"China 2010" story # 10

Yantai, China           June 6, 2010

My university got quite a bit hotter in the month of May.
     The flowers pretty much all died. But, then, in late May, parts of the university's park/garden came colorfully alive.
     In one corner, a kingdom of hot-ochre (pink) flowers looked like they'd exploded from their buds like popcorn, and they came up to the waists of gentle girls who went in to smell them. I smelled a redder version of this flower (I like to think it was more manly), and it smelled like a raspberry.
     Elsewhere, a slippery stone bridge curled over a pond whose surface was covered by lily pads. Sprinkled amongst the lily pads were floating lotus flowers. Their petals spiked and spiralled out in geometric symmetry. The lotuses of one family were bright-white with butterscotch centers; others were lemon-drop-yellow; and others were purplish with yellow insides. They looked like delicious pastries. I would like to be a frog living in those lily pads.
     Recently ... a female student with very good English surprised me, when she answered my question, "If you could be any animal for a day, what animal would you be?" She said, "I'd like to be a frog - because I don't like the cold. And frogs can go in the ground and sleep all winter."
     But, the winter ended long ago. And now in late spring - since I try to get a few hours of sunlight each day - my body sometimes gets too hot, like a hot-tempered fireball. This was bad for students on one occasion, when I started kicking out misbehaving or lazy students.
     "I'm sorry, teacher. I didn't prepare anything," said a chubby and kind boy, when I called on his group to perform theater in English.
     Upset, I asked why he hadn't used the forty minutes I'd given them to prepare. I tried to kick him out thrice, but he pleaded with me, saying he wanted to stay. Finally, I had to say, "I'm the teacher, and I don't want you in my class. Please leave now!"

"While teaching: Stand firm with what you plan to do. You're the teacher! You're in charge! Don't willow." - J.Breen philosophy (2007)

"I won't teach a man who is not anxious to learn" - Confucius

Shortly after he left, my fiery mood went from angry to sad, and I wanted to cry for that poor, kind, chubby boy I'd so cruelly kicked out.
     Two days after that, I spent an intimate few hours with a cute girl - something that always calms me. I walked beneath the evening lights of Yantai's social seaside esplanade with "Sleeping Girl", a hillarious student who mainly talks about how she wishes she was sleeping. Like many Chinese women, she's also tiny and dependent, and she held my hand to get over some rocks, and she said she likes bicycles - not riding them herself, but sitting on the back while her father pedals.
     And she'd been in the class during which I kicked her class-mates out. She said: "We were scared. When a Chinese teacher gets mad, we know what to do. But, when our foreign teacher is angry, we don't know what to expect."
     Hmmm. Maybe I should stop trying to make the shy Chinese students perform theater ...
     Fortunately, almost all of my classes go very well. In one class, we had a conversation about university life, and I learned a lot when I asked, "Many people put pressure on you to go to college. Do you think this is fair?"
     The students who responded said that, during high school, most of them had to live at their schools and study from morning to midnight, seeing their families only once every two weeks. They were told to get the highest scores on the tests so they could go to university, but, of course, only the smartest students could do so.
     After university, they will enter a frighteningly competitive job market. It is their duty to succeed, so they can support their parents throughout old age, and prepare to have a family of their own.
     They feel this duty despite the fact that many students - including Sleeping Girl - would describe their fathers in one word: "strict". Also, when our class topic has been "Childhood Memory", many students say their fathers never spent much time with them, because they were always working.
     Each student who answered my question said he felt the pressure was, in fact, fair.
     Fair or unfair, this pressure - and the worries and ambitions that stem from it - seems to inhibit the young people of Ludong University. Their body language seems confined; their conversation cautious; their appearance too well-groomed and acceptable; their romantic interests practical and lacking impulse. Hmmm, is that different from what I said after first arriving in China? I can't remember ...
     In some parts of the world (Europe, the former Soviet Union, even South America and the United States), people living closer to the Equator are said to be warmer, more care-free, more passionate.
     Recently, two of my co-worker Sophie's students invited her and me to lunch. One of the students was a girl from China's southernmost province, Hainan (a name meaning "Sea South"), an island that drops off China like a panda's poop. Even so, it's supposed to be lovely.
     I've taught a student or more from Hainan before. But, this small girl - Pen Shao a.k.a. Shao Wei - had a big, natural attitude.
     Her long dark hair swayed freely, with a wildness similar to her character. One of her two small front teeth was stained. Her brown-skinned spirit, in a loose t-shirt and open blouse and well-worn jeans, walked with a bounce.
     In the noodle restaurant, she sat with her left leg over her right knee, and hunched with a friendly confidence towards Sophie and me. Her English wasn't as good as that of her roommate, "Lily", but she talked with no apprehension, and she made no effort to make her English perfect. She just wanted to talk. She laughed, a wise-ass Italian mobster's laugh with a girl's breath, at everything.
     Lily and Shao Wei - who'd both worked part-time at this restaurant - ordered for us: a cucumber dish; tomato and eggs; a mollusk-and-tofu soup; noodles and beef; soft drinks; and the following barbecued meats ... pork, lamb, pork belly, chicken kidneys, chicken wings, sea worms, and delicious shrimp, all seasoned with orange spice and cumin. Throughout the meal, Shao Wei picked up food and pushed it at Sophie and me. "Eat! Eat!"
     She quickly told Sophie and me, "I admire you," for having traveled overseas. And, later, she cutely wanted to complement my eyes.
     We asked if the people in Hainan were different from people in Yantai. She said, "The people in Yantai are clever. In Hainan, they are ... simple people."
     Later, I said I like simple people. "Like me!" smiling Shao Wei laughed. Ha ha. "Yeah," I agreed.
     She told Sophie that if the New Zealander would come to Hainan, she'd take her to "wanr" (to play). She said, "If you go to Hainan, you must ... eat a coconut."
     At one point, Lily got up from her seat and called out the window to a man who turned out to be Shao Wei's boyfriend. I figured he must be a university student. But, no; he was the noodle restaurant's cook/barbecuer. Lily said he's "very funny". And Shao Wei said, "My boyfriend's handsome!"
     Before our meal would end, I asked Shao Wei if she was a good student. She said she "used to be". But, now, she's not so good anymore.
     Lily and Shao Wei paid for the meal. Sophie and I hoped they'd gotten a good employee discount, so they didn't spend all the money they'd earned. Sophie's students went to hang out with the funny-cook/handsome-barbecuer, and we teachers said, "Thanks!"
     Especially when they shove barbecued shrimp in my face ...
     I love simple people.

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