Teaching on the Capital Fringe
Life From Tibet to Ningxia in the Big City
When I started teaching in China five years ago, I barely knew what to expect. Only privy to a handful of videos from the local library that focused on the blue uniforms of the Maoist era and the gray skies of construction, I thought that my entrance into the great eastern giant would be lauded with laurels and fireworks. What happened insteadwas a state of constant and resolute dissolution, as the culture reshaped me in ways that are difficult to even fathom today. But China is huge – the northern hinterland where I taught five year-olds is nothing compared to the quiet metropolis of Tianjin where I studied Chinese, which in hand is nothing compared to China’s flying Olympiad, Beijing, where I taught at my first major university. But with cities that rise over ten million on average, conformity is really a dying breed of culture.
* * *
As you walk into class, your hands are still numb from playing basketball this afternoon. The court was a little wet from the night before, and you can barely feel the tips of your fingers. Just picking up the pen to take notes as Teacher begins is difficult, but you manage to at least put the date at the top of the paper. You are still a little out of breath after running to class. You had to race back to your apartment outside campus and change clothes, and for some reason there still was no heat in your room. Your roommate was already dressed and ready for class, sitting at his desk and looking impatiently at the clock. He had even turned off the computer, which is rare for him as he usually uses it whenever he has the chance.
You threw on your favorite clothes, and as you sat on the back of your roommate’s bike, wondered if Kobe Bryant ever had to run to class after practice. The other students were staring at you in your strange foreign dress, but you didn’t care. You heard once that you become the way you dress, and after seeing successful students in a magazine from Harvard wearing these clothes, finally found them in a store near Beijing’s southern fifth ring road. You could do your parents no worse than being the best after failing the national exam, something they continually remind you every time you go home to Hebei.
In class, Teacher cuts the class to silence, and then starts a lesson about speaking English outside the classroom. He deviates a little and you find it hard to follow, but on the few words you understand you write, knowing that much of the class later is going to depend on you to tell them what he said.
* * *
Beijing is a city of confusion and mesmerized transformation. If Tianjin is the City of Bikes, Beijing can only be described as a city in continual transformation, peopled by a tribe of individuals who worship its development by kindly assuming second pedal to its stark growth. In return for their souls, Faust might say, the people of Beijing have bought their city a pearl of great price. Once I had a dream in Beijing. The great motors beneath the city roared to life, and the city ascended into space on rockets powered by her vast and mysterious construction workers. If science-fiction were reality, it would be in Beijing.
* * *
The world has exploded and been left in ruins. People rummage through the debris of the earth, picking up what scraps they can. The Chinese are no different – but they are trying to save their environment by building rockets that can clear away segments of the sky in beautiful, bold explosions that scatter water across the clouds.
Or so you begin your story; the current iteration. But you have no idea where it is going or how to end it. The class you are in is helping you a lot, as fate would have it. All the movies that Teacher is showing are science-fiction films. You couldn’t be in a better place for fostering your passion.
You feel like an outcast most of the time. These ideas run wild in your head while your classmates wonder why you don’t write about real subjects, like romance or life in the city or such nonsense. But that just doesn’t jive with you; you’d rather imagine the vastness of the world, and then extract truth from it. Your outsider qualities have branded you a sort of hoodlum, and with every day you are emboldened to state your opinion more openly, not only to students but also to teachers. You can see the fragmentation of your society splintering, and hope your ideas can help create a bridge of understanding.
Nevertheless you work hard in class, remembering that without a degree, your words will have little merit in this society founded upon scholastic achievement as an expression of intelligence.
In class today, Teacher puts all of the students into discussion groups, and elects you as one of the leaders. Your group helps you organize a questionnaire about the film Wall-E, and you shrug your shoulders in compliance. Such is life. The group, however, stares at you for the first two minutes without much contribution. In haste, you scratch some cliché questions on a piece of paper, and review them with the other students, who nod their approval without looking directly at you. As Teacher shuffles the groups you move to a new group to lead a discussion, and they beam with brightness and greetings. You are energized.
* * *
In the district of Haidian, students line the streets like magpies flying from shore to shore on a cool spring day. They dress in the colors of a youthful century, and while their country has not deified them, they feel like gods as they walk over the earth. Philosophy and ideology and reality and science flood the streets, as Chinese contacts Foreign, and the students discover what lies in the blind corners of their minds. Countryside scholars with their baggy pants and loose shirts mingle with Beijingren whiz kids, competing for the rights to be proclaimed the leaders of the next century, China’s millennium. They crowd the buses, taxis, and bike lanes together, swirling around like spices in a big vat of soup, spiced and ready to take on the world.
