Yesterday, I think I may have had a momentary loss of my faculties in class 9. This is one of the public school oral English classes that I teach. Before my class, the students have their Chinese arithmetic class. I know there is probably a joke here but I am not quite sure what it is. The teacher in that class is a slight Chinese woman and she always runs overtime. Sometimes she teaches them almost into the eye exercise which means they get no break in between classes. Yesterday was one of those days. As a teacher, I have to settle them down because they get very restless after her class and they start yelling and just generally misbehaving by the time I get them because, again, I have no power. I am not giving them a grade.
Flashback to yesterday: After the eye exercises, class has started. No one is paying attention. Today, we are going to learn the Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life.’ I have made Xerox copies of the lyrics that I pass out to the class during the eye exercise. I have my guitar out of the bag. I start to talk. I ask them if anyone knows the song. Half of the class is not listening. I look up and see one student playfully slug another. They are absolutely not even almost paying attention to me.
I put my guitar back into the gig bag and zip it up. I look down at my copy of the lyrics. I could be praying. I could be meditating. I could be doing anything. All of the sudden, I hate being a teacher. I hate being in front of this class. I just want to leave. I could. I could leave. I could walk back to my apartment and sit. I could take a nap. Nothing would happen to me. I would not get in trouble. I could make up an excuse.
I stay. I stand for ten minutes just looking down at my desk. At first the students talk to each other. They then realize I am not talking. I have not said anything. Maybe I had a stroke. The class becomes eerily quiet. Each minute seems heavier and heavier. As heavy as the minutes are, I could stay this way all period. I have no reason to do anything else. I have no motivation to do anything else. I, absolutely, do not have to do anything. I can stand and not do anything. I have that power.
Then, from the direction of Harry Potter (the girl) a note slides across the desk. It says:
We are too excited to be silent. We are sorry.
The note melts me. I look up. I want to cry. I see their faces. I know that they really like me and they are sorry and I start feeling like a jerk. The class looks at me, even the bad kids, look at me with a sort of strange reverence – or maybe they are looking at me like I am nuts. I write ‘time out’ on the board and tell them I had to take a ‘time out.’ I ask them if they are ready to learn the song. They say yes. We slowly start learning the song.
Our standoff lends another heavy element to an already heavy song. I explain that the song is a dream or maybe it is reality. I ask them if they ever think they are awake when they are dreaming. They look at me quizzically. I ask Ray if he understands what I am saying because he is looking at me blankly. He tells me he understands. I ask Freedom. He does not understand
Little by little we forge through the song. We get all the way to the first “I’d love to turn you on” part. The students love this. I am not sure if they know what that means but they love the tremolo of the voice when we hold out the ‘on.’
At one point, I ask them if anyone is from Ningbo. One student is. He raises his hand. I tell them I may go play a hotel there. I decide not to explain it.
After class, Isaac who is really sweet and painfully shy tells me he is not from Ningbo but he is from an area close to Ningbo. However, he does not understand what I am saying. He asks me to write it on the board. I write ‘singer’ and ‘hotel’ on the board. I try to explain that I am going to sing at a hotel. Eventually, he understands what I am saying. I know it has taken him all the courage he can muster to talk to me.
We start walking toward the cafeteria. He asks if I am going to lunch. I tell him yes. I ask him if I can sit with him. He says yes. We walk in silence. In the cafeteria, he asks me what I am going to eat. I tell him I do not know. I ask him what he is going to order. He is going to order beef and rice. I tell him that is what I would like. We get our plate of beef and rice and sit with two of his classmates. His classmate speaks better English and apologizes for what happened in class. I tell him it is okay. Sometimes that sort of thing happens. He asks me what the word ‘temper’ means. I tell him it has to do with temperance and temperature. I try to explain calm but I do not know if I am successful. I wonder why they are asking me. I ask them if someone in class said that I lost my temper, he nods yes. I try to emulate a kettle boiling, a thermometer breaking, a rockslide, a dive bomber, a nosedive but nothing. I tell him that happens sometimes.
