It’s true. Of the 5 or 6 rotated songs, I often wake up to “Be it ever so humble…” as the trucks that spray the streets clean pass through my neighborhood.
When I first started working at Minnetonka, I remember thinking, When will I feel at home here? When will I feel like I belong? Settling into our common office, I observed all of these people joking around with each other, asking about each other’s kids, borrowing books or trading DVDs of their favorite TV shows, swapping stories about students. I wanted so badly to fast-forward through the Newbie Outsider phase to One of the Gang and just get it over with. But as with any new environment, there were so many Normals to develop, and collegial relationships and friendships just take time, period. Now, as I acclimate to the culture of HFLS, I realize with happiness that the sporadically heated, windowless fire-trap of an English office at MHS has truly become a second home.
I think my office and classrooms and the hallways and students here will feel familiar soon, too, and for right now, I’m constantly charmed by the quirky ways it’s all so different than Minnetonka. Though in previous posts I’ve pointed out MHS’s obvious deficiencies in comparison to HFLS- the most glaring one being the lack of a koi pond in our new commons, followed closely by the dearth of mountains surrounding the campus and no staff-only cafeteria that serves made-to-order stir fry- I realize now that I’ve been taking our stocked supply cabinets for granted. At home, when I need more staples or post-its or binder clips, I just walk 30 feet and open a neatly labeled drawer (thanks to Tammy, our Wonder Woman secretary). I was alerted to the total lack of school-supplied school supplies at HFLS on Monday morning when I wanted to print some originals on our office printer (to dutifully bring to Ms. Hong, the sweet and cheerful and awesomely efficient copy machine operator), and I discovered that teachers here provide all of their own supplies, including printer paper. Thankfully, QingQing loaned me the 7 sheets of paper I needed, but it was clear that I’d have to make a trip to the store.
On Tuesday afternoon, I stopped back in the office to stock my desk with my new supplies and to get a little work done before heading home, and I found a swarm of students milling around and inside the office, muttering to themselves and glancing down at textbooks. Though they weren’t misbehaving or disturbing any sort of peace, I had to stifle my knee-jerk reaction to kick them all out because “No students in the English Office” at MHS is something of a sacrosanct policy (as it should be). But these students were there because they had to be: they were taking a test. One by one, they’d find their teacher and recite to her- in English- a passage they’d memorized. One was about the mysterious demise of the dinosaurs and one was about a plane wreckage whose engine was preserved by honeycomb. Since I normally only hear Chinese being spoken in the office, it was actually calming- rather than tedious- to hear the students telling their teachers these nice textbook stories in their slightly British English over and over again. But that was only once I’d gotten over the fact that our holy teacher space had been desecrated by (gasp) students!
There have been a few other moments where I’ve had to blink really hard and smile and think, What planet am I on? And then sometimes, And how can I stay here forever?! Like when I walked into one of my Junior 1 classes today and a boy (whose English name is Wall) was wearing a jacket that proudly sported “PLAYBOY” in giant letters on the front, signature bunny on the back. He’s 13, by the way, and reportedly an avid chess player. Or the first day I got to see the midmorning eye exercises, when the intercom plays music to the whole school that would be soothing if it wasn’t set at 120 decibels, and students remove their glasses to massage their eyelids and the bridge of their noses, all in time to the rhythm of the song. Or when Trisha and Sabrina showed me the 3rd floor of the students’ cafeteria, which serves personal little woks of stir fry, build-your-own noodle dishes, and actual burgers. It also has outdoor rooftop seating, where we watched the sun set over the mountains and I got a little choked up because it was beautiful and more importantly, because my stir fry was that good. Steamy and crisp and sweet.
One aspect of this teaching assignment that will be really difficult to give up when I return to MHS is- and I know this sounds obvious- the kids. I taught my first Junior 1 classes today, and I confirmed that I am indeed their first foreign teacher, ever. Before I walked in, their regular teacher told me that they were very excited to hear I taught English back at home (many of the foreign teachers are licensed in other areas). True story. I walked in to a big “Welcome” on the board and an enthusiastic round of applause. The kids were eager; you could tell they weren’t supposed to get out of their seats, the way some of them kept half-climbing out. Then a girl counted down from 3, and they said, in unison and with these pure smiles, “Welcome, Jennifer! We are so happy to meet you!” I almost cried. I had to take their picture.
My Chinese students are also, so far, the best audiences that any teacher could dream up. Colleagues, I ask you to imagine a room full of students who make constant eye contact with you, who nod in all the right places, who all laugh heartily at every single one of your jokes, and who, when you thank them for being on time, burst into applause to thank you for the compliment.
And their senses of humor are gentle and kindhearted. They giggle at their own small language mistakes and they love to throw each other under the bus (which, now that I think about it, is an idiom I need to teach them if they are ever going to be educated viewers of American reality TV), but it’s all so sweet. When I asked my Senior 1s to introduce themselves today, this is what happened:
Tony Chen: “My name is Tony Chen, and I love badminton and soccer and basketball. I also love to have class outside. We should do that often.”
David: “My name is David, and I would like to say something about Tony Chen. He did not mention that he loves girls and he wants to have class outside to watch his many girlfriends. Also, I like cartoons and sleeping.”
Oscar: “My name is Oscar, and I would like to say something about David. He wants a girlfriend very much. As for me, I am very good at chess and playing the piano.”
Young: “My name is Young, and I am friends with Oscar. I would like to tell you that he does not brush his teeth. Also, math is my favorite subject, and I hope to travel to America one day.”
And like their adult counterparts, these Chinese kids are generous. Case in point, and this has to be my favorite story from Week 1, Trisha’s class of Junior 1s today gifted her this:
That, my friends, is a bottle of Spanish wine. From her students. Who are 13 years old.
It’s just all so delightfully strange. It probably goes without saying, but I love living in China. I’m finding that it’s actually pretty comfortable, here outside my comfort zone. So to answer my own question, I think I must be on Planet Awesome.