Peace Corps volunteers have a habit of flipping through calendars and imagining where they'll be in six months' time. In a year's time. In two years' time. And physically, of course, they'll probably be exactly where they're at, wherever the Peace Corps sent them in the first place. But psychologically, there's no telling where you'll find yourself after two years in a strange land, no telling how your mind will bend and warp along the way.
Oh, the places you'll go ...
After six months, you'll be half-crazy. After a year, you'll be fullblown batshit crazy. After two years, you'll finally be sane and adjusted. Just in time to return to America. Then you'll be batshit crazy all over again.
All of this is to be expected. It's what you sign up for. It goes with the territory. And it's a bit scary to think about. So we don't think about it. We don't think about the hard times we're bound to face. We don't think about reintegrating into an America we no longer understand. We don't think about that shit. No, in times of tedium, we fast-forward to the good parts. We anticipate days off. We plan vacations years in advance. We mentally apply for jobs that don't exist and grad school programs we could never afford. We get ahead of ourselves.
And no Peace Corps China volunteer peering into his or her crystal ball last winter could have failed to notice that this year's three-day Mid-Autumn Festival happened to fall on a Wednesday, which linked it ever so elegantly to the following Saturday and Sunday. This is what the Chinese refer to as a "bridge," and what we in the English-speaking world call a five-day weekend. So, slobbering at the prospect of getting out of town for five full days, we mentally booked flights to Malaysia, mentally bought train tickets to Shanghai. We got ahead of ourselves.
But sometime last spring, a cabal of elite bureaucrats sat down in a banquet hall somewhere out East and made the command decision that all school vacations must be atoned for, and that right soon. Sometime around 4 AM, the bureaucrats hoisted their shot glasses and sealed the deal - and in the wake of that sodden evening, holidays, as we knew them, were gone.
The bureaucrats decreed that we, the teachers, must atone for our holidays by slogging through seven straight days of teaching. For every three days of vacation the calendar grants us, there are two days of work waiting for us on the weekend. Saturday and Sunday classes. Then, Monday through Friday classes. And this isn't just me and my fellow laowais. This applies to the Chinese professors, who are already teaching thirty or forty-odd hours a week as it is. And this applies to the students, who no longer want to be anywhere near a classroom by day three of a grueling seven-day week.
To my mind, the smart thing to do would be to stack all the missed classes at the end of the semester. That way, neither the teachers nor the students would notice a thing. Human beings are gullible that way.
And to my mind, it would be even smarter to plan out the semester in advance. Set a start date and an end date. Simple as that. Perhaps this surprises you. How can a university function if nobody knows when the semester begins? Or when it ends? Beats you. Beats me. But for reasons beyond my intellectual pale, nobody - not the students, not the teachers, not the deans - nobody knows when the semester is going to start until 24 hours before it begins. And nobody knows when the semester will wrap up until the week before it ends. So it goes. This is the way of things. This is the game, is the game, is the game - and this is what I have gotten used to. I hate cellphones, and I use mine primarily as a multipurpose doorstop/paperweight. But I keep my phone plugged in the week before I think the semester will start, and I plug it back in the week before I think the semester will end. Because otherwise, I wouldn't know when to show up.
The lunar calendar doesn't change on a whim. It doesn't change at all. It's astronomy, yo. Some Ancient Chinese sage from the Shang Dynasty could've told you when Mid-Autumn Festival 2010 would fall. But the holidays here always seem to come as a surprise. As in: surprise, you have to teach this weekend. I'll get a phone call somewhere between Friday night and Saturday morning, when I'm somewhere downtown and already well swaddled in three sheets of the Irish wind. HEY. HEY. WHAT? SORRY. WHAT? YEAH. NAW. I'M COOL. WHASSUP? Class tomorrow. Saturday. 8 AM. You had better not be late. And Sunday, too. 8 AM. You had better not be late. I'm very polite about it. But after I've hung up, it's all I can do not to stomp my phone out like a cigarette. I walk back inside to tell my people that I have to go. It's suddenly become a school night. The autumnal equinox snuck up on us this year.
