It’s been a long time coming, but summer has finally arrived in China’s north-east with a bang. Within the space of four weeks, the snow covered streets have been replaced with hot glorious sun, temperatures exceeding thirty degrees Celsius and inhabitants hell bent on eating the world’s supply of ice cream. While market sellers and barbecued kebab stalls line the roads, ‘tai-chi’ experts wielding samurai swords, orchestras playing poignant songs of yesteryear, and groups of choreographed dancing women compete for space in the cities parks. At night, like light-crazed moths, people flock around street illuminations to carry on with these activities.
Women have replaced their long-johns and thick winter fur coats with slinky floral dresses and parasols, their unshaven legs and bushy armpits on show for all to see. Although this may seem slightly uncivilised to Western cultures, the men join them with t-shirts rolled up to their armpits, exposing flabby man boobs and swollen bellies, which they rub, stroke and fondle with disturbing regularity. Acceptable as this is, trying to add flip-flops to either outfit is deeply frowned upon, as I soon found out, as doing so brings an even greater concentration of confused stares and mocking gestures. Dress code rules can be highly confusing. Whereas wearing flip-flops outside can be similarly associated to walking down Oxford Street in only your pants, walking, shopping and eating in public wearing nothing but your pyjamas is perfectly acceptable and can be witnessed on virtually every street.
In recent months life as an English teacher has been remarkably civilised with understanding parents and well-behaved children filling my classrooms. Of course, this was all going to change in the week running up to my birthday celebrations. Probably the hardest thing I have to deal with when teaching is classroom violence. Not student on student conflicts, but parents striking out against their siblings. It’s not unusual during lesson time to watch a mother walk from the back of the class, slap their child across the head and return to their seat, deeming their child wasn’t paying enough attention. After watching one mother strike her daughter twice across the face in quick succession after answering a question incorrectly, it was therefore refreshing to see two fellow parents restrain the mother in question from unleashing further fury on her daughter. I’m still unsure whether stepping in to end such conflicts would be wise, or whether it would just show my ignorance to the accepted norms of the local culture.
Some parents have a strange ideology of how English should be learnt. One parent approached my Chinese assistant at the end of class to voice her concerns over the fact her daughter didn’t understand some of the questions I was asking in class. She went on to suggest that in future maybe it would be better to only use vocabulary they already knew. My response of, "surely you are requesting me to not teach any new English ever again then," was met with blank silence.
Another parent interrupted mid-class, after their daughter answered, "yes he is," to the "is the penguin a boy," question I had just asked. The question was in relation to a story we had just read about a cartoon penguin. I was a little confused to what was so urgent to stop my class and was even more flummoxed to learn the parent was not happy her daughter was answering these ’yes-no’ questions with the words yes and no. I did think about asking the "is the penguin a boy," question one more time and teaching the class to respond with the more in depth analysis of, "yes, but if the penguin is in fact a transsexual, transvestite or hermaphrodite, then this clouds its sexuality considerably," but decided this would be too much new vocabulary for one lesson.
With now having a regular slot teaching in the public schools, alongside the easier, cushier private school lessons, my schedule is the busiest it’s ever been. While public school teaching requires less lesson planning, it does have the downside of teaching in stuffy, sweltering classrooms to over a hundred students at a time, leaving you drenched in sweat as though just stepping out of a sauna fully clothed. Many public schools in the area enforce harsh levels of punishment to those students misbehaving. I rarely have discipline issues in class, but after watching one girl student fumbling about under her desk, a closer inspection found she was holding a knife. She handed it over, with the expression of just receiving a life-sentence at the Old Bailey and I could only imagine the trouble she was about to find herself in. Especially considering the increased levels of security schools find themselves under following a spate of unrelated school stabbing incidents.
Under normal birthday circumstances, this would be my 29th such celebration. In China though, with a baby already aged one the moment they leave their mother’s womb, this meant I would have a legitimate practice shot at celebrating the big 3-0. To mark this premature passing in to my new decade of existence, my wife had lined up a number of surprises, taking in Benxi’s best highlights; the local zoo, followed by what the Chinese do best; karaoke.
Shrouded in mist and rain, rolling down from nearby mountain peaks, Benxi zoo looks wild and surprisingly promising from the outside. Actually finding the zoo proved a little trickier than I was expecting. Not knowing the Chinese word for zoo, I took it for granted the taxi driver I flagged down would understand the monkey, elephant and lion charades I wildly performed with excitable zest. Slightly bemused, the taxi driver nodded his understanding and as my wife and I sat back in the taxi, we basked in the ingenuity of my actions. Unfortunately, my charades had been drastically mistaken. Minutes later, too embarrassed to argue, we’d been dropped off at a local pet store. Yet to see a pet store stocking monkeys, elephants and lions for sale, I tried the same charade technique a second time, hoping the first taxi driver had been a little ‘special’. This time it worked perfectly.
After hearing of the death of several under nourished, Siberian tigers in nearby Shenyang zoo, the variety and quality of animals on show at Benxi zoo was surprising. Even more surprising were the ‘no beating’ signs dotted around some of the enclosures, warning of the dangers of attempting to take on a tiger, lion, wolf, or even a bear in a one-on-one fight of strength. From my experience, these signs would be far more suited to the classroom!
My birthday celebrations were polished off with a trip to a KTV karaoke joint. With a small number of English hits to choose from, I found myself screaming and screeching to Maroon 5, Backstreet Boys and Avril Lavigne before ending the night with a near perfect rendition of Eminem’s Stan. Maybe rapping is a skill I have overlooked in the past!