On days when eating Chinese food seems less appealing than eating the ever-growing cluster of shit stains on my toilet bowl, there are few places to turn in Changchun. Two restaurants owned by the same people, named Grandma’a and Grandpa’s, take recipes and suggestions from foreigners and as a result offer passable burgers, burritos and such. When I have the cash to spare and the inclination to travel thirty or forty minutes, one of these is where I go to satisfy my lust for a Western meal. The other options are KFC and McDonald’s.
Now, whenever I walk into or out of a room the first thing I do is take a deep, confident breath, scan the place and ask myself, “is there any way I can capitalize on this situation and turn it into a profitable business venture?” I asked myself this question as I stood before the second-level seating area of McDonald’s, two Big Mac(Donald’s hamburger)s, fries and drink in hand. I spotted a slightly overweight man with spiked hair and a leather jacket relaxing in the far corner by himself and knew the answer to my question was yes.
By carefully ignoring the man for the duration of my meal, I successfully caught his attention. “So how do you like Changchun?” he suddenly inquired. Martin, as he introduced himself to me, has been living in Changchun for about six years. He told me about a website called “Changchun Friends,” a Facebook clone for foreigners in Changchun. He has a wife here in Changchun and teaches English to the young children of Changchun. We talked about Changchun winters and Changchun roads and argued fervently over whether or not it was possible to get a real piece of steak in Changchun, which I still contend is impossible. His wife called and demanded his return home so we exchanged numbers and parted ways.
I got a call from Martin a few days later. He asked me about my current job and salary and very bluntly stated that I could make a lot more money teaching at a school called Rise. I mentioned that my contract was a year long and I’d keep it in mind. A few days after that phone call, he sent me a text message asking if I could teach for an hour on Saturdays for 120 yuan.
My contract with JIACE prohibits me from working part-time at other schools. Andrew once asked Summer why this is, to which she replied that it’s dangerous; people might take advantage of us and they wouldn’t want anyone to do that unless they too were profiting from it. I thought about my contract and how the school had violated nearly half of its terms in under a month, then gave Martin my reply that I would be happy to teach a class on Saturdays.
I showed up for an interview at Rise on a Wednesday around 5. I had no idea what kind of school it was or what kind of classes I’d be teaching, except that I’d have around ten students. From the outside Rise looked like a second-rate indoor amusement park where children urinate in ball pits and hibernate at the top of plastic slides, kicking and biting others who try to make proper use of the recreational equipment. A giant multi-colored sign atop the entrance read “RISE: Subject English,” which didn’t entirely convince me that the place was actually a school. My suspicions only worsened when I walked in to see crowds of parents huddled around the perimeter of an enormous sandbox, watching their children shriek with pleasure and pain.
I asked a receptionist where I could find a woman named Christina. After giggling, she pointed toward a hall of cubicles. A chipper woman at the far end flagged me down when she saw me slowly making my way through the room, attempting to make eye contact with the women to gauge whether or not one of them was expecting a confused white guy. On my way over, I noticed an area near her sectioned off by glass occupied by two foreigners.
As I approached Christina, I was under the impression that I should take my interview seriously but I quickly realized that it would progress in a manner similar to every other professional meeting I’d ever had in China. Christina spent most of the interview alt-tabbing between a spreadsheet document and a libidinous QQ conversation. The interview pertained more to my availability than my qualifications. I was asked when I could start, if I’d be available to attend their Halloween party and if I’d be able to teach more hours once the fall semester at JIACE finished, but not why I thought I was capable of holding the attention of a class full of five-year-olds for any length of time, let alone teach them anything. But if Christina didn’t see a problem with anything, why should I?
Rise employs a staff of several dozen Chinese girls in their twenties and early thirties to dress up in fuzzy pink sweatshirts and teach English to children aged 4-12. Rise employs a staff of maybe four or five foreigners to attract customers with promises of weekly foreigner fun time for their children. Christina dressed this up for me by telling me I’d be reviewing material the kids had learned every week. She told me she’d send me a class summary later that night so I could prepare a lesson.
Christina neglected to e-mail me the summary that night. She neglected to e-mail me the summary on Thursday as well until I called and reminded her that I needed it. I received the following Microsoft Word document:
|This will not be my second post without any images|
“Hello Stephen,” I began.
“HELLO!” replied Stephen.
“What day is it today?”
“SATURDAY! SUNDAY MONDAY TUESDAY WEDNESDAY–”
“Great! What day was it yesterday?”
“–THURSDAY FRIDAY SATURDAY!”