The next morning, I show up and do my job. And I ask my students, aren't you annoyed? Aren't you irked that it's Saturday morning and you're here in class with boring ol' Mr. Panda? They shrug. That's just the way it is, Mr. Panda. But it's the weekend, I rage. You're on vacation. You're college kids. You should be sleeping, or outside with your friends. And you're in here with me. Doesn't that, you know, piss you off? They shrug. That's just the way it is, Mr. Panda. The game is the game.
I teach eighteen hours of the exact same class every week, and seven straight days of that starts to take its toll on my existential well-being. My teaching suffers. My sanity suffers. Every day, I teach the same material. I show the same Powerpoint presentation. I crack the same jokes. Seven days in a row. During my smoke break, I get the eerie sensation that if I were to play two different tapes of two different classes at the same time, the videos would sync up perfectly. I shudder. The bell rings. Ah, Christ. And I snub my cigarette out under my toe. And I walk back in there to do it all over again.
I should've been clinically dead by Thursday morning. But for whatever reason, I woke up feeling frisky. Feeling playful. Feeling flippant, if that is the right word. I felt the way dogs do after you've given them a bath. You towel them off and they spend the next two hours running laps around the house, tearing up the furniture, chasing squirrels that don't exist. I felt like that. Like a wet dog. I was feeling mischievous, if that is the right word.
I hit a traffic clusterfuck on the bus ride to work, so I showed up a little late to class. I walked up six flights of stairs and swaggered down the hall in my chalkstained suitcoat and jeans. All beard and baggy eyes. Armed with my tweedy impertinence. I nudged the door open and strode into the classroom. My students gasped, as they always do whenever I show up more bearded than the week before. On my way up to the podium, I tripped over a computer cable. A torrent of coffee shot across the room.
"Fuck!" I shouted.
Oops. I covered my mouth.
My students are big on call and response, so they responded.
"Fak fak fak," they repeated.
"Aw, shit," I said to myself.
"Shit shit shit shit shit -"
A hand shot up in the front row.
"Mr. Panda. Fak. What is the meaning?"
"Yes. And shit. What is the meaning?"
I grinned a bit. Did I mention I was feeling flippant?
"You really want to know?" I asked.
A resounding YES from the class.
"Aight," I said. I bent down to soak up the spilled coffee with a stack of papers. Then I walked across the room, shut the door and deadbolted it. "Hey yo, can somebody close that door in the back? Thanks."
I fired up the computer and switched on the projector screen. I looked out over the sea of black-haired, bespectacled heads and said, "How y'all doin'? Long time, no see."
"No," said a girl in the front row, "short time, yes see."
"Yes. You are teach us two days before."
"Jesus," I said. "You're right."
I use the projector these days because nobody can read my handwriting, not even me. I opened Microsoft Word and typed out the word "fuck" in 28-point letters.
"So you want to know about this word, do you?"
A resounding YES.
"Okay. Alright. So it was written," I sighed, "so it shall be done."
I paced the stage a bit.
"First of all," I said, "you are never to use this word around anyone other than me. You are certainly not to use this word around the foreigners you see on the street. Because they will get angry. You are not to use this word around Professor Xie. Because he is delicate. But if you do use it around Professor Xie, and if he asks you who taught you this word, you are to tell him - "
"Mr. Panda!" the class shouted in unison.
"No," I said. "Don't say that."
I paced. I felt the urge to light a cigarette. Or a cigar.
"You are not to use this word as a noun or as a verb. That will only get you into trouble."
Here, I swatted the air and made a SLAP sound. And then I molded my hand into a pistol and made a gunshot sound. Much laughter from the crowd.
"As a noun or as a verb, this is a very serious word. We only drop it in emergencies. For that reason, we call it the f-bomb," I explained, "and I don't want to hear any of you saying 'f-bomb you.' Because people don't like it when you say that. People kill people for saying that."
I took my coffee from the desk and slurped down what little bottom-feeding sludge remained.
"But," I said, "the f-bomb is very useful otherwise. It is the spice of Oral English. It is the air that we, as English speakers, breathe. Your teacher, Mr. Panda, is a gentleman. But gentlemanly as he is, he drops the f-bomb - "
"Once a month!" interjected a student.
"Once a week!"
"Once a day!"
"Once a sentence," I said.
The crowd oohed.
