Three years abroad have turned me into an anglophonic handyman, a TEFL jack-of-all-trades, a linguistic plumber. I work short hours, but there is always tweaking to be done, dangling participles to saw off and subject/verb disagreements to weld together. I am on call 24/7, especially in China, where nary an afternoon goes by without some odd English request from someone I've never seen in my life.
A few weeks ago, a pudgy and bespectacled college kid came tiptoeing up to me in the teachers' lounge. He was not one of my students.
"Excuse me, foreign teacher," he said, "but I have question for you."
He wanted to know my thoughts on drug education.
"Can you be more specific?" I asked. "Do you mean the bad kind of drugs?"
He nodded emphatically. I shrugged. Well, I said, I think drug education is important, but I also believe that individuals should have the freedom to choose what they put in their bodies.
"Okay, I bring some information for you next time," he said. We shook hands and he was gone.
The next week, the kid resurfaced with a laminate binder full of good ol' government-issue American anti-drug literature. He told me to take the stuff home, look over it, and return the next week with a prepared speech: he wanted me to give a lecture in his class. So, on a bored Tuesday evening, I broke open the binder and read all about the horrors of marijuana, hallucinogens, crack cocaine and The Horse. It was a nostalgic flashback to my D.A.R.E. days, the Reefer Madness films, the no-saying to everything. "Marijuana induces false feelings of euphoria and happiness. Pot smokers become anxious and paranoid." But, I asked myself, if the euphoria and happiness are artificial, aren't the anxiety and paranoia equally so? Or if the anxiety and paranoia are real, isn't the euphoria ... and so on. I put the pot pamphlet down. I was in a tough spot. There was nothing I could say in my lecture that wouldn't step on toes or get me in trouble. So, when I saw the kid next, I handed him back the binder and repeated my original thesis statement: "I think drug education is important, but I also believe that individuals should have the freedom to choose what they put in their bodies." And I politely declined his invitation.
A few days later, in my Thursday Oral English class, I noticed a new student who was sitting by himself, talking to himself, and not participating in the lesson whatsoever. As I was making my rounds, he called me over and invited me to sit with him, so I did.
"Teacher, I have three questions for you."
"Shoot," I said.
"Number one: tell me about American history and culture."
"You might have to be more specific."
"Okay. Tell me how American history made American culture."
"Well," I said, "um."
I took a long gulp of coffee and then I wove a tapestry of bullshit that took us from the American Revolution to Public Enemy. My student (or was he my student?) was satisfied and moved on to question two.
"Tell me about the most recent advancements in American weapons technology," he said.
"You know, I really don't know much about that," I said. "I'm not in the military and I don't work for the government. Well, I mean, I do, but I'm in the wrong branch of the service. Anyway, I imagine that we have plenty of weapons as it is. Look, I gotta teach a class ... "
Yesterday afternoon, I was making a break for the bathroom between classes and a girl stopped me in the hall.
"Excuse me, sir," she said. "I am collecting 365 notes for my boyfriend because I love him so much. Please help me."
She handed me a pen and a little green post-it note.
"Who am I addressing this to?" I asked.
"Bai Li-Jie," she said.
Here is what I wrote:
You are a lucky man. You have a beautiful girlfriend who loves you very much.
This afternoon, a girl snagged me on the way out of class and asked me for my thoughts on college students who study mental health issues. She had to write a thesis, she said.
"Can you be more specific?" I asked. "Do you want my opinion on mental health education, or the reasons people study psychology, or ... "
"I am writing a thesis and I don't know what to write about."
"Well," I said, and I wove another tapestry that took us from Freud to electroshock therapy to Prozac.
"Thank you," she said. "That helps me very much."
She followed me onto the Number 5 bus.
"I'm so sad because I don't have a foreign teacher," she said. "How many foreigners are at our school?"
"Six or seven," I said, "but I'm the only one teaching at the old campus."
"Oh, you must be a very great teacher!"
"Or a very old teacher."
"No, you are look very young!"
"I'm 26," I said.
"That is very close to me. I am 24," she said. "Old enough!"
"Hey, look. There's my stop."
A few weeks ago, a student raised his hand and asked me whether I believed in God.
"No," I said. There was a brief round of applause. I was momentarily relieved to be in China.
"I believe in the goodness of the universe," I said, "and the human attempt to understand it."
It wasn't until I was on the bus back home that I realized, yes: that is precisely what I believe.