After a happy, prolonged period of stabilization and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling.
“Good afternoon Krista, how are you?” I chirped, bouncing into the classroom. “I’M FINE THANK YOU, AND YOU?” came her robotic reply, a standard response so ingrained she hadn’t even looked up from the hairband she was twiddling with. For Krista the conversation was now over; her duty done; any answer I might have to how I was actually doing completely inconsequential.
“Nooooo….” I said patiently, sitting down at the ridiculously small chair at the ridiculously small table, my three students gazing up at me like wide-eyed Liliputians. “Oh… yes” laughed Krista, shaking herself as she remembered what we’d been working on for almost two weeks now. “I’m happy today!” she beamed. “Very good!” I sang, giving her a high five. “What about you Max, how are you?” “I’m tired…. and good” he replied confidently, clearly happy that Krista’s sloppiness had paved the way for him to shine. “And Simon, how are
Simon had been the first to embrace my radical change of policy on the How are you? question. He’d been quick to learn the new adjectives I’d introduced and, armed with an arsenal of newly acquired words, seemed to take the subject quite seriously. “I’m hungry,” he said thoughtfully, scratching his chin, “but happy”.
Max, Krista and Simon were probably my strongest group, three of the brightest, most curious and enthusiastic kids at at the school. They came to my classes with open minds and wide smiles. They followed the course books without complaint, sang along to all the songs and weren’t shy about asking me questions if they didn’t understand. “Your lesson very different from their school!” smiled Nini, my Chinese class assistant. “In school you must stand, listen to teacher and repeat. Maybe you don’t understand but just repeat, stay out of trouble”.
Unfortunately though, school life wasn’t all a glorious bundle of Krista, Max and Simons. I also had the nightmarish combo of Tom, Jack and Justin; a frustrating, draining, unrewarding sixty minutes of hell twice a week. All three had zero interest in me or my classes, so instead passed the time by play fighting, making monkey noises and flinging stuff from their pencil cases around the classroom. In less frantic moments Tom stared out of the window, Justin incessantly chatted to Nini in Chinese and Jack just sat there humming to himself, hands interlocked behind his head, the silliest of silly smiles pasted across his face like he was having the best daydream.
“Justin, sit down!” I’d say, roughly twenty times a lesson. “Jack, no Chinese!” “Tom, what are you doing??” It was a rhetorical question really, as it was plainly obvious what he was doing, in the middle of what was supposed to be a listening exercise. He had both fingers up his nose and was keenly scooping out the stomach-churning contents. “Why are you doing that?” Nini asked him with a resigned sigh. “Because I’m hungry!” whined Tom. If only he’d been able to produce any of those words in English. I tried everything with those guys: attacking them with positivity, getting strict, developing levels of patience I never knew I had. But nothing made a scrap of difference.
One day, while I was failing to teach them a song, Justin stole Tom’s pencil and broke it in half, just for kicks. And then total carnage ensued! Tom punched Justin in the stomach and Justin retaliated by scratching Tom’s face. A highly amused spectator, Jack rolled around on the floor laughing and clapping his hands like an unhinged hyena. It was my breaking point. That evening I spoke to Trudy about them; explaining that their behaviour was unacceptable and that linguistically there was little to no progress. “Keep going!” she told me with a placid smile, “let’s just wait and see. Their parents pay a lot of money, we don’t want them think there is problem”.
It was around this time that we introduced a sticker chart system for good behaviour, with robots, monsters and racing cars for the boys, princesses, butterflies and mermaids for the girls. Working well in class? Not speaking too much Chinese? Making solid progress? That’ll be three stickers! As self appointed Chief Sticker God Warlord, it was up to me how many each kid got, though the average hand out worked out at two, while naughty incidents of some nature resulted in a disappointing one. “Um… Tom is very angry that he receives zero stickers,” announced Nini at the end of class one day. “He wants to know why”. “Let me see…” I responded, Tom glaring at me all the while from behind Nini. “I think it might be because he spat in Jack’s face… or maybe when he threw his book at the wall”.
For the most part though the sticker system worked a treat, especially in my reading class with the adorable Sonia, Krista’s little sister. She was a lovable six-year old scamp with a boundless energy and a cheeky, playful spirit that could never be tamed. “Hello Mr. Leighton!!!” she’d squeal, shoving a picture she’d drawn into my hands. In class she could be manic at times, but always spoke to me in English and just about managed to keep focused on the task at hand. She always enjoyed the storybooks we read and we’d laugh together about how evil Mr. Wolf was or about the silly and strange Cat in the Hat. “How many stickers today?” she asked me one October afternoon, leaning forward, balancing precariously on the edge of her seat. “Hmm, I think…. three!” “Yeeeees!!!!” she shrieked, launching herself at me violently, hitting my chest with a thud before scampering off to the sticker chart.
