After a 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.
I can pinpoint the exact moment our seemingly idyllic teaching jobs began to unravel. It wasn’t an earth-shattering incident, but it did represent the tumbling of the first domino, setting in motion a string of bizarre events that would ultimately sour our Beijing dream. “I need to speak to you guys,” said Lily one afternoon. We were gathered round the kitchen counter at school in the prep hour before lessons. “Today is my last day, I’m leaving!”
Lily was S’s teaching assistant and the two had gotten on famously, much more than Nini and I, whose daily miscommunications were starting to get really tedious. “I have three jobs,” explained Lily, eyes to the floor. “I am working from 9 in morning until 9… 10 at night. I so tired… can’t do anymore and this job is so far from my house”.
We really felt for Lily, who worked twelve hours a day to make a quarter of what I brought in for twenty hours a week. It was also a shame for S, who was losing a good assistant and a friend. “Yes, is a pity!” said Trudy somewhat absently. “But don’t worry… I already have some interviews this week for Lily’s replacement. There are some excellent candidates”.
Lily’s excellent replacement turned out to be a nineteen-year old girl who called herself Water. Shifting Nini over to S and her classes, Trudy told me that Water would be my assistant. I remember feeling quite hopeful, a sentiment that was soon to be dampened. “Hello Water, how are you?” I said on her first day. “I nineteen” she replied with a wide smile.
“This is Water!” I told my students. “Naaaaah!” giggled Krista dismissively, while Max also shot me a disbelieving look that pretty much said: Come on, what’s her real name? By the third class even I was starting to wonder what her deal was. “So why are you called Water?” I enquired. “You want a water?” she responded with furrowed eyebrows. “No… your name is Water. Why?” “Oh… I like drink water… and easy for kids remember!”
The classes did not go well. As awkward as my working relationship with Nini had been, she at least stayed in the background, only swooping in to translate something or when the kids were getting rowdy. But from the very first second Water was right in my face echoing every single thing I uttered back to the kids. Not only was this annoying and unnecessary, but her pronunciation was so appalling it only served to confuse. “Ok guys turn to page twenty!” “Oooh-key geese turn-a to paysh twain-tee”. She then began turning the pages for them, one by one. “Err Water don’t do that please, they can do it themselves”.
She also kept providing them with the answers to my questions. “What’s the day today Jack?” I’d say, and if he didn’t respond in precisely 1.2 seconds Water would enlighten him in Chinese. I kept telling her to stop repeating me, to give the kids time to think but she just didn’t get it. In the end, as was my way in those days; I lost my patience and told her just to stay quiet altogether. She was not impressed, retreating to the corner of the room with a childish pout, arms folded.
By the end of our first week together I was pulling my hair out. Handing Water a worksheet during class one day, I asked her if she could make me a copy. She came back five minutes later with a cup of black coffee. During class, whenever she spoke, it took me five minutes to repair the linguistic damage she’d done and get the kids back on track. For reasons unknown, she also sat in on my lessons with Happy, who clearly spoke better English than she did. In fact, he ended up correcting her a couple of times. “What do you think about Water?” Trudy asked one day. Unable to control myself, I told her exactly what I thought. “Please try harder with her,” said Trudy impassively, “she has good attitude and is very cheap. You know, it’s difficult to find a good teaching assistant”.
S and I arrived at work one day to find a tall Chinese man sitting in the kitchen reading a children’s book. Lifting his head, he smiled politely, but declined to say hello or indeed introduce himself. Sometime later Trudy popped her head into my classroom. “Leighton, so sorry to disturb you but I want you meet David”. “Hello I’m David,” said David with a courteous, Davidly nod. “David and I studied together at Wall Street English. You know Leighton…. at the moment my school losing a lot of money… so from today David will be my marketing expert!” From across the counter I could see poor old Water trying to follow the conversation; her head bobbing up and down like a guppy fish at feeding time.
From then onwards, David the marketing expert was in school every day. He sat on the kitchen counter reading a book. He rested on the sofa reading a book. He paced up and down the school with his hands behind his back. When Trudy came they disappeared off into her office for long, noisy conversations that were ninety five per cent Trudy, three per cent silence, two per cent David. One day he asked permission to observe one of my classes, sitting silently at the back of the room playing with his phone before disappearing after about twenty minutes.
