Constant culture adaptation

Monday’s are relaxing days.  No classes, no fuss, no muss.  We go shopping, I tutor Beata in the afternoon, we read, whatever.  I like Mondays.

I wanted to buy jeans and gloves on Monday but I want cheap jeans.  I should have brought more but I kept cutting down what I was bringing.  I don’t want to spend $40 or more on a pair of jeans.  I’m just a peasant wage earner now.  So this Friday we’ll look in some stores.  I’m sure I can get cheap jeans.  The weather is getting colder so I want gloves.  I’m always freezing.  The school has no heating.  The apartment has 2 space heaters and they’ll do.  But somehow this cold just cuts through me.  Shujie thinks it’s because I’m used to everything being heated and perhaps she’s right.  But I’m in for one tough winter if 13 degrees Celsius turns me into a shivering mass of jelly.

I made an offer a few weeks ago of sending students me reading something that they can listen to, and then they could record themselves reading the same thing.  Then by going back and forth they can hear how they sound and try to sound more like me.  Now I know no one really wants to sound like me but it would be an improvement.  Three students took me up on this offer.

So, I decided to make it mandatory.  I’m tired of straining to understand what some students are saying.  So everyone gets the MP3 of me reading the first lines of “A Tale of Two Cities” (it was the best of times, it was the worst of times).  It’s a good exercise for them.  I told them that they should practice for about 2 weeks and then I’ll listen to them.  I told them I’d know if they don’t practice.  They need to think I’m omnipotent.  But I will really know.

In class I asked them to write down their email addresses and give it to me before they left class.  In one of my classes 10 students didn’t give me email addresses.  I think they were too busy talking to their friends and just ignoring me.  This class has 40 students which are too many for a language class but there’s nothing I can do about it.  However, some days I can trim the fat.

Yesterday I asked the 10 students why they didn’t give me their email addresses.  They all told me, one by one, that they forgot.  Forgot???????  I asked them to write it down in class right away and give it to me.  I told them I wasn’t impressed.  I then told them to stand up and I opened the door to the classroom.  I told them to get out as “I forgot to teach them today”.  I am humourous.  I also told them that they needed to write me a note telling me why they are studying English before they came back to class the next day.

I have to tell you.  Thirty students is a much better number to work with than forty.  It’s doable.  The class went quite well as those useless cows weren’t there.  I don’t care if they can speak any English, I only care that they pay attention and make an effort.  I’m tired of being the police.

Today they came with their notes.  Do I believe what they wrote?  I’d say about 80% of them are liars.  I think there was a couple of sincere notes but some of them made me want to puke.  I don’t know the names of the students in this class very well since they use their Chinese names, which is fine, but it’s too difficult for me to match them with faces.  Some I can, most I can’t.

The other sad thing about these notes is that none of these students can write a proper sentence.  I tend to blame the teaching they’ve had.  I don’t think my best students can write a proper sentence.  It is depressing if you think about it, so I try not to think about it.  I’m not here to teach them how to write.  I’ve decided that I’ll be happy if I can get them to speak with confidence and speak being able to pronounce their words so anyone can understand them.

Here is one example of an insincerely lying note.  I know this because I know who this student is and she is always talking to her classmates and never pays attention.

It has a title of “Written self-criticism”.  That sounds so Maoist.  The note states:

“My name is Ju Juan Juan.  I’m sorry teacher.  I was wrong.  For not making the mailbox.  I feel very sorry.  Because of my negligence.  Cause you are very angry.  As a matter of fact.  I very hoped to master English.  You to give me lessons are particularly interesting.  Learning English can make us strengthen Language ability.  So that we can better and for foreign friends to talk.  For our future is of great help to find work.

I like you to give us lessons.  I hope you can forgive my mistakes.  I guarantee that the next time will not have such things to happen.  After I will listen to the teacher carefully.  Finish the homework.  I’m very sorry.”

That is exactly as it was written.  As you can see it’s a grammatical minefield.  What you may or may not realize is that these students are thinking in Chinese and going to their dictionaries to translate their thoughts into English.  I guarantee you that this girl does not know what the words “guarantee” or “negligence” mean.

“I like you to give lessons” is a direct suck up to me.  Yes, I’m wonderful.  Actually I know most of the students like me but the only ones I’ll believe are the ones who make an effort.  She will never listen to the teacher carefully.  I was not very angry as I was smiling and on the verge of laughter as I listened to their “excuses” and threw them out.  I never get angry.  This is a war.  If I get angry the students win.  If I stay smiling, I win.  War is hell.  This girl is a lying piece of dung.

Here is a criminal assault on the English language:

“The teacher.  I felt sorry my behavior.  I hope the teacher to forgive.  I listen to you in class in order to learn more knowledge.  expand own aspect of knowledge.  let oneself  in English to get more exercise, to learn more useful things.  After.  I will study hard to complete the teacher carefully the assignment.  the hope can throgh the basic English this course to improve their English level to gain more progress.”

Here is one that might be a little sincere:

“I in the class.  Because I want to improve my English and learn more about English.  I don’t wish my English is the worest in the class.  I also like your class.  Your class is very interesting and make me feel relax.  You don’t like other teacher.  Only teacher us the substance of book.  So I am very happy in your class.”

What’s scary is I actually understand what they’re writing.  The note above translates to:

“I’m in the class because I want to improve my English.  I don’t want my English to be the worst in the class.  I like your class as it’s very interesting and I feel comfortable and relaxed in it.  You’re not like other teachers who only teach us what’s in the textbook.  I’m very happy in your class”.

If only I had the hours and a few hundred years, what a difference I could make.

This last note I’m reproducing starts off with something I truly believe.  Maybe the rest is sincere, maybe it’s not.  I’m not going to worry about it.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know why I take this class.  Maybe just for the credits.  China’s education system may be reasons, some things things even if don’t like also to learn.  But in your class really very happy.  You like Chinese teacher teaching so inflexible, so learning by rote.  (That means that I’m not like the inflexible Chinese teachers.)  As for not writing email it feel very sorry, because no see the habit of mail, so there is no written.  Really sorry.”

It’s sad.  Like I said I won’t teach writing.  My goal for the year to help every student who is interested, to speak a little better than they do now, to speak with confidence, and to say the words clearly.  I don’t think I’ve set my sights too high.  I won’t help everyone.  But I know the fight isn’t hopeless because I have kids who now come to the front of the class and I throw a topic at them, and they must speak about it.  It’s not easy.  But they are doing it.  Some of them with terrible English but they are trying and you can see their wheels turning.  It makes me feel good and I hope it makes them feel good.

What they write about feeling relaxed is that there is no pressure in my class.  I never tell a student they’re wrong.  If I’m correcting pronunciation (which I don’t often do), I’ll tell them to try saying it this way and I’ll say it.  If they say something that is wrong I’ll tell them, “close but not quite, it’s more like this”.  I’m always on guard to be positive about everything they say.

I have one boy in my class who talks to me at break.  His English is the best in the class and I told him yesterday that I appreciate what a polite young man that he is.  I had to explain polite (good manners).  I know and he knows that he can answer every question, but he doesn’t.  He’ll answer once on a topic and then give other people a shot at trying.  He’s a real pleasure to have in my class but I can’t have a class full of Eric’s because they don’t know as much as him.  I tell Eric (and Shujie) that I want a class of Kobe’s.  Kobe is a student (obvious NBA fanatic) whose English is close to poor.  But he puts up his hand and tries to answer and volunteers to be one of the first to give a speech in class.  He speaks slowly (he is a fast talker in real life) because the wheels are turning while he thinks of the words.  He gets an A+ for effort and that’s what I want.  If other students look at Kobe and think, “If Kobe can do it, I can do it” then I’ll be happy.  If you look up effort in the dictionary, it’s Kobe’s picture you’ll see.

Tonight Shujie and I went out for dinner to some cheapo Chinese restaurant she found yesterday close to the apartment.  I eat pepper steak and she said they had it.  They don’t always make it but if she lets them know in advance, they’ll be prepared.  So she told them yesterday that we would come tonight.