In fact, Sonia enjoyed her lessons so much she often lost patience with having to wait for her turn! On more than one occasion she came crashing through the door in the middle of one of my classes and had to be dragged off by Nini as my students chuckled away. “My sister is very silly!” said Krista with a shake of her head.
Like most of the kids, Sonia lived in MoMA, the residential complex that housed the school. It was literally a three-minute walk from her building block to the school door, so she’d often come in just to sit and play in the common area. This was the perfect opportunity to grab me in my ten-minute break between lessons. “Mr. Leighton, come tea with me!” she’d yell, making a big show of pouring me a cup from the table she’d set up from the toy box. “Do you like it?” she’d ask, sitting up straight and stroking her hair theatrically. “Why Ms Sonia, this tea is utterly delightful” came my reply every time, which always caused Sonia to tilt her head up regally and nod in agreement. “Yes… delightful!” Another favourite scenario came with the toy doctor’s kit. “Sit down please Mr. Leighton!” she’d say seriously, putting on the stethoscope. She’d then press the resonator against my head, arm, hand and knee (!?!), before despatching a grim-sounding “Uh oh… Mr. Leighton… this is not good!”
With most of my kids aged between six and eight, I really enjoyed the two classes where I could actually chat with my students and get going with the language. In addition to my sessions with Trudy’s son, the boy wonder Happy, I also had a pair of MoMA cousins, Louis, and Tim. Their English was good for their ages and we were able to have proper conversations using a decent range of vocabulary, while tentatively getting to grips with past grammar. They were both highly impressionable and wide-eyed, fascinated by the differences between English and Chinese culture. “You mean people in London don’t eat rice every day!!?” exclaimed Louis, aghast. “Crazy” echoed Tim soberly. “Teacher… is true people in Britains making the marry many times? My mother say for you is like changing socks. New wife… old wife… new wife old”. “How many wives you had?” asked Tim, sounding genuinely concerned.
It was always a fun time with those two, though sometimes completely spoiled by their tiresome rivalry and constant bickering. Whenever we played a game, the two would battle it out as if their lives depended on it. “You’re cheating!” whined Tim when Louis rolled a six on the dice, moving him way ahead on the board game. “Teacher, Tim pronounce that word wrong,” complained Louis, while sometimes the pair of them were so desperate to finish their written exercises first they virtually fell off their chairs, scribbling themselves into a competitive frenzy. “FINISHED!!!!” screamed Tim, so aggressively he was literally panting. “NO, I WAS FIRST!” countered Louis, going red in the face.
“Teacher, I think three stickers for me today” suggested Louis one evening, “but only one for Tim because he make many mistake”. “Nooooo!” roared Tim, pushing Louis in the chest and knocking his glass off water over, soaking Louis’ course book and narrowly missing my laptop.
As challenging as my lessons sometimes were, poor old S was having a much tougher time of things. It was her first time teaching and all her kids were aged between three and five, with very little language production. She had an autistic boy called Deric who was so distracted he sometimes failed to even acknowledge her existence. When he did engage, it was impossible to get him to focus, as he’d usually just end up crawling around the classroom muttering to himself. Any lesson props S had were simply grabbed by Deric, who would sit fiddling with them absent-mindedly. It took S weeks to get him to start producing single words and when he did, he lumped an offending “a” onto everything, from “Deric-a” and “book-a” to “Yes-a” and “dog-a”. Turning to Trudy for advice, we learned that autism, and indeed learning difficulties in general were a bit of a taboo in China. “I think maybe his parents will not accept this,” mused Trudy, “I will talk to his mother, but we must be careful… keep trying!!” Later that same week Deric was so uncompromisingly unresponsive in class that S felt like bashing her head against the wall. But then, quite unexpectedly, he came over and wrapped his arms around her leg and started chattering away in Chinese. “What’s he saying?” S asked Lily, her classroom assistant. “He says he wants to be glued to you”. A heart-melting moment, and one that convinced S she had no choice but to keep plugging away.
