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PIG MEAT!!!

March 30, 2010 1 comment

“I’ve been receiving a lot of calls from parents saying, ‘My student has never had the chance to talk to a foreigner BEFORE,'” our boss said during the first meeting of the quarter.

A murmur circled the room, mostly centering on, ‘sounds like a personal problem.’ When parents call the boss and complain though, it isn’t really a personal problem anymore. We learned, gobsmacked, that we were to conduct a ten minute conversation with every single student on campus before the end of the quarter. Divided between 11 people, that leaves about 350 for me, which translates to about seven hours a week asking the same questions to students at varying levels of English…over…and over…and over.

What is your major? Where is your hometown? What do you like to do on the weekends?
I feel like I’m in new student orientation all over again.

Most of us ask these sorts of questions, but at least one of the other TAs has been using it as a vent for his bitterness.

So are there places in China where people don’t push each other in line for the bus? What’s the thing you hate the most about China? Why do you think there is so much government corruption? I hated that city. There were too many Chinese tourists and they were too loud. No, I don’t like China at all.

It has also turned me into the office receptionist as my desk is the closest to the door, receiving upwards of twenty students per day saying, “I come for the oral assessment! My teacher says!”, then staring at me, breathing with open mouths and vacant eyes when I ask which TA they have an appointment with. A chorus of shouted questions interrupts our work about every 5 minutes from 10am until 5pm.

Despite these shaky beginnings, sometimes my conversations are extremely interesting, dynamic, or informative. For example, one student sat down and drew me a diagram explaining the roots of Chinese philosophy and religion, a wheel with characters circling it, detailing different levels of darkness and light. Another time I discussed social safety nets with a social service major for nearly forty minutes when the student scheduled after her missed his appointment.

Then there are days like today.

Two girls came in together and took their seat at a square table in our office. I told them the rules–that only one person could go at a time. Ryan said that Marian could go before her, because she had a class. “I know, I know, Ryan is a boys name–I think I will change it later.”

“Marian, what kind of interests do you have?”

To one of my easiest and most understandable questions, I got what each of us has come to dread and react to with visceral disgust: the blank stare.

She paused for about two minutes and said, “I go…with my best friend.”

I had no idea what that meant. I tried it from another angle. “What do you like to do?”

She whispered something in Chinese across the table to Ryan. I put a hand up in between them. “You have to do it yourself,” I said.

She looked at me, smiled, and said, “SHE is my best friend!”

“Ok…” I said. By now I knew what grade she was going to get, but I tried to drag it out anyway to avoid more calls from parents. I suspect that Ryan is the type who will do anything for her friend, including homework, most likely. “Where do you like to go?” I attempted again.

“We go Jinding park,” she said. Jinding is a district a 15 minute bus ride from school. It’s not a park, it’s a street market where people grill different types of meat, vegetables, dumplings, all smothered in garlic and peppers.

“What do you do there?”

Pause, accompanied by a small moan of panic, then an epiphany–“We eat the delicious food!”

“Like…” 10 minutes, huh?

“….mmmm…meat…”

“….What kind of meat?”

“…..mmmmmmmm……uuummmmm….PIG MEAT!”

I was done. I told her I was going to let her go on to class, but first I asked her if she had any questions for me, as I do with all of my students. The question they ask is usually a variation of “where are you from?” unless the student has questions about applying for graduate school, about which I can’t offer too much advice anyway. I wasn’t expecting her to have one after that debacle.

But she said, “YES!” And after giggling, for the first time looked straight at me and said, “why you no smile?”

Suffice it to say my answer was not the truth.

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