Entering my second semester of teaching ESL in southern China, I’ve been rejuvenated by a weeklong trip to Hong Kong over winter break and put in high spirits thanks to the early arrival of spring. Life these past few months without heating proved to be nothing short of brutal. Nowadays, rapeseed blooms in the fields across the river, painting the land in patches of yellow, and the scent of impending rain suffuses the evening air. Once again, I’m reminded of my love for this town.
My decision to move to China was motivated primarily by reasons other than teaching. This job is simply a means to achieving more personal ends. But I have come to enjoy the work more than expected, despite the school’s rather flippant disposition toward the legitimacy of my classes. Last term, I devoted nearly two and a half weeks to administering individual oral exams to all one-thousand of my students, only to discover recently that these grades which had been required of me were never reported by the office. Out here in the countryside, foreign teachers are still more status symbols than anything else. It can be a frustrating environment in which to work.
While the first few rows of every class are brimming with model students, I’ve started to suspect that the only reason the administration seats them this way is to charm their instructors through flattery; they listen, participate and always follow directions. Moving further down the aisle, however, is like suddenly finding yourself in the wrong end of town. Students sprawl comatose across their desks, unabashedly inattentive. Others huddle around MP4 players watching movies with their ears stopped up. Several times I’ve had to put out a cigarette. One boy even vomited ten minutes into my class last week because, as his deskmate later informed me, he’d had too much to drink. My kids are fifteen, sixteen at most.
As I was patrolling these academic hinterlands one day, I came across a boy in the back row staring crossly between his knees. As if there lay the answer to the question I had asked. From the blackboard I had been unable to see him slouched low behind his books, one of many enormous stacks which clutter almost every desktop. I asked him if he understood the directions but this elicited no response, not even the slightest hint of regard. I began reiterating the lesson for him in Chinese when he suddenly jerked to life and snapped that he couldn’t speak English. He had no intent to learn. Well, I sighed. All I’m asking is you try. I attempted to explain the importance of speaking a second language in this increasingly global world, but he only turned away, mumbling in that petulant tone the Chinese can take that perhaps this was the case for some but certainly not for him. What could I do? Our school preaches a philosophy of focused efficiency: work with the good students, don’t even bother with the bad ones. The other foreigners and I have been scolded several times before for banishing miscreants from class and pushing our own expectations. The Chinese teachers simply see it as a waste of time.
So I went on with my lesson, leaving this reprobate to sulk on his own. But I was truly affected by what he had said. Most troubling of all was that his argument was sound. China’s rapid development over the past several decades has yet to reach the rural towns of the interior. Only about 20% of my students will continue on to college. The rest will most likely stay behind in this selfsame town to work as laborers, merchants or farmers, never again to encounter a foreigner. As much as I hated to admit it, he was probably right. Who was I to tell him that he had to learn English?
I spent several days wrestling with these thoughts, trying to justify my presence as a volunteer. I ran into the boy at the end of the week on his way home for lunch and fell in beside him as he walked down the alameda, past basketball courts already teeming with students not yet two minutes out from class and a dumpster where garbage burned and workers were constructing a low fieldstone wall, as if to hide the pollution were to deny it of existence. Alone, this boy had nothing to prove. We chatted politely while strolling beneath the poplars, discussing China, America and the Economic Crisis. Upon reaching the gate, he praised my Chinese, and as far as I could tell, he was genuinely impressed. I smiled and gave him a knowing look back. He seemed to understand the irony which I was trying to convey but only shrugged it off shyly before going along his way.
The following week he was as taciturn as before, but I’d already decided that I would ride him just the same. I’m not so idealistic as to think I’m going to change lives, but catering exclusively to the first few rows only makes me feel more like the puppet I sometimes fear myself to be. I’ll probably never get through to this boy or those like him, but I’ve been the resentful pupil once and know what feeds their fire. There’s no easier target than a hypocrite as a teacher. All I’m asking is I try.