Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Token Foreigner

Tomorrow I will finally hand in my grades and hopefully take off traveling, some weeks after many foreign teachers have gone home. With classes over people have been coming out of the woodwork to invite me to their school/English function/whatever, which can make you feel like the token foreigner after a while. I've turned down summer jobs from both students and random people in the street I don't know. On Wednesday, I got a phone call in Chinese that I finally realized was a woman from the guzheng school asking if I could come then for a lesson. Usually the lesson is on Thursday and I just practice whenever I feel like it, and I had this strange feeling I was going to be videotaped or photographed at this lesson. Obviously I'm getting a sense for China, because sure enough they filmed a short promotional film of Teacher Zhang giving me a lesson as soon as I arrived. Which was fine, but it was a little irritating that she didn't have time to give me an actual lesson and handed me off to one of her students.

On Friday I was invited by two of my students to visit a private school in a nearby town called Gaotai. They will work at the school over the summer, and the headmaster asked them if I could come to talk to the students, who were about 8-11 years old. After hearing some stories from other foreign teachers about vaguely worded invitations that actually involve giving lessons or an hour-long speech I was hesitant, but decided to give it a chance. We took a "one-hour" bus (over two hours) to Gaotai, and the first seat I tried was so small that more than being uncomfortable, there was physically not enough room for my legs. When the bus stopped in Gaotai, someone threw a bag from the roof of the bus, which landed with a heavy thud; it was full of parts of animals, with a few legs sticking out. Upon arrival, I met the extremely young headmaster of the English school (who speaks no English) and the teachers, all hilariously dressed in matching zebra-like outfits. As it turned out very little was required of me - I went from classroom to classroom greeting groups of students and answering questions they had prepared, such as "what is your favorite color?" and "can you sing us a Chinese song?" (for better or worse I know the chorus of one of the pop songs now). More than one student stood up and said only, "you are cool!". I would actually have been happy to do more, and I spent no more than 20 minutes in the classroom that day. And of course, there were a few rounds of pictures to be taken at the end. I only told my students that I would definitely come late the night before, but they were obviously expecting me; there was one of the ubiquitous red banners set up, this one saying something like "Welcome foreign teacher, who has come to our school to communicate with the students".

After a lot of resting (they have a talent for this which I admire) and the "work" of the day, they didn't have to tell me what was coming next: the round-table banquet in a classy restaurant with all the teachers, with leftovers fit for a sumo wrestler. There was one mysterious dish I couldn't identity, until someone translated it: "pig's feet". It was.... worth trying once, I suppose. They wanted to know which dish was my favorite, and lo and behold another round of it came after about five minutes, which was totally unncessary. The afternoon was leisurely, including a visit to the park, fruit market, and most surprising, a Red Army memorial (some interesting Communist army artwork). I asked my student Jason to translate one of the propaganda sentences I noticed on a city wall (I've seen them in each city, in huge characters), which meant something like "The reason you're able to relax is because we're taking care of everything". The headmaster insisted we take a taxi back so it would be quicker, even though this was certainly more than ten times the cost of the bus. When we reached the gate of the university an unidentified woman got into the taxi, and when we reached my home the headmaster, the woman, and one of my students all followed me inside. The whole day they had been unusually generous and if this wasn't something arranged by my students I would have had a bad feeling they were about to strong-arm me into something terrible. But no, the woman introduced herself as the headmaster's brother (she could speak English) and explained that "I'm sorry to be so forward, but... we don't know how much to pay you for today". The thought hadn't really occurred to me that in addition to the pampering I should be paid, and I tried to refuse in light of all the money they had spent, but they would have none of it. I told them to just give me 20 yuan if they really had to, but they just laughed and insisted I take 100 yuan, an excessive amount for the actual work I did. I suspect that for foreign teachers who choose to work at a school that's never had a foreign teacher, the special treatment gets out of hand.