“Look what David has made!” announced Trudy, bursting into my classrooms with an armful of leaflets. “Oh great!” I cawed, with what I hoped was the required amount of enthusiasm. The leaflets looked decent enough I supposed, a good starting point. “Will you come to the local primary school and help me hand them out?” “Of course!” I replied and off we all traipsed for an incredibly boring hour of hanging around the school gates.
I was wondering what the next step would be in the David revolution. But a week went by and absolutely nothing materialised. Reading on the sofa. Reading in the kitchen. One time I actually saw him staring at one of the walls. After a while he rubbed the paintwork tentatively and hummed to himself. “Oh, hello Leighton, how are you today?” Handsome, polite, well dressed and friendly, he seemed like a nice guy but I couldn’t for the life of me work out what his purpose was. With the mastermind leaflet idea having been done, what was he working on now? Why was he at school all the time? How much was Trudy paying this guy? In any case he proved very popular with Nini and Water, who worked themselves into a giggling fit when they saw him approaching from MoMA’s main gate. “David is come!” shrieked Water, biting her lip.
He’d been part of the furniture for about a month when Trudy announced some of our students would be taking part in MoMA’s annual painting/drawing competition. The event was to take place on a Sunday afternoon and would be judged by an old art professor who was apparently a bit of a local celebrity. “This will be excellent coverage for our school,” grinned Trudy, as David nodded obediently from the sofa. It was obvious this latest stroke of marketing genius had come about by luck rather than design. It was a local competition that we were shoehorning ourselves into, was this really the best he/she/they could come up with?
The art competition turned out to be a fun afternoon. There were kids of all ages everywhere drawing, painting and doodling on plastic tables laid out next to one of the ponds. The professor, a kindly looking old man, shuffled around from kid to kid mumbling unheard scraps of advice while Trudy danced around accosting parents. On the student front Happy, Sonia and a few of S’s toddlers represented our school. But as cute as it all undoubtedly was, this clearly wasn’t a language event.
There was zero English involved and other than handing out more leaflets, I struggled to see what the angle was. Once said leaflets were gone, David reverted to his default position of doing nothing, standing away from the tables with his hands behind his back. With my own role for the day equally undefined, I walked over and asked him if this was his full time job, or if he had his fingers in any other pies. “I am finishing my degree in administration,” he explained. “But I am also very interested in marketing, so for me this is good experience”. It was at this moment that I realised Trudy wasn’t paying him anything.
At the end of November we finally gave up on our shitty apartment and told EE that we had to be relocated. We’d invested so much time and money in trying to make the place work for us, but when the boiler broke down for the third time it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Hearing of our predicament, Trudy told us about an apartment for rent right in MoMA itself, literally fifty steps from the school. She was also instrumental in making it happen, dealing with the landlady for us and negotiating the monthly rent and deposit. Bundling all of our stuff into a taxi, we made the short move over one frantic evening.
The new place was an incredible upgrade, a spacious, modern, temperature-controlled flat with all mod cons and an elevator that opened up into our private hallway. We’d really landed on our feet and knew that we owed Trudy a lot. I wanted to work harder than ever to make her school a success, but unfortunately my loyalty to her was about to be severely tested.
It was sometime during the first week of December that David failed to show up. He didn’t come the next day either, nor the day after that. “Where’s David?” I eventually asked Trudy, who seemed to be getting increasingly withdrawn during school hours. “Oh, he is busy now with his study” she replied vaguely. “Maybe not come back for a while”. We never saw him again.
Putting our heads down and teaching our classes, S and I got on with things as best we could despite the shift in atmosphere at school and the fact that I was barely communicating with Water, who I simply had no role for. “Leighton… Water must be in your class every lesson,” Trudy told me one day. “She need help you with everything”. Biting my lip, I nodded and returned to my classroom in a state of exasperation.
With Christmas approaching, S and I set to work on a yuletide extravaganza, using our Halloween success as a blueprint. We created flashcards, colouring sheets, a YouTube playlist and made custom design games. Trudy bought a Christmas tree and a Santa costume and asked us if we could make decorations for the school. The blow of actually having to teach on Christmas day was softened when Trudy revealed the 25th would be a Christmas Party. Telling us of her plans for a “huge banquet,” she said that everyone in MoMA would be invited, regardless of whether or not their kids attended the school. “Maybe you can do another play!” she laughed, clapping her hands together.
