ESL Adventures 1: Clueless in China

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach teachers. And those who can’t do any of that teach English overseas.” – Socrates

NB Names have been changed to protect the unfortunate. I’ve never even been to China.

I was (and unfortunately still am, I loathe it) an ESL instructor. With some 15-odd years of experience in a few different countries, I can honestly say that I’ve been there, seen it and done it all.

ESL teachers are a strange bunch. Every occupation has its freaks and weirdos, but in my opinion the ESL industry has more than its fair share. There are plenty of fine, un-crazy individuals out there, though it seems to me that they’re vastly outnumbered by total nutjobs. I’ve worked with more alcoholics, fraudsters, hippie stoners, unmedicated whackos, sexual predators and feminists than I could poke a whiteboard marker at.

This collection of memories is about a teacher named Kevin. Kevin was truly in a class of his own.

The first meeting

Kevin and I worked at the same kindergarten/elementary school. He introduced himself outside my apartment on my first morning in China. He was in his early 30s, balding, a bad dresser, and er, well, let’s just say that his looks could be politely described as ‘unfortunate.’ He was very personable though, and he offered me some hard boiled eggs. I’d only been in the country a few hours and didn’t have any food so I accepted them gratefully. Unfortunately the eggs smelled and tasted like they’d been cooked in piss. Even with my stomach practically doing somersaults from hunger they were impossible to eat. I tossed the lot over a wall when Kevin wasn’t looking.

The bikes

Kevin rode a bicycle to work every day. After a few weeks of taking the bus (and twice, the wrong one) I thought riding to work was a pretty smart idea. I poked around the local bike shops for a bit, then paid 300 monetary units (MUs) for one. It wasn’t Olympic-grade or anything, but it wasn’t a piece of crap either.

Kevin’s bike definitely was a piece of crap. