Instead of teaching my regular class I was sent to a primary school today. The children in the 50 student class I was entertaining were very excited to see me. I even got “I love you” notes from some of the girls! As we walked through the hallway an excited buzz of young voices followed me. I could pick up a word here and there (laowei- foreigner, and ni kan- look, and lots of “nihaos”- hello) but for the most part the children spoke quickly, in excited whispers that were hard for me to interpret.
There was a great variation in the English speaking ability of the class, from being able to say nothing more then a shy hello, to being capable of holding a full conversation. I was surprised that so many of the children knew so much of the language. The experience in this primary school class was much different then my wild after school sessions at Happy English. The children were seated in neat rows facing towards the desk and sat at rapt attention, in almost a military fashion. All sets of eyes were on me despite the fact that some of the children, the girls especially, could not contain their chatter. I was able to pick out “meili” or beautiful from a few of their conversations.
The way the concept of beautiful changes globally is fascinating. While we of North America tend idealize the gorgeous peach shape faces of Chinese women with their perpetual youthful appearance (to the point where many men end up journeying to China with “finding a woman” as one of their main travel goals) the Chinese ladies strive to make themselves look as “American” as possible! Though most Chinese women I became familiar with seemed to be more attracted to the reserved ways of the majority of Chinese men, I had heard many of the girls reminiscing about the beauty of a mixed race baby!
I’m not going to tell you I’m an ugly human being, but to the standards of Chinese women I am considered fat, my colleagues and friends constantly overestimate my age, and at 25 years old I was still battling acne that fluctuated in intensity with my hormones. I gaze at my friend, Sonya, and admire her long, straight, black hair, oval face, high cheekbones, olive skin, and youthful appearance. She tries to hide her face in photographs, and seems to give me the same look back.
I started the class by opening up the floor to the students, “You, ask me, some questions,” I told them. Around 20 hands shot in the air, “Do you have a husband?” “Do you have kids?” “Where are you from?” “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” Eventually I had to cut the questions short to get on with our lesson. My next exercise was to have the children guess my age. They unanimously thought I was somewhere in the range of 30-40 years old! I had to do a very good impression of mock rage and horror as I told them I was actually 25!
Well I had an eager audience, but when it came to participating in my games the children were suddenly very shy. “I’m going to ask you a question,” I told them, “If you get it right, you will sit back down. If you get it wrong you have to either sing a song, or do a silly dance!”
The children’s voices murmured across the room, but this time in horror! I was sure that this sort of activity was NOT common in a primary school. I was about to give them an experience to talk about for years to come. The embarrassment turned to shrieks of laughter as I finally coaxed a brave student forward to sing half a line of head and shoulders. Then a girl and a boy had to dance together what a ridiculous concept! The two children could not hide their horror and at first I thought they were going refuse to participated. Their dance lasted all of ten seconds, but even they joined into the laughter that rang throughout the classroom. The next thing I knew I had everyone out of their chairs doing a dance! And then the children’s attention turned to their baffled teacher. This teacher had been marching around the classroom when I entered, in an impressively commanding stance. The group, was much different from the rigidly seated classroom of students I had walked in on. I felt a little bad for winding up the students for this teacher, but I had all the faith in the world that they would be rigidly seated repeating prows from the board the moment I left.
This “command and control”, strict teacher, walked up to the front of the class, while her students shouted and hollered, to perform a bashful, yet beautiful version of “Happy Birthday.” Even the teacher was grinning when I left the room.