A bunch of students from the People's Republic of China arrived last week, and for the first time in four years I don't have a single Arabic speaker in my classes. I have seventeen PRC kids in my main group, all of them very cheerful and willing but utterly bemused at what I’ve been asking them to do all week. I'm trying to see my lessons from their point of view: why does he keep asking us questions when he's supposed to be here to tell us stuff? Why is he interested in our opinions? Moreover, how do we know if our opinions are the ones he wants to hear? Why does he keep telling us to discuss our answers to reading tasks together, instead of just reading out the correct ones? Why all this bloody cat and mouse, for god’s sake?
On Friday, they were all completely knackered after a muggy week of being bombarded with a foreign language and a strange culture. Every overture I made to them was greeted with sphincter-twitching silence until I asked them about lectures in China. It seems that they expect to sit and listen, and write notes when told to do so. A coursebook will accompany and reinforce the lectures, and no other reading will be required. Questions are not welcomed during the session, but braver students will occasionally venture one or two after the lecture.
‘How does the lecturer know the students understand if they don’t ask questions?’ I asked, genuinely puzzled.
‘Cos there is test at the end of the course!’
‘Isn’t that leaving it a bit late?’
‘Test is very easy!’
Boy, are you lot in for a shock, I thought. So I spelled out the rationale for all the discussion and collaborative learning I’d been trying to encourage all week. And they got it. Immediately! They started to argue about their answers, referring back to the reading passage. They offered answers even if they were unsure. The silence was replaced with a buzz, and my fear that they thought I was wasting their time evaporated, although I suppose they may merely have decided to humour me. What a waste of everyone’s curiosity Chinese lectures must be.
We ended the session with the game ‘backs to the board’. The students in teams sit in small circles, with one member facing away from the board. The teacher puts a word from the day’s lesson on the projector and the teams have to try to communicate the word to the ‘blind’ member, using synonyms, definitions and paraphrases. The first ‘blind’ member of the teams to call out the correct word earns the team a point. There was much whooping and self-congratulatory applause as the game progressed and thus the week ended on a high note. This is always a good ploy – leave ‘em laughing when you go, and they’ll forget that the day was mostly just slog.
Now, what you really want to know is what those things in the photo are. Some Chinese students left us a pile of these on the staffroom table. Imagining them to be dried fruit or some kind of toffee, I opened one. The content of the sealed plastic bubble looks like sun-dried dog-shite or the hacked-off knob of a mummy, calling into question the assertion frequently met in cook books that eye-appeal is of paramount importance when presenting Chinese comestibles. The mutt-poop mummy-dong is a gobbet of gristle that has no flavour save, faintly, those of lard and dust. I brought a couple of the laminated mucky-pup mummy-todger thingies home to show you, and to see if anyone can tell me what they really are, and in what spirit - gratitude or revenge – they were probably given.
7th Dec 2011. It is in fact dried beef, as my present bunch of PRC students confirmed last week. It is still dried beef that tastes like candle wax.