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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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Glee a la Guangdong

March 28, 2010 1 comment

There’s something that, in these past few months, has put a little zing into my busy week at UIC. It sprouted from the weekly pop club meetings, and the fact that twenty minutes wrangling twenty five non-singers isn’t going to produce even a two minute song, much less an entire performance’s worth.

Not that I need the spotlight. I just was told all these rumors about 30 percent of Chinese people having perfect pitch, due to the tonal linguistic-nurture. Thank you NPR, for raising my expectations. Although I guess if I thought harder about it, I would’ve figured out that 30 percent only seems like a lot…

However.

Our eight-member Glee Club performance took even me by surprise at the International Culture and Language Conference dinner back in December, prompting one of the drunken conference goers to stall our final number in enthusiasm.

“THIS! This is what we need more of here at UIC!” She’d shouted, standing, brandishing a plastic cup of Portuguese wine. My students held their pose for the final piece, trying not to laugh, hands behind their back, heads lowered. I’d already started sounding Rob’s first falsetto note on the upper e-string.

For some reason even when they practice now, whenever they get into that pose, the giggling begins.

Apparently later that night, the conference goer had picked up several paper lanterns from the table and done a Salome-style dance for the English Department. I missed it, because I’d taken the group to Sichuan food. On the white board from which Meg’s already erased the Star War’s cast list, it’s named as the number one funniest moment of our UIC experience.

This semester, after the first meeting of the lunchtime pop club, as I signed the last of the attendance sheets and the students rushed to their afternoon classes, I saw my contingent leaning on the first two rows of desks, agendas open in front of them. “Hey! Hey! Hey! When does practice start?” they shouted at me.

These students spent their high school years going to class from 8am until 8pm, and this is their first exposure to extracurricular activities, the first time they’ve been away from their families, and the first time they’ve been permitted to date. The girls still carry purses that are giant zip-up teddy bears, holding hands with their best friends. For most of them, these will be the only four years of self-discovery separated in any small way from extreme filial responsibility.

The ones who seem to be so passionate of this group, though, remind me of my friends from my high school, complete with relationship angst, ambiguity and fragile friendships: the best-girlfriends who appear at every rehearsal and run up to hug me in the hallway, who are obsessed with musical theater and join as many clubs as they can stay awake for; the boys on the rugby team who have great voices and hoot at me whenever they see me from across the campus; he serial dater with flashy yellow shoes who, though cocky, put out his blue cigarette without a word a second after I told him they would make him lose his high notes.

“What do you guys want to sing?” I’d asked.

“LADY GAGA!” The three tallest boys in the group shouted, and immediately launched into a warbling rendition of “Bad Romance”– “RAH-RAH-AH-AAAAAH!” They shouted, hopping in a circle around me. I cringed. But this isn’t my college experience—so I gave them what they wanted, printing out lyric sheets and having them sing along with the recording.

To my relief, halfway through the song they collapsed on the writing center desks crying, “It’s too long! We cannot do it!”

We have a new portfolio and two new members, due to the apparent loss one of the girls who had formerly been dating the boy with the yellow shoes. She’d told me that she couldn’t come anymore because…she didn’t know how to say it… “Too awkward?” I’d said, then explained in my simple English what that means. She nodded and apologized. I sighed. I’d recruited a new boy and girl. She’s going to be hard to replace. But I remember how high school felt too.

We’re sticking with the old songs and adding some Jason Mraz, Corinne Bailey Rae, Queen, more Mika by popular demand and (we’re totally cornball but I swear it was their idea) some Journey. Yeah, you know why.