Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In Defense of Mr. Panda

A couple days ago, one of my students invited me over to chat with him at his desk. He wanted help buying a Blackberry from Canada. I had only recently discovered that the Blackberry was something other than an aggregate fruit, but I told him that I'd see what I could do. We shot the bull for a while. He asked me what my goals in life were, and I told him that I had no idea. He suggested that I stay in China for the rest of my life, and I told him that we'd just have to see about that. He laughed. Then his face clouded over.

"Mr. Panda," he said, "we all have a problem with you."

"Okay," I said. "What's up?"

"I'm fine, thank you," he said, and continued. "The problem is you are treat us like middle school student. We all think this. We tell the other teachers about the problem."

I stood there smiling like a total galoot.

"The subject things is too simple," he said. "We are knowing all the subject things already. We all think so."

The classroom was silent. All eyes were on me. I told the kid that I appreciated his honesty and that I would try to include more challenging material in the future. My students, who were supposed to be acting out break-ups, sat watching me until it was clear I had finished speaking. Then they resumed air-smacking their ex-boyfriends across the face.

That sort of confrontation is uncomfortable, but not unusual. My students often pull me aside to criticize what I am teaching them, or the way in which I am teaching them. They level their criticism with the same passive-aggressive trajectory familiar to those of us who have worked the U.S. temp agency circuit: they butter me up with chit-chat and a handful of compliments, then comes a long laundry list of things I need to do differently. For my part, I hear them out and weigh their suggestions on the long bus ride home. More often than not, I do find some truth in what they're saying. I am not a teacher by trade, so I have much to learn from my students. But on this particular occasion, I was more than a little irked. I am confident in what I am teaching this semester. I certainly don't treat my college sophomores like middle schoolers, but if my classes seem elementary, that's because they are: I planned them that way. Anyhow, I'm not one to argue with my students, so I'll just have to argue with myself. In the proud tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo, I would like to write a short apologia in defense of that teaching alter-ego of mine, Mr. Panda.

In Defense of Mr. Panda

I. Of Criticism: That I'm Cool With It
I find it hard to imagine any of my students directly criticizing a Chinese professor, which is to say, I can't see it happening. Ever. But my students - intimidated as they are by my body hair, terrified as they are of talking to me - are not afraid to challenge me. I respect their nerve and to some extent I nurture it. They are, after all, college students. And I, perhaps, am a professor. So it is natural, even desirable that they should question my authority. I often question it myself.

II. Of Language Barriers: That They Exist
The same students who tell me that my class is not challenging enough tend to have a hard time expressing themselves clearly. And there are certain phrases that my students have been taught - namely You had better - that come off a lot more aggressively than they mean them to. You had better teach more difficult subject things ... You had better not treat us like middle school children ... I have learned over time not to take offense, because I am almost certain that there is none intended.

III. Of Last Semester: That It Was Weird
I set the bar too high last term. Although my students were seniors and English majors to boot, and though they possessed bottomless vocabularies and could name all the tenses and moods, I made the mistake of assuming that they were advanced speakers of English. I launched the class into debates on the perils of technology and overpopulation. They talked a lot, and I listened. My students spoke of art and beauty. They experimented with the language and enjoyed themselves immensely. In that sense, last semester was a success. But I run into my former students on the street every now and then and ask them how they're doing. They don't know what to say. They scratch their heads and mumble a few Chinese stall words before asking me if I have eaten. They have studied English for twelve years, and by now they are English teachers like me.

IV. Of This Semester: That It Will Be Less Weird
I opened the 2010 school year with a lesson that I dubbed How To Talk To Your Local Laowai. I introduced my students to casual greetings - what's up? what's happenin'? But be careful, I cautioned them: if you ask what is happening, your friends will worry that you are experiencing an existential crisis. Now if you ask what's happenin', everything's cool. And when we ask you what's happenin', we don't want to hear your life story. We don't want to know about your shih tzu's bladder control problems. No. We expect you to say not much - or nothin' if you're into the whole brevity thing.

My students took notes. They committed the magic words to memory. And the next week, when I asked them what was up, they said in unison: nothin' - not nothing, mind you, but nothin'. It was my greatest triumph. For twelve years, these kids had been conditioned to blurt out "I am fine, thank you, and you?" In a span of eighty minutes, I managed to reverse that, at least temporarily. I was awfully proud of myself.

