Three plus months of constant sub zero temperatures and still there isn’t an end to the relentless wintry conditions (you can see I’m English, starting off by talking about the weather!).With the onset of the coldest temperatures I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing (down to minus 30 degrees Celsius at times), it’s also brought my busiest teaching weeks.
With normal English classes lasting a solid one hour, I was a little shocked to be told that these extra classes will each be three hours long. Planning a three hour lesson isn’t the easiest (neither is having to be a student in one!), but thanks to a slice of ingenuity, I was able to include a few borderline topics. Hippo’s eating dwarfs, African men marrying goats and the world’s tiniest man all made appearances.
The second surprise was far more appealing. Alongside the three hour English classes, parents had been informed that in return for a traditional Chinese meal, I would go to their houses and talk English to their only child until their hearts content. Like I’ve just said, I’m never one to turn down a free meal and was more than happy to spend my evenings trying local delicacies, while attempting to hold conversations with both students and parents. For the vast majority of these experiences, it involved getting drunk with the child’s parents on 52% rice wine for several hours.
You take the rough with the smooth though so when I found myself sat alone on a sofa with another student watching my fourth straight episode of Snoopy and Friends, I knew it was the least I deserved for pillaging so much free food and drink on other nights. The child’s parents had made themselves scarce due to their lack of English skills, but after the well pronounced and punctuated sentence of, "we hold hands and watch more Snoopy," I quickly found them with my excuses for leaving so abruptly.
Making friends in a new environment is sometimes hard to do, but in China it’s simpler than ordering food. A few people who want to befriend you, see you merely as a trophy (especially the boys!) who’s only purpose is drinking and singing at a minute’s request; both of which I’m not immensely talented at. Luckily other people will bend over backwards to make you feel welcome in any way possible.
One of the latter type owns another English school in the surrounding countryside and had kindly invited me to her school for a "dumpling party" with some of her students once my extra winter classes were finished. As soon I arrived I knew ‘making dumplings with a few students’ was a vast understatement. As I pulled in to the centre of town, I was greeted by my friend, a girl videoing my every move and two other ladies constantly clicking away on their cameras. The videoing and picture-taking continued for the next five hours until I returned home.
As I made my way through some chicken infested back alleys, I was already wondering what would await me when I finally reached the school. I never expected such a grand welcome. The few children I was expecting to see numbered almost one hundred and fifty. In equal numbers they lined each side of the school entrance like screaming fans at a red carpet movie premiere. Their beaming parents stood behind them, nudging them viciously in the hope they would make contact with the stranger that was standing before them.
After twenty minutes meeting and greeting, having my picture taken in various poses with varying numbers of students, I made my way in to the school. With no sign of the dumpling making I was ushered in to a classroom. Here a chair had been placed at one end, as if I was royalty, and those entering the room were merely my subjects. For the next hour students entered the room baring edible gifts to be sacrificed to the foreigner. From chicken feet to coconut bread they brought every food imaginable. As I sat watching the food mount before me, a teacher beckoned me to start eating. It seemed that the watching students and parents wanted me to at least try everything that lay before me. An impossible task as it was, I gave it my best shot, something that endeared me to the watching crowd.
The students must have been happy with my efforts as by the time I slumped back in to my chair several minutes later, a round of applause echoed around the walls. While I sat there in a sugary coma, little did I know that some of the students had asked my teacher friend about the opportunities of planting smackers on the English man’s cheeks. By the time I realised what was happening it was too late. An orderly line (something of a rarity in China) of students had formed all wanting another picture taken of lip on cheek action. With so many watching eyes, all full of excitement, I really didn’t feel in the position to object to this awkwardness.
By the time we finally came to making the dumplings I was a spent force. I couldn’t let this feeling show though with the video camera still rolling. After trying my hardest to politely let down each and every student who wanted me to eat their dumplings, it was time to leave. The students created another ‘red carpet’ experience as I left and a posse of teachers and parents walked me back to the centre of town to make sure I caught my taxi home without any trouble.
With the amount of food I’d already eaten that day, I really didn’t want any more food to pass through my mouth. But that night was a huge night for Benxi. It was the opening night of the cities first Pizza Hut. Now I’m not one for freaking out at the opportunities of eating Western food on a regular basis, but a slice of pizza had been something I’d craved for weeks. It was well worth the wait. So was watching the local inhabitants figuring out how to eat with knives and forks for the first time in their lives! It was a nice feeling to be doing the staring for once at their confused, awkward attempts at eating, instead of it being the opposite way around with me and chopsticks.