After returning from our travels, Lacey and I fixed our wandering attention to the business of teaching. Teaching at Ocean University of Qingdao’s “School of International Education” is, in many ways, a business: the small, rather expensive private school is run for-profit by the much larger public university. The six hundred or so students enrolled at the School of International Education did not pass the rigorous entrance exams required to enter China’s public universities, so instead their (mostly wealthy) parents pay a hefty enrollment fee for this alternative program. After three years of preparatory study, students will be sent off to England, Australia, or one of a handful of other countries, and will attempt to enroll at a university there for another three years. Most of the students Lacey and I teach will go to England.We found the logic of this system, initially at least, elusive. Why would students who were already unable to pass China’s own university entrance exams be sent to try their luck in a foreign country, with an entirely different language and culture to cope with? Our skepticism was reinforced by our handful of foreign coworkers, and sometimes even by our school’s own Chinese administrators, who fired off various warnings as the semester began: the students would never do homework, the classes were too big to get anything done, and the boys were bad students; coming to class was viewed as optional and staying awake even more so, while students’ language levels varied impossibly within each class. But even the better students wouldn’t participate because the Chinese system of lecture and memorization is all students have come to expect of their teachers. Further, thanks to China’s one-child policy and their parents’ wealth, our students were spoiled.
We began the semester braced for the worst. One student who seemed to exactly fit the warnings we’d been issued went by the English name of Shadow: hunched in the back below a shock of semi-spiked hair, he looked from the start like the archetypal glowering punk, ready to get up and walk out of the classroom at any moment. Of course, his alias added to this initial impression, as it did in different ways with many of my other students: the quartet of Cherry, Sunny, Lemon, and Smile, I thought, could be a little more cheery and helpful, but the mysterious Miggie and Hebe should be watched closely. King and Brain appeared cocky and unruly, and the boy-band trio of Sky, Gigi and Umbra must not be very bright. Dirk, Dwayne and Jay clearly thought they were too cool for school, while the poor quiet girl named Alan was clearly very confused. And finally there was Howl, an unmistakably dangerous prospect the moment I first read his name on the attendance sheet.
When, in these first six weeks, did the impressions start to break down? I don’t remember exactly, but most of them didn’t take long. In two of my classes, the first homework I assigned was to write one or two paragraphs about your best friend. Over the next week, about seventy-five percent of my students dispatched the conventional wisdom that homework would never be done. But even more remarkable was the undisguised affection that my students almost universally expressed in their writing; everyone seemed to think their best friend was, without question, the best person on the face of the earth. Maybe this shouldn’t have been a surprise; in China it is common for girlfriends to walk around holding hands or hugging, and even the guys will throw their arms around each other quite easily. Still, the immediacy with which they opened up about their friends was touching. My students were beginning to take shape for me.
My favorite thing about this first assignment, though, was my introduction to the mistakes that have also become one of my guiltiest pleasures. It’s hard to take your job too seriously when a student writes about his friend that “I like his funny very much.” Or even better, when another student describes cooking with a friend by saying that “if you taste our cock you must say delicious.” The “c” turned out to be a poorly scrawled “o,” but not before Lacey and I treated ourselves to a memorable bout of lung-draining laughter back at home. Another student referenced a favorite Tom Cruise movie, called “missing is possible.” But my favorite lines from the best friend assignment came from a student who clearly made a bad choice about what source to paraphrase: “Youth, once spent, will never come again. This is the most rosy time in our life, and the friend is the beautiful rosy. We need treasure them, because they are the treasure.”
