Thursday, August 29, 2013

Episode 2 of "Kay and Zeph go to China"

First Day of School
Zephaniah doesn’t start school until September 1. It’s a Sunday. That doesn’t matter. School always begins on Sept. 1 for primary school children, no matter what day of the week it is. University,
Zeph in his new classroom

however, began this week on Monday and I taught my first six hours of classes yesterday.
My students think I am hilarious. They laugh and laugh. I should start a career as an American Stand-Up Comic in China. All I need to do is have people write down their names and then I can try to pronounce them. Hours of entertainment in the form of tear-inducing hilarity.
I can’t pronounce Chinese names. As I was plowing through the class list, I imagined what I must be saying to get my students to laugh so. For the uninitiated, Mandarin uses four different tones to distinguish meanings of words. The word “tang,” for example, can mean soup, candy, to tell a lie, a runny nose, or hot, depending tone. Yesterday I was certain, really, really certain, that I was standing in front of a class of Chinese students, and calling out in all seriousness, “Mr. Sparkle Bottom? Is Mr. Sparkle Bottom here?” 

Embarrassed student: “No, no. It isn’t Sparkle Bottom. It’s Noble Dragon. I’m Noble Dragon.”
Me: “Oh! . . . “ (trying again) “. . . Sparkle Bottom. Is that right?”
Student: “No. No.” (gentle shaking of the head) “No. No-ble Dra-gon.”
Me: “Spark-le Bott-om? Is that right?” (clearly it isn’t). “OK. I can get it. Spar-kle Dra-gon?”
Student (brightening): “Yes! Almost! No-ble Dra-gon.”
Me: “OK. Spark-le Bott-om.”
Student (hanging his head in dismay): “Never mind. Just call me Eric.”
Me: “No! No! I want to get it! Noble Bottom? Is that right?”
The once simple activity of calling roll turned into an epic affair full of much laughter (students) and much embarrassing frustration (me). Some students had pity on me and gave me an English name to use. Others were out for the kill. They insisted I keep trying. Tried, I did. Succeed, so certain I did not.

Readers may think I am exaggerating my inability to hear tones. I assure you I am not. Just this week, in complimenting a friend, I told her she was “grotesque” rather than “kindhearted.” That is quite a big difference to a Mandarin-speaking person. To me, both words sound exactly the same. So, names like “Gentle River” become “poopy udder” with my atonal speaking; “Big Soul” becomes “magnificent turnip.” Lest you think I am a dunderhead with languages, I pride myself on being fluent in Arabic and French and, on most days, English. Because of this, I keep telling myself I will eventually learn Mandarin. After today, I believe I am entirely self-deluded. Tones are the devil.
In China, winning friends every time I open my mouth.

Because it was the first day, I thought I would give a little introduction about myself to my students about who I am. I don’t think they have had an American professor before, so perhaps they might be interested. I talked about where I was from and how I had spent my life so far. I said I had a son, but had never been married. In each class, a curious, bold student would ask, “How did you get your son if you have never been married?”

Hmmm. “Well . . . In China do you have people who donate blood?” Yes. Good. “Well, in the United States, there are men . . . who donate . . . sperm.” Confused expressions. “Do you know what sperm is?” And even as I am asking the question I am thinking to myself, “Take that back! Take that back! Why are you even asking your students, who you just met moments ago, what sperm is, you idiot!” I wasn’t about to explain the word, even if they didn’t know. Especially on my first day. A couple heads in the room nodded and, grateful and relieved, I quickly moved on to other subjects.
Nice introduction to the American English professor. Welcome, all. Our first new vocabulary word of the day is . . .

Yes, indeed. My classes were off to a great start. After my first class ended, a slip of a girl came up to me. I expected her to ask for clarification on the assignment (and not a review of new vocab). Smiling, and in halting English, she said, “I think . . . American women are . . . FAT . . . and ugly . . . .” I was assuming her remark was payback for me having called her something horrible in the attempt to pronounce her name an hour earlier. She continued, “But you aren’t!” (whew!).  Then she asked for a hug. A hug? Alright-y. Why not? This classroom already bears no resemblance to any sort of college experience I know of. Here is a big American hug, little lady, from your favorite un-fat, not-so-ugly, crazy – truly, truly crazy -- American English professor.

On my first day of being an American English professor in China, I also melted my water bottle. It was a water bottle from the Lawrence Kansas Humane Society. I loved that green, plastic water bottle enough to drag it around the world so I would have it in China. At the university there is only hot (as in really, really, who-needs-acid-when-you-have-water-this-hot, way more than scaldingly-hot) water that comes out of spigots – generally there is at least one of these spigots on each floor. There are no drinking fountains because the water out of the tap is not safe to drink; thus the microbe-killing hot water tanks. I filled up my bottle with the hot water from the spigot, walked back to my classroom, and placed it on the desk. When I turned back less than a minute later, the bottle looked like the Wicked Witch of the West, mid-melt, with a puddle of water creeping disastrously close to the computer. The water was still so hot that I burned my hands getting the bottle to the sink in the hall. Luckily, students had not yet arrived in class, so I saved myself from further student-humiliation. The universe must have decided I had already maxed out my quota of embarrassing moments for one day.
The first day was a wild ride. We will see who shows up to class next time.

I was so tired after Day One that last night I put hair conditioner on my toothbrush and didn’t even realize I was doing so until I was about a minute into brushing my teeth. 

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