We spent the better part of a week knocking out handcrafted decorations; led by the brilliantly creative S. Naturally there were a few hiccups along the way. Nini had no idea what reindeers or mince pies were, while Water was surprised to learn that Christmas trees aren’t typically purple and that it wasn’t appropriate for Ol’ Saint Nick to be dressed up like a gay, multicoloured super villain. “Only ray (red) and wai (white)?” she repeated, incredulous.
By the time we were done there were posters everywhere, snowmen stencils on the windows and scattered bunches of bells and holly. We were feeling pretty pleased with our efforts when S suddenly discovered that several rows of her paper chains were missing. “They’re just gone?!?” she said, utterly perplexed, Nini and Water shrugging uselessly in the background. “Have you seen the paper chains?” she asked Trudy. “Oh… I moved them” came her vague reply. After a bit of digging around, S finally found them screwed up in the bin outside.
A few days later a tired looking Trudy shuffled through the front door and joined us all at the kitchen counter. “The Christmas party is cancelled,” she stated, “maybe we do next year. Don’t worry…. this will not affect my business”. Totally baffled, I waited until the end of classes that evening to find out more. “Trudy why is the party cancelled?” “No reason” she replied automatically and that, it seemed, was the end of the conversation.
The week before Christmas saw the arrival of another unspecified member of staff, a young girl who stationed herself in the play area where she leafed through the books and fiddled with the toys. “I have no idea!” whispered Nini, when I asked who she was. I tried to introduce myself but she didn’t speak a word of English. “She is Emma, ma (my) fren (friend)” explained Water. “Oh yes, Emma is our new assistant”, Trudy eventually told me. “She responsible for the play area. Look after kids outside class, tidy up toys”.
So now she had three not especially busy staff on the books. I had actually thought the cancellation of the Christmas party might have been down to financial problems; but here she was handing out a salary to someone we obviously didn’t need. What was going on?
Trudy hit us with the bombshell a few days before Christmas, just half an hour before we were due to teach on a Friday afternoon. “I have bad news,” she said, clearing her throat. “Some parents um… not satisfied with the teaching”.
“I receive feedback that S pronunciation is not good and that Leighton, your lesson sometime boring!”
What? These revelations felt like an almighty slap in the face. But as shocked and confused as I was, I managed to remain calm, asking Trudy for further clarification while S sat silently biting her lip. I had so many questions it was hard to know where to begin. What exactly was the problem with S’s pronunciation? What aspects of my lessons could be improved? Who had the feedback come from? I honestly couldn’t think of any kids who’d come across as bored.
As bitterly disappointing as Trudy’s disclosures had been, it was nothing compared to the barrage of incomprehensible nonsense that followed. The complaints, she told us, had come anonymously (!?!?) from a group of local mothers who’d formed an online MoMA chat group. These mothers hadn’t actually been in our classes, so the complaints were coming from the kids or what? A four-year old child was expressing his concerns about his teacher’s pronunciation? Trudy glossed over these questions, explaining that she agreed with the complaints.
“I think you are not doing your best. Yesterday I hear S say the word ‘cat’ in class and I feel something wrong. Leighton… maybe you spend too much time repeat words, kids get bored. I’m sorry… my English not good enough to explain”.
We tried to get her to see reason; that repetition in class was an essential component of language acquisition and that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the way S said cat. But we were banging our heads against the wall. The final insult came when Trudy told us she had written to EE about her concerns and that Maggie would be in touch with us shortly. This was the last thing we needed, what a mess!
After all that, the last thing I wanted to do was stick on a Santa costume and sing Christmas carols with the kids. But that’s exactly what I had to do. Nini could see something wasn’t quite right and asked me if something had happened with Trudy “Hmm… I’m sorry,” she said, “I was expecting this”. “Expecting this? Why?” I answered, with a horrible feeling that the plot was about to thicken further. “You know Water is a spy! Watch everything and report back to Trudy… causing many trouble”.
“Mr. Leighton! Jingle bells again! Agaaaiiin!” whooped Justin manically, performing a karate kick on Jack. Removing my Santa beard, I sighed and sat down at my table as Nini looked on anxiously. “Please don’t tell anyone I told you!” It was Christmas and suddenly I wanted to be anywhere but this classroom, this school, this city, this country.