Saturday, March 13, 2004

School Days
Saturday was the first time I've been complimented on my "clear English accent."
The high praise came from a "Miss Li" who had hired me to work one Saturday morning a month teaching English to about 30 14-15 year-old students at a middle school in a small town called Longhua about 30-minutes outside of Shenzhen. We were riding to class in a school van in which she'd picked me up because I had no idea how to get there or exactly where we were bound.
We'd exchanged some preliminary pleasantries when she asked me were I was from in England.
"Well, I'm not," I said. "I'm from the United States. A state you probably haven't heard of called Colorado."
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "But you have such a clear English accent. Usually I cannot always understand an England person because of their accent."
"No, not English. Just your typical midwestern American accent," I replied in flat, slightly nasal tones courtesy of my parents' Illinois origins. "But I can do one if you want, say wot? Cockney? Fancy a li'le bi' of breab wiv a bi' of bu'er on i'?"
Miss Li laughed politely, but I don't think she got it. Just as well, as I had no bread or butter.
She had also described her school as "small " and her students' English ability as "poor" so by the time we got to the large, modern looking facility that holds 6,000 students and features a somewhat crudely cast bronze statue of an enormous American Indian on his back pulling on a bow at the entrance, I wasn't also surprised that most of the students also seemed to have a decent command of English basics - at least in China.
"Hellohellohello! Howareyou! Whereareyoufrom?"
I was mobbed upon arrival and almost immediately surrounded by hordes of small blue and white sweat suit clad urchins eager to learn more from a real, honest to-gawd living and breathing foreigner.
I tried to imagine a similar Saturday morning scene on at a U.S. school -- "Hey, Britney, Dylan, Kimberly! Guess what? We've got a real Chinese man coming to teach Chinese at 10 Saturday morning! We know you'll blow off sleeping in and the mall to be there, right?" -- and it was sooo not there.
It was a joy. I took them through a basic "Social Introductions" segment (lesson plan courtesy of recently arrived barbarian teacher James) and then was literally escorted by three teachers who formed a flying wedge to get me through the grasping masses to the teacher's lounge.
"I guess you don't get too many foreigners here," I ventured, as the doors to the lounge flew open and about 12-15 kids watched in awe as the foreigner talked, drank bottled water and smoked.
"We had two who taught for a month at a primary school two years ago, but they left with disappointment," I was told.
"What kind? Yours or theirs?"
"Theirs and ours. They were young and their travel documents were not in order. And they also smoked, but not cigarettes." She looked shamed at the memory. "There were many questions about them."
"It's hard to find good help, I know," I replied, as I accepted a pot of cut flowers as a present from the school's flower arrangement class. One wanted to know why I didn't have have blue eyes.
"All Americans have blue eyes," she said flatly. "Are you sure you are American?"
I assured her I was and explaned and that my mother had them, while my dad has brown eyes. Little sister got the blues, I got the browns.
"And some Americans have gray eyes, green eyes and hazel eyes. Different colored hair and skin, too." I began an impromptu elementary genetics lesson dredging up what I could recall of Mendel and his peas, but realized it might be lost on someone in a country where everyone has the same color hair and eyes. Besides, it was time to return to class.
While I was supposed to do Introductions Part II, another teacher had invited her class to crowd into the room and the lesson plan went out the window as I answered more questions for 50 minutes.
They ranged from the usual about Chinese food, chopstick dexterity, the Michaels Jackson and Jordan, the NBA, soccer and my hobbies to some very unexpected ones.
"What numbers do you consider lucky?"
"What is your faith?"
"Will you live here forever and teach us more?"
It was a moment like that made me wish I could say "yes." But I told her I'd be back next month.

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