"China 2010" story # 13

Yantai, China           July 10, 2010

"Good job!" said Ya Hui, her flower-fragile figure in a short, cylindrical dress, as she and her roommate dined in my apartment. She pointed her hands at me and clapped.
     "I learned that from you," her pursed, pale lips said in English.
     Oh, no!! I felt quite embarrassed, as I realized then that I must've said, "Good job," and clapped, nearly every single time one of my students spoke in class. Motherly Ya Hui, of course, meant no ill will by pointing it out.
     But, during my last six days of classes, I felt like an idiot whenever I said my catch-phrase - which was still a lot, because it helped me to quickly silence a talking student so I could move to the next one.
     It was on the first day of July - as feathery leaves of carefree trees leaned over university roads, creating a canopy of green-white-and-pink-fluffball flowers - that I gave my last class to students fanning themselves.
     Around this time, I began to recall the most fun moments I had teaching.
     Once, as we were playing "English-language charades", it was the turn of a boy whose eyes seemed blurry, because his Western comprehension was so bad. He picked a word from my hat, saw that it read, "pas", breathed a sigh of relief, and went to return to his seat. Wait a minute! I turned the word rightside-up: "sad". There weren't any "passes" in this game, silly boy! He needed to explain his word to the class, but he just stared blankly. So, I wrote, "It is the opposite of happy," on a paper, and told him to say it. He struggled through the first two words. Then, he got to the third word and froze. He was flabbergasted. I helped him out: "the". "Oh," he said. Man, was I a good teacher! So ... then, I simply wrote, "not happy." He said those two words, and the class guessed, "Sad!"
     Happily, I led the class in giving him a big applause.
     "Good job!!"
     Also, there were a few funny questions in the "trivia game" I had my students compete in.
     "How many months is a woman pregnant for?" was one of them. The students' first answer was always: "ten". But, being a Westerner, I would only accept "nine". It was quite amazing, for both the students and for me, to learn that Chinese women and American women give birth after different lengths of time.
     "What is one-hundred-and-eighty-seven plus seven-hundred-and-ninety-one plus fourteen?" This one was hillarious, as it was very difficult for the students to correctly hear the question, and I sometimes got a dozen incorrect answers in a row. "1018?" No. "991?" No. "982?" No. "182?" No. "556?" No. "5001?" What!? No! "279?" Not even close. "992!" Yep. Good job.
     "What came first - the chicken or the egg?" was one of my long-answer questions. Usually, the student's response would be an impossible-to-follow speech that sounded like: "chicken ... because if there wouldn't be a ... egg ... blah-blah-blah ... egg ... blah-blah-blah ... the chicken comes from the egg, so ... chicken ... egg ... no chicken, no egg ... I think that ... chickens are mothers, and I want to be a good mother, so ... dinosaurs ... they evolutioned from ... and that's why I think ... egg ... chicken ... 1012? ... came first." Good job. Clap, clap, clap.
     And many of the best moments came while students presented on their "dream trips".
     Liu Xiaoyu, a round and happy boy I'd played basketball with before, said he'd like to go ... "to paradise, because I've never been there before." Me too.
     A Samoan-looking boy, with a jelly belly and tanned dark skin, came to the podium once, and his wiggly mouth and squinting eyes created a proud smile that made everyone laugh. He said he'd like to go "to the South Pole, because it's cold, and I can explore. The (sled) dogs will be my friends."
     A tall, light-skinned boy said he'd go "to a place where there are no people, and I can sleep in a tree. I'd bring a knife with me, and eat wild animals. I'd stay there for a year, and I wouldn't miss home, because I like to be alone."
     A girl said, "I'd like to go to a lake. And in the middle of that lake, there's an island. And on that island, there's a house. The house is made out of wood. Around the house, there are many flowers and plants. And nearby, there's a mountain I can climb. If possible, I'd like to stay there forever."
     And, finally, a boy whom I'd described in my notes as "a happy, smiling Brazilian" volunteered to present. This brown-skinned, mostly hairless boy had a wide smile so happy it seemed he'd never been bothered to think or fret, his whole life. I doubted he spoke English, but his eyes were always wide and excited when I taught him. He was perfectly adorable.
     He said, "I want to have a spaceship, and I will travel all over the universe. I will be an explorer, and I will visit the strange planets." With his innocent face, he turned to me and said, "Would you like to go with me?" Caught off-guard, by this adorable astronaut, I felt sad that I'd be finishing my teaching job soon. "Yeah," I said; of course I'd explore the galaxy with him.
     This angelic boy would come to a dance party, thrown before my departure from the city of Yantai, and he did a handstand that lasted a minute.
     Coastal Yantai's performance was not as impressive. But, it did have some dreamy places. On the city's Zhifu Island, I was taken on a hike which led me through green, hilly pastureland. At the top of the hill, I suddenly saw sparky ocean in front of me, the rounded white rocks of a beach directly below me, and two towering cliffs to either side. Wow! It was a steep walk down to the beach. There, I could admire the cliff faces, which had horizontal stripes and cuts all across them - not vertical ones - apparently, the earth must've thrust the cliffs sideways at some time. I could also swim amongst the jaggy rocks.
     Elsewhere, near the downtown's salt-winded esplanade, I found beautiful city streets. They were dimly lit at night; kind of spooky. Some of the connected houses were old, dark-brown brick; others were concrete with triangular second-story roofs and Hansel-and-Gretel flower patterns; most had wooden windows open on the top floors. Modest shops advertised "seafood restaurant" in bright, Chinese characters; other guys barbecued tiny skewers of meat for those customers seated at sidewalk tables. Cars seldom came by. These streets represented the Yantai I'd imagined, before coming.
     I visited those streets my last two nights in Yantai, while saying good-bye. The people I said good-bye to gave me many gifts. Some of the best were: a "LiNing"-brand soccer ball; an assortment of tea; a Bruce Lee poster; a Tibetan-fish necklace; a Tibetan money-pouch made out of hemp, decorated with the green eyes of a woman whose nose was a green question mark; a Chinese fan, decorated with roses and red-necked sparrows and calligraphy; and a letter from a class monitor named "Jack", which thanked me for my classes and ended with the line, "I'm sure your hard work and determination will carry you safely around the world."
     But, it was at the dance party where I said most of my good-byes.
     Students of mine from the geography department helped put it on. Two of these boys were from Xinjiang, the country's big northwestern province full of 20,000-ft. mountains and deserts and low depressions and a Muslim "Uigur" minority. And one tiny, butter-skinned, big-nosed girl - whom I danced a fast waltz with - was a rare (in Yantai) Tibetan! It was an unlikely dream that I'd visit all three of these students during my summer travels.
     After a lot of free dancing outside, I danced the last song with an unlikely partner - Rectina. She was the tall, confident class monitor who'd told me in class, she believed young people ought to be under heavy pressure. She and I had danced a lot together, actually, and the last song was a slow dance to UB40's "Kingston Town."
     Rectina said, "I don't think I ever danced before today."
     Good job.

Good-bye, guys and girls.

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