Monday, May 29, 2006

Moo Flu Gai Pan…or How to add more classes without thinking

Thanks to Bird Flu, two 7:45 am classes have been added to my schedule. Okay, I promised I would no longer call Maureen ‘Bird Flu’ but she certainly likes to squawk so until further notice ‘Bird Flu’ is her name. A month or so ago, Miss Flu noticed that in the evening, the Shanghai 90210 watch Japanimation DVDs when they are supposed to be studying. Their classroom is conveniently equipped with a DVD player and a big screen TV. Sherlock Flu runs and tells me. I tell her I will assign more homework. I do not. Instead, I tell the Shanghai 90210 - something I either was told by a co-worker many years ago or maybe something that Chevy Chase said in Caddyshack – ‘If you are not busy, look busy. If you are watching a DVD, do not say you finished your homework. Say you are taking a break. And for Christsakes never say you have nothing to do or you will have a pile of busy work piled on you.’ I told them this was not their teacher talking but just a person.

Of course, the Shanghai 90210 keep watching these DVDs during the time they are supposed to be studying. Maureen spots them countless times watching DVD. She seems to think it’s a crime against humanity. She is a broken record. She needs to get herself a nice Chinese boyfriend. She hates Chinese men. On the cruise anytime she disappeared, I would tell Jennifer, Maureen was getting some action. Jennifer and I thought this was the most amusing thing ever. Sometimes we would tease Maureen about it. She was not amused.

I am of the school of thought that it is the student’s responsibility to study. They are the ones going to the United States and Australia to university. Yes, their English is poor. Yes, when they do go to an English speaking country they will struggle. Nevertheless, I cannot convince them of this. They have to learn it the hard way.

Miss Squawker must squawk. She loves to squawk. She finally had an audience who would listen when she saw Edgar - who says he is Australian but he is Chinese - on
Friday when he came to Songjiang.

Edgar is our boss. In Anji, I crapped on Edgar’s Chinese name when I tried to pronounce it when I emceed the speech contest not knowing that it was him. Edgar is a business man. Edgar does not like to hear about problems. When he hears about problems, he speedily comes up with a solution. His speedy solutions are speedy not necessarily efficient.

Today, Elizabeth – my boss who I actually really like – held an emergency staff meeting regarding the Shanghai 90210. These meetings are excruciating because usually they last for hours for no good reason. The meeting had to do with the Shanghai 90210 schedule.

Elizabeth had heard the students were watching DVDs and did not have enough schoolwork to do. To fill in the time, she had been told by Edgar to give them 10 additional hours of class a week. Jennifer, Maureen and I were to split these classes.

As I stated, I do like Elizabeth. She is a fair boss. She understands. I do not blame her. She was told by Edgar to do something. We had originally set the meeting for 4 pm but Jennifer was no where to be found so we rescheduled the meeting for 5 pm. At 5 pm, Jennifer was still not around.

In the huge conference room that could easily accommodate 25 people, Maureen, Elizabeth and I had our meeting. The conference room is depressing in that way that implies the school is struggling. It reminds me of a conference room in a failed dotcom. The most we have ever had at a meeting in the conference room is five people. With three people, the room seems even more in command as if we are trespassers and the actual board members will walk in at anytime and kick us out.

Before Elizabeth gives us the new schedule, she tells us that the students are to take their IELTS tests in the fall. We were under the impression that this would happen a year from now. The other teachers and I agree that the students are not ready to take this test and they will not be ready in the fall. The test is for much more advanced English students. We are afraid this will just set them up for failure. I wish we would have told Elizabeth something along these lines. Instead, we tell her we will do what we can.

I tell her I adore the students (which I do.) However, the students lack the motivation to learn. An inherent problem (which some Chinese students overcome) is they have no brothers or sisters. I do like all of them, but, Allen – who is definitely the most spoiled – is spoiled because her parents and grandparents cater to her whims. From what I have been told, this is the third school in which she has been enrolled.

My input into the dialogue at the meeting: I tell Elizabeth that they must be told by their parents that they must buckle down and study. We, as teachers, can only do so much but we cannot help them if they do not want to be helped. Their parents must be the ones to assert the authority because after all we are just teachers.

Elizabeth passes out our new schedules. Wednesday and Thursday, the Shanghai 90210 are in my care at 7:45 am. These classes I will conduct in the garden. They may wear their pajamas if they would like. Elizabeth asks me if this is okay. I tell her, no problem. I do not tell her these will be garden pajama classes. I start getting hungry.

Flu Flu starts yammering about the Songjiang weekend. She is one of the most precocious people I have ever met. If she knows she has an audience, she talks about everything elaborately and in the most annoying voice. What is the biggest pain in the ass is that usually what she has to say is criminally boring (to rob a phrase from ‘How Soon is Now’).

This weekend, a couple of the Songjiang public school students invited us to come along for a community event. I had heard rumor of this and I had been told we would be picked up at 8 am. I did not plan to attend. However, Jennifer called me on my cell phone and told me that the two public school students wanted to speak to me personally. I thought ‘oh god I really don’t want to do this’. They asked if we could talk in person. I told them I would come over to the international building.

