Sure, we cry too much about the air pollution. But this one’s darkly humourous, I promise.
I routinely ask the oldest classes, “How’s the weather?” while pointing out the windows. And they automatically take a glance and usually reply, “IT’S SUNNY!!!” (“Sunny” is their favourite. But they can do cloudy, raining, windy, snowing, hot, and cold, too.)
So today I ask them. They glance out the windows. “IT’S…” A couple weak “sunny”s peter out among the 30 students. They can’t tell if it’s sunny or cloudy.
Because even though it’s bright outside, THEY CAN’T SEE THE BLOOMIN’ SKY. There are no clouds, but it’s all grey, and where’s the sun?
Later I check, and every air quality monitoring station in the city is maxed out at 500:
Below 50 is “good”. At 100 we close all our windows and turn on all the DIY home air purifiers. At 300 the preschool cancels all its outdoor activities.
Monday was the first day of a new Chinese preschool school year.
And that pretty much sums it up. But I’ll share some special highlights below anyway.
First day of the school year means the opening ceremony. The school yard is ringed with parents (mostly grandparents) peering between the iron bars. We have to make a good impression.
As a 6’4″ foreign male at a preschool with an all-Chinese-female admin & teaching staff…
…I totally fit in.
This is where we teachers all pledged to do something, but I’m not sure what: Chinese sound systems are for noise, to make an event sound like a Big Deal, not for clearly amplifying sound so large numbers of people can understand what’s being said. Plus at the time I was thinking: Oh hey, so this is what Chinese do instead of placing one hand over your heart and raising the other palm-out…
The kids had to turn around and bow to the teachers: But only about 1/4 of them got the memo.
The Expensive English-speaking White Guy and the Obligatory English Song: (I want it noted in my annual review that my feet actually left the ground.)
“Foreign teachers” (外教) are the bottom of the Anglo-American expat barrel, I suspect even below 4th-rate amateur Russian models and, at this preschool, hovering somewhere in the vicinity of the only other males on staff: the cook, driver, and gate guards. And I’m pretty sure I don’t outrank the cook.
Interesting little One-Child Policy anecdote this morning.
I have to teach one preschool class this “Brothers and Sisters” song. So I took a poll: Who has a brother or a sister?
They were sort of confused by the question. Lots of hands went up. But their Chinese teacher and I both knew there was no way most of them had siblings. So we specified: No no no, brothers and sisters that are your parents’ kids, not your cousins.
Unlike the large families of generations past where everyone called their relatives by specific titles denoting maternal or paternal and older or younger (in relation to themselves and/or their parents), these OCP kids grow up calling all their cousins and random kids on the playground “brother” and “sister”. Not that I can really blame them, OCP or not:
After their Chinese teacher and I weeded out all the cousins (their full-time Chinese teacher knows anyway; I could have just asked her), it turned out only four of those thirty Mainland Chinese 5-&-6-year-olds actually have a biological brother or sister.
Our 4-year-old goes to an all-Chinese preschool, where I also teach. We’re the only foreigners. The 5 and 6-year-olds do this as a regular exercise routine:
It’s a song about complete devotion and loyalty to China, which in English could be “Dedication and Loyalty to the Country” or “Serve the Country with Utmost Loyalty”. The title is a reference to famous historical-mythical General Yue Fei’s tattoo. He was traitorously executed and posthumously has come to epitomize loyalty to China. The Wikipedia article is worth a read, as this song has all kinds of historical/cultural associations.
Here’s the mp3 and Chinese lyrics (mouseover for pronunciation!) with English translation (mostly someone else’s). Music videos here (youtube) and here (youku).
精忠报国 by 屠洪纲
The fire beacon rises, look toward the rivers and mountains of the north 龙起卷马长嘶剑气如霜
Dragons’ puffs and horses’ neighs are like blows of a frosted sword 心似黄河水茫茫
Hearts as boundless as the water of the Yellow River 二十年纵横间谁能相抗
Who defies the length and breadth of the past twenty years? 恨欲狂长刀所向
Wild hatred where my sword points 多少手足忠魂埋骨它乡
Countless brothers, loyal souls, bones buried in unfamiliar lands 何惜百死报家国
What regret is it to die a hundred times protecting family and country? 忍叹惜更无语血泪满眶
Enduring sighs of regret, speechless, tears of blood fill the eyes 马蹄南去人北望
Horses’ hooves go south, the people look toward the north 人北望草青黄尘飞扬
Toward the north the grass yellows, dust flying up 我愿守土复开疆
I’m willing to guard this territory and re-claim the land 堂堂中国要让四方来贺
Grand China will make all sides bring tribute
Many people in the west believe that Chinese are in general motivated by an irrational nationalism cultivated by the communist party to secure its political hold on the country. This is why some of the protests by Chinese nationals overseas have been labeled as “rebirth of the red guards”. Personally, I think this misunderstanding reflects a lack of knowledge about Chinese history, which in the thousand years past have been filled with foreign invasions and civil wars. We Chinese are peace lovers, but our own history has taught us that unification as a country, especially in the face of foreign threats has always been the prerequisite for a peaceful life.
