Every Wednesday begins with a trip out to Bai He Kindergarten where I attempt (and fail) to teach English to three classes of squirmy little kids who don’t understand anything I say. The kindergarten teachers teach the kids everything before I come, so I am just supposed to work on pronunciation with my superior native accent. That’s the idea anyway. What actually happens is that I show the kids the flash cards that they have been pre-drilled with, and they scream the words at the top of their lungs. A couple of the chubby boys make fists and practice their upper cuts along with each word. As soon as the kindergartners see a picture, they yell the word, regardless of what I say or how I pronounce it. The futility of my job was exemplified in one instance. The flash card had a picture of a boat, so I said “boat” very clearly. “SHIP!” they screamed back at me, since that’s what they were taught before and nothing I said could change their minds.
Usually, within a few minutes, the class completely breaks down as half the kids are beating each other, several are crying, others have been sent to corners of the room as punishment, some have wandered off to look at books or play with crayons. Two girls spend the entire time picking lint off of each other’s sweaters and rolling it into balls. The floor is littered with a dozen perfectly round, pea-sized balls of red and green lint. Sometimes I attempt to play a game, which results in half the kids on the floor, and even more kids crying and hitting each other. Just when the chaos reaches its peak, I’ll try to get everyone back in their seat, and the teacher will put on a tape of some ridiculous song. Instantly, the kids start wiggling in their seats and doing whatever hand motions they’ve been taught to associate with the song. Then they scream along with the song, not understanding a word they’re saying. And all this because their parents want them to know English so that they will have a really good job in 20 years and be able to take care of them when they retire.
This Wednesday was a little different though. The kindergarten school had invited me to accompany them on a field trip to a strawberry patch outside of Dalian. When I arrived at the school yesterday morning, the 60 kindergartners and their parents or grandparents were milling about the school. The principal found me, and spoke to me for about five minutes in Chinese. I didn’t understand a single word. Then I got passed on to one of the kindergarten teachers, and we soon boarded one of the big tour busses. So there I was, sitting in front of the bus happily chatting with the mother sitting next to me, who, luck of all lucks, worked as a translator at her company and spoke very good English. Once we were on the road, the kindergarten teacher plugged in the bus’s microphone, and said a bunch of things to the parents. I, of course, understood nothing. After a few minutes, the teacher handed the microphone to me, along with a flash card with a picture of a strawberry. Great, here I go again.
I stood up, held the picture of the strawberry, and said “strawberry” several times, while the busload of people repeated me and the principal recorded everything on her digital video camera. I felt satisfied that they were able to repeat the word, and seeing nothing else to do, I sat back down. The kindergarten teacher seemed a bit disappointed. She took the microphone, and then led the bus in a completely meaningless game. Everyone had to chant “pass it down” while passing the picture of the strawberry around the bus. My failure as a teacher in this instance was because I can’t think of such inane games. My brain just isn’t capable of it. But the thing was, it worked. It kept the bus occupied for at least 10 minutes. I never would have guessed it.
I returned to happily chatting with my seat mate, when again the microphone was again handed to me with the instructions to “sing a song.” Readers, “deer in the headlights” panic does not begin to describe it. “I can’t sing!” I whispered, furtively. She nodded, and smiled, in the way that all Chinese do when I tell them I can’t sing, meaning that it is impossible, I’m lying, I might as well live on the moon. She was beckoning for me to stand up in the aisle to sing. Everyone was watching, the principal was recording. I tried again, “I can’t remember the words!” So she told me the words, and non-singing Sera was presently standing in the aisle, singing “Kiss, kiss, kiss, one, two, three, I love you and you love me.” It was one of those dumb songs they always played on the tape when I came to teach. She made me sing it four times. Then, I had to sing another song, “Red means stop. Green means go. Yellow means wait! You’d better go slow.” Four times. The agony.
When I was finally released from Barney duty, the mother next to me said, “It must be hard to teach kindergarten!” Which really meant, “They make it look easy but you’re so bad at this that maybe it takes some skill after all.” I agreed with her, and tried to explain that I am much better at teaching older children and adults. I was trying to redeem myself and convince her that I could do lots of things competently; singing children’s songs on busses just wasn’t one of them. She nodded and smiled.
We finally arrived at the strawberry farm, and as all the kids got off the bus, it was like a giant bladder bursting. Within ten steps of leaving the bus, every child peed. There was no pretense of going behind a tree or out of sight or out of the grass that they were going to be rolling in in a few minutes. Nope, they just peed wherever they were. It was amazing.
Then the teachers gathered everyone together in the grass and we played some games involving wolves eating the little children. I really liked this because I got to be a wolf and chase after the kids while all the parents either took photos or video recorded it. I often wonder how many home videos I’m going to be in by the end of my stint here in China. After the wolves ate all the kids, we went into one of the strawberry greenhouses and ate strawberries for dessert.
Later, I would eat lunch with 3 people whom I had never seen before, spoke no English, and marveled at my chopstick ability. After lunch, they would drive me back to my flat in Dalian, and I would go to my school and teach for 6 more hours.
But at that moment, I was eating strawberries and they were delicious.