Saturday, October 17, 2009

Lush Life

Because I have not yet mastered the art of smoking and drinking coffee in my sleep, I wake up in a foul mood. The earth's gravity seems to have multiplied in strength and after a wild and fecund night, the crickets in my bedroom have multiplied their numbers. I light a Shuangxi and dump several spoonfuls of Nescafe into a water bottle and all over the kitchen floor. Coffee and cigarettes get me to the shower, which drizzles a leaden stream of lukewarm onto my scalp. My toilet is a few inches from the shower head, so I multitask. I bellow along with the Johnny Hartman/John Coltrane album I bellow along with every morning, but my morning voice doesn't reach high or low enough, so I sing the verses and choruses in different octaves. As I sit and shit and shower and bellow, the lesson plan for the week's classes is mitosisizin' in my brain.

I teach seven classes with 50+ students apiece and I am a volunteer, so photocopies are not financially prudent. That means I need to come up with a lot of speaking activities and deliver them like Barack Obama on benzedrine. Luckily, I teach the same lesson seven times a week, so a single flash of inspiration is enough to get by. I plan for my lessons the way a snail might if it had the cognitive capacity to teach Oral English: I start with a pebble and build a spiral of saliva around it as the week goes by until, by Friday, I have a spit-shined, well-rehearsed presentation that makes me feel like a real, actual teacher of sorts.

Today is the second run-through of "Bon Appetit," my guide to American cuisine and dining etiquette, so the lesson is only a sketch and my scripted jokes will be jittery and Bob Newhartesque. As I walk into the classroom, there is a chorus of oooooohs and a brief round of applause. I look around and remember that I am wearing my suit coat. I take a bow. Then I bust out my jug of coffee and set it on the podium and there is another long ooooooh. I explain that the American professor is fueled by caffeine, that without it he is a zombie. And zombielike, I guzzle some coffee and start writing on the board.

Ideally, an Oral English class should be an interactive vaudeville act. The trick is duping your students into believing that they are actually caught in the scenario you have presented them with. If they are supposed to be dining out at Red Lobster, they should be able to hear Savage Garden piped down from the styrofoam ceiling tiles. If they are supposed to be the United Nations, the Chinese contingent should loathe the Japanese contingent with an undying contempt, and vice versa. In short, you must suspend all disbelief, otherwise your students will rote memorize a handful of stock phrases and mumble them to each other like little lobotomized HAL 9000s. Setting the stage for a productive class is a lot like writing the start of a novel: there must be background, complications, and some sort of impetus to push the whole thing forward.

Today's class goes well. I briefly explain the American tipping system and demonstrate an untippable waiter.

"Whaddya want?" I snap, putting on my surliest Waffle House sass. My pen twitches at the ready. The poor girl giggles and hides her face in her hands.

"You ready to order or what?"

"Yes. I will have the chicken."

"Chicken soup? Chicken salad? Chicken nuggets? Chicken sandwich? Fried chicken? Chicken a la king? Kung pao chicken? General Tso's chicken?!"

By now she is so embarrassed that it looks like she is having an out-of-body experience. Thankfully, my phone rings: one of my stalkers calling for the sixth time that morning.

"Hang on. It's my girlfriend."

I dart into the kitchen, fake a kissyface conversation, and swagger back to Table 9.

"So. What'll it be?"

"I'll take the fried chicken."

I storm backstage and bark at the short order cooks. Then, I return bearing a half-rotten apple which, through the power of mass delusion, is starting to look more and more like a drumstick. I stumble over my shoelace and send the apple flying into the crowd.

"Oops. There goes your chicken."

By then, my students are rearing to dine-and-dash, so I turn it over to them for the rest of class. I am pleased with the results and the following dialogue almost makes me weep with satisfaction:

Waitress: Here is your food.
Customer: Excuse me, ma'am, but there is a fly in my soup.
Waitress: Impossible!
Customer: Look. You see it! I would like to speak with the manager.
Manager: [approaches with a clipboard] What seems to be the problem?
Customer: There is a fly in my soup.
Manager: Don't worry about it. Your dinner is on the house.
Customer: Thanks. And could you do something about my waitress?
Manager: What would you like me to do?
Customer: Fire her immediately.
Manager: Okay, I will fire her at once.

Of course, part of the reason these roleplays are so amusing is that they are painfully awkward and quite a ways off the mark. But accuracy matters little to me. Every morning as I walk to the bus that takes me to the campus across town, I hear English majors in the bushes, reciting speeches by Henry Kissinger. From a young age, Chinese students are given the task of memorizing the entirety of the English language, with the end result that, after twelve years of English, they can barely muster a "Hello" without second-guessing themselves. My classes are about giving Chinese students the cajones to use the language, and in order to grow a pair, they need a heavily padded environment, an English laboratory in which they are free to mix and mismatch nouns and verbs and adjectives until they find the combinations that make sense.

In China, the expectations for us foreign teachers are high. We are widely believed to possess the ability to heal rhotacism with the laying on of hands. Hell, I used to think I had that power, but over the years I have set more modest goals for myself. And I would love to talk about them, but night has fallen on China. The young emperors at the internet cafe are yawning and removing their headsets. The rats have come out to slurp pools of Red Bull from the floor. And my cold, hard bed with its dreams of coffee and cigarettes is calling to segue me into tomorrow and whatever red tape that entails.


joe f said...

every time i read your blog it puts a smile on my face and a WTF in my brain.

Keith Petit said...

If I can inspire either of those things in anyone, my job as a writing hack is done!