In the other districts of Beijing, they look toward Haidian, the University district, as not only the key to their survival in the coming culture wars, but in vast remembrance of who they once were. As a teacher in this area, I can only marvel as the conglomeration of wonders that line the streets: the phoenix-like shops that burn into dust and are reborn a block over, the canals of students, combing the streets, climbing into the subway, and then spreading themselves across the whole of Beijing.
* * *
The land of your youth is far away. Your mother told you before you left to not forget your family, nor forget your language. While those have not been much of a problem, you have forgot much of how to be a Uyghur. Beijing is such a busy, mad place. Your family believes it is the hope of your future, however. Never having gotten a proper education, maybe you can get a job in a good company and help to support them. That being said, however, Urumqi is a long ways away.
To your classmates, they treat you like a foreigner. You are a Xinjiangren, one of the minority tribes from China’s farthest western province. Your language is not even close to Chinese, yet growing up within the borders of China, you have gained some use of it. Sometimes you understand the Chinese speaking, sometimes you do not. People from Beijing speak very fast, and often you miss important words that lose the entire track of the sentence.
As you take your seat in class, you are very cognizant of the day it is: a Friday, when your family normally goes to pray. Being in Beijing and doing full-time study, you have often feel disconnected with your traditions, but you try and remember your family when you can. You are glad there is a Muslim restaurant in the school where you can eat, even though the price is far above your budget for food.
The class settles down. Close to a hundred students sit arm to arm in the classroom, elbowing each other for space to write. Your teacher hands out exams to each row. You have read the chapter from beginning to end, pouring over every word you could understand. It is difficult to find partners to study with in this class, as most students look at you like a stranger. Most of your friends are foreigners, and they amiably call you by the name of “Tony,” which sounds very similar to your same so you have no objections. Sometimes your friends help you study, but most days you are alone in the quiet library, reviewing and previewing readings and vocabulary.
You wouldn’t dare tell your family of your adopted name. They are far too proud of their cultural heritage. But you hope one day to make them proud of you. As the exam settles on the desk in front of you, you concentrate on the page and try to remember the newspaper article you read. A few rows ahead of you, you spot a student peeking at her textbook for the answers. You shake your head in silence, and continue working.
* * *
At the university, ten thousand ideas spread out, fanned by the flame of a more beautiful tomorrow. It’s unlike American schools in that Chinese university students are those few gemstones in the cracks of a thousand caves. Beyond that perennial field of thought, however, lies the understanding that all is for naught if not in utility: therefore, students spend their afternoons and evenings while not in class in the library, filling their heads with the answers to the tests, focused entirely on the score, the score, the score. What is life, if not the score? They endlessly repeat the process, class after class, hour after hour. Their spend their time in study sessions with other classmates, memorization chunks of literature, walking among the gardens of the university, one hand on a recorder, the other on a speech; or, they move their bed into the science lab, coming out only at dark, as the sun sets below the horizon of the campus tower.
As a teacher, I am the gatekeeper. The students will recall one day the smiles or the frowns, the special words of encouragement or the moans of exhaustion, but above all, they will remember my face in the years to come as an explanation of the Western world, the world which drives them so far and so fast. My blue eyes to them are like the oceans that divide us, and yet here I am before them, standing and holding their hand as a guide to the land beyond the college gates.
* * *
Your boss keeps sending you text messages during class. He doesn’t understand the importance of learning English at this school. He agreed to allow you to take Saturdays off from work so that you could better yourself at school, but he doesn’t seem to respect the value of what you are learning. Outside the walls of the classroom, the trees sway in the breeze and remind you of home back in Henan, in your small countryside village. Your mom must be missing you terribly now. She is probably preparing food for your father, and your grandfather sitting with some of your uncles and finishing their morning walks.
The bus ride to school today wore you out. It was exceedingly long, and you had to stand for two hours as the driver lurched forward at every intersection, and then screeched to a stop at the next light. There was a collision today on the road: one of those dangerous electric bikes zoomed through a red light and was sidelined by a car, the biker spinning out of the sea into the sea of cars. Everyone gathered around to watch.
You try to remember the words from last week in your head that you studied for English class: materials, farm, wheat, grass, and river… Teacher has been drilling you relentlessly to practice the words. It’s scary but fun. Some of your classmates freeze when he asks them to talk, shake their head, and mumble out that they cannot understand. You sense their embarrassment, but you know this is the only chance you will have to practice speaking so you speak out, even though your voice is often the only voice in class.
After class you will go the library and study again, and again, until the words are written on the back of your brain. You wish you had time to do Teacher’s homework, but you doubt your boss will give you a break next week.
* * *
Teaching at one of the foremost language schools in Beijing has brought upon many realizations. The lines of languages that crowd the cafeteria is staggering, from French, Italian, Arabic, Russian, Kazak, and dozens more that come out of mouths of what is likely China’s largest foreign-populated university. My students, however, are of a different sort: unable to make it into any university. When they graduated from high school, they failed to pass the national exam. To save them from being such an embarrassment to their family, they were sent to my university to study English, and hopefully earn a better job than they could have had before.
