There’s a Chinese named Samuel who teaches English at JIACE. I first spoke to Samuel in a room with a couch that I like to take naps on. The fact that my first encounter with him happened when I would’ve rather been sleeping kind of set the tone for most of our future meetings. Samuel was assigned the duty of hosting an English competition, which was taking place that day. The winner of the competition would go on to compete in another competition against students from other schools in the city.
Samuel occasionally asked me to weigh in on some things that were bothering him, like the color scheme of his one-slide Powerpoint presentation, pronunciation of certain words and what kind of things I would say if I was hosting such an event. At one point, I left to go to the bathroom. As I was finishing up, I saw Samuel standing by the door. He looked like a child lost at the zoo. He asked me if I thought his outfit was okay. I said it looked fine. He was wearing a pretty standard suit and button-down shirt combo.
“It’s wet,” he said.
“It looks okay,” I replied.
“What should I do?”
“I honestly think it looks fine, don’t worry about it.”
Samuel stared at me as I left. I like to imagine he spent the next few minutes gazing at his blurred reflection in the wall tiles, since there are no mirrors in JIACE bathrooms, pondering his misfortune. I didn’t get to see how Samuel fared at the competition but both Andrew and Nick were judges. From what Nick told me, it seems like his nerves got the better of him; his introductory speech ended abruptly and awkwardly but nobody really seemed to notice or care and from that point on the event moved forward without a hitch.
I began to see a lot more of Samuel after that. He started coming to the bus stop almost every morning. Out of curiosity, I asked why I hadn’t seen him there for the first month of the semester. He stated quite bluntly that even though it was less convenient for him to wait for the bus at our stop, he wanted to take the opportunity to talk with us foreigners to improve his English. That seemed reasonable enough.
One morning as Andrew, Nick, Wayne and I were having a conversation, Samuel arrived and did this thing he likes to do where he opens his arms wide and pats the two people closest to him firmly on the shoulder. I’m almost certain he learned this maneuver from a sitcom. Without wasting any time, Samuel pulled out a textbook and engaged Andrew in conversation. Their conversation lasted the entire twenty minute bus ride.
Upon our arrival, Samuel thanked Andrew for his assistance. He said it was “necessary” that Andrew help him. As we walked toward the classroom building, Andrew mentioned that apparently, Samuel had no class that day and took the bus to school for the sole purpose of asking him for help. I thought that was kind of weird.
The following Friday I saw Samuel in the couch room. He asked me for some help with a “lost and found” lesson plan, namely how one would go about finding teaching materials for such a lesson plan online. I suggested googling “lost and found esl,” which comes up with a handful of pertinent results. I thought that would be the end of it but Samuel summoned me to his computer about an hour later.
Samuel explained that he couldn’t find anything suitable. I glanced at the monitor, which displayed what seemed to be a perfectly good lost and found dialogue.
“This seems to be a perfectly good lost and found dialogue,” I said.
Samuel shook his head. He wanted to find a video; text wasn’t good enough. I told him I haven’t shown a single video in my classes since the classrooms I teach in are equipped with no more than a blackboard and chalk. He was shocked. I tried to convince him that text would be fine but he still seemed hesitant. He didn’t think it was a good conversation because the object in question was a key and they didn’t describe it well. I read the conversation again. They described the shit out of that key.
“They do not mention color,” Samuel explained. “Maybe you can look for me?”
He rolled his chair away from the desk. To make room for me. So I could use google.com for him.
I assessed his request and decided that this was not a language problem so much as a severe incompetence problem and told him he was on his own.
Andrew finished class the same time as me. When I told him about my run-in with Samuel he looked at me in disbelief. “Lost and found” was the exact same topic that Samuel had approached Andrew for help with a week prior. I wondered what it was exactly that went on in Samuel’s classes that week besides uncomfortable silence, trembling and stuttering for an hour and a half.
In the midst of our discussion, Samuel’s head popped into view as he got on the bus. He waved to us but instead of making his way over and sitting across the aisle as I feared he would, he sat a few rows ahead of us. I felt a short-lived sense of relief until he got up and approached us after setting his bag down.
“When I make the poster for the lost item, is it important that I include the time?” he inquired.
I thought about that for a second.
“You mean the last time you saw the lost item?”
“No,” he replied, “the time that I put up the poster.”
This was not a language problem.
My next real conversation with Samuel also took place on the bus. This time he was looking for teaching advice in general. I made sure he knew I only had about four months of teaching experience under my belt. He asked me to give him advice anyway, so I did.
I come up with a one-word theme for my lesson and make a list, about a paragraph in length, of vocabulary words generated by word-association. The planning process takes about three to five minutes. I try to spend as long as possible on each word in class, teaching related words that come to mind on the spot and telling stories or going on tangents.
He didn’t express any sort of interest in the effectiveness of my lessons. He merely asked if the students laugh at my stories. I made the mistake of saying that they do sometimes, which led Samuel to essentially ask me how to connect with other human beings on a basic level. It occurred to me that I’d never actually heard Samuel attempt to make a humorous comment or laugh at anything. I told him to tell stories about his grandfather because most people have or once had grandfathers and grandfathers generally do funny things.
He responded by reminiscing about his grandfather in a Morgan Freeman voice-over styled narrative. His grandfather recently passed away and he talked about how sad that made him feel. He talked about what a kind man his grandfather was and how he often made Samuel laugh when he was a child. This was not a language problem.
For the rest of the fall semester, I managed to avoid long, confusing and depressing conversations with Samuel. I saw him for the first time since vacation last week in the couch room. He sat down next to me. I asked him how his vacation was. He said it was good but didn’t really elaborate. We sat in silence for a bit.
“So what are some of your hobbies?” he asked.
I reminded myself that I’ve known Samuel for about half a year before responding. I told him about my experience diving at the YMCA, which I explained stands for the Young Men’s Christian Association.
“Are you Christian?” he asked.
“No, but everyone’s allowed to go.” I replied.
I went on, bringing up NAMBLA, which I explained stands for the North American Man/Boy Love Association, whose pools are better than those at the YMCAs, so I would go there whenever I could but they weren’t in as widespread as YMCA.
“Oh, so it’s another association,” observed Samuel.
I went on to relate my experience as an amateur cartographer, drawing maps that highlight my favorite places of interest in my city of residence. Restaurants, friends’ apartments, scenic spots and anything else that catches my eye are all fair game to be marked down on a piece of paper in a spatially realistic manner.
Samuel asked if I like Friends. I love Friends, of course. I made sure he understood that I don’t love it just because it’s a hilarious laugh riot but also because I like to pretend that the characters in the show are my actual friends and the episodes are wonderful memories that we shared together and I can just revisit them any time by popping in a DVD. I recommended Sex and the City, which is like Friends but even better because with Friends I only have three friends that are girls but when I watch Sex and the City I have four friends that are girls.
Samuel asked what my plans are for the near future. I admitted that I’m seriously considering pursuing a career in freelance cartography and Beijing has a pretty good scene for it, so I’d probably head over there in the near future. I offered to teach him some cartography techniques some time, which seemed to interest him.
I think this was the best conversation I ever had with Samuel. Earlier tonight I drew Samuel a personalized map that I plan to give him the next time we meet.