Milk Cart

Monday mornings at Ping Gang Zhong Xue (and at schools all throughout China, I believe) include a national flag raising ceremony. All the students line up in their blue and white uniforms, and the teachers, who wear white shirts and black pants, line up in the middle, so that the entire school is present in the courtyard. Six older male students marched with the flag toward the flag pole, attached it to the line, threw it up with a flourish, and then pulled it to the top of the pole as the Chinese national anthem played.

Since today is the first day of school, albeit a Wednesday, the flag raising ceremony occurred at 7:45am this morning, followed by a speech by our school’s principal, of which I understood about ten words. I stood in the perpetually thick air with the sun beating overhead, sweat trickling down my back, legs, chest, and just about everywhere else, as the students and teachers around me lifted their voices in a–surprisingly quiet, considering their numbers–rendition of the anthem. I slept fitfully last night and the long minutes of an unfamiliar language lulled me into a dream state.

One of the English teachers, Shirley, asked me at lunch if I thought the Chinese language was beautiful. I said something about how interesting it was to listen to speeches when you don’t know the language, and how you can only really pay attention to tone and cadence. That was my diplomatic way of saying no, I do not think that Mandarin is a beautiful language. I think it is an intensely interesting, complex, and rewarding language to study, and I think the written language quite beautiful, but the sounds, to me, are not pretty. They are harsh, and the common way of speaking here is LOUD. That doesn’t detract from the language, but it also doesn’t make it, to my ear, beautiful. I don’t want to misapply words that will idealize the study of something that I hope to use in a real-world, practical way.

I do not think English is an inherently beautiful language, either. At least not on the “Hi, how are you?” level, which is where I am with Mandarin. English and Mandarin are similar in that regard. I imagine that there are passages of written Mandarin and oral speeches that are absolutely breathtaking in the way the words speak to one another, the way the sounds come out of a human mouth. I know the same is true for English, but I am nowhere near that point in my study of Mandarin, so until then, nope! Not a beautiful language.

I taught two classes today. After breakfast in the school canteen and the flag raising ceremony, I went to my office on the first floor, where my cubicle awaited me. My contact teacher, Rambo (yes, his English name is Rambo) and my fellow CTLC teacher, Michael, have their cubicles in the nicer, bigger, and cleaner office upstairs. I am one of only two English teachers in the office downstairs, but I don’t mind. Laura, the other English teacher, was very kind, and another teacher came over and hooked my computer up to the printer although he didn’t say anything to me at all.

Each morning, the milk cart comes through the offices. I have no idea why this is the case. Almost all Asians are lactose intolerant, because <insert science-y reason about genes and ancestors who didn’t eat dairy products>, so a milk cart seems absolutely ridiculous to me. The other teachers were really excited about it, though. Laura went a grabbed a little cardboard carton of milk for me and brought it to my desk. “These are for us!” she said. Hers was already open. I was amused, but I am a milk-drinker (I grew up on whole milk, and drink 2% or 1% now, but only to keep my girlish figure, since I like whole milk just as much as ever). I had assumed I’d hardly get milk at all in Asia, and then bam, a milk cart in my office. So I drank the milk. It was very, very sweet. I do not know if it was flavored with something, but it was different than normal milk at home. The carton said it was pasteurized, so at least there’s that. The flavor wasn’t bad–I think it was also very fresh. Is milk sweeter when it’s very fresh? The production date said it was just from yesterday.

I didn’t have class until 10:20am, and it was kind of agonizing to wait for two hours as my nerves became more and more frazzled. But once I got in the classroom, I felt much more relaxed. I remembered Beijing and what it felt like to be in front of a classroom for the very first time. Even though Beijing’s classroom held only 17 very bright students, and today’s classroom held 50 students who couldn’t understand a word I said, it wasn’t nearly as bad as that first day of training. I will be teaching 11 classes a week, with about 500 different students. My classes are at the Senior 1 level, whose ages are mostly 15-16. I’m teaching “Group A,” which is Senior 1 Classes 1-10. Class 1 is the best and brightest, on down the line to poor Class 10, who are apparently just drooling idiots, according to my contact teacher. An interesting thing about China is that they cut straight to the point: political correctness doesn’t exist here. It is refreshing in some ways and horribly offensive in others (for instance, if you’re overweight, especially if you’re female, you’re likely to be told that “Maybe you should go to the gym. Maybe you are a little fat.”)