There are other, simpler ways that the students have taught me to look beyond initial impressions. Howl, it turns out, sports a goofy smile and a genuine desire to please; Cherry is neither cheery nor helpful, while Miggie and Hebe both are. Brain pronounces his name “Brian” (although so far he has refused my hints about its spelling), and the girl named Alan and the boy named Gigi are two of my best students. A couple of the early predictions have, inevitably, held: generating class participation requires steady coaxing, and there are more boys who miss class or don’t do their homework than girls. Sometimes I wake up the odd student who has dozed off on his or her desk, and Dwayne and Jay do think they’re too cool for school. But the initial clench of anxiety that followed those repeated warnings and early impressions has been replaced by a job that is more relaxed, manageable, and most of all, more human than I could have predicted. A student who talks to his friend incessantly during class, despite my warnings, comes up to me afterwards to ask if he can have my phone number, so that we can go out for a drink sometime and practice English; three favorites invite me to play basketball; without exception a chance meeting with a student outside of class produces a gasp and then a huge smile. My students are becoming individuals before my sweeping teacher’s gaze, occupying forms I could never have predicted, least of all through outside warnings or their own English names.
A second, more recent assignment drove this home. I asked students in two business classes to write about their ideal jobs, not guessing that their responses would be far more personal and revealing (and yes, funny), than I ever could have expected. Extremely quiet and withdrawn, Tina wrote: “I am good at my job, because I am fascinated with any plant that grows! I am amazed at how the plants change from day to day!” Carol wants to be a pop star: “I think a pop star can bring much happiness to audience and can take out sadness . . . I want to be popular with people and would like to be respected and loved by people.” Jimmy, who likes to joke, wrote very sincerely: “working with animals would be very interesting because the animals can make you happy and you can make friends with them. They can make you happy when you are sad.” Amy’s enormous smiling eyes hide great ambitions: “My book shop should be special and different from others. It can not be big, but it must have it’s own feature. I will read every book in my shop before I sell it.” Libby’s passion is a total surprise: “In my heart, my ideal job is to create all kinds of delicious food.” And Claire is not as prim as she looks: “Candy can be a artwork that can bring happiness to people.” Sun Hao, who doesn’t have an English name, offers: “I think the best job is a F1 racer, I like the feeling of the speed.” And Sunny, who wants to be a journalist, goes for the heartstrings: “. . . there are some quite poor mountainous areas. Children wear worn-out shoes and clothes, they also have no lights and electricity, so that they have to use candles. We don’t know that, but as long as journalists visit them and report that we try us best to help them for theirs’ life level.”
But the fully intentional humor of the responses surprised me almost as much as the intimacy. Lance wrote: “I think the best job should have 2 days off every week, then I can relax myself and do what I like. And every 3 week I could have a big holiday for example 1 or 2 week. The salary is good, this is the most important. Because I have to use money on my holiday.” A very quiet girl named Wang Yan wrote: “In my opinion, I always think the best job is Boss.” And from short, goofy, and incredibly endearing Victor came the greatest gem of all: “. . . being a rockstar, I would have a lot of fans. My fans would love me and go crazy for me. Especially when I’m singing for 50,000 fans in a stadium and they shout crazily ‘Victor! I love you!’ What a great feeling!” Read Victor’s amazing essay in its entirety below.
Finally, there’s Shadow. Last weekend I accepted the invitation to play basketball with three of the guys in one of my classes. All three are friendly, helpful, and good students. They play every Saturday morning at 7 a.m. — so I inevitably arrived very late, and ran into the last two, Sun Hao and Sun Penggan, as they were just leaving the court. Not to be deterred, they ignored my protests and steered me back with them, calling the guys who had already returned to the dorm to make them come back and play with me, too. As we were warming up, who should appear but Shadow, tossing back his spiked bangs and slouching in his loafers, eyes red behind his glasses as if he’d been dragged back out of bed unwillingly. When our three-on-three began, however, Shadow uncoiled into one of the most enthusiastic basketball players I have every seen, making up in excitement for anything he lacked in skill. And when the game ended it was Shadow who wanted to stay, making us watch him drive to the hoop again and again, bricking layups as he shouted “Joo-oodan” at the top of his ecstatic lungs.
England will be lucky to have him.