In the car on the way to the school, I can’t get a word in edgewise. But I don’t mind. Never has a Hall been so content to just listen and observe.
There are nine of us from my neighborhood who carpool together each week to teach at the school. It’s standard for expat families to have one car and one driver, which means that each week we take turns depending on when our working spouses need the car and driver. We take two vans, and we always arrange last minute who will ride with whom. It always works out, everyone is always taken care of, and each week it’s a different combination of people in the car. Among the nine of us there are four Americans (three women, one man), and five other women from India, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden and the Philippines. We are all the “trailing partners”, meaning the non-working spouse, also known as “Tai Tai”s, or in the case of the one trailing husband, “Guy Tai.”
The conversations in the vans are dynamic, and no topic is off limits. Voices escalate, disagreements occur, and people are called out.
“I’m selling my air filters if anyone is interested” Mirjam says. “They are the best, imported from the Netherlands.”
“You can’t have the best of everything you know” Gauri quips in her Indian accent “You are always saying you have the best husband, the best hair salon, the best air filters. It’s not possible that you always have the best.” She makes a dramatic eye roll.
But always in good fun. We talk about travel plans and parenting, and we share without inhibition our cultural differences. A favorite conversation of mine involved everyone discussing the traditions around their marriage ceremonies. An American friend explained the concept of a rehearsal dinner, while my Dutch friend said you just show up at the church and then call it good, and our Indian friend elaborated on three days worth of parties and celebrations that left her and her husband completely exhausted by the time they made it to the honeymoon suite.
There are so many layers of personality, culture and friendship that I can’t stop smiling and laughing, sometimes in complete shock at the turn of the conversation. But these people, the kind of people who will commit half of their Wednesday every week to volunteering at a migrant school, are good to their core. Of course we don’t always agree, our beliefs cross a distance as wide as our geographical homes, but the feeling of collective joy and belonging has been so wonderful for me.
I gather outside the school with the seven other teachers. The building is a tall and minimalist concrete structure, painted a pale blue. I imagine it was built quickly, I’ve seen buildings like it go up in a few weeks. Altogether there are 16 of us, four in each grade. We make last minute adjustments to the lesson plan in the large and empty lobby. There is no front desk, receptionist or chairs, just a few posters on the wall listing school rules. No one I know back in the U.S. would send their kid to this school.
In anticipation of the bell, we split up and climb the stairs to the classrooms. The stairs are located next to the restrooms, which emit a potent odor, so as I pass take the opportunity to lather my hands with some pleasant smelling hand sanitizer. There is one long hallway, with four doors on the right side, and each classroom looks the same; windows along one wall, and chalkboards at the front and the back. Some of the chalkboards are covered in colorful chalk drawings of Chinese characters, dragons and animals. The children gather around us, offering shy smiles and candies. Our Guy-Tai friend loves to tease and thumb-wrestle with them, and they all love him best.
As the bell rings the kids take their seats and I watch from the front of the room as they begin eye exercises. Myopia development in kids and youth has been a problem in China for a long time, and all primary school age students in China do daily exercises at school. A loudspeaker in the corner of the room near the ceiling plays quiet music while a child’s voice counts and directs the kids to close their eyes, and rub their temples. I find the music and incantation for the exercises to be soothing, and appreciate the calming effect it has on the kids. There are 50-55 students in each class, so these quiet minutes offer a nice reprieve from the more chaotic moments ahead.
I teach second grade kids who are too young for attitude, and eager to please. They smile big, participate with enthusiasm. They love to practice their English phrases. “Hello. How are you?” They say with clear enunciation. I always respond as expected at first, “I’m fine, how are you?” But then I’ll throw them for a loop and ask their favorite color. They look blankly at each other and giggle with embarrassment and I wink back to let them know I’m teasing. We have an added celebrity factor because we are non-Chinese, which helps us keep their admiration and attention. We are a novelty, a change of pace, and we bring a much more relaxed teaching style. When we finish our lesson they rush to gather our magnets and use a damp cloth to wipe the blackboard.
We begin the first of three 40 minute classes, four of us teaching together. The kids are probably confused by our pronunciation as there are two Americans, one Brit and one Singaporean all saying the word “sweater” so differently.
It can be awkward. During the class where we taught the vocabulary for school supplies there was some debate as to whether to use the word eraser or the word rubber. My American friend had a hard time keeping a straight face. (Rubber means something very different to her.)
For the last class we split and teach in pairs. Most of us know very little Chinese, but we’re encouraged to use just English anyway. It can be frustrating, some words are so abstract and hard to teach with just pictures and hand gestures. We play a game over and over where we call on five boys and five girls to line up at the front. We hang printed papers with English words on the chalkboard and give one girl and one boy a fly swatter. Someone from the back of the room calls out the word and whoever swats the word first gets a point for their team. The kids love this game. Sometimes papers and magnets go flying as they swat at the chalkboard with exuberance. Their laughter is contagious and I’m always touched by the fact that language is not necessary for humor.
Before the bell for the last class rings we can all smell the food in the hallway. Lunch helpers carry gigantic pots of soup and trays of rice. The kids clamber from their desks when our class is done. As we walk down the long hallway and they wait in their lunch line, girls in pigtails shout “bye bye!” and boys wearing t-shirts with drug references and American rap lyrics on them give us high-fives. How is a Chinese eight year old supposed to know what the English word “cocaine” means?
We get back in our cars, some of us pop an Excedrin or Diet Coke, and we share stories all the way home about the funny moments, or the naughty kids, or difficulty of the task. Sometimes we ask each other if we’re really doing any good. The kids we teach are the children of migrants, and they are not allowed to attend regular public schools. In order to qualify for secondary school they will need to pass English exams, and we are sure that our weekly volunteer lessons are terribly inadequate. But we are also sure that we can’t stop doing it. So, as with many things, our mediocre effort is all we can offer.