“What day was it yesterday, Stephen?”
“How is the weather today?”
“Is it cold today?”
“THE WEATHER IS SUNNY!”
This continued for about a minute before I asked someone else to come up. Every time a day of the week was mentioned, Stephen would chant them all from Sunday to Saturday to the tune of a slightly dissonant melody that no one else in the class seemed to be familiar with. Most of the kids stared at me in horror for the rest of the half-hour without saying a word but a few of them were happy to participate. One of them was named Superman and had a rat tail. The class wasn’t as painful as I imagined it would be, in part because it eventually came to an end. In the event that they wanted me back, I would make sure I was prepared.
Christina was busy in a meeting, something that I had a feeling could take a lot longer than I was willing to wait. I asked a guy named Bill, who I had befriended after my interview and lives in Zhonghai, if I could trust Christina to pay me the 60 yuan I earned (one and a half round trips to Rise by cab) when I cam next week. He didn’t doubt it, so I left.
I received my next call from Christina Friday evening. Not only would I teach the same class I had the previous week but another one as well. Phoebe’s new class summary seemed a bit more helpful than her last one, if only because this time around I knew Powerpoint was an option. The topic was phonics. B says B. At says at. B-at. Bat. Kay taught the other class I’d be visiting.
I tried to wake up early enough to catch a bus downtown but I slept through my initial alarm and three or four snoozes. I split a cab with Bill and we arrived about thirty minutes before my class, so he showed me some nearby places of interest. I also got a chance to meet Richard in the foreigner office. Richard looked about twice the age of Bill and I and hails from the UK. He showed little to no interest in meeting me, however, he did also mention that friends were arriving at his place at three in the morning with fifths of liquor and he was “just going to let this happen.” An attitude I admire.
Phoebe’s class went better this time around. When I entered the room, my man Stephen interrupted a class sing-a-long by pointing at me and shouting, “PAUL IS COMING!” Phoebe agreed that I was indeed coming and ended the sing-a-long. She and Cici helped me kill about five minutes of class time by chatting with me and ignoring the kids whose parents had paid good money for me to interact with their children. Phoebe offhandedly mentioned before leaving that the words in my Powerpoint presentation were going to be easy for them but that it was okay. I started to think that maybe I shouldn’t be taking the summaries at face value anymore.
Gogo was in a good mood that day and I got to see firsthand that he actually is a brilliant kid who made insightful observations throughout the class. While we were playing an alphabet flash game he remarked that the game was too easy and we should play something else. He seemed to understand when I mentioned that not everyone had a turn yet and it wasn’t as easy for them.
After a ten minute break I had Kay’s class. I walked into the classroom and basked in the warmth of the ensuing chaos. The children were running around, screaming and throwing shit at each other. I felt that my classes, at JIACE and Rise or anywhere else, would be great as long as the students had some energy. Now I was able to put that theory to the test. The TA was calmly sitting in the back of the classroom. When she saw me she called the kids to attention and they got in their seats almost immediately. A few stragglers came in from the bathroom and I started up my presentation.
I went through a collection of images that depicted verbs and asked the kids to guess what they were. Most of the kids were jumping up and down with their arms stretched over their heads shouting out the answers. Every time one of the kids labeled a picture correctly, the TA drew a tally next to the student’s name written on a white board. When we moved on to adverbs, I incorporated a flash game. I opened up the folder that held the games and the children, recognizing it, let out a roar of approval. I was scrolling through when one of them said “OH I KNOW,” ran up to the screen and double-clicked on a game. They all cheered again.
I would then shout out a verb and call on a student to make a sentence with an adverb of their choice. If they were right, they could come up and play a round of the game. Except for the only two girls in the class, who looked like they might die of terror at any moment, everyone participated.
The object of the game was to launch a penguin into the air and keep him up as long as possible by clicking on him and collecting turbo boosts. That’s pretty fucking awesome when the mouse is your hand. The TA and I both got just as involved in the excitement as the kids. When we played the game again two weeks later she even hit the turbo boosts a couple of times when the kids failed to notice them.
I left the classroom in one of the best moods I’d been in since arriving in Changchun and headed down to the office to collect my pay. Christina asked me if I could work a trick-or-treat station at the school on Halloween. I replied that I’d be happy to.
“So what will you say after the student asks trick or treat?” she asked.
“I think we usually just give them candy.” I said.
“Do you have a costume?”
“Well… no… I–”
“Yeah, he’s got a fucking costume,” commented Richard from the foreigner office, “because he knew this would happen.” I liked Richard.