Happily, her frustrations and challenges with Deric were balanced out by three-year old Yoyo, a gorgeous little girl who S fell in love with the moment she laid eyes on her. Wobbling around the common room gurgling to herself, we’d both watch her in amusement and secretly discuss what the hell her mother was doing sending her to English lessons. “Yoyo family very rich” whispered Trudy one day before class. “Her father work in oil, their family has three floors of one building in MoMA”. Despite the fact that Yoyo could barely stand up unassisted, S diligently tried to teach her some English while they played card games together, drew pictures, built Lego houses and worked from colouring books. It was a proud day when finally, after months of practice, she finally answered the question “What’s your name?” “Yoyo!!!!” cried Yoyo with a wonky smile and promptly fell over. “I want to take her home with us!” announced S, doe-eyed. “Do you think her mother would notice?”
It was the 1st of October 2009 and S and I had a day off work for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China! Hearing that there was going to be a huge military parade on Tiananmen Square, we initially thought we could go, but soon found out it was an invitation only event with crazy levels of security. “Don’t even go near there!” advised Richard over the phone, “the police go nuts at times like this… sometimes foreigners get arrested just for looking at someone the wrong way”. Richard wasn’t kidding, as we later heard about various subway stations closing down for the day and that the airport would go dormant for three hours.
“You can come to school and watch on TV,” offered Trudy, “It will be something amazing…. very proud for China … many important people!” And so we headed to school armed with a flask of coffee and a bag of Mooncakes, a traditional Chinese pastry eaten during national holidays. S didn’t really care for Mooncakes, but of course old sweet tooth Leighton couldn’t get enough. Resembling the British pork pie, they are essentially thick, round pastries with a hard outer crust and a soft paste filling, with red bean, mango, date and lotus seed among the many curious flavours. I liked them all, except for the horror show version that had a salty dried egg yolk plonked in the middle.
The military parade was pretty mental, what with its multitude of cloned soldiers, trumpet-playing sailors and a fleet of jets spouting streams of coloured smoke into the sky. And while I’d perhaps been expecting the general message to be “Happy Birthday!”, in fact the overriding sentiment seemed to be “look at our weapons bitches!!” And look we did! There was a swarm of machine gun-wielding women, a convoy of colossal tanks and a line of trucks carrying long-range nuclear missiles. Every now and then the camera panned to the crowd where people whooped and clapped with joy, some so overwhelmed by the occasion they were sobbing. We were also treated to regular shots of a serious-looking President Hu Jintao dressed in a slate-grey Chairman Mao style tunic. Watching it all unfold in the silence of the empty school was a captivating, bewildering experience.
The birthday parade marked the beginning of a weeklong national holiday, which meant no classes and the perfect opportunity to do some serious exploring in Beijing. First on our list were the delights of Chaoyang Park, Beijing’s largest green area located on the site of the former prince’s palace. The government had shut down a big chunk of the city’s factories prior to the parade, so we were treated to beautiful blue skies as we took in the lake, a small rollercoaster-adorned amusement park and a massive outdoor sports complex of tennis courts, ping pong tables and five-a-side football pitches. All around families picnicked together on the grass, while groups of teenagers sat conspiratorially in mobile-phone bleeping circles. We also stumbled across the highly amusing Bruce Lee Exhibition, with its collections of rare film posters, clothes and 60s era Brucey action dolls.
It was a great day, which we capped off with dinner at a friend’s apartment in the centre. S was busy taking a private dumpling class in the kitchen while my friend Chris and I put together a playlist on his laptop, stationed at the living room window with fine views across the city. Beijing was such a different proposition without the smog, and the views of the early evening sky that night from their 10th floor apartment were magical.
The holiday week seemed to go by in a flash. We paid a visit to Yuan Ming Ruins Park, an extensive complex of gardens and palaces that featured some of China’s most impressive European architecture and fine art. Elsewhere, there was an afternoon walk through the peaceful, tree-lined Embassy district trying to guess which country each building belonged to. It was a world away from the clatter and bang of Sanlitun just a few streets away with its bars, clubs, restaurants, markets and boutique stores. Somewhat cruelly, we couldn’t help but snigger at the seemingly frozen security guard at each embassy gate, usually a young Chinese man dressed in a grossly oversized uniform. In the event of some kind of security breach, I couldn’t see any of them putting up much of a fight. “
“Teacher, you see China birthday party on TV?” asked Louis back at school. “Very cool, China so power!” echoed Tim in a rare show of unity. “If we want we can destroy anyone… like Japan teacher” continued Louis, all starry-eyed. “Japan should be careful… Japan very bad! Teacher, Tim look at my homework, no three stickers today!” “Nooo!” screamed Tim, beating his fists down on the table. “Teacher he lie, he always lie, Louis bad like Japan!!!”