With daylight temperatures rarely warmer than minus fifteen degrees Celsius, exploring the bitter cold streets of Benxi haven’t really been high on my agenda. Apart from an embarrassing game of badminton, where my new boss gave a free lesson to his watching friends on how best to annihilate a foreigner, it’s been two weeks of pure, unadulterated teaching.
Probably the greatest gratitude that can be bestowed upon a teachers weary shoulders in China, is the chance to give English names to their students. It doesn’t happen often, so when my newest class of ’fresh out of diapers,’ eager to please students showed they deserved such an accolade, how could I resist. For the students, being given an English name is like Christmas come early. I thought it would be fitting therefore to give the students the opportunity to choose a more original name than some of the traditional English names available. Alongside Rob, Andy, Amy and Jack, the class also consists of the more colourfully named Tarzan, Jane, Superman, Ned, Wolverine, Pinocchio and Balu.
It’s an interesting process watching the students choose their English names. Some parents give their child a free role in the decision-making process. Others kindly guide their child to the name they desire most through an array of manipulative questions. The worst kind though are the controlling ones that ignore their child’s pleas for one name, to choose another completely different one. It’s the latter kind of parent that also believe the meaning of the name is more important than the name itself. After choosing the name ‘Ollie,’ one mother was appalled that this only meant ‘twin’. Within minutes she had scoured through a list of names and decided Andy, meaning ‘strong and manly’ was more of a fitting tribute to her son. In contrast, a mother who allowed her son to choose the name ‘Jimmy‘ was unfazed when she found out this meant ‘The Supplanter,’ or in more understandable English; an impostor or fraudster.
Up until now, I had only taught at a private language school. It was only a matter of time though before I would be given the chance to experience life as an English teacher in the public schools. Whichever you happen to teach at though, you can’t help but feel you are nothing more than an expendable commodity that can be replaced at any given moment. The two couldn’t be more contrasting if they tried. Small classes, relaxed atmosphere and watching parents at the private school. Classrooms filled to bursting with one hundred plus students in an atmosphere of fear and retribution in the public schools. Beatings from teachers address discipline issues, so much so, that many students actually think such aggressive restraints are a sign of affection. It’s what their own parents would do!
I’m certainly not one to follow such methods, in public or private schools, so to see such acts is highly unpleasant. Watching a seven year old girl mispronounce a word, only to feel the full force of her mother’s boot striking her shin, leans towards disturbing. Luckily I have yet to see for myself some of the more ferocious beatings that are carried out in the public schools by heavy-handed teachers. The fear is more than evident though. After gently clipping one boy over the head with a rolled up notepad for consistent talking, he spent the last ten minutes of the lesson hiding under his desk. Another boy had the look of death in his eyes when I made him stand next to the blackboard for hitting a girl. He knew that his normal teacher, who was sitting at the back of the class would issue some level of punishment against his actions after I left.
It’s not only the levels if punishment that makes me feel sorry for the students. The length of their school day and extra study hours is ferocious. A normal week for students Monday to Saturday from six in the morning until ten at night. Sundays, their easiest day of the week, they finish by mid afternoon. Even then this ‘free’ afternoon is often spent at various musical instrument classes or doing extra homework. It’s not surprising with these levels of educational dedication that China produces so many child prodigies.
Repetition is the main method through which children learn in public schools. This gives them very little opportunity to speak using their own initiative, although it doesn’t stop them trying. After teaching four lessons straight at one public school, I was in desperate need of a toilet break. Asking the local English teachers, they informed me that teachers and students alike shared the same toilets outside in the playground. Unsure of how to reach them, an understanding colleague ordered a student to direct me to them.
As I made my way down the stairs, and in to the playground, my student guide became more of a security guard, fending off other students who crowded around, hoping for a glimpse of the new strange foreigner. One child must have asked my new miniature ’bouncer’ where I was going, because before I knew it I had forty children following me towards the toilets. At first I wasn’t deterred by my new ‘pied piper’ status, but upon entering the toilets I realised there were no stalls or privacy. With urinals on the left and open squat toilets on the right, this was an impossible task. I tried my best to scare them off, but to no avail.
Scaring them off with new words and strange hand signs only encouraged the children more and as I lined up to urinate, some of the children saw this as a sign to copy. Four children beat me to it and started urinating right next to me. As they looked towards me for some kind of p*ssing approval, they forgot about their aim. One sent a jet stream towards my shoe, another got my jeans. As I tried to shake the access wee off my shoe, one of the watching students behind me decided this would be the perfect time to shout the words, "teacher, you’re so beautiful." Others agreed and joined in the, "you’re beautiful," comments. If I didn’t have stage-fright before, I certainly had it now. With the damp feel of urine covered jeans brushing against my lower leg I fled the scene, back to the safety of the staffroom.
On the complaining parent front, I’m happy to say it’s been a very quiet period. Hopefully this is a good sign! There was only the one parent, who just happens to be an English teacher herself, who confronted me at the end of one class with the words, "can I give you some advice." Being the polite man that I am, I agreed to her request and was rather shocked that she then elaborated that she was complaining on the behalf of the other parents who thought seven new English words in a one hour lesson were too much to learn. I’m not sure she was too happy with my, "it’s the children I’m teaching, not the parents," response. I would have thought the parents would have been more concerned with the eight degree Celsius classroom temperatures, but alas not!
After my previous exploits at the gym, it took me a full two weeks to revisit the scene of my previous embarrassment. It wasn’t the treadmills that proved a problem this time around. Instead it was the place of my retreat on my previous visit that granted high levels of awkwardness; the changing rooms. I really need to learn the words, "excuse me please, my locker is next to where you’re standing." When your locker is at ground level and without such words, trying to get in between several naked Chinese men whose nether regions are at direct eye level, is a tricky, uncomfortable process. I suppose I can just see it as character building!