I met with them, a girl and a boy. The girl - English name Cindy who I thought was Stephanie - had shared a cab with me after the trip to Anji. The bus let us off at the toll gate exit for Songjiang and she and I took a cab together back to school. This was something akin to a scene from a Jim Jarmusch film. Both of us were silent during the cab ride.

She asks me if I remember her. I tell her I do. She tells me they would like to have foreign teachers come to their community event at the community center in Songjiang. I tell her I hate to get up early on Saturday. Bird Flu interjects that we will be picked up at 8:40 am instead of 8:00 am. I feel like a dick. I can’t say no. I tell her and her friend who I later find out his name is Ding – English name Dean – I will be there. They both shake my hand. I try not to shoot Flu Moo a dirty look.

The night before the event, Friday night, I told myself I would strangle Flu Moo if she knocked on my door the next morning at 8 to see if I was up and getting ready. I did not plan to get up until 8:30 am. At that time, I would put my shoes and pants on and go.

On Saturday morning, I woke up at 8:00 am wide awake. I made some tea and toast. At 8:30, Flu Moo knocks on my door. The taxi is down stairs waiting for us. In China, everyone arrives early. When they arrive early, they act as if you are ill-prepared if you are not ready. Fortunately, I was ready. We go to the community center.

Once we get there, we are paraded around to see all of the crafts which are being crafted. The event is to bring attention to crafts which are disappearing because the craftsmen are aging. Ding leads me around. The volunteers have these really cool red baseball caps on with a fist (or maybe it’s a heart – hard to tell really) with Chinese characters around it. I really want one. Moo Flu says I should ask for a hat. I do just that. Cindy (who I called Stephanie repeatedly) nabs a hat for me. I put it on. I am interviewed by students with cameras. “How do I like Chinese Culture.” “What do I think of their event?” “Why did I come to China?” “Am I cut or uncut?”

On the steps of the community center, two teenagers played some violin like instruments which were native instruments. At one point, they really started cooking. I thought they might speed off into ‘The Devil went down to Georgia.’ They did not.

Some little kids were making animals and such from Play-Doh or the Chinese equivalent. I was not sure how this was a traditional art but I thought who am I to lay claim on what is traditional and what is not. New arrivals go to the rear. Cindy asked me if I would like to make a clay figure. No, I would rather not but I thought that her asking me meant they would like me to so they could take photos of their exhibit mingling with the customers.

The little girl – who fortunately had a translator because she gave me the directions in Chinese – asked me to make a fish. I set off to make the craziest Gumby inspired fish I could muster. I picked out a flesh color from which to create the fish. Yes, I felt a bit godlike.

Halfway through my Michelangelo like creation, the translator told me the little girl was going to show me how to make a fish. Oops. Not wanting to be culturally retarded, I smashed what I had molded into a ball and watched the little girl. As time went on, she seemed a bit exasperated with me because her fish had that clay fish perfection. My fish, after I added two rudders which I was instructed to do, looked an awful lot like a shriveled up penis with two flat rudder balls. Maybe I should not have picked the flesh color Chinese Play-Doh.

Yes, that was my day at the cultural downtown event. I really did not want to stay for another 45 minutes at this already hour plus meeting and listen to Bird Flu tell some inane story when my stomach was howling. I did not have much in the way of lunch today. It seems I inadvertently ordered pigeon or something that looked a whole lot like pigeon once it went from the pan to my plate.

Which reminds me: I would like to elaborate on my conundrum with McDonalds. Actually it is not a conundrum it is a love / hate hate relationship. Where I live, I cannot get tacos, pasta, hamburgers, sandwiches. When I go to the grocer, I cannot find the items to make tacos, pasta, hamburgers. The available cheese is the kind in packs that looks like the Kraft individual slices but is just processed margarine - from what I can tell and taste. Mustard is uncommon here. When I walk down the aisles at the store, I seem to run across aisles and aisles of soy sauce and adult milk powder. It is like a hidden camera is always following me. The viewers will love my expression when I come across the dried fish jerky, the whole chicken or goose (with head intact) in the deli section.

What I can get is rice, a lot of it. As a matter of fact, the Chinese word for food and for rice is one and the same. I can get dumplings everywhere which was great for a month but imagine eating dumplings every day. I have had it with eggs and stewed cucumbers, eggs with stewed tomatoes, hot noodles that sometimes taste like they are seasoned with ammonia or mop water or both.

Here, in Songjiang, a district of Shanghai, McDonalds is the only semblance of Western food. Yes, there is KFC and Pizza Hut but Pizza Hut is actually expensive and KFC is, well, KFC. If I was in the United States, I could go the rest of my life without McDonalds. I could get a hamburger or even a veggie burger somewhere else. McDonalds is the only place where you can get a burger here. I know it seems like it is not a big deal and it is not. I might not eat it that often. Nevertheless, on Friday, when I ate McDonalds, I did really enjoy it. If possible, I will stay clear but I cannot promise that I will.

Tonight for supper, I ate sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo. I would love to have fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy and biscuits, a steak with a baked potato, a Murphy’s hot hamburger, Dink’s barbeque, Van’s barbeque, Chelleno’s, Two Pesos, Bill’s Chilli. For the next year, I will have dumplings…and rice, lots of it.


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