Wednesday, January 1, 2014


As most of you probably know, I love my job working in Suzhou as an English teacher for the primary schools (three to be exact). And I truly truly do. I love going to school knowing I’m going to have to fend off hordes of third graders and fourth graders who want to hug me and ask me how I am so they can answer me in their own tiny English. I love showing them things they’ve never seen before (like cutting down a Christmas tree, or houses with Christmas lights). I love obsessing over the germs I come in contact with at school because the students all want to look at my notebook and see all my ‘amazing’ English writing inside it.

It’s a truly wonderful and humbling experience to know that you can mean so much to hundreds of little kids and you can really kick-start their interest in English. Yesterday, one of my favorite students’ mother came up to me after school and introduced herself. She told me that her son, Jerry, has started trying harder in English because he likes me. That is everything I hope to do as a teacher here. I hope to increase their vocabulary a little, I hope to expand their knowledge of culture a little, but I really hope to spark their interest in English.

Jerry with a witch's hat & Tommy as a zombie.
So I love my job, really truly. Yes, I have some classes that drive me crazy, but that’s life. Not all classes can cheer my name when I enter the classroom and kick out their Chinese teacher (yes, I’m talking about you G5C6, you amazing little Michelle cheerleaders, you). But even in those classes, I have at least a handful of students who are invested in learning and who I see retaining the new vocab week after week.

The boys of G5C6.
The girls of G5C6 (and one boy).

Which is why, when things get crazy at work, I have a momentary spazz, and then remember why I’m doing all of this to begin with. Working here, I have realized that there is chaos that the other Chinese teachers are simply used to that I have yet to become used to. To sum up the situation, there is Seinfeld.

I’m not sure if anyone will remember, but on Seinfeld there was an absolutely wonderful episode about George and a task given to him by his boss, Wilhelm. The episode is called “The Bottle Deposit” and if you haven’t seen it, you really should.

To sum up, George is given an assignment by his boss, but misses all the key details. Wilhelm checks up on George and asks if George has gone downtown yet. Having no idea what his boss is talking about, George tries asking follow up questions to understand what Wilhelm means by ‘going downtown.’ Wilhelm alludes to the song Downtown, saying “everything is happening downtown.” George is left clueless and the episode continues from there with Wilhelm eventually finishing the project on his own but thinking George had done it since Wilhelm is in the early stages of memory loss. George happily takes the credit for the project, having had no idea what the project was or how it was to be done. Here’s a clip that better explains what I’m trying to say.

Now. In your minds, please recast George as me:

Wilhelm as the lovely Susan (or any of my other Chinese co-workers):

And Tommy as Jerry:

Okay? Got it? Great.

In my daily work life, I am given ‘downtown’ tasks. For example, just yesterday, Susan asked me to write a letter to their partner school.

That’s it. Those are my entire directions.

So, in classic George style, I attempted follow up questions. “A letter about what?” I asked. Susan replied with, “About Christmas, ‘buluh buluh’” (the Chinese version of saying blah blah blah). Still confused, I asked, “What our school did for Christmas?” “About New Year’s wishes, ‘buluh buluh’,’” she told me.

Right. Let’s get to work. I spent five minutes composing a vague letter about wishing the other school a happy New Year’s, about the random things my school did for Christmas (i.e. a Christmas show with students singing the Christmas song I attempted to teach them, and having the other foreign teacher dress up in a Santa Claus suit and pass out Christmas gifts to the students), and about the New Year’s show we were putting on that day.

Then I sent it off to her and asked if it was correct. She replied “Yes, yes, I will send it.” What does that mean? I have no idea. But my task was complete.

New Year's Celebration Show

Two weeks prior to this. Susan texted me saying that the head of our department wanted me and Tommy to record the lines for the upcoming school play. That’s it. No explanation of how to record, no explanation of what exactly to record (the parts individually? Tommy and I saying specific parts? the entire play or just a scene of it?). Tommy and I partook in a George and Jerry debate over what this text could possibly mean.

We decided on follow-up maneuvers, texting Susan the above questions. Susan replied that the students should hear us saying it to hear better pronunciation. Again, I expressed my confusion. She wrote back, never mind, we can discuss on Monday.

On Monday, she told me to use my iphone and read the parts back and forth. I went home and did this with Tommy, breaking the play into four clips. I gave it to her on Tuesday, as requested, and asked her if it was alright. She expressed surprise that it wasn’t all one clip (we broke it up because we kept cracking each other up, Tommy is shockingly awful at having to force emotion into his voice, I’d say a career in acting is out for him) but then said ‘never mind’ and off she went with the clips.

Did we do it correctly? Did we speak slow enough for the students? Who knows. But the task was accomplished. And that’s the thing, the reason Susan can’t give specifics is more to do with the fact that this information is being relayed down to her through two other people than anything else. The information comes in such a top-down fashion that a lot information, a ‘downtown’ amount of information, is lost in translation.

My exact expression upon receiving
these instructions.
At my other school, my teacher Kathy asked if I was going to the school’s dinner for Winter Solstice. I asked when it was, she said sometime after four (everything is always happening at ‘sometime’ ‘before’ or ‘after’  here, we never have concrete times). I asked what was for dinner. “Traditional food.”

I heard “Downtown” beginning to play in my mind. So, I called Tommy, invited him to the school’s dinner ‘sometime’ ‘after’ four. He came, we went to the cafeteria; the floor I normally ate on was locked. “Downtown” begins playing louder. We go down to the other cafeteria, and only half of it is open. So we go to the back, we walk in. “Downtown” reaches new volume.

There is no dinner set up. There are dead chicken legs sticking out of plastic bags. There is my co-worker Danny arguing in his Chinese tinted with a British accent what he should do with the food, if he can leave here until after he goes to dinner. There’s the staff worker saying just leave it in your office, it will stay cold enough there. 
The left one looks tasty.

There is Tommy and I picking up our bag of a dead chicken, a huge dead fish, some pig stomach, and a bottle of flowery-beer. There is me giving the bag to one of the men who sells fruit off of his ramshackle cart by my school and him thinking I’m borderline crazy. There’s “Downtown” playing at full volume as Tommy and I head to Pizza Hut for dinner.

Which Susan refers to as 'Pizza Hat.'
I can understand her confusion, what with the red hat and all.

This is my job. I work with amazing people and wonderful children who brighten up my life. I work with instructions that make no more sense than “everything is happening downtown” and you just learn to go with it. What’s happening downtown? I don’t know, but you can bet your bottom dollar that I’m going to be there. 

My students at the New Year's Celebration.
Love the hats.

The drum leader is in blue.
They played marching band drums.