Thursday, October 22, 2009

Office Times

It’s 9:00 a.m. and as I approach the English building, I see students up on the balcony of the 8th floor, looking down, waiting for their foreign teacher to arrive. I take the elevator to the top floor. At first, only a few students are there. They are freshman; they timidly wait in the stairwell until I coax them into our vacuous office. They sit nervously beside each other even though there are spots right beside me. A few of the more vocal students from another class arrive. These students sit down directly beside me; they have no fear. “What should we talk about today?” they ask.

“Do you have a topic you want to discuss?” I ask.

They don’t, so I pull out my list of questions and choose one. The students don’t want to share their opinions at first. The topic is whether or not it is culturally acceptable to help someone who falls down or drops something. They said you shouldn’t worry about it because if you go to help the person, that person will lose face.

Then, predictably, a student asks about my home-town. This student had missed the first class where I introduced myself. I ask the other students if they remember where I am from in the States. They don’t. Feeling tired of talking, I walk to the chalk board and draw a map of the Midwest. The students like the map and can see how close South Dakota is in relation to Canada. (It’s a little confusing for them still because of the “South” in South Dakota…shouldn’t it technically be in the “south” part of the country?)

One of the students has a 21st Century English newspaper in her hand. On the cover is a big picture of Beyonce in a flashy low-cut, red dress. I ask them if they know what Beyonce sings. They don’t—I mention her song, “IF I were a Boy.” Randomly, one of the students has this song downloaded on her cell phone—we all listen to the music and enjoy the soothing rhythm and revealing lyrics. Another article in the newspaper talks about “introversion.” We talk about what it means to be an introvert and an extrovert. I think of one student’s notecard who wrote, “I prefer for people to leave me alone when I’m studying or reading.” I wonder how introverted students do it in China when they share a dorm room with as many as 8 students.

One of the outgoing students mentions that their other morning classes were cancelled so they can stay in the office all morning and talk. “Oh dear” I say. “I have something to do and cannot stay.” I love being able to say “I have something to do” so freely in China. You don’t have to say what you have to do…the phrase is one that’s above questioning. In the same way, when my Chinese friend says she has “something to do,” I also don’t ask. It’s what you say when you don’t want to be specific. It’s very convenient.

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