V. Of Confusion: That It Exists
This afternoon, while my students were acting out break-ups, a fellow English teacher wandered into my classroom and started tinkering with the computer. He put Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on the stereo and cranked the volume all the way up to drown out the ruckus. Then he stood watching my class from the hallway. Eventually, he shook his head and wandered off. So the fact that my students are speaking sometimes poses problems.

The students themselves appear puzzled by my classes. Each and every one of them has expressed a burning desire to improve his or her oral English, and yet when I give the class a prompt and twenty minutes to practice speaking in groups, my students grow listless and resume studying the long lists of SAT words they keep hidden under their desks. They seem most comfortable when I am talking, or having them recite things.

Every once in a while, I catch flack for teaching slang.

"You had better not teach 'what's up,'" one of my Chinese coworkers told me the other day. "It is not good Oral English. The students can only say 'nothing.'"

"Yes, but that is how we greet each other in the West."

"But how about 'How do you do?' That question makes more options."

"If I ask my students how they're doing, they will all say 'I'm fine, thank you, and you?'"

"But you had better not ... "

And so on. The name of the course I am teaching is Oral English, but everyone seems to expect me to do all of the talking, and to teach "Proper Oral English," the official language of Toastmasters International.

VI. Of Mr. Panda: That He Is Not A Total Galoot
A couple teachers and a handful of students are wary of my syllabus. But I am not. For the first time in three years, I am confident in what I am teaching. I daresay I might even have some crude epistemological theory lurking behind my lesson plans. Or perhaps I shouldn't daresay that.

You would be amazed at what linguistic feats my students are capable of. I can give them a long list of American jivetalk and they'll have everything memorized by the end of class. They can read quantum physics extracts in English and understand them. But they stumble over the simple things: greetings, small talk, chit-chat, farewells. Of my 500 students, perhaps a handful can navigate a basic conversation. And yet most of them can define the word "lugubrious" and use it in a sentence.

Fundamentals. I can hear Dick Vitale barking in my ear. Dribbling, passing, boxing out - free throws, baby. The last thing my students need is some uppity laowai pummeling them with more flowery vocab words. What my students need is class time to hone their conversational chops. What they need is more variety in their basic English diet. In short, I want them to spend less time on alley oops and windmill jams, and more time at the free throw line.

VII. Of Chinglish: That It Is Intransigently Obstreperous
As I have written in the past, Chinglish is not the absence of English. If anything, it is an overabundance of bad English.

My students have spent a decade tackling English by rote memorization. At present, I find them tumbling headlong into the yawning abyss of English vocabulary. I can only guess as to why vocabulary is so coveted here, while oral English remains almost completely neglected. Vocabulary is more testable than speaking, I suppose, but that can't be the whole picture. In any case, I won't go into the why? question here. But it is important to bear in mind that, for most of these kids, the process of learning English has always been a race to acquire new vocabulary. They want to develop their speaking skills, of course, but they've never had an opportunity to do so and they're not sure where to begin. Mr. Panda's Oral English class is something completely unprecedented in their fifteen years of education. I don't talk - they do. And instead of quantity, I am shooting for quality, which means taking things slow and drilling the pants off of English fundamentals. So although I anticipate that some of my students will regard my class as a regression of sorts, I see no point in building a high-rise on such a shaky foundation.

The vocabulary my students memorize for their exams is often (to put it mildly) useless or outdated, incorrectly defined or poorly framed. Meanwhile, while they're busy cramming their minds with billions of counterfeit million-dollar words, their conversational skills are languishing, rooted as they are in stock phrases and transliterations, many of which are obsolete or contextualized poorly, and so on.

With all of this in mind, I would like to present to you, dear Reader, my crowning pedagogical achievement, a work of art that took me nearly two man-hours to produce: The Tree of Chinglish.

Fig 16.7: The Tree of Chinglish

Imagine, if you will, that you have successfully dissected a college sophomore's brain. And imagine that you are wearing a pair of neurotranslator goggles that allow you to see just what is going on down there in the English Department of young Xiao Wang's cerebral cortex. To make things more visually stimulating, your goggles generate a crappy-looking clip art tree called The Tree of Chinglish.

Your first observation is that the Tree's leafy boughs are weighed down with all sorts of polysyllabic gobbledygook that you vaguely remember from the ACT test you took, lo those many moons ago.

Scrolling slowly downward, you arrive at the trunk of the Tree, which is made up of the loadbearing fundamentals of language. You notice that it is a dangerously skimpy trunk, indeed. You realize that the huge, weighty canopy of polysyllabic gobbledygook at the top of the Tree is being held up by what amounts to a mere twig of English catchphrases. And many of the catchphrases, you notice, are of questionable utility: what a pity? you had better? and what the heck is filial piety, anyway?

But the truly frightening thing is not the catchphrases in and of themselves, but the lack of diversity in that twiggy little trunk. There is exactly one word for general greetings - HELLO! - and only one short phrase for inquiring about someone else's state of being - How are you? - and no more than one way to respond to inquiries about one's own state of being - I'm fine, thank you, and you? Why, if some well-intentioned British aristocrat were to mosey on by and say Cheerio! instead of HELLO!, the whole Tree of Chinglish would go tumbling right over. And if that Tree falls, poor Xiao Wang's heteromorphic paucity is likely to felicitate his priggish interlocutor.

VIII. Of Mr. Panda: That He Is Sleepy
So you can see that teaching basic conversational English in China can be surprisingly complex. In a way, I have to trick my students into forgetting a lot of what they have already learned. I have to manually replace "what a pity" with "that's too bad," "you had better" with "you oughtta," and so on. At the end of the day, my students don't seem to believe that I am teaching them Real English. I am not Dr. Zhang or Professor Liu, after all. I am merely Mr. Panda.

It has proven difficult for me to write this apologia for Mr. Panda. Thanks to my clumsy, soy-slick typing fingers, I managed to delete everything three times in as many days. In rewriting it twice from memory, I found that the words no longer fit together the way they did the first time. Another thing is: it is hard to write critically about one's students, particularly when they are as enthusiastic and determined and wonderful as my own. And another thing: I was irked at the start of this post, but having reached the end, I am no longer irked. As I prattled along, I became less concerned with defending Mr. Panda, and more interested in figuring out just why teaching Chinese undergraduates is so challenging compared to, say ...

No, I suppose teaching in general is difficult. Like writing, teaching demands that you perform the greatest magic trick of all, that you transfer invisible ideastuff from your mind to another mind, so that that mind can one day transfer your ideastuff to another mind, and on and on ... But though it is a magic trick, that doesn't make it impossible. It takes patience, yes, and it is often frustrating. But the rewards, simple and unglamorous as they are, are many. I, for one, find great pleasure these days in bumping into my students on the street.

"What's up?" I'll ask the kid.
He hesitates. He fumbles around for those dreaded words. I'm fi - ... no. Have you eate - ... no. Then he smiles.
"Nothin'," he says.

Oh, sweet nothin' ...


alison said...

Very well done. I like that way you continually repeat phrases like "you had better" from various dialogues you have had with people -- throughout the blogpost. It feels like I just walked back through a typical day at my school in Gansu.

You're doing a fine job. Write a book better than Hessler's!

fladroma said...

Hello my fellow Peace Corp Volunteer. I hope this message finds you well. My name is Farfum Ladroma and I am an education volunteer in the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific. I am writing to you all today because I need your help! My students and I at GPS MATAMAKA (an outer-island Government Primary School in Vava’u) are pursuing a “POSTCARD PROJECT.” I am asking for other PCVs outside of Tonga to please send us a postcard from your host country. We are trying to collect as many postcards from around the world, especially in countries where Peace Corps is currently operating. This project will help enhance my student’s understanding of other cultures and share what Peace Corps volunteers do all across the globe. I will keep a running list of all the postcards received with their origin on my blog at: You may check if your postcard successfully makes it to Tonga. This will be a great cultural exchange for everyone involved and a lot of fun. Please help out if you can and tell everyone you know (even your friends and families back home)! I would greatly appreciate your participation. Thank you very much and malo ‘aupito mei Tonga.
Please send postcards to:
c/o Peace Corps
P.O. Box 136
Neiafu, VAVA’U

-Farfum (aka Feleti)