It’s 9:45 on a Sunday morning and class is beginning. As I take attendance, I ask my students about what happened during their weeks. There are two standard answers: “go to school” and “homework.”
I’ve been with some of these kids for over 10 months and, finally, if I press them they’ll sometimes open up a little. I ask if anything at all fun or interesting has happened to them. Nothing. The blank stares of boredom, non-comprehension, and pre-teen angst all look the same to me. And I’m hungover anyway.
I think about my Sunday mornings at ten years old. At 9:45 my mom would be piling thick, steaming pancakes onto a plate. I would wake up to the smell of bacon or the sound of my dad yelling at my brother for throwing some kind of ball inside the house. Weekends had no classes and only one rule: go outside and play.
But competition in China is fierce and children are reminded of it constantly. Without good test scores, they won’t be admitted to the best middle schools, then the best high schools, then the best universities. And even university students in China are now having trouble finding work.
Our school slogan, printed on the back of my fleece jacket, is “from Hello to Harvard!” and my students know they are expected to be the best.
One day tiny, pigtailed, 8-year-old Rundi writes in her journal “I go to school Wednesday to Tuesday. It’s too tired. I don’t like this life.”
I see my students once every two weeks, usually a Saturday or Sunday. It’s hard for me to connect with them. It’s hard for me to teach them. They are tough, like little sunflower seeds in their shells. So I use the only instrument I have to measure my success: laughter.
But kids are unpredictable. For the little ones, it’s simple. The same things that crack up my niece in Seattle will make them laugh too. When they give you a high-five, pretend to fall down like you couldn’t handle their pre-K strength. When they ask your age, say five. Hilarious. Done.
But the older ones, teenagers especially, are ready for advanced degrees in playing it cool.
My favorite student is Jeff, the only child of a chemistry professor at China’s top science university. He’s a smartass, wiry and cheerful, perhaps slightly less bored than his classmates. During a lesson on infinitives I tell them a joke as an example.
“Why did the chicken cross the road?” I say. “Why?” they ask, as instructed. “To get to the other side.”
Jeff nearly falls out of his chair with laughter. I hadn’t thought about how imbedded in our culture this joke is. How I wouldn’t even consider laughing at that joke, its punch line a cliché since before I can remember. But it kills. A few of them write it in the backs of their books to remember for later.
Two students in the age 5-7 class. (Photo by Allison Reibel)
And the humor isn’t a one way street. The more I try to make them laugh, the goofier they get with me.
Assignment: name three people you’ve apologized to in the last week. Daniel’s answer: “God. Jesus. Jew God.”
But they often choose subjects that go beyond being funny to me. They’re edgy. Favorite topics are guns and bombs and stories often end with the entire planet being obliterated in an explosion.
One day in December I come to work with red, swollen eyes. I had woken from a nightmare at 3am and stupidly turned to the internet to clear my mind. I needed some kitten videos. Instead I saw the news about the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting and spent the next four hours trying unsuccessfully to get the images of sobbing children out of my head.
I try my best to put it out of my mind in the classroom. But the imaginary violence there is inescapable.
“What would you do if you had a million dollars?” I ask in our 2nd conditional review. “I would buy an AK-47 and kill people.” “I would buy a bomb and make people die.”
Then later, a lesson about what you need to bring if you’re going on a trip: “Ok, where are you taking your trip?” I ask two of the brightest boys, who had volunteered to read first.
“The Diaoyu Islands,” they say, grinning. Oh fuck.
The Diaoyu Islands (or Senkaku Islands if you lean Japanese) are uninhabited and currently being claimed by both China and Japan. They are responsible for mass protests and nationalistic violence and vandalism across China. The dispute is a concern for America because we have treaties to side with Japan, but we don’t want to mess with China.
“What do you need to bring?” I ask them, afraid of the answer.
“We need AK-47s to kill Japanese.” They’re not trying to be political. They just want to make their classmates laugh. And it works.
“It’s not funny,” I say. “No guns.”
“But teacher, we’re going on a hunting trip.”
“A hunting trip to the Diaoyu islands?”
“Yes,” Tiger shrugs in mock innocence.
Speed skating at the public square in the Wangjing neighborhood of Beijing. (Photo by Allison Reibel)
It’s not always terrible. If kids are bored enough, anything can be funny. A character in their books is called Naomi. One class of 14-15 year-olds always snicker after pronouncing it “na ou yu mi.” Finally I ask them what it means. I prepare for the worst as they race on their iPhones to see who can find the translation the fastest. “This, teacher. It’s this,” a student named Unicorn says, holding up her phone with the dictionary screen reading: creamed corn.
One lesson focuses on building vocabulary. They learn mosque, temple, and church. “Church” is cracking everyone up and a local teacher has to tell me they’re all saying “chi shi” (Chur Shur) or “eat shit.” I thank God I’m not a Christian.
Beijing is full of English training centers. There’s Disney English for kids and Wall Street English for adults. There’s a school called Baby MBA with a picture of a baby in a suit holding a Harvard diploma. Beijing is like a big-screen TV for all of us foreign English teachers and we’re all watching different channels. It’s a city full of adventure or mystery or prospective wives. For some it’s just a place far, far away from the last place.
Most teachers here, like me, have no formal training. And the teaching centers aren’t real schools. Mine is on the fifth floor of a shopping mall where “Call Me Maybe” plays on repeat and can be heard from at least two classrooms. The students are monitored by me, the “teacher,” and a customer relations salesperson, whose job is to make sure they sign up for more classes.
I can only imagine what the parents would think if they heard the way we talk about their kids, flicking our Zhongnanhai cigarette butts over the railing in the back stairway.
“He is a piece of shit,” Linda, one of our most fluent Chinese teachers is fond of saying about the children.
But I genuinely like my students. Lillian, a 14 year old, is reading the bible and listening to the Carpenters to piss off her mom. A student named Prince turned me on to a series of Russian animation.
On a fill-in-the-blank exercise, a class needs to write “The chair is broken.” Dick says under his breath, “must have been made in China.”
Our students have English names because it’s assumed that we can’t remember their real names, or their real names won’t be respected — or just because Chinese kids learning English have always been given English names.
My private (or “VIP”) student, whose English name is “Good.” (Photo by Allison Reibel)
The kids change them from time to time. One day Sean has become “Ice Dragon.” The teachers argue about whether Eason is or is not a name.
My private student, or “VIP” in my company’s parlance, is named “Good.”
“His name is Good. He’s not Good,” was my Australian boss’ introduction.
Qiqi, a four year old, needs a new name, his father has decided. I’ve been watching Breaking Bad. I name him Jesse.
Some of them have had these English names for years. Linda, a shy, brilliant teen with terrible acne and an addiction to Frappuccinos, says as a kindergartener she was given a choice between two names. She chose Linda. She can’t remember the other choice now, but wishes she had picked it instead.
Most English teachers leave once their year is up and I’ll be one of them. The job is difficult and confusing. Are we supposed to teach the kids English or just get them to keep paying for more classes? Is it possible to do both?
Sometimes in the office I chat on Skype with Claire, a former teacher who’s now back in Nashville.
“Say hi to Jeff and our class for me,” she says. In class, I try to relay the message.
“Remember Claire?” I ask them, “your old teacher?” She’s been gone for about six months.
Jeff looks like he’s trying to remember. Jackie goes on drawing an AK-47 in his book. Peter has no idea what I’m saying.
“Ok, never mind,” I say, “Open your books. Let’s go. ”