Teaching elementary school English in Korea was a lot like officiating hockey. The classrooms were cramped and sweaty, rinked in with Plexiglas windows that rattled in their frames whenever my third-graders slammed each other into the walls. I was constantly tossing kids in the penalty box for fighting, cross-checking, high-sticking, and activating the fire extinguishers in the back of the room. By the end of the day, the floor was so slick with squid guts, flame retardant foam and bodily fluids that you had to skate your way out.
Teaching college English in China is more like playing baseball. The atmosphere is breezy and meditative, the crowd sedate but chatty. The floor is littered with the shells of peanuts and sunflower seeds. The wrap-around auditorium seats fold down the way they do in a big league ballpark, and after the bell rings, all eyes are on the podium that stands atop the pitcher's mound where I, the pitcher, pitch my spiel.
I am no Pedro Martinez. If anything, I am a bumbling Wakefeldian knuckleballer. My windup is irregular, my ERA less than impressive. My fastball clocks in at around 60 MPH. I am superstitious, the kind of guy you might find in the grimiest corner of the dugout, rocking back and forth autistically in the minutes before gametime, spitting torrents of chew into a hollowed-out cucurbita gourd that I've kept around 17 years for good luck. I am valued less for my performance than I am for my presence in the locker room. I am not a franchise player, but I am a decent guy to have in the four or five slot on the rotation. I'm the sort of pitcher who walks more batters than he strikes out, loses more games than he wins, and spends more time on the DL than on the active roster. But the ballclub keeps me around anyway, because I'm cheap, and because among the coaching staff there remains some dim hope that perhaps one day, in the twilight of my career, when a dusty wind comes sweeping down from the Himalayas and blows through eastern Sichuan to make my knucklers dance and kowtow over the plate, I might just toss nine innings of no-hit ball.
Today was Opening Day. There were the usual Opening Day jitters. It's hard to keep your cool when fifty college kids shriek with horror as you walk into the classroom for the first time. I pitted out five minutes in and my knees trembled for the whole three hours. And there were broader anxieties: worrying whether I've still got "the stuff" or whether it's gone to pot during the off-season, wondering what kind of muscle I've got in the batting order, et al. But I pitched well. So well, in fact, that I half-expected someone to swat my ass on the way out to the bus.
I am teaching sophomores this semester, and there was a kind of electricity in the classroom that was lacking in my last batch of juniors. There was also literal electricity: computers with projector screens, televisions with DVD players. Never in my teaching career have I had so much technology at my disposal and I am at a loss for what to do with it. Probably nothing too exciting. I'm just thrilled that I can type things on the board rather than subjecting my students to my hideous chalkmanship, which must be as legible to them as Chinese is to you and me.
I gave my students fifteen minutes at the end of class to interview me. Over the past six months, I have learned my fair share of shortcuts. I outlawed the following questions:
1. Do you like China?
2. Do you like Chinese food?
3. Do you have a Chinese girlfriend?
4. Can you use chopsticks?
These are questions that your garden variety laowai gets fed up with after a few hours in country. They are also the only questions that most of the people in your life will ever ask you. So I was a bit taken aback when a cute little sophomore in the front row stood up and asked me about He Whose Name Cannot Be Named Right Now and just why my America is meeting with him at this tense juncture in our international relationship. There was the usual canned audience response - some oohs, some laughter - but there were more than a few students cheering her on.
"Well," I said, revving up my Ambiguous Nitpicky Geopolitical Situation Translator (ANGST) for the first time in two months. "Well."
The classroom fell silent. Even the ventilators seemed to be holding their breath.
"Well. As Americans, we often disagree with our government. So please do not judge us for our government's actions," I paused to let the cloud of platitudes envelop me, then I continued. "Speaking for the American people, I can say that we all respect the Chinese people. We have been business partners for a long time now, and I hope that we can become friends."
There was a smattering of applause from the far back, but the girl in the front row wasn't buying it.
"But Mr. Panda, with all due respect," she said, "that doesn't answer my question."
"Well," I said, and took a sip of coffee. Then I tilted my mug back and took a solid slurp of coffee. "Well. It's a very complicated situation and it is very hard to understand. Even I don't understand it. Maybe you guys understand it better than I do. In order to understand it, I think we need to look at – and hey, there's the bell!"
I blurted out the homework assignment and made a beeline for the dugout under a jeering cascade of hot dog wrappers, peanut shells and AA batteries, shielding my head as I leaped over the third base line, the young season's first complete game under my belt.