"I'm not teaching you this word because I think it's funny. And I'm not teaching you this word because I want you to use it. I'm teaching you this word," I said, "because we drop it all the time in English. In real English. Not the English you study in your - in your ... fucking books." Laughter. "But in real English. The English you hear in movies. The English you hear in music. The English you'll hear me using when I'm outside of class. Without understanding the f-bomb, you can't begin to understand Oral English. The f-bomb is the key that unlocks the whole ... fucking thing."
My students had fallen silent. For a moment, I was afraid that I had offended them.
"... or we can talk about something else. If you like."
A resounding NO!
"Alright, then. First of all - "
I paced some more.
"Do not say fuck," I said. "Never say fuck. Fuck is a bad word, and I do not respect people who use it as a noun or as a verb. But in the West, we use it very often as a - as a ... "
I paused. I racked my brains for all the English grammar I'd learned in Mexico, but nothing came. I typed out the words "very good."
"Your grammar is better than mine," I said. "What is 'very'? Is it an adjective or an adverb?"
"So it's an adverb," I agreed. "And the adverb form of the word 'fuck' is 'fucking.' 'Fucking' is safe. 'Fucking' is your best friend. It's very useful. Check it."
I typed "40%" on the screen.
"What do you say about something that's not very good?" I asked.
"Not bad," the class replied in unison, with such indifference that it gave me chills.
"Good. Great. Thank you for remembering that. And what about something that's kind of good, but not very good?"
I typed "60%" on the screen.
"Not bad," they said, with a little perk at the end.
I allowed myself a secret smirk. Just three weeks before, these kids were saying so-so. And fine. Everything was so-so. Everything was fine. Now I had them dropping things like "not bad" and "not too shabby." I finally had them speaking English like they could actually speak the damned language, like they'd been studying it for eight years or something. You done good, Mr. Panda. You done good.
I typed "100%" on the screen.
"What about something that's really, really good?"
"That's right. Great. Now look here, kids."
I typed "110%" on the screen. And then I typed "fucking."
"You put 'fucking' before any good adjective, and it makes it even gooder," I said. "Even better, I mean."
"Fucking great!" shouted a girl in the back.
"Exactly. What else?"
I winced a bit.
"Delicious. Not deliciurs. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. You got the right idea, though. What else?"
"Really fucking wonderful!"
"There it is," I said, and cackled a bit. "Shit. You kids are fucking sharp."
I covered the opposite end of the spectrum, where things are "fucking awful" and "fucking terrible," where things "really fucking suck." Then my students, thankfully, led me into less profane territory.
"Mr. Panda, how to say gua wa zi?"
A barrage of laughter. Ah, yes. Gua wa zi: idiot.
"A million different ways to say idiot," I said, "but here are the best ones."
I typed "dumbass" on the screen.
"Dumbass isn't such a bad word. You can use dumbass with your friends. When your friend does something stupid, you call him a dumbass," I said. "Like when Mr. Panda comes into the room and spills his coffee all over the fucking place. You can say - "
"Mr. Panda, you dumbass!"
"You got it. Then there's moron. Same thing. Mr. Panda shows up to class ten minutes late - "
"Mr. Panda, you moron!"
"Right. Now, sometimes, your friend is a specific type of dumbass. A specialized moron."
I typed the words "nerd," "geek," and "dork."
"A nerd is somebody who studies too much," I explained, "a bookworm. Somebody with big glasses and no muscles and no fashion sense whatsoever. Like Mr. Panda when he was 13. Like Mr. Panda when he was 27."
A giggle from the kids.
"A geek is somebody who knows about one thing, and one thing only. A geek only ever talks about that one thing. A geek is someone who is obsessed with something," I said. "A computer geek, for example. A computer geek only talks about computers. He's not interested in girls, or movies, or sports, or music, or a cold beer on a Friday night. He's interested in fucking computers. That's it."
My students were taking notes with such ferocity that I could hear their pens scratching a symphony.
"And then we have dorks. A dork can be anybody. We are all dorks some of the time. A dork is not necessarily a nerd or a geek, though nerds and geeks are unquestionably dorks," I stopped for a moment to make sure I'd gotten my facts straight. I nodded. "A dork is someone who looks a bit silly. Or acts silly. Or does something silly. For example, Mr. Panda walks into class looking all raggedy - "
I folded my collar up on one side, tucked half of my shirt in, rolled my pantlegs up, and waltzed around the room wearing my most dignified face.
"What a dork!" a girl shouted.
"Exactly. Or maybe a dork starts singing to himself on the street. Mr. Panda's walking around downtown with his friends and all of a sudden, he goes, doop be doop boop boo - "
"What a fucking dork!"
"Yes. What a fucking dork."
I smiled. I wanted to high-five someone.
"Anyway, you call someone a dork because of something they do. And usually, being a dork is only temporary. But being a nerd. Being a geek," I said. "That's a full-time job."
I walked over to the window and peered outside. It had started to rain, and a piebald cat was booking it across the wet, gray square.
My students are big on the words "what a pity." Your cat dies. What a pity. You get hit by a motorcycle. What a pity. You show up two minutes late for class. What a pity you are so late. It's enough to make you want to throw yourself in front of an oncoming motorcycle. So I have endeavored to eradicate those words from the Chinese English lexicon. To banish them to the land of wind and ghosts, as it were. I have worked painstaking hours washing those words out of my students' brains. And now, finally, I have them saying, "that's too bad." And "bummer, dude." And "sorry to hear that." So my impromptu lecture on profanity tied in quite nicely with my ongoing anti-pity crusade.
"That sucks," I said.
"That sucks," my students echoed.
"When my cat dies, you can tell me - "
"Right. And when I get hit by a motorcycle and the driver refuses to pay my medical bills, you can tell me - "
"That really sucks."
"And when I lose my job for teaching you bad words, you can tell me - "
"Mr. Panda," chimed a sweet little bespectacled girl in the back, "that really fucking sucks. Dude."
I slapped my thigh.
"Yes! And when your friends ask you about Mr. Panda's class, you can say - "
"Mr. Panda's class really fucking sucks."
We covered a lot of ground for a Thursday morning, the kids and I. By the time the bell rang, I found that I didn't really want to leave, though I was officially on vacation by then, after six days of teaching. But I didn't want to leave. This was too much fun. I felt, for the first time in a while, that I was doing some really good work. But the bell had rung. It was over. My students clattered up and out of their seats.
"Before you go," I called out. "You have homework."
"Fucking A," someone groaned.
"Your homework is this: I want you to watch as many Western movies as you can and listen to as much Western music as possible, and I want you to - "
"No," I said. "Don't translate. I don't want you to translate anything. I want you to sit there with your notebook in your lap and see how many of these bad words you can pick out. Because I didn't teach you all this shit for no reason. I taught you all this shit because it's important."
My students were standing, watching me, hovering over their desks with their books pressed to their chests.
"Because I know that when you watch a Western movie and you can't understand it, you get frustrated. And you give up. You think, I've been studying English for eight years and I can't understand a single fucking thing. What's the point? But I'm telling you that it's easier than you think. When you can't understand an American movie, it's not because the people on the screen are saying complicated things. It's because they're saying simple things in ways you're not familiar with. They're using language that you won't find in your fucking books. Language that you won't find on your fucking exams. They're using language like this. This is real English."
I scrolled through all the variations of fuck and shit and ass and bitch and suck. Color words. Flavoring particles. The spice of life.
"So don't forget all this shit," I said. Then I grinned. "And have yourselves an awesome fucking vacation."
"You too, Mr. Panda!"
"I'll see you in a couple weeks. Two fucking weeks," I said, shaking my head. "I'm gonna fucking miss you guys."
"Bullshit!" the sweet bespectacled girl shouted at me. Much laughter.
"Music to my ears," I smiled. "Now get out of here. Be safe. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
They filed out of the room. I stood there at the podium watching them leave. Peace out, Mr. Panda! Catch ya later, Mr. Panda! See you on the flip side! They knew none of this three weeks ago. Three weeks ago, it was all BAI-BAI and SEE YOU. You done good, Mr. Panda. The last student shut the door behind her. Then it was just me and the whirring fans and the whirring computer and the whirring buzz of successful teaching. It was just me.
"Fucking A," I said.