Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 6 -- In the Classroom

"All human nature is similar."

At various times, I considered each of these as a complete, stand-alone story. But I couldn't find a way to expand them to feature length. So here's a grab bag collection of war stories from the English-teaching frontier:

International Crime 101

It's surprising the things I get asked during my English classes. I find myself having to be an expert on many more subjects than just English.

In addition to my regular classes, I also have to teach "Global Club," a free discussion forum. Students meet together with an English teacher to practice their conversational skills.

One night, I was at a loss for a topic to jump-start the discussion. The students were sitting around the table with their notebooks and pens ready, faces expectant.

Finally, I had an idea. I said, "Tonight's topic is 'American Business Slang.' Is there anything your foreign colleagues have said to you that you just didn't understand?"

The reaction was immediate:

"Yes! What does 'card up my sleeve' mean?"

"Why do Americans always say 'Are we on the same page?' What book are they talking about?!"
"My partner says 'We have to go back to the drawing board' but I don't know where it is!"

It was like opening a floodgate. These Chinese businesspeople had been so confused for so long, that at the first opportunity for answers they buried me in questions.

I slogged through that session for an hour. But they didn't want to stop. I think they were afraid that if they didn't ask questions now, they'd never be able to get the answers again.

For the second round, they asked me to decipher the corporate-speak they read in American business magazines. I explained terms like horizontal integration, vertical integration, diversification, and core strengths. They had read American CEOs talking about these things and they wanted to know what they meant.

I usually keep this a secret, but I'm actually very interested in business and investing (My love of travel and movies is public knowledge). Talking about money can be distasteful to some, but my students had no such qualms. It was a lucky thing I had done reading in the areas my students were interested in.

Just when I thought I was done, a student blindsided me by asking, "What is money laundering?"

That caught me by surprise. I gathered my wits and said it was the process of turning illegal money into legal money.

"How do you do that?" the student asked.

"Uh, do all of you really want to know this stuff?" I asked.

A sea of heads nodded.

I shrugged; gotta give the customers what they want. I picked up a marker and started writing on the dry-erase board. I remembered what I'd read in spy novels and in a book on tax evasion.
I began by saying, "Drug dealers have traditionally been the pioneers in money laundering . . ."

Pens scribbled furiously on notebooks thereafter.

Dance, too much booty in the pants!

Although most of my students are working adults, there are a few younger people who attend. They're usually students preparing to study abroad in English-speaking countries.

Mandy is an 18-year-old girl getting ready to study in Australia. America was actually her first choice, but it's too tough to get a student visa there. England was too expensive, and Canada was too cold. So she's heading down under.

One day she came to class wearing a bandana that B-boys and B-girls wear. I got excited and said, "I didn't know you could breakdance!"

She blinked and said, "What is breakdancing?"

My heart dropped like a rock. Those were the saddest words ever. I tried to tell her about breakdancing, but she didn't get it.

This required drastic measures. I pushed the table and chairs out of the way. I told her, "It looks like this." I dropped to the floor and exploded into the six-step for the first time in months. I was wearing a starched shirt and tie at the time; I must have looked crazy.

Mandy bolted up out of her chair and exclaimed, "Oh yes! That's jie wu ["Jay woh"]!"

I still wonder if she pretended not to know, just so she could sample my skills.

The Great Wall of Babble

I was teaching adverbs of frequency (usually, frequently, etc.) when it came time for the discussion at the end of each class. The book suggested comparing what Americans usually do and what Chinese usually do. That seemed safe enough.

I should have known better.

I said, "Americans usually drink coffee. What about Chinese?"

Sibyl, another student gunning for Australia, answered, "Chinese usually drink tea."

It went like that for a while with each student getting a turn. Near the end I asked, "Do Chinese usually study English?"

"Yes," Sibyl answered. "Now Chinese children are even studying English from kindergarten!"

I was impressed. If they keep that up, they'll know English better than we do. Pronunciation was still their biggest obstacle, though.

I was about to move on when Sibyl asked, "And do Americans usually study Chinese?"

Dead silence. All the students looked at me. Oh crap, how do I answer that? I decided honesty was the best policy, another mistake.

"Um, no."

It was like throwing a switch. Resentment came off the students in waves.

"But we have to spend years studying your language!" Sibyl protested. "Why won't you study ours?"

I mumbled some lame answer about how most Americans will never visit China, and even if they did, their tour guides would speak English.

That went over really well. Now all the students were frowning at me. I wish I could describe how horrible I felt at that moment. Almost as bad as the time I vomited on my Dad's boss.

Finally, someone said something. "Can you speak any Chinese?" Sibyl demanded.

I meekly said, "Hui yidiandian Putonghua." [I speak a little Mandarin]

All their jaws dropped. They looked at me in shock. The ignorant waiguoren was studying Chinese!

Sibyl started to giggle. Pretty soon the whole room was roaring in laughter. They had forgiven me. Whew, that was a close one. I like to think I rescued China-U.S. relations that day.