Friday, July 5, 2013

My Pet Foreigner

It has been a long time since I addressed the topic of ‘foreigner’. I’ve mentioned it here and there, but I did make good on my word to not focus exclusively on the ‘foreigner phenomenon’ – part superstar, part freak for a day since that entry titled Beating a Dead Horse, posted in October 2010.

I’m not going to start whining again. I’ve gotten used to being labeled, stared at, randomly touched and photographed. Having let my hair grow out into its natural color I am no longer a human magnet distinguished with blonde locks, or even red locks.

No, this aspect of the phenomenon deals with those who would gain cachet – guan xi by their personally knowing a foreigner.

Long Ge and Lea, for example. Here I thought we were good friends. Turns out I was only welcome because of my foreign-ness. Additionally, the Lil’Uns school… I need to tell you how that played out.

The last week I taught there, Lea called to ask if I could come an hour earlier than my appointed 2PM start time. There was a potential new student and his parent to meet with. “No” I answered. Because that is how it starts, you see. Give in to coming in an hour earlier, and then next week it will be another hour early… please. Always so friendly. Always so polite. Because we are friends, don’t you know. And then we’ll be adjusting the teaching schedule. And then we’ll be adding classes. Ever so nicely, and with constant entreaties that we are friends… all while my enthusiasm is bled dry.

And how! I was already shunning social engagements and stressing on how to get this school off the ground. I have distinct ideas about how to form a total immersion curriculum and really wanted to make a go of it, but the parents’ demands that I mirror traditional Chinese teaching methods put the kibosh on that.

Showdown time. I confronted Lea. From the get go I was all business. So was she, ushering me into the study room for the day’s first teaching commitment. “No” I said. “We need to talk.” I told her that this situation is untenable. Teaching little ones who, for the most part don’t want to be there and make no effort to learn or pay attention is too much stress. Dealing with students who are intermediate speakers in the same group as students who do not know the alphabet is, at best difficult. Couple that with the fact that I do not know enough Chinese to instill discipline in the classroom and already I’m reaching for the Pepto Bismol… if I had any. I offered a compromise: I would continue to create the materials, but enlist Tony and/or Evan, both excellent English speakers, to teach.

Lea’s response: “We’ll give you a month off”.

Clearly she did not want me to throw in the towel. She said parents don’t want a Chinese teacher who speaks English because they are a dime a dozen. In my now suspicious mind I thought: it is perhaps because a Chinese speaker with good English skills would be able to understand the negotiations between Lea and the parents. I stuck to my guns and would not be deterred. I’m walking away whether anyone wants me to or not.  

During that last session, Lea did everything possible to keep things going. Like Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother she flung herself into ever greater paroxysms, pinwheeling and pivoting to make things happen the way she wanted them. Presumably due to my declaration that maintaining discipline in a regimented Chinese style class was impossible due to language complications, Lea took it upon herself to physically stand between me and my students while I was teaching in order to discipline them. Upon my assertion, mid-session, that I could literally feel my eye swelling due to my allergies, she assumed I was feeling too poorly to teach and just took over the class… while I was still standing there, trying to teach. It took everything I had to not simply walk out right then and there. The reason I didn’t was because I was owed money for the last 2 sessions.  

I am now persona non grata at their coffee house as well. I’m not a good foreigner. I’m not playing along. I guess I was supposed to hold court and let all manner of patrons, guests and visitors approach me, converse with me, etc.

I finally got that clue from the guy who complained to Long Ge that he was speaking to me in English and I was responding in Chinese. Right there in front of me, as though I were invisible or at least deaf. Surely he had to know I understood him, seeing as I was speaking Chinese with him.

In retrospect, I always wondered how that coffee shop could be empty, but then, within 15 minutes of my arrival, there is not a seat to be had and everyone is ‘coming on’ to me. I didn’t know I was being set up. I do now. I haven’t been back since.  

With the end of the school year I am getting invitations left and right to visit students’ hometowns. Students are taking pictures with me, inviting me to lunch, dinner, out on the town. Some students are attempting to invite themselves to my house.

I’m not averse to hosting the occasional party, as you well know. Students who are hard working and deserving do get invited. I don’t mind spending time with them, or money on them. Not extravagant sums. A lot of times it is more of a cooperation type deal: the kids bring food and I whip up some ‘foreigner’ dish that is cheap and easy and to mass produce.

This year I’ve led classes full of kids who displayed no interest whatsoever in learning anything. Constantly on their phones, playing games, chatting and chattering during class… several times I’ve grown hoarse trying to dominate the din. In one particular group, maybe only 6 students show any kind of interest. In this class I’ve had to patrol the room, instructing offenders to put away their cellphones. More than once, that happened. I’ve decided to take action should I be cursed with this miserable group again. But first I have to deal with their insistence that I host a party for them.

I should host a party for kids who, for the most part couldn’t care a flying fig about their studies?

Sure! Janie, the class monitor had assured her fellow students that the foreign teacher will throw a party for them. She told me Victor was supposed to last semester but ducked his obligation. Therefore it has fallen to me to invite everyone to my house. She made it sound as though it were my duty.

I’m ready to give anyone the benefit of doubt, so I met with Janie and a few of her classmates. I told her that I only host parties for deserving students. I felt her group showed extreme lack of decorum in class by being so disruptive, not only disrespecting me but cheating fellow classmates who actually want to learn something. In my outrage I think I even threw in something about disrespect for their parents, who are paying so much money for them to attend college. I continued by telling her I was prepared to compromise: maybe we could have a meal out somewhere, or go to KTV together. I was attempting to impress upon them that we should have a chance to get to know one another before I allow them to invade my home.  

Janie said they had already had meals out and gone to KTV. Maybe it would be a novelty for me because I’m foreign and surely I must not get out much… and then, while I was spluttering –what does this little twit know about me? - she explained that everyone thought I was so lovely and they are genuinely curious about Western life. That is why I should open my home to them. Feed them, allow them to prowl all over, paw through everything, take pictures at will… all to satisfy their curiosity. Oh, and I should feed them, too. One certain student piped up, saying she wanted to take pictures of everything I have to show her mother because her mother knows nothing of foreigners.

I see now that I am thought of as a ‘pet foreigner’… STILL. And I do find it disturbing… still.

While I have built genuine friendships here, still the idea prevails that I am an object of interest first, and a person second. I have grown wary of invitations to people’s homes, knowing that the fundamental reason for the invite is for that person to gain the esteem of their peers. I am even leery of Gary, who posts updates on his Weibo account every time he and I spend time together.

There is a silver lining to this potentially dark cloud. Allowing people to cash in on my presence in their home allows me the opportunity to visit regions of China that might otherwise be closed to me (see The Demise of Sophie the Kid, posted December 2011). As long as things remain symbiotic, why complain?  

I’m still not going to host a party for students who don’t deserve one. If they want to know about Western culture, let them pay attention in class.           


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