A TALE OF TWO CITIES
For a while, I had been grumbling about how teaching ESL was, for the most part, quite intellectually boring. Few people major in English for a love of grammar, and I was no exception. I dreamed of teaching Shakespeare in a U.S. high school; I remembered teaching Chinua Achebe and Athol Fugard in Namibia. But I was in China, teaching the “present unreal conditional” and wishing I taught literature.
Then one night after our adult classes, another teacher came into the staff room and asked, “Does anyone want to teach Dickens? I have a student who wants a tutor for A Tale of Two Cities, but I don’t have enough time.” Fate had smiled upon me. A few days and several e-mails later, I had met with Victor and agreed to tutor him for two hours every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning. He is a middle-aged man in Dalian on business for a month or two. He said he had read a simplified version of A Tale of Two Cities and it moved him more than any other book, so he wanted to read the real thing. Brave soul. Lucky me.
Chapter one is only three pages long and we spend the whole two hours on it. After the tutoring session, we share a taxi as he drops me off at my flat and continues on to work in Dalian’s Technology Zone. During the ride, he asks me if I liked Paul Simon. He likes the music, but says he can’t understand the lyrics to “The Sound of Silence.”
Chapter two is six pages long but we manage to cover all of it in the two hours. He also likes the Beatles, Mariah Carrey, and John Denver. He was tired because he worked until 5 am (our tutoring sessions start at 7:30am). He is a software programmer, which he normally likes, except when he has to work all night. He has a three year old son, but said he would have been happy to have a daughter also. “I can play basketball with my son, but a daughter is better in old age because maybe she will bring me gifts.”
Time goes on. We struggle through Dickens’ sentences together—he struggles with sentence structure and the grammar and I struggle to explain the layers of meaning embedded in Dickens’ words. And there are more questions about America and the world beyond our tutoring room. Why did I become a teacher? What did I eat for breakfast? Why did I come to China? What do I do in my free time?
I also learn more about Victor. He likes martial arts and table tennis. He had majored in physics and got a graduate degree in philosophy of science. He is fluent in Japanese and travels there often. Essentially I am teaching someone quite smarter than me. I am surprised he never talks about his wife and child. It turns out he is divorced; he married his Chinese wife in Japan when he lived there for 7 years. I don’t ask what happened and he doesn’t tell me.
One day we discover we both have the same favorite character in the novel: Sydney Carton, the slothful law genius who saves Lucie’s husband, Charles Darney, from death twice. Sydney only saves him because he loves Lucie wants her to be happy. We argue about whether it would have really been possible for Sydney Carton to marry Lucie. Victor says it is possible, I say neither Lucie nor Sydney would be happy if they were actually married to each other. This argument lasts several taxi rides and to date, remains unresolved.
On another occasion, Victor, as many Chinese before him, also asks me about guns. He says he had had the opportunity to work abroad in either Japan or the U.S.A. but he chose Japan because he was afraid he would get shot if he went to the U.S.A. I have noticed that many Chinese view going to the U.S. with the same fear that we would have for going to Iraq. Again and again, I am faced with explaining how, yes, many people have guns, but normally we are safe. I have never felt threatened by a gun. To prove that America is generally safe, I resort to such stereotypes as, “Criminals usually shoot other criminals, like gangs and drug dealers” so normal people are safe. And “if you stay away from the bad neighborhoods you are safe”. I hate these generalities and stereotypes, but I am at a loss to explain how you can have a country full of guns and still feel safe and generally never worry about being shot.
Then Victor says, “I heard most of the criminals in the U.S. are black people.” What is the politically correct way to reply to a loaded statement like that? I assure him that plenty of white people are criminals too, and that poverty is a bigger indicator of crime than skin color. I try to relate it to China, where many of the crimes are committed by the migrant workers who come to cities looking for work. “Whenever there is a large disparity in wealth, the poor are more likely to commit crimes.” Then I relate it to A Tale of Two Cities where the impoverished people revolted against the French nobility. God forbid I imply any such thing could ever happen in China, but I try to allude to the fact that many of the causes of crime are the same everywhere, regardless of the particular circumstances. But in the end, I think he still believed his initial supposition, that America is a dangerous place full of guns (after all, I left to come to China, didn’t I?) and that all these socio-economic explanations were just an attempt to save face.
One of the interesting things about living in a different country is the way everything you take for granted and assume is normal turns out to be not so normal. The Chinese are particularly interested in the racial diversity and armament of the U.S. population. And depending on the way they phrase the question, I can sometimes find myself defending and trying to provide rational explanations for many things that I also don’t fully comprehend.
Also while reading the book, I begin to imagine that our own neighborhood is the St. Antoine neighborhood outside of Paris, where the French Revolution begins with the storming of the Bastille (a jail for political prisoners). The Defarges’ wine shop is present in our corner restaurant. The fearsome Madame Defarge becomes embodied in its proprietress who is always sitting in the front of the restaurant mindlessly eating sunflower seeds in the same way Madame Defarge always knitted.
I guess part of the greatness of Dicken’s novel is that 150 years later in China, the tale still has resonance. I read the story looking for connections between the causes of that revolution and the disparity in wealth that I notice here in China. I think Victor reads the book because he is personally interested in the characters and their lives. And of course, he wants to improve his English. After we manage to deconstruct one of Dicken’s particularly grammatically difficult sentences, Victor asks, “But if I speak this way, will people think I’m strange?” I laugh, and say, “Yes, definitely.”
I started tutoring Victor more than a month ago, and so far we are only on page 277 out of 443. Recently, he said his team has finished their software project, and he will go to Japan next. But he said they will stay here a while longer to work out all the problems in the software. I have half a suspicion that there might be some problems to work out until we get to page 443.
PS—Our apartment never collapsed.