June 17th, 2010 | Published in Teaching ESL in China
This morning was cooking western food day in my classes; it was the last full-class meeting for both of my 50-student classes, so earlier this week I went to the second-biggest city in the province, Xiamen, to buy some taco shells and hot sauce and cheese and to do some sightseeing, and then I came back two nights ago with a long list of things to do (prepare for family to arrive in China, finish final exams, rehearse for yet another singing performance, find students for the English class I want to teach this summer, and make tacos with 100 students).
Yesterday I ran around all day doing these various tasks, and as I was about to go out shopping for tomatoes and chicken for the tacos one of my students reminded me that she had invited me to go out to a big fish dinner that night with some of the other teachers from our department.
So I wrote out a list for some other students to go shopping and gave them some cash and went out with the teachers to a big meal of steaming bowls of fish soup and lots of beer.
I could tell right away, as soon as we started eating, that the students were planning on getting me unconscionably drunk. The restaurant was one of the small classic gritty ones with peeling gold paisly-textured wallpaper and a cigarette-smoke-stained ceiling, chairs that wobbled when you moved and a big round table with a sort-of lazy Susan glass platform in the center. Immediately one of the tougher female students (these were the students from my adult training class, all about 28-40 years old) started toasting me and making me down shots of beer. In the first 20 minutes I probably drank the equivalent of four beers. Needless to say, by the time midnight rolled around and we called a cab to return back to school, I could hardly keep my eyes open and my Chinese had become completely incomprehensible.
I came back to the school with three other students, seated in the cab with 20 pounds of chicken, 30 pounds of tomatoes, a hot plate-like cooker and pots and pans and stuff in bags and boxes on our laps. All of us pretty much drunk (I must say that I do not particularly enjoy these overdrinking experiences, but they seem for the most part harmless and certainly make the dining experiences lively). Our class started at 8 a.m. the next morning, and I still wasn’t clear how we were going to cook the chicken and prepare everything.
Of course, when I woke up in the morning at 6 o’clock, none of those things had become more clear. Also it was dumping down rain outside, and my apartment is a 10 minute walk from the teaching building. And I had to carry a big cardboard box of food and a big electric cooker to the classroom.
So I showered and carried the box of stuff there, and then waited for the first few students to arrive. They brought the chicken and explained that they could chop it up into small pieces, ala the classes Chinese dish gong bao ji ding (cubed deep-fried chicken), and then fry it with the chili powder I had brought. That sounded like a good idea, so I told them they could start and then headed back for my cooker.
But, in my still-dazed state, I forgot my keys when I left the classroom, so I walked all the way back to my apartment in the rain, hiding under my umbrella but still getting soaked in the downpour, and then when I got to my apartment realized I had no keys and decided that the only option was to kick in my door, Jean Claude Van Dame-style.
At first this idea seemed stupid, but after a couple of hard kicks I realized it was fun, and on my third kick I had it. I kicked the hell out of the door and the lock broke off the door frame and the door flew open. I grabbed the cooker and dashed back out into the rain, then dropped the cooker in the rain as I tried to open my umbrella, then got it all organized finally and got to class.
So by now I am completely soaked, hungover, tired, and still have to figure out how to make some kind of sort-of western food with my classes.
But here is where my fawning ode the the efficiency and organizational skills of my students comes in. By the time I got back to my classroom they had organized the desks into little work stations and were dicing tomatoes and pre-boiling chicken in the first cooker. In about 30 minutes with a bit of instruction the students had prepared a huge bowl of fresh salsa (tomatoes, green chili peppers, diced onion, sugar, lemon juice), and deep fried/stir fried the chicken in little cubes with onion and peppers and chili powder. We cut up some cheese and olives I had bought in Xiamen and I showed them how to put the tacos together.
The students were pretty consistently refering to the salsa as “salad” in Chinese so at this point I basically explained that they should put the deep-fried chicken on the bottom, and the salad on top, and then chow down. I told them they could try some cheese if they wanted, but when they ate the cheese most of them exclaimed “bu hao chi!”, which basically means “tastes bad!” even though it was real cheddar and mozzarella from the U.S. and tasted good to me. So we just ate tacos with Chinese deep-fried chicken and salsa on top, and to me it was decent, if not good (the taco shells were meant to be heated up in an oven, so they were kind of bland and too chewy).
