Even before my name, most people ask me if I am here to teach or study. Not work, but teach. It is common knowledge that, should a foreigner end up in a backwater* like Hefei, then the person is undoubtedly either at Anhui University studying, or teaching English and earning pots of cash. A consequence of this is that everyone assumes that you want to tutor their child in English, whether or not their child, or you, wants it.
Sarah and I had agreed to meet with a friend of mine, whom I call World Piano. She has her own little English tutoring school, and invited Sarah and me to sit in on one of her summer classes. The sun was brutal, and we walked the whole way to the little school under a sunbrella. The sweltering room was covered in posters showing schedules and crayon-drawn images of superheros and bunnies. At the front of the room, World Piano stood, wearing an impossibly frilly dress, grinning like a maniac and leading the children who sat at miniscule desks in an exercise to do possibly with plurals or maybe nationalities. Despite the small room, World Piano was wearing a microphone headset, her sqeaky voice booming from speakers around the room. “Are your friendsssss Norwegian?”
The children responded in unison: “No! Our friendssssss are Estonian!”
Sarah and I sat down on toddler-sized chairs at the back of the room, discreetly holding hands. Several of the children got very distracted from the lesson and started grinning and squealing and waving at us. World Piano tottered towards us on high heels and introduced us to her “lovely little friends” before returning to a chant of “How many blouses do you have?”
At this point a self conscious looking woman came into the room, smiled in strained fashion at me, and sat down next to me. The usual conversation started:
“Are you American? So, are you teaching or studying at Anhui University? Do you teach children?” I answered as best I could, trying not to die of boredom, while Sarah alternately practiced her “I’m-really-lovely-I-just-don’t-understand-a-word-of-what-you’re-saying” smile and watched the lesson.
Pretty soon the lesson ended, and the children started leaving. They waved at us enthusiastically, shouldering Barbie and Spiderman backpacks, their parents straightening pigtails and brushing dust of of the little emperorsss’ shirts.
The woman grabbed her son on his way outside to roughhouse with the other little boys. He was buzz-cut, mildly bucktoothed and distinctly unenthusiastic. “These two ladies are Americans. You should practice your English with them. Talk to them. Now.” Her awkward mild demeanor didn’t quite hide the passive aggressive energy in her words. The boy shuffled awkwardly.
Sarah leaned forward, smiling kindly, “Hello! My…name…is…Sarah!” she beamed, “What…is…your…name?”
He shot his mother a half-exasperated, half-terrified look, before mumbling, “My… name…Li Shu Yi”.
“Say something more!” his mother prompted, but he couldn’t. She turned to me, held out a piece of paper. “Give me your phone number.” I was a little intimidated and still don’t know how to refuse someone in Chinese, so I gave it to her. World Piano came over, grinning madly and pulling on a frilly white jacket, frilly yellow gloves and a frilly pink sunhat with a frilly bonnet over the top, and picking up her frilly sunbrella. She chatted for a while with the woman before whisking Sarah and me off for a bowl of noodles and a slightly manic chat.
That afternoon, I got a call. “Ummmmm… Do you remember me? Well… I want you to teach my son.” I did my best to explain that I wasn’t a professional, and maybe not the best person to teach her son. “Well, what about the girl with you?” I explained that in the next week Sarah would be leaving. To the woman, this meant that I was agreeing to tutor her son. I tried to disabuse her of the notion, explaining that I would be extremely busy during the school year and that I already had several job offers. She wouldn’t hear any of it. “Why don’t you want to tutor my son? You speak English, just talk with him, all I want is someone to talk with him, why are you doing this?” So, cowed by her plaintive tone, I agreed to meet with her in the week after Sarah had gone.
I wasn’t quite sure why I had been refusing, I just had a bad feeling about the whole thing, so when I got the inevitably awkward phone call the next week, I dragged my feet on the way there. They lived in an apartment above World Piano’s English school, and I looked around the courtyard, waiting for some sign of the woman. She called my phone to inform me that she would “send her son down.”
Sure enough, Li Shu Yi arrived bobbing up and down awkwardly as only a 12 year old boy can. He shook my hand limply, mumbled something, and silently showed me up to the apartment. It was spotless, glittering, and bare. The mother was there, smiling strainedly, and supervised her son and me as we swapped our shoes for slippers.
The boy’s room was equally barren. The desk was occupied only by a small glass of pencils. There weren’t even any textbooks. He sat down in front of me, and, to my horror, his mother brought in a chair, and sat down next to him. “So,” she said, looking at me, trying to smile. “So… teach my son.” And she stared at me.
I had not been expected to have the mother sitting in on this. I hadn’t been entirely sure what I was going to do, how I was going to teach, as I had no idea of the child’s level of English. But the mum’s participation made this ten times more of a problem.
I cleared my throat, and began in Chinese. “So, Shu Yi, I don’t know your level of English yet, so I just want to figure that out first, yeah?” He nodded. “Okay, so, how long have you been studying English and-”
His mother cut in. “Excuse me, why aren’t you speaking in English? That’s why you are here.”
I smiled nervously and repeated myself, only now in English. The boy responded with a halfhearted “Yes,” which hadn’t been what I was going for, so I tried something simpler: “You…have…studied…English…how…long?”
The boy turned to his mother, and made a groaning noise. I started chewing my pen nervously. Clearly I wasn’t making much of an impression, so I tried to change tack. Maybe he would understand if I asked him how old he was? Very slowly? But there’s not a lot of places you can take the “How old are you?” conversation apart from “so…you are 12… and…last year you were 11?” So I tried to get him talking about what he liked to do. This was more successful.
“I…like…read…comic book.” Okay, we were getting somewhere. But his favorite ones were all in Chinese, so we hit a dead end. Apparently they were about Kung Fu, and I tried to tell him about my roommate Owen who does Kung Fu. But he started groaning, and all the while, the boy’s mother was staring directly at me. My pen was getting subtly nibbled to death from nerves. I tried to get a conversation going about food. What…was…his…favorite…food? Again the groaning noise. Then he made a huffing noise, and looked at his mother and whined, “Mommmmm! She’s using complicated English, I don’t understaaaaand! It’s so formal!” I couldn’t see what was hard about what his favorite food was, but apparently his mother could. She sat up straight and said, “I brought you hear to speak simple English with my son! Talk to him! Talk to him! Simply! What are you doing, being formal?”
I heard a noise and looked to the doorway, where a man, presumably the boy’s father, stood. “What’s all this?” He demanded. “We brought you here to chat with our son. Don’t talk about food! Talk about movies and cars and social stuff!” He clucked his tongue at me, and repeated: “Social topics. Social English. Understand? Cars. Movies.”
As the father stormed off, I made one last ditch effort to talk about pets, but when I tried to explain what a cat was, in Chinese, the mother yet again took offense. It suddenly hit me that I didn’t have to stay, and in a city of more than 6 million people, it was very unlikely that I would ever see them again. I didn’t have to sit here letting out my terror and frustration on my poor little pen (which says, “Crazy Shit! Wow! I Love Crazy Shit!” on the side).
I sat up straighter and looked at the mother in the eye. “Look, this isn’t going anywhere. I honestly don’t think I’m the appropriate tutor for your son. You should get someone professional.” The mother looked shocked. She just stared at me. “I teach college-level students, and that is what I have experience doing. Your son’s level of English is not one which I can easily teach, so I think you would be better served by someone with the right qualifications.”
“But we’ve made him study for four years!” The mother blurted out, panicked. “We want you to talk with him! Just talk! Simple English! Simple English!”
“Ma’am, have you looked into professional tutoring services? English after school programs? There are plenty in this city. I wouldn’t call myself the best choice.”
The mother looked sheepish, “Well…no. But why can’t it be YOU? Why can’t you teach our son your language?”
I leveled my gravest stare at her, “I really think you should find someone professional. Actually do some research. You know? Now if you will excuse me, I will be leaving.”
I smiled and left the room. As I was putting on my shoes, the mother ran in along with the boy, “How much do you want? How much money?”
“I haven’t really taught your son anything, Ma’am. I would not take your money, it would be unfair, now thank you and goodbye.”
As I went down the elevator and out into the fresh air, I felt my shoulders start to relax, but also a sense of loss. I had turned down my first job here. Shouldn’t I have kept it? I could have made money doing it, certainly. But as I began to worry, my phone rang.
“Hello, Archi! This is Teacher Wu speaking!”
“Hey! What’s up?”
“Well, if you were interested, there’s a course that needs a teacher here at the University…”
That cleared that problem up. I had not dropped an opportunity, I had escaped.