This music video is by the singer Tu HongGang, who was trained as a Beijing opera singer, but turned into a pop singer in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The song is entitled 精忠报国, which translates to ‘dedication and loyalty to the country,’ or ‘serve the country with the utmost loyalty.’ The phrase by itself originates from the story of Yue Fei, “a famous Chinese patriot and military general who fought for the Southern Song Dynasty against the Jurchen armies of the Jin Dynasty. Since his political execution by the traitor Qin Hui, Yue Fei has evolved into the standard model of loyalty in Chinese culture.” According to legends, his mother tattooed these four characters across his back before he left home to join the army in 1122. More on his story can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yue_Fei
Note the first picture on the right, which shows the statue of Yue Fei, from the Yue Fei Mausoleum in Hangzhou. The four characters on his banner say, Huan Wo He Shan , or “Give back my rivers and mountains”.
I love the song (and the singer!) very much, I feel it echoes much of the patriotism which Chinese holds as part of our cultural identity.
More Chinese music (many with lyrics & guitar chords!):
The Chinese teachers took these on my phone during class when we were practicing for the preschool’s New Year’s show (I’m a preschool rock star in China). Ages 4-5 and 5-6, each video is a different class. (China users will need a VPN to see them, except for this one that made it to Youku.)
To really get a feel for the actual experience, turn your speakers all the way up and watch these videos on repeat. For three hours straight. Every morning. For a month.
We Wish You a Merry Chinese Preschool Christmas
We Wish You a Merry Chinese Preschool Christmas AGAIN
We Wish You a Merry Chinese Preschool Christmas YET AGAIN
My five-year-old niece in Canada started preschool two days a week when she was four. What’s often translated as “preschool” (幼儿园) in China starts when kids are two or three years old, all day five days a week. And if there’s a part-time foreign monkeyteachernative-English-speaking Caucasian, then it’s a “bilingual” preschool, and there better be an English part to the New Year’s show. Which is why crowds of Chinese three-year-olds yell We Wish You a Merry Christmas at me most mornings in December. :)
Last Friday I started teaching a month-long EFL “Winter Camp” program for nine Beijingers aged 8-13 who arrived the night before. We have English class in the mornings and field trips in the afternoons. They’re all staying with Canadian families and it’s a shocking cultural adventure for them. Almost everything is different. It’s rare to get a group this “fresh”, and I plan to have fun with it.
We’re using a classroom in a posh local private school that is pretty impressive even by Canadian standards, so the facilities and grounds are really nice; they were awed by the interactive white board, for example. But they were also excited just to walk down the hall to the bathroom, armed with their cameras, taking photos of everything from the vending machines to the high school classes in session with their doors open. I’ve taught this kind of EFL gig before, and sometimes the kids have already traveled so much that being in a developed Western country isn’t so special, but not these kids. They’re apparently doing this kind of thing for the first time. I felt like a celebrity in the classroom with all the cameras aimed at me.
I’ve decided to keep the fact that I can speak basic Mandarin a secret from them for as long as I can, so I can listen in on their conversations as much as I can. Between my limited Mandarin, my teaching responsibilities, and the fact that four excited 12-year-old girls babbling away at once is hard to decipher in any language, I don’t get to tune in to their conversations near enough to satisfy my curiosity, never mind pausing to scribble down notes of what I hear. But it’s still funny what I do catch.
Friday morning was their first morning in Canada after their first night and breakfast with a Canadian family. Before class started they were animatedly telling one another about how BIG everything in their homestays’ house is, even the bookshelves. Then they were talking about what they were fed for breakfast and what was packed in their lunches, how it was either gross or they didn’t know what it was. It was funny in its own right, but extra funny to hear the “foreigner” experience in reverse. We’ll see what the next month brings!
Other experiences of teaching Chinese students in Vancouver:
It started with an unengaged substitute teacher, escalated with white kids throwing unprovoked juice boxes and insults at the Chinese kids, peaked with a fistfight between one of my Chinese tutoring students and two local black kids, and ended (hopefully) with a two-day suspension from school. My student ended up with a long, nasty scratch across his shoulder and chest.
I get that cafeteria scuffles will happen, and that race is only one factor among many and perhaps not even the main one. But the local students were swearing at the ESL kids in Chinese — they’ve been around Chinese classmates enough to pick up the swear words. It’s his first semester in Canada, but it’s not the first time he’s been randomly accosted for being Chinese. Getting cursed at in your own language by passing locals seems to me to be a little bit worse than having random Chinese people yell “老外！” at you.
Since we’re back in Vancouver, Canada for a few months I’ve picked up some ESL tutoring students. This one, like many, came to Vancouver to finish high school because his parents knew he wouldn’t do well on the 高考, the Chinese college entrance exam. He’s in a grade 11 ESL program at a local public school, with generally poor English, and it’s interesting to hear him relate his fight at school yesterday from a second-language, only partially-understood perspective (for example, he knows he was being taunted and challenged but doesn’t know exactly what they said to him, aside from the Chinese swear words). But it also makes me rethink about the experiences of Chinese students in Canadian schools. I don’t want to imagine what kind of impression he and his mom are getting.
I assume that my white majority perspective, growing up and being educated in a multicultural environment, maybe gives me a rosier-than-reality view of the current Asian Canadian racial experience in Vancouver. I’m not accusing Vancouverites of being exceptionally racist; although I think we’re generally much less civilized than we think we are, it was just one schoolyard scuffle, and I didn’t notice any racism when I was a white student among a large minority of Indians and Asians. But incidents like that of my student yesterday start me wondering if perhaps some of the sunshine and rainbows of our multicultural utopia shine a little less brightly for the immigrants and international students than they do for us in the white majority.
More about Asian Canadian and ESL student experiences: