On the first day of summer school in China’s Zheziang province, my 30 teenage students recited their English names. Among them, Vera, Phoebe and Sofia, Baron and Iverson, who wore a basketball shirt bearing his hero’s name and number.
Another class had cousins named Easy and Crazy.
I was green as a leaf after two semesters of George Brown’s ESL teacher training program. The annual trip is a perk for graduates deemed adaptable enough to survive a month in China. Nobody mentioned we’d be awakened by firecrackers at 4:30 a.m. for days on end, part of the ritual as the villagers nearby buried their dead. Or that once the typhoon passed, the heat would be so oppressive it was impossible to move without being drenched in sweat.
From our dorm room balconies, we watched men in bare feet, trousers hiked up, working the flooded rice paddies with plows drawn by water buffalo. On Sundays, women washed clothes in a stream, though 10 minutes away they could buy an electric washing machine in the bustling metropolis of Yue Qing.
We’d duck down beside the cafeteria window at mealtimes and point to stainless steel pans of mystery meat, scooped by young women wearing thick white surgical masks behind the glass.
In the hallway, my little girls chattered like birds, yet I had to practically press my ear to their mouths to hear them in class as they shrank into their seats. To draw them out, I played every game and taught them every pop song I could muster, while trying to interest them in co-ordinating conjunctions and find vocabulary that related to their lives.
Five girls crowded around to talk one day. The boldest, Fei, who’d been Claire until I said her Chinese name sounded lovely in English, said she’d never spoken to a foreigner before, or walked beside one.
Another day, the class monitor informed me the material was too easy, and they’d rather hear about me.
“But I’m supposed to be teaching writing,” I protested.
“Yes, but we won’t tell,” she said.
That’s how I ended up describing polar bears and snowy mountains to a rapt audience, along with the world’s tallest tower and maple sap dripping from trees and 283,000 Chinese in Toronto alone and how on the subway you can hear speakers from every country in the world.
You have to be flexible to teach ESL abroad, I learned, but the rewards are priceless.