We went.  When we walked in we were the only customers.  There were two young girls (about 20) there and Shujie says, “These are your students”.  I hate when she does that.  Sometimes she thinks that every student that looks at me is my student.  In this case these 2 girls had once or twice sat in on a class of mine.  I had no idea who they were.  But if she says they’re my students I feel like an idiot if I don’t recognize them.  She told me that it means a lot to these kids if she calls them “my students”.  The association flatters them so I will let it pass.  I don’t like it but if it puts a small smile on some kid’s face, then it’s okay.

They brought the meat and I didn’t like it, but I ate it.  I wouldn’t say anything negative there because Shujie might tell them.  I’ve tried to explain to her that I want to be invisible sometimes and not “the foreigner”.  I just want to be a regular guy, which I know is impossible.  But if I don’t like the meat, there is nothing anyone can do about it.  It’s not their fault.  It’s no one’s fault so I told her after we left.

During dinner the girls and some other people (the place was full of people who were either just hanging out or working there) were standing around our table talking to Shujie and the girls sometimes to me.  I know it’s a culture thing.  Here, it’s not rude to hover over someone in a restaurant while they’re eating.  I confirmed this with Shujie afterwards.  I can’t complain since it’s not wrong, it’s just strange to me.  And it’s uncomfortable.  But I will have to bear it because that’s how things are.  I guess I should be flattered they want to be around me (like you want to be around a gorilla at a zoo), but there’s nothing I can do and there’s no point complaining.

The girls are studying “garden art”.  What is “garden art”?  I don’t know.  Shujie doesn’t know.  Maybe it’s how to design a garden.  I have Beata and her “Tea art” which I’m starting to understand but I’m not ready for “garden art” yet.  One of the girls asked me what she has to do to get into university in Canada.  How the hell do I know?  Do I work at the registrar’s office?  Should I ask her what I have to do to be in Hu Jin Tao’s cabinet?  But I’m from Canada so that makes me know everything to do with Canada.

Then the other girl asked me if it was better to look for a job in “garden art” in China or outside of China?  Now I’m the “garden art” expert.  Shujie says that as a teacher I’m an oracle.  I figured “garden art” has to do with gardens so perhaps a climate without winter would be best so I suggested Hainan (the Hawaii of China).  Learning the culture can be a daily experience.  I’m not complaining really since I am learning so much.  My students teach me many things and as their English improves I learn more and more.

I’m learning what power I have.  I do have some power.  I don’t really with my students since no one fears me (and I don’t want them to), but other teachers are a little afraid of me (I believe) and the office too.  I’m the foreigner and they don’t really understand foreigners so they fear what they don’t understand.  The wonderful Wang Jing doesn’t fear me because she’s not an idiot.

Last night was movie night and I was showing “Fail Safe” which I was showing with Chinese subtitles so everyone could understand.  It’s a brilliant movie that depicts what might have happened 50 years ago during the Cold War.  Eric told me before class yesterday that his class couldn’t go since they had to go to a basketball game between this school and another.  I asked why they had to go and he told me that the “boss teacher” said they had to.  They would be marked on their attendance.  He didn’t want to go and I don’t think anyone in that class wanted to go.  I couldn’t believe they’d be forced to attend.  They get points if they go.  The points go towards redeeming green stamp gifts or something like that.  But I was not happy.

At the break I figured I would see if I could “flex my muscles”.  I told Eric that I was more important than the “boss teacher” and that Tuesday night was movie night and I had the students reserved for Tuesdays if they wanted to come to a movie.  Of course, I can’t leave it up to him to be stuck in the middle wondering whom he should believe.  So I called Wang Jing and told her.  Wang Jing said the kids should go to the movie and she would call the “boss teacher” and tell her.  She then called me back and said it was all taken care of.  I was a hero to the students and they know I have some power.  I felt good since it gave the students some free will.

So it’s almost 3 months here and I don’t regret it.  Yet.  Maybe I won’t regret it.  It’s been an interesting experience and I’ve met some wonderful people.  Granted these people are all about 20 except Wang Jing who’s about 33.  I’ve made friends since some of the students tell me they look at me as a friend.  I actually think I’m making a tiny impact of some lives.  Maybe I’m deluding myself but maybe I’m not.  I’ll tell you, this sure beats the hell out of designing and writing computer programs.


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