The thing I forgot to consider was that tacos are inevitably messy, and become messier when you are eating stir/deep-fried chicken that is dripping with grease, and become still messier when you have no plates or napkins. So instantly the floor of the small classroom, with 50 students all eating grease-bomb tacos, was coated in oil and tomato and fried chicken.
I should add here that in the couple of weeks leading up to this little cooking event, my students pretty regularly asked me when we were going to cook pizza/hamburgers. They asked me this even after I explained that we were eating neither pizza nor hamburgers, but something called tacos which is a kind of Mexican food. The students, after hearing this explanation, inevitably continued to call our upcoming food either pizza or hamburgers, having no frame of reference to imagine what this taco thing might be. Last night, though, on the way to dinner, I did overhear one student saying to someone else on the phone that it wasn’t pizza, or hamburgers, but something like that.
Up until today I used to find that a little annoying — peoples’ inability to imagine that American food consists of anything other than pizza or hamburgers or fast food. But this morning before class I guess I just understood it a bit better. There is just no way for them to get that it’s not either of those things. It’s like snails: in English we have one word for snails, and that is “snails”. But in Chinese cuisine there are a ton of different kinds of snails, and none of them are called the word “snail”. The word “snail” exists in Chinese, but nobody eats “snails”. Snails live outside and you find them on the ground. The things you eat are not snails. If you say, I ate “snails” (wo1niu2) for lunch today, a Chinese person will look at you with shock and explain that that is impossible, even if you ate snails with them. This is so complicated and abstruse that even I barely understand it. It would be ridiculous to expect that an average American who had never gone to China would know anything about this — likewise with Chinese perceptions of American food.
OK, so we made the tacos, the students were amazing, they cooked and diced and boiled and fried, and I was amazed to find that, even though I heard plenty of “it tastes really bad!” throughout, at the end of both my classes everything was eaten up. In the second class, in particular, probably because it was closer to lunchtime, the students ate all 6-7 pounds of chicken and 6-7 pounds of tomato in less than 10 minutes. And they ate most of the cheese, too.
At noontime when the classes were over it had stopped raining and four of my students helped me carry everything back to my apartment, and on the way one of the training students asked a student from my younger class if she liked the food. My student’s response was, in Chinese, “it was so-so…it’s just that we’re not used to eating it”. This was great — the kind of response I was hoping for. It means not necessarily that the food was bad but that it was different enough from their past experience to actually kind of be Western food. The tacos weren’t good, and the chicken was kind-of Chinese (even though there was no soy sauce in it), but they were Western.
And, as a bonus, when we were near my building, the same student told me, in English, and out-of-the-blue, without my asking anything about the class: “I like the Western style of teaching. I feel that in the Chinese education system our classes are too boring. But in the Western system the teachers do more interesting things, and then the students can learn more outside of class.”
I laughed and asked her if that meant she liked my class.
“Yes, of course,” she said. And then she added: “It’s not like our other classes. In our other classes, we are always preparing for tests. We have too many tests.”
This reminded me of the CET-6, which I blogged about last semester and which she then told me the students would all be taking again tomorrow afternoon. This particular student had failed the CET-6 last semester (along with virtually all the others in the class) and was no doubt facing pressures from all directions to pass it this time.
The students handed my stuff to me when we got to my place, gawking at the smashed door lock and peeking curiously into my place, and then I wished them luck in tomorrow’s tests and they headed off to lunch.
Finally I got a chance to rest a little after last night’s excitement, and actually I opted to write this post. In ten minutes I’m off to give a few spoken English exams and then in the afternoon I’m headed to the city to hand out flyers for this summer’s class and buy World Expo tickets for my family.
I realized that with every month that passes in China I become slightly more poor; my $600 per month salary is just about $100-200 too small to sustain my student loans back home and my perhaps slightly too spendy lifestyle here. So I am taking little bites out of the I saved in Portland before I came out here. So wish me luck with finding students for that summer private English class.
Or some kind of magical falling-from-the-sky kind of luck with fiction writing. My latest and I thought best yet story that I submitted to about 10 journals earlier this year has been rejected from all but 3. : ) But there are still those 3.