The next day was outrageously busy from 8am-11pm. Xiao Ma and his "guitar club" put on an extravagant all-day party, which involved bringing drums and a full band setup, a generator, banners, tents, stools, massive amounts of food, cooking supplies, and 60 people on a bus to the Black River. Xiao Ma made his most blatant "let's show off the foreigner" move yet, so I started off the day a little irritated. He had repeatedly encouraged me to bring friends, but when I showed up with three of my student friends he was visibly annoyed, and said "I thought you were going to bring foreign friends". They also hadn't joined the "M-Club" and contributed money like everyone else, so it was obvious they were not welcome, and they left to look for jobs. However, the day was generally fun and the idea of setting up a full-band performance in the middle of nowhere appealed to me, but without a single English-speaker in attendance there were long stretches of boredom for me. We were put into groups for some strange games, the most bizarre being a game that I would describe as "gather as much mud, stones, watermelon shells and whatever the hell else you can find and make something out of it, and do it better than the other groups". This quickly escalated into chaos as each group tried to destroy the other sculptures, and soon mud and water jugs were being tossed in every direction while they laughed hysterically. I stayed out of it, as much as I enjoy being covered in mud, but they had other ideas. A little later in the afternoon they grabbed a party-goer by each limb and threw him into the river. This was going on in the background and I didn't pay much attention until I heard them say laowai, which means "foreigner", and as I turned around I saw they were coming for me, and sure enough I also got my turn in the river. At the end of the afternoon I also made my public singing debut, performing The White Stripes' "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground", which was unspectacular. I didn't so much want to sing as to finally perform a song I enjoyed and wasn't completely boring to play. However, the keyboard player decided to spontaneously join me even though he's never heard the song, which sounded terrible, not to mention my poor singing voice in the first place.

I left the party early, in time for another English event I was talked into, by an English teacher I've met at the guzheng school. This one wasn't nearly as rewarding, and involved reading out questions in English that the young students had memorized the answers to (pages and pages of them) and had to recite. When I was told it would be in the square I had a bad feeling it would be on the big stage in front of 1,000 people, but it was on a small stage setup with only a couple of hundred onlookers. The teacher, Shirley, would translate into Chinese, and she was almost as nervous as the students. They were going as fast as humanly possible in order to ensure that all the meaning of the sentences was definitely lost, so I tried to maintain a reasonable speaking voice, but was told several times I was going too slow. The questions were often quite random for beginning English learners, such as "Why do you want to study English?" "Because I want to join a joint-venture", or "Do you want some whiskey?" "Sure, I would also like some, thank you". There were also a few blatant mistakes in the script, such as "How fat is it?" instead of "far" and my favorite, a statement read by Shirley that went "Don't go out! Shut up!". This is how learning goes on in China, rote memorization, and I'm sure the audience was impressed with the "English level" of the students, though I doubt any of them were capable of holding any kind of real conversation. As an example, today a high school student walked up to me looking to practice her English, and the conversation went something like this:

Me: "So... do you live on this campus?"
Her: (blank stare)
Me: "Do you live at this university? Do your parents work here?"
Her: "Yes, my father is a teacher and my mother works at the library."
Me: "Oh, I have a question you could help me with. I had trouble buying a train ticket today, and they wrote this down. What does this sentence mean?"
Her: (blank stare)
Me (pointing again to a Chinese sentence): "What does this sentence mean?"
Her (after a long pause): "Have you ever been to Beijing?"
Me: "Um... yes, I was there for a day."
Her: "Is China better?"
Me: "Is China better than what?"
Her: "Thank you, goodbye."

Tonight was Round 2 of the English competition, and it must have been obvious how much I didn't feel like being there, because Shirley immediately said "oh, you look so serious!". During the inevitable pictures, I obviously wasn't smiling enough, because the photographer walked up to me and physically raised my mouth into a smile with his hand. Of course, the whole thing was also filmed. Shirley asked me, "so have you taken many pictures in China?", and I had to control my laughter. On the first day the announcer unexpectedly turned around and asked me a question in Chinese, which I didn't understand at first and completely stumbled over an answer for, but I fared slightly better tonight, coming up with such witty remarks as "Yes, I like studying guzheng" and "no, I can't play a song for you". The guzheng school made guest performances each night, and the announcer was obviously telling the audience about my studying there and asking the performers about how I was doing. Hopefully I don't do anything in China I want to keep a secret.

After so much over-exposure this week during my holiday I'm exhausted, and feeling particularly foreign. Friday night I watched Lost in Translation with Cynthia, and the movie carried a whole new meaning after having the experience. My travels will involve hours upon hours on the train and bus, but I'm rather looking forward to having nothing to do and no one being able to do a thing about it.