wanted to tell you I just went down to ask the guard about the gate and he said it never closes. Also, here is your telephone number.”

Talk about yin and yang for one day. My next class went rather well. We had a discussion and talked about linked sounds which was a completely new concept to my students (they actually have had years of listening class and not a one of them knew that “was a” sounds much more like “wuza” in normal speech). You win some and you lose some.

No comments: