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Sending All The Lefties To China

, , , , | Learning | July 12, 2019

(For one year, I work as a foreign English teacher in China. I am an American. I have an impairment to the right side of my body that makes it somewhat difficult to do many tasks with my right hand; as such, I’ve learned to use my left hand for pretty much everything. The city I am living in is one of their larger ones, but it hasn’t quite westernized as much as other cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. As such, they tend to be more traditional and many people think it’s improper to write with one’s left hand. Here are some of the responses I receive while in China. This is a common response when I have a new class of beginning-level students in the seven- to ten-year-old group when they notice me writing on the board with my left hand:)

Students: *frantically pointing at their left hands* “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher! No… this!”

(Something like this happens with new students who have a higher level of English. It is still one of the seven- to ten-year-old classes; the older kids aren’t bothered by it and the younger ones are too young to notice.)

Student: “Teacher, why do you write with your left hand?”

Me: “Why do you write with your right hand?”

Student: *confused* “Because… everyone else writes with their right hand.”

(The only time I get frustrated with a middle-level class of the same age group. It is my first time teaching them; I am just covering for their main teacher since he can’t be there that day. He is naturally left-handed, so I don’t expect them to have any issue with me. Suddenly, after about a third of the way through the class, they start chattering in Chinese and one student yells and runs up to me and yanks my left arm away from the board.)

Student #1: “No! No!”

(I look at the other students and they are all pointing at their left hands and shaking their heads.)

Me: “Are you serious!? Are you serious!? [Regular Teacher] is left-handed!”

Student #2: *sincerely* “No! [Regular Teacher] is right!”

Me: “You’re crazy! He’s more left-handed than I am!”

(I guessed they never noticed somehow? After my last class of the afternoon, two of my students and their parents are hanging out with me. I write something on the board to show my student something. Her father speaks English very well.)

Student’s Father: “Oh! So in America, you all write with your left hand?”

Me: “No, no, just about ten percent of us.”

(Sometimes our company contracts us out to a private elementary school for mornings before our normal classes. I walk past a first-grade girl writing with her left hand, and she looks up at me and quickly puts her pen into her right hand.)

Me: “No, no, it’s okay.”

(I take her pen and put it back into her left hand and pat her head before giving her a friendly nod.)

Student: *hesitantly returns to writing with her left hand*

(The weirdest reaction wasn’t from a student. I was at a small restaurant eating some noodles when a strange woman came up to my side and took the chopsticks from my left hand and tried to stick them into my right hand. I gently shooed her away and grabbed a new pair out of the holder at my table. She seemed friendly looking; I think she was just trying to help the confused foreigner who didn’t know how to eat the “right way.”)

The Cold Hard Truth

, , , , , | Learning | May 21, 2019

(This happens in late August in China. I’ve noticed a girl from Peru is wearing winter clothes in the scorching heat of northern China’s summer.)

Me: “[Girl]? Sorry to ask, but why are you always wearing such thick clothes? It’s almost 40°C every day, even at night.”

Girl: “I know… but this is all I have. My teachers said winter is really cold here, so I brought the warmest winter clothes I could find in Peru. If winter is 40°C, I don’t even want to imagine how summer will be.”

Me: “I also heard that winter is really cold here, but autumn hasn’t even begun yet, let alone winter.”

Girl: “Don’t be silly. Winter begins in late June and…”

Me: *interrupting her* “Yes, in the southern hemisphere. China is in the northern hemisphere, and winter begins in December.”

Girl: “Wait… What?”

Me: “You said you went to Europe last December. Didn’t you notice it was cold instead of warm? Wasn’t it snowing?”

Girl: “Yeah… but I thought the weather is like that in Europe. Cold all year round.”

(A girl in her 20s who has been to different countries around Europe and North and South America didn’t know and hadn’t noticed that seasons are different in the southern and northern hemispheres. Unfortunately for her, all she had brought to China were winter clothes, and she had planned to ask home for money in December to buy summer clothes. Her first two weeks in China were very miserable for her.)

A Use Of Alarming Language

, , , , , , | Learning | March 1, 2019

(I have taught English for a few years in China. One of my classes is late at night and I have mostly young, working professionals in my class. Because the class is late, and we have all had full, busy days, this class can be quiet, and most are very tired.)

Me: “Okay, I’d like to go over the new vocabulary for this week. Are there any words that you need help understanding?”

Student #1: “I don’t understand ‘alarm.’ What does this mean?”

Me: “Oh! Great question! Does everyone remember antonyms? These are words that have opposite meanings.”

Student #2: “This is like cold and hot. They are opposite.”

Me: “Exactly. So, we all know what calm means, right?”

(The students all nod. I continue to explain calm, peace, and tranquility, and make my voice softer as I explain. Eyelids start drooping, and heads began to tilt while I continue.)

Me: “So, I want you to remember what this feels like, because you will all feel alarmed very soon.”

(I walk over to my metal desk and slam my hand on the top, making a large bang. All students are immediately wide-eyed and alert, hearts pounding.)

Me: “That feeling? What you feel right now? That is alarm.”

Students: *laughing nervously* “Oh, okay. I will never forget that!”

Me: “Excellent! What are other words that are similar to alarm?”

(At the end of the year, all of the students from that class told me that I had made English fun and more memorable than any previous teachers. They loved how they had gotten real practice and understanding of the new vocabulary rather than memorizing lists. Several also received promotions due to their improved English opening up new job opportunities for them!)

Are You Mandarin Or Out?

, , , , , , | Friendly | February 13, 2019

After studying Mandarin for about six years, I decide to take a year off of college to travel in China. The last semester of my trip, I find work as an assistant teacher in Shanghai, where I live for about four months. For most of my time there, I use a winning combination of the subway and the occasional touk-touk to get around the city. To make this as easy as possible, I also invest in a Chinese debit account and a Shanghai metro card.

Towards the end of my semester, as I’m packing up to leave, I invite my mom and my sister to come play tourist for about a week and eventually help me drag all my stuff back to America. I buy them metro cards, too, and take some time showing them around the city. Midway through one of our trips, my own metro card starts running low on funds, and I stop at a relatively small station to restock.

The station is small enough that there’s only one card kiosk, alongside the metro card help desk. A twenty-something, stylishly-dressed Chinese man is struggling with the relatively simple kiosk, which is on a screen I’ve never seen before, while the help desk security guard, an older man, smokes a cigarette and berates him loudly from just in front of his desk. From what I understand of the conversation, the younger guy is trying to add more money onto his card, which the metro guard could easily do at his desk, but he’s hit the wrong buttons and is still insisting he’s in the right. The argument is loud, but not overly heated; the younger guy seems more anxious than anything, and the security guard is visibly laughing at him.

When they both see me and my obviously very white family waiting to use the kiosk, the security guard yells at the younger guy to let me use it. He waves me over without a word, and I step up to the screen. The characters are pretty basic, so I don’t bother switching the kiosk to English. I tap the Reset button and then the Load Card button, and then I pull out my phone to pay with my Chinese debit card. All told, it takes about twenty seconds. When I pull out my metro card and turn back to my family, the previously noisy station is dead quiet. My mom is looking past me, visibly holding back a smile, and my sister looks like she’s about to burst out laughing.

The Chinese guy behind me says, “What?!”

I turn around to find him slowly lowering his phone from where he’d been filming me, his expression thunderstruck. Behind him, the older security guard is laughing so hard he’s gripping the desk to stay upright. Aside from his single English word, the younger guy seems absolutely lost for what to say.

I say in Chinese, “Do you understand how to use the machine now, or can I help you with it?”

My sister gives in to laughter as the guy slowly, slowly shakes his head. Together, my very white, very American family steps through the security gate into the train terminal, leaving the poor guy — and his video of the clueless white-girl tourist — ruined forever.

A Worldview So Narrow It Looks Like A Chopstick

, , , , | Friendly | December 14, 2018

My university classmate tells me this story. She’s eating in a restaurant at a Chinese airport and has been using a fork instead of chopsticks. Nearby are an older Chinese woman and her adult daughter, who are mocking her in Mandarin about it, talking about how white people are too clumsy to be able to use chopsticks.

My classmate, who has lived in China and had years of Mandarin lessons through her military career, turns to them and says politely in their language that normally she can use chopsticks just fine, but she injured her dominant wrist and can’t manage it right now.

The daughter is embarrassed as h*** and falls over herself apologizing. The mother, however, silently freaks out. She refuses to speak to or even look at my classmate, and seems to be pretending that she doesn’t exist. The daughter apologizes again, saying a white woman speaking Mandarin is too big of a shock for her. She explains that it’s so far out of her worldview that she honestly can’t accept it.

Throughout their conversation, the mother continues to stare into the middle distance and pretend she can’t hear them, rather than confront the mind-shattering idea that people who don’t look like you are capable of learning your language.