Time and again, I find the things I enjoy most about my job have little to do with teaching and everything to do with the absurdities I confront in the classroom. I wonder sometimes if this makes me a poor educator, but I don’t linger on it. My students have no books, their teacher has no experience, the class has no goal and the university has no clue.

I have a new class on Mondays; it was thrust upon me last week by the mysterious administrators who run my English Department. I think I met some of them at a banquet in December, but they were plastered on baijiu and singing, while I was gorging on free food and avoiding the too-friendly gropes and toasts of an office manager. These new students are freshmen, non-English majors, supposedly the best from their respective classes. That’s all I’ve been told.

A new class means I’m a novelty again. I forgot about the gasps that come out of 32 Chinese teenagers who are put face-to-face with a white dude for the first time, the pesky, basic questions I no longer get from students I’ve had for eight months in my other classes, and the utterly ridiculous English names.

I have another Christ in my class, and my “class assistant” calls herself Nazi.

“That’s an interesting name,” I told her. “How did you get it?”

She said it sounds like her Chinese name, which includes the character 娜.

“Do you know what it means?”

“It was Hitler’s party,” she said. Well then….

I threw them all into groups and set them interviewing imaginary celebrities. It’s a simple game, one of many cover strategies I’ve pulled off Dave’s ESL Cafe lately. You get imaginative when you have to create a curriculum out of thin air.

This is how my university teaches English. It puts a foreigner in front of 30 or 40 dumbfounded teens and 20-somethings and says, “Go teach.”

My friend Molly teaches herself English. After three years studying on her own, she speaks as well as many of my students, and better than a few (she’s also fluent in Japanese). I spend a lot of time in the coffee shop she owns, where she sits most mornings catching up on accounting and listening to VOA’s Special English program. While my students are memorizing pages of the dictionary and reciting passages in mindless choral fashion, this is what Molly is hearing:

“Yooo skroo dup. You screwed up.”
“Yooo messs tup. You messed up.”
“Itsss yerrr fault. It’s your fault.”

And later…

“Sheeez a bimm-boh. She’s a bimbo.”
“Sheee likes tooo goooh from mantaman. She likes to go from man to man.”

Molly is ambitious. She runs a business, travels frequently, studies whenever she can in ways she enjoys. It’s no surprise that she can get by in English with little formal language training. If she were the only self-taught Chinese friend I had, I’d write it off as an exception.

But she’s one of many. I often get students from other departments sitting in on my class, wanting to brush up. They study English on their own, too, and most are functional enough to hold a conversation with me after class.

I mused on all this for a while tonight as my students chose famous people to interview and began their role-play. Nazi’s group pulled me out of my daze.

They were deciding who to be: Steven Spielberg or Stephen Hawking.

A Jewish filmmaker, the director of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan; or Stephen Hawking, a disabled intellectual. Who would Hitler choose?

Nazi doesn’t seem at all fascist, though, no more than any other class monitor. Christ pretty much blended into the background. Of all the students I’ve met, one of the few who resembles his nickname is Crazy Moving, who attends another university. He’s a wild kid, according to my friends who teach him, but he’s sharp, too.

These are throw-away names. Few of my students can tell me their best friend’s English handle, and some don’t respond to their own. Few non-majors see English as anything but another exam subject, and the university gives little incentive to take it seriously. If any of them should land a job requiring an English name on one side of a business card, my hope is that someone will pull them aside before they go to the printer to say, “Maybe Nazi isn’t a good name to use if you’re dealing with Westerners. How ’bout Nancy?”

That’s how I’d like to believe the world works. Then again, there are plenty of assholes like me who will name a kid Waldo, just for the pleasure of looking out over the gaping masses and asking: “Where’s Waldo?”


  1. Currently I teach a “horse” and a random assortment of other animals and fruit, but my favorite, beyond a doubt is when some poor kid has been given (or chosen) the name “Dick” – particularly when they are one.

    There’s nothing so satisfying as shouting over 30 kids in the classroom: “Shut your mouth – dick!”

  2. i cant believe some1 would possibly name herself NAZI? i guess nutz is better. my english teacher used to play FRIENDS in class, and the whole class had fun by watchin it. most of us study english for passin those endless fussy and stupid tests, and most of us found the LAOWAI teachers were not good at teachin those pass exam stuff.

  3. @Rick: There probably is a South Park episode like this. Could it be a stolen-media-of-the day? Let’s call that a challenge.

    @Ryan: I see your “Horse” and raise you “Power” and “Sober,” in the same class. If you can top those, I have more.

    @Expat007: The whole system is broken, at least in my university, probably in many others. I’ve never seen one of these dreaded tests, and I have no idea what’s on them. My department head often talks about “standards” and such, but she’s never been able to tell me what they are. Laughing at the whole thing keeps me sane.

  4. Favourite Korean student name encountered at school:

    Young Gun.

    Not that’s not an Englishism, just his Korean name …

  5. Pingback: Regarding Hitler | Lost Laowai China Blog

  6. Pingback: China Blogging - Living in China, studying Chinese, web design and development. » File under Retarded: Chinese parents attempt to name baby “@”

  7. I have had male students named Ellen, Fine, Lemon, Orange, Power-Mouse, and Super and female students named Alin, Blue, Music, Pretty, Purple, and Red. There was also an instance where a Chinese teacher thought she could just add an “e” to Chris, spelling it Chrise, and it would be an acceptable female name. I quickly changed that student’s name to Chrissy.

    As for the two cross-gender named students, I repeatedly tried to get Ellen to change his name to Allen and explained often that Ellen is a girl’s name. Same thing with getting Alin to change her name to Alina. What they would do, instead, is write the proper name on their papers in my class but continue to use the wrong names with their Chinese teachers.

    Orange eventually changed his name to Harry on his own, Power-Mouse became Tito after I gave him a choice of names that began with the same letter as his Chinese given name, and Purple accepted a change to Violet after I said no way is this color a name and dragged her to the office. No luck with the others. The sad thing is that Pretty was actually quite ugly.

    Chinese people do not think about how the names they choose sound to Westerners because there are not actual names in the Chinese language. Every thing they use as a name has a meaning. That is how people end up with names like Fire, Snow, Thunder, and so on. Or else they try to do it by sound and end up using offensive words like Nazi in the example above.

    Another thing they do not understand is how to try to match their English name up with their Chinese given name. Anytime I give names to new students, I always do this. For example, a boy named Wang Jie Mi became Jamie Wang and a girl named Chen Hui Lao became Holly Chen. Many of them think English names exist in a vacuum and have no bearing on them.

  8. I’ve had ninth graders named Shark, Pig Long Sheep, Final Fantasy, and Obama. Two of my sixth graders named themselves Bread and Jam. One called himself Hurry.

    Some of my ninth graders went for historical names, like Franklin Roosevelt.

    Most of these kids changed their names every couple of months, just to keep life interesting.

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