My university is like a miniature United Nations. Students get together in crowds of a different feather, and often you can hear a whole flock of Russian students talking halfway down the block, while on the other block you hear a parade of Egyptians in their heavily slanted Arabic. Hosting one of the only Xinjiang restaurants in Beijing, it has become a hotspot for language exploration, cultural diversification, and categorical investment in one’s own culture, while also leaving room to explore outside of that carefully but securely.
The students in my classes were from a dozen different backgrounds, from cell phone clerks to television channel peons, to amateur filmmakers and dreamy basketball players. They came from as far as Xinjiang and Tibet, to as close as having parents who worked in the Haidian district as university professors. But they all shared one thing, despite being so different: a passion for finding the best life available to them. They were desperate to find good jobs, opportunities to study abroad, and friends from foreign cultures. It’s as if their culture has taught them that the only way to better themselves is to seek outwardly rather than inwardly. They were scholars of a different stripe: rather than high school contest winners, they were the group that was left behind, either to become irrelevant or dig themselves out of the grime of the uneducated. For the most part, they did exactly that, and as a teacher nothing could make one more proud.
* * *
As you walk home after class, you remember. As the world swirls effervescently around you, the roar of the road thunders past you, and the blur of Beijinghua creeps into your ears like a musical of clanging voices, you remember. The sweep of the Tibetan plain that moves from the mouth of your village in Sichuan rolling towards the big cities in the east whose steeples rise into the haze of farm and field; you remember the priest of your village slipping the jade necklace over your long, braided hair, muttering some words to Buddha, and then blessing you on your voyage to Beijing.
When you left your home your parents were issuing silent tears, hugging you and your cousin as you stepped onto the bus. Once on the bus, you both were quiet for a long time. As men you wouldn’t show tears, but your homeland slipped away. You remember looking at your cousin’s face and seeing the shadows under his eyes, as if he was trying to keep everything in his gaze that he could.
Now walking home alone, you think of your cousin, home and walking his own path in Sichuan. He had urged you to join him, but you were resilient; you were going to finish your studies no matter what. While you still have some trouble with the bigger vocabulary, you can speak. Maybe that is enough for you; at least for the moment it is enough. Your dream of going back to your people and being able to help them rise from the fields to being businessmen might become a reality, but you don’t know if you have what it takes to change them.
Your people have long resisted change. But you have changed, just being here in Beijing and studying English. Teacher asked you the other day to talk a little about your past. You told him about being part of the long knives, a local gang in your village. You remember his surprised look when you talked about kids holding a knife an arm long, and you feel a little embarrassed about it now. But he seemed genuinely interested in your story. You wanted to continue but couldn’t find the words.
Your peers in class laugh at you. You can barely speak Chinese, knowing only a few phrases to help you get by in Beijing. Your English is improving, and most of the time you communicate with your fellow students by speaking in English, even though they often have a hard time understanding you. But you brush it off – they come from parents with money, when everyone in your family, including your aunts, uncles, and even grandparents, came up with the money to send you and your cousin to Beijing. However, you feel like you could make a legitimate difference in your hometown. Who knows? Maybe you could travel abroad if the opportunity came.
Cyclists pass you, flying by like birds. You think of the sweet smile and laugh of your classmate and friend Jin Yan, and know that everything will be ok. While you are young, you have great optimism for the world.
* * *
I have seen my students come and go. They have moved inside me like secrets, whispering through the corridors of my heart and taking me to new vistas. While I came to China as a ghost of foreign culture, I have emerged from the invisible borderlands of this world as a gathering mist, slowly taking form. How long that will take is unknown, but every day I feel closer to corporeality, as the Chinese world encloses around me and changes me towards something that is definable here.
My students battle against that invisible borderland, between waking and dreaming, between the world that they have grown up in, the grass stalks in the countryside and the ancient pagodas of their grandparents, to the world that encroaches upon them, the vast skyscrapers that cast long shadows over their history and the thousand man army of cars that invade their streets every new day. They operate between these two spheres, grappling with being the hope for the future of their country, and wanting a better life for their children. Their jobs assail them in Chinese during their waking moments, but they dream in English. Such a dialectic shouldn’t be possible, but in a land like China, it is.
You are the dreams of the world, my students. You have the whole spectrum of humanity looking to you, but do not be afraid. Grasp what you can, and offer your family everything else. As a teacher to a student, I advise you to take hold of everything I teach you, but remember your people first. Never forget your culture or your history, but learn from them. Find that space between the day to gather peace about you like a bright cloak, and become a shining beacon to all those around you.
The world has not abandoned you. It is waiting for you.