We finish our meal. Isaac and his classmate escort me out of the cafeteria. His classmate is the one from Ningbo. I ask them if they are going home for the break that we are having in a few days. They tell me no. I tell them I have a lot of films with Chinese subtitles, maybe they could come over one afternoon and watch them. Isaac says no. I say okay. He then says he does not understand. I tell him I have movies. His classmate explains. I see the thought process happening in his head. He understands and he smiles. I tell them I would like to have them over on Wednesday afternoon. I ask them for their cell numbers. All of the students have cell phones. They give me their dormitory number. They must not have cell phones. Some of the students do come from poor families who live in poor villages. I wonder if Isaac and his friend come from poor families.
Again, the days fade into each other. I try to remember which day I picked up my cleaning. That was the day I withdrew 100 kuai from my account. Once again, I have no money in my wallet. Earlier I went to the grocery store with the shanghai 90210. Tess asked me what I wanted to buy. I tell her remind me to get Ritz Crackers, the weird discovery I made - a bag of crackers ago. In America, Club Crackers, Wheat Thins, Stoned Ground Wheat Crackers, various Saltines segue into the cookie section at the grocer. In China, Ritz Crackers stand alone with rows and rows of rice crackers. When I first saw the plastic bag of Ritz, I thought I was hallucinating because in the grocery they are one of the only American products sold. The American foodstuffs which can be obtained mainly consist of chocolate products and Nestle’s cappuccino. That is why when I saw the Ritz, I made a mental note.
As we are walking through grocery, the students stock up on assorted fruits and Chinese junk food. Much of the junk food they grab is rice and sugar based. They buy all sorts of spongy breads and sticky rice treats. All of them shop as if they are on their own because in many ways they are living on their own. They see their parents occasionally on weekends.
Before we went into the store, Allen stopped at the freestanding ATM - which is next to the grocery carts – to get some RMB. I happened to look over her shoulder to see what kind of balance a fifteen year old Chinese girl from a wealthy family would have in her account. She had close to 5,000 rmb (approximately $600). This is money her parents or grandparents put in her account. She does not have an after school job. This seems like a lot of money for a fifteen year old to have. However, I am not surprised.
Jennifer told me that a few days ago. Allen’s mom came to school and she wanted to talk to Bird Flu about Allen and Max. Allen saw that her mom was talking to Bird Flu and she physically picked up her mom and carried her out of the room. This is the sort of offspring that the new money has produced in China, not that this is any different than American offspring. Money often breeds rudeness and inconsideration toward others.
This month in the magazine China Today, there is a story about the privileged youth of China. Their parents do spoil them because most of these parents came from families that a lot of times lived from hand to mouth. These parents want a better life for their children. However, the children do not appreciate this because they do not know any other way.
In the health and beauty section of the grocer, a young man says hello to me as he walks by. This youngster seems to always be at the store when I am. Many times I have seen him with other young men sprawled on a bench on top of one another near the men’s boxed shirt aisle. Today after he walks by. Tess says “Do not talk to him.”
“Do not talk to him?”
“He is dirty,” she says. “He only want to say ‘hi’.”
“I should not talk to him because he only wants to say hi?” I ask making sure I heard her right.
“Yes,” she says. “That is the reason. He’s from poor village, not Shanghai.” This seemed to be all of the explanation she needed to give.
This week, tomorrow, we have American students coming from San Diego to visit the campus. We have a welcome meeting for them tomorrow in the late afternoon. The Shanghai 90210 are putting on a puppet show for them. We are also singing for them – ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,’ ‘From Me to You.’ Today, as I was walking to the oral English class with my guitar, Elizabeth (my boss) asked me to which class was I taking my guitar. I told her oral English. The Shanghai 90210 and I are going to practice the songs we are singing tomorrow. This made her happy. I was a little on the defensive. I am still not sure why I am here or exactly what I am supposed to be teaching. The semester ends in two weeks.