...nineteen to go.
The 420 new students were convened this morning in the same lecture theatre where they were welcomed yesterday. (See below) Today they were divided into groups, and shepherded off to classrooms for the first lesson, being fifty minutes of japesome ice-breakers.
This is how it works. The centre director puts a class-list on the projector and attempts to read out the names. Most of us now know something of the pronunciation of Chinese names: ‘x’ is pronounced ‘sh’, ‘q’ is pronounced ‘ch’, ‘si’ sounds like ‘shirr’ (don’t quote me on any of this) and ‘zh’ sounds like the ‘s’ in ‘pleasure’. What we are totally ignorant of is how misapplied tone might alter the meaning of somebody’s name. If English speakers read out a list, their voice tends to rise in pitch on each item and fall on the last. So as the director reads off the names, he occasions the odd burst of giggles. Maybe to Chinese ears it sounds like:
'Jing Wei Chen
Ring Piece Lai
Wei Wei Li
Hao Yang Tan
Ching Wei Poop...'
…and so on.
Students gathered in large numbers like this have the unsettling habit of reacting with very obvious approval or disappointment when they see who is going to be their teacher. A group is called out and then told ‘..and your teacher is X’, and if X is young, female and blonde, an undisguised ‘ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!’ of appreciation goes up. On the other hand quite a few of our teachers are Asian or black, and sometimes elicit an irritating volley of titters from kids who have been brought up to think foreigners are funny. Oh, well. They’ll learn. There’ll be no surviving in a multi-racial city like this one if they don’t. I wasn’t aware of any particular reaction to my good self, although I have been told in the past that my appearance leads some to expect a teacher of iron strictness. It must come as a relief to know that I’m incapable of taking teaching too seriously.
After the ice-breaking shit, I gave my lot a questionnaire to complete about their academic skills in English and the degree of confidence they felt in each area. Then they had to write a short paragraph outlining their goals for the course and how they proposed to attain them. The aim of this in part was to show them that while we kick ass, we don’t wipe it, but mainly to give me half an hour’s peace. I have been suffering from pedagogue’s aphasia. I explained to the group that for the assessment, they would be writing an essay and a report and giving a presentation. I elicited what an essay is, then tried to get them to tell me how it differed from a report. Nobody knew, and suddenly I didn’t either. My brain froze like an infuriating laptop. If you’d asked me my name, I’d have had to get back to you. One student finally offered an answer, which I didn’t hear but allowed notwithstanding, and passed swiftly on. Stop me if I’ve told you this before, but I reminded myself of a trainee, Angela from Scotland, in Athens in 1992. Angela was far from the sharpest tool in the shed. One day she taught a reading lesson using a text about Einstein, and kicked off reasonably well by asking the students if they knew anything about him. A Bulgarian bloke then gave a succinct and highly informed account of the Theory of Relativity. Angela stood silently for a second as the neurone on duty at the time took this in, then said ‘aye, that’s right.’
I glanced through the students’ self assessments and paragraphs outlining their determination to succeed at all costs. I wonder, do the Chinese have a version of seppuku? It doesn't seem like a notion that so pragmatic a race would entertain, but one young lady wrote ‘last course, I got IELTS 6.0. On this course, I hope to top myself’.