The American Boy’s First Week of Chinese Primary School
School starts in China on Sept. 1. It always starts on Sept. 1. Never mind that Sept. 1 is a Sunday. That is the first day of school. Pretend it is a Friday, they say. It will be just like Friday, they assure me. What am I? An idiot American who can’t figure out that after a Friday we all get two days of break? Sunday is not a Friday unless there are two days after Sunday where you don’t go to school. That didn’t happen. I refuse to think of Sunday as a Friday.
Really, this was a week of two Mondays. They just called the Sunday Friday to make everyone feel better.
Consequently, it has been a looooong week for Mr. Z but he has maintained his cheer and good disposition, a much bigger person than I would be about an extended first week of school.
The school orientation was on Friday (the real Friday, not the “fake Friday” that was really Sunday). Friday was registering, standing in line, meeting the teacher. On Saturday, we reported to school at 9 a.m. to locate his classroom and meet his classmates. It was a bit overwhelming: fifty raucous children corralled into a small classroom; one teacher with a microphone to be heard over the din. Z was assigned a desk at the back, everyone craning to see the new kid, an American no less. You can see in this photo the discomfort of that particular situation.
The photo was taken exactly 30 minutes before Z bolted from the classroom without so much as a backward glance. When I tracked him down and asked why he broke out, he said, “Everyone else had books and I didn’t.” Fair enough, but you simply can’t fly out of the classroom without telling the teacher, bub. He went back in with his game face on and made it through the rest of the morning without incident (that I know of).
When school was dismissed at 11 a.m. that day, we went to buy the books. Luckily, Tiantian offered to go with us, otherwise I would still be looking for the bookstore. After two bus transfers and considerable walking, we found the store on the other side of Xi’an. The line to buy books wound all the way around the fifth floor of the store, hundreds of people buying school books for their elementary students. It reminded me of the registration line at UN-L in the 1980s (no computer, just insanely long lines snaking outside the building and across the quad).
By the time we bought the books and got back home, it was near 5 p.m. A quick dinner and then we had to go back out to do the local shopping for pens, paper, pencils, notebooks, glue, scissors, computer lab booties (no dust in the lab), and neckerchief. Home by 8:30 and fall into bed.
The next day (first full day of school): No rest for the wicked (in my case) or the weary (in Z’s case). Up and out the door at 7:30 a.m. (did I tell you it was Sunday? That just seems wrong, doesn’t it?).
I was not prepared for the crunch at the school gate. The crowd of parents dropping off 2,500 school children (K-6) all at the same time rivals Best Buy’s doors opening the day after Thanksgiving. Think Husker Stadium on football Saturday without the beer, but with half the crowd being under the age of 10. Think thousands of parents trying to either a) jostle and shove their wee one close enough to the gate to get through or b) crane to see above the jostling horde to watch the opening ceremonies inside the gate.
The parents were about ten people deep by the time we got close. I pushed Z through a hole in hips and elbows and growled, “Go! Go!” like some stupid football parent. He made it in. I think. I don’t know this for a fact, but I assume so since when I went to pick him up at the end of the day, he was marching in line with the other children.
Day one: Holy Cow! Is it always this crazy?
Xidian Primary School Protocol:
- School uniforms = sailor outfits with red Chairman Moa scarves.
- Tai Chi line up at 8 a.m.
- Marching and chanting formations before school begins and right before being let out to go home.
- Eye and head self-massage exercises between classes.
- Standing up and greeting teachers; sitting when told.
- Hands folded on desks; desks facing forward; no slouching in chairs.
- Cleaning duties for each classroom. This week it was sweeping for Z.
- School dismissed at 4:30, but next week “extended hour” begins, so school dismisses at 5:30.
- Typical day = four 45 minute classes in the morning (with 10 minute breaks where everyone is unleashed onto the sports field for 10 minutes of manic play; 2,500 children all on one field; no teachers, just kids); three 45 minute classes in the afternoon. Every day there are two sessions of Chinese (reading and writing) and one session of math. Every other day, two sessions of both Chinese and math. Other subjects: social studies, character building, handwriting, English, art, computer, music.
- Every day homework. Two to three hours is the standard. Z doesn’t do all his homework because it takes us forever to decode the Chinese. Even the simplest math story problem: “Little monkey has five bananas. Big monkey has 7.5 bananas. In the basket there are 15 bananas. What is the ratio of Little monkey’s bananas to the basket? What about Big monkey?” takes us about 30 minutes to decode. In the end, tears welling in my eyes, I say, “Maybe Big monkey should stop eating so many damned bananas. And where did the other half banana go, anyway? Huh?” Most nights we can’t decode the string of tiny characters that allegedly create the story problems. I give up and we slump off to bed. I dream of Chinese characters, hunting me down with sharp kitchen implements, impaling bananas as they come for me.
After that many hours of intense education, even the Chinese kids come out of the school gate looking pistol-whipped and punch drunk. Yesterday at the end of the day I saw a little girl carrying the bottom half of her school uniform, wadded up in a ball under her arm. I see London. I see France. Who the hell cares at this point? Rough day at school.
Despite the huge paradigm shift, Z really enjoys going to school. He loves being in the thick of all the children and everyone has been extremely kind and accommodating. He has a chum who calls herself (for Z’s sake) “Helen.” Helen sits a couple rows in front of Z and speaks a bit of English, so she translates what she can when Z has questions. Z calls Helen “My one-woman posse.” At the end of the day, Helen squeezes up to me, her arm slung over her girlfriend’s shoulder and peeps, “Hello! Auntie!” Big grin. “Thank you for being such a good friend to Zeph, Helen.” Bigger grin. Helen is a real peach.
One more day of school this week, which literally was a full week, spending time at school from Friday to Friday without a break. I think Z is mightily looking forward to a couple days of reading (English), relaxing, and slugging at home.
This is Zephaniah doing his daily chore in the classroom: sweeping (right). The photo to the left is after the first day of school: the Chinese salute.
Lunch with Students
Zephaniah made it through his first week of Chinese Primary school relatively well, but we were both glad when the end of Friday came. Both of us would have given large amounts of yuan for pizza delivered to our door on Friday night (I would have also sold off cherished belongings for a chin-deep, finger-wrinkling bath and a cold beer). Instead we settled for a quick dinner of scrambled eggs, hop-in-hop-out showers, and couch flopping. When we threw ourselves onto the couch, we were hoping to become quickly catatonic in front of the laptop screen watching slap-stick comedy on Netflix (Z’s favorite = Beakman’s World, a 1990s kids science show with a whacky scientist whose sidekick is a roughed up rat who belches garlic and wears a large gold pinkie ring). Unfortunately, the internet connection was too slow and nothing would load. We settled for zoning out to Chinese cartoons on the flat screen, drifting in and out of consciousness before crawling off to bed.
We turned down invitations to scout out more new and interesting places in Xi’an to stay in our pajamas all day Saturday and Sunday. We needed that sort of weekend.
Photo: Xidian faculty at art opening
This week we were rested and ready to launch into the week: Z’s second week of school, my third. On Wednesdays, after morning classes, I was ferried off to lunch by my female students. There are only four women in that class, Written English for third year students. There are far fewer women at Xidian University, the ratio being 7:1 males to females, because it is an engineering and technology university and good, old-fashioned sexism is alive and well. Females are – as they are in the states – steered away from science, engineering, and technology.
The first week of classes, I fully intended on eating lunch on my own (I had packed a sandwich in my bag and figured I would grab a coke and spend the time preparing for my afternoon class). I quickly learned that was unacceptable. The four women students descended on me at the end of class and assumed they were taking me to lunch. When I expressed surprise and told them I had brought my lunch, they were aghast and adamant: a “cold” lunch (sandwich) was extremely unhealthy. I had to have a hot lunch, and off we went to the student cafeteria for noodles.
|Juan, Tiantian, and Kay|
No wonder I am the weak and anemic specimen I am, having eaten “cold” lunches most of my adult life. It is amazing I am still walking around upright most days.
By now, I have come to love these lunches with my female students. They are chatty and delightful and they are helping me (or trying to help me; I may be a lost cause) with my Chinese pronunciation and vocabulary building. They teach me new words and phrases each week and then the next week diligently quiz me on the lessons from the week before.
And, I have to admit, hot lunches of noodles with vegetables or rice and tofu, are so very much better than a peanut butter sandwich. Yesterday we had rice, tofu, pumpkin and cooked cabbage. It was delicious. As my students have taught me to say: Wo chi hen hao le (I have eaten well – an expression of content and appreciation akin to “that was delicious”).
I am their Eliza and they are my Prof. Higgins: how to use chopsticks like the lady they are bent on making me become, how to say those pesky “x” sounds without looking ridiculous, how to walk with a parasol or umbrella. Mostly I simply delight at the quick conversations between themselves and how they then turn to me and stumble through the English or slow it way down to 3-4 simple words for me to listen to, respond, repeat with appropriate pronunciation. Pygmalion in the middle of China in the throes of the raucous din of a college canteen at noon.
Here is my lunch bunch, throwing gang signs. I asked them why young people in China are always doing weird things with their fingers during the photo opportunity. They just laughed, clearly a cover-up for serious gang activity.
|Sallon, Kay, Yan, Nan, and Meng.|
News flash: Z has settled on his Chinese name: Xi (flat tone) Xiang (scooped) Xiang (flat). It means “Rare Imagination.” The Chinese are telling him the first character cannot be Xi. It is ridiculous and unheard of to have the first character be Xi. Xi is simply not a “family name” in China and the first character is always a family name. Just so you know, family names are incredibly important. There are thousands of family names, but 100 that matter a great deal. A friend recently told me that one of the exercises that children in kindergarten have to engage in (rote memorization is big in the Chinese educational system) is memorizing those 100 family names in order of prominence. I asked her why. She looked at me like I was nuts. “Why what?” “Why would anyone want to memorize them in order of importance? Why is that important? Who cares?” Stupid, stupid American.
What would be the American equivalent of this? Some jump rope rhyme to “Rockefeller, Kennedy, Onassis, Hearst, Winfrey, Gates, Edison, Roosevelt (Eleanor), Wright, Adams (Jane and John), Chavez, Huerta, Washington . . .” Who would we include? People with money? Inventors? Social activists? Artists/musicians? How would we decide? And how in the world would be decide what order the names should be in (order of importance to whom)? But the 100 family names in China are set. There is no questioning them, or their order. Just to see if this was true, I have asked a couple Chinese friends to recite the 100 names for me. They can do it. It is locked into their grey matter for easy recall, a chant from kindergarten. But “Xi” (pronounced Zee, appropriately enough) is not one of those names.