Christina said they had a good costume I could wear. She took me up to the top floor of the building into an attic. After digging through piles of things that people only keep in attics, she pulled out a witch’s hat peppered with glitter. She held it up proudly. I told her that men generally don’t wear those hats but I did take the gender-neutral cloak that accompanied the hat.
We went back down to the office and Christina grabbed a Scream mask that was sitting on top of a filing cabinet right behind her desk. It was the kind that has a pump so you can make fake blood flow down the face. I always wanted one of those masks when I was a kid. I don’t remember whether I wasn’t allowed to have one or if I just never asked for one but I always wanted it. I expressed my approval to Christina and showed her how awesome the blood-pumping mechanism was. She said the blood would be too scary for the kids and I shouldn’t do it. I promised that I wouldn’t do it in front of the kids. She either didn’t believe me or didn’t want to take the chance so instead found another mask that to be honest, was a lot more unnerving than the Scream mask.
Christina sent me my summaries for Halloween weekend. Phoebe’s class was learning about Halloween-themed stuff and Kay didn’t give her a summary so she said I should go over the same stuff as last week. Bill asked me if I wanted to take a cab again because he was bringing his dog Mika to the school dressed in a Superman dog costume. Mika is an adorable tiny dog, incapable of spreading anything but love, joy and playfulness. Everyone, save for a select few, in the Rise office called her 大狗(dagou, meaning big dog) and shot her dirty looks. People would approach Mika and stare her down as if they might have to fight for their lives without a second’s warning while she trotted around licking and nuzzling everyone. Christina and the big boss, a guy named Jeffrey who looks like he might have descended from a species of salmon, told Bill he might have to take Mika home if she scared the children.
Phoebe’s class went well, as Halloween-themed activities often do. There was a pumpkin-carving game on the server, so we spent a lot of time playing that. When I went to Kay’s classroom afterwards, the kids were running around and screaming again but Kay was still in the room. She and the TA seemed confused by my presence.
“I didn’t ask for a foreign teacher today,” Kay said.
“Okay. I’ll leave.”
“Did you receive the summary?”
“No, Christina said to do the same thing as last time.”
Kay left the room a bit annoyed. The TA smiled bashfully. She apologized a few times.
I sat in a tiny chair and let some kids try to stomp on my feet until Kay returned. She said she checked to see if she requested a foreign teacher but indeed did not. She apologized and I said it really wasn’t a problem, Christina must have just made a mistake. Kay glared at me and replied, “she always make a mistake.”
I spent the afternoon at a nearby library reading and when I came back, Bill had been asked to take Mika home. Martin was in the office as well, the first time I’d seen him since my trip to McDonald’s. I learned that he either enjoys or can’t help making people feel uncomfortable, so it was fun to talk with him. Bill convinced me to go to a restaurant and drink a few beers with him about an hour before the Halloween party started. I got a slight buzz, returned, put on my costume and was directed to a room.
I was paired with a teacher named Lily, who may or may not have exceeded three feet in stature. She explained that children and parents would be arriving in waves. Three waves of trick-or-treaters would come to our room. The kids would enter one by one, inquire as to whether they’d fall victim to a dastardly trick or acquire some sort of delightful treat, receive a bag full of candy and possibly cheap plastic shit, then continue inside the room. Each group had twenty minutes in the room before moving on to another activity. The filing in and trick-or-treating took roughly one minute. The next nineteen minutes would be devoted to foreigner interactivity time.
“You should entertain the children,” Lily suggested.
A lot of the children were sitting on their parents’ laps but some of them danced around me and stared at my mask. A few of them were clearly disturbed and confused by its repugnant nature. A tiny child dressed as a cowboy looked like he was about to cry. I lifted my mask to show him that I was just a harmless white guy and he attempted to shoot me with his fake pistols. I stumbled around groaning while the kids ran away shrieking. After a while some of them mustered up the courage to inflict imaginary harm upon me. I threw myself to the ground and feigned a melodramatic death and there was much rejoicing. They continued to assault me after I was already dead.
I resurrected myself and feigned my death repeatedly for the rest of the night. Eventually, every single kid was actively taking part in my brutal murders. The parents were all snapping pictures and cheering their kids on. As they left some of the parents shook my hand and expressed deep approval of the violence and foreigner abuse I was encouraging their kids to take part in. I did the same routine with the next two groups and achieved similar success.
There are many words in this post so far and I wouldn’t expect anyone to retain interest beyond this point. I will recount the rest of my experience with Rise some other time. But not before I post about things far more interesting and a little bit more recent.