Some of the students in Class 4 were already acting just a little unnecessarily aggressive in the way they were talking to me, presumably for laughs from their peers, but others were sweet, and we hobbled together through the first lesson in which I introduced myself, laid down the ground rules, and got to know them a little.

My second and last class of the day was with Class 1, who were markedly different in attitude and English skills from Class 4. They were so excited to have me as their teacher. They applauded me twice or three times, I can’t even remember why. Once because I told them I had written a book (I did not tell them that the book was neither published nor very good), and once because I said a tongue twister very fast? Job, who had come to visit me in my office before my classes started, kind of took charge of me. They called me Teacher Marie and kept telling me how beautiful I was, how much they liked me, etc. I could get used to that! Class 1 breezed through the lesson that had taken Class 4 all 45min of class, so I had them do a tongue twister race as well. Even after that, we had about five minutes left, so I let them ask me some questions and then Job and a girl named Eleven sang “Bleeding Love” by Leona Lewis at the end of class. They were avid to get up on the podium, and they sounded quite good. Job had been asking me what my favorite music was. He loves Lady Gaga–they all do. I was like, we have other national treasures besides Lady Gaga! Bob Dylan’s not half bad, you know!

After class, Job led the mob that wanted to take pictures of me with their cellphones. I felt like I was at a modeling shoot. “Thank you, Teacher. You are so beautiful!” I walked with them to lunch, but the teachers dine separately, so I met up with Rambo and Michael to eat in the cafeteria and meet and few more of the English teachers. I had an “Oh, duh” moment when a woman came up and introduced herself to me outside the canteen. Her name was Lisa, and once we were inside the canteen, Rambo told me she was the English group leader. I teasingly said, “Oh, she’s your boss!” And he said “Your boss, too!” I live here, and I work here. I had forgotten–it was only the third time I had been to my school, and the first time I was meeting so many of my colleagues and superiors. Michael and I were both done for the day after lunch. We took the city bus and were home by 1pm. That morning we had taken the school bus, which goes around to pick up both teachers and students!

Tomorrow I teach three classes–then I’m done for the week, because I drew the lucky straw and do not have to ever teach classes on Fridays! Soon I will have Chinese class on Friday afternoons, but it is a complete luxury to not have to teach for a three-day weekend. Also, because I teach each class once a week, I only need one lesson plan per week, except for Class 1, who I teach on both Mondays and Wednesdays. So I’ll need double the lesson plans for them, and the lesson plans will need to be harder to keep up with their advanced pace. They’re going to be a challenging but very fun group. Their enthusiasm is every teacher’s dream.

Some of my students’ funnier “English” names that I learned today: Janky, Sorry, Eleven, Candies. I don’t know how they got these names, but I’m determined to find out…

Hope all is well in the States. Today is my sister’s birthday, so happy 24th to Steph! I wish I could be there to celebrate. Love and miss you!


3 responses to “Milk Cart

    • The latter, of course! I told him that it was a Bible name. Our conversation after I understood his name was Job as in career, proceeded a little something like this:
      Me: That’s a Bible name!
      Job: Bible?
      Me: Um, like religion.
      Job: Religion?
      Me: Um, Christianity? In America, we have many religions. In China there are not so many.
      Job: Ohhhh.
      Me: Yes, your name is from the Old Testament. That’s the better Testament.
      Job: Testament?
      Me: I don’t know. The Old Testament gets a little crazy. Never mind.

      It is astonishingly hard to dumb down my language sometimes and then I speak too fast, lose them entirely, and start laughing because I’m a) embarrassed and b) amused that my brain even went there and thought it was appropriate to talk about the Old Testament to a kid who can just understand basic syntax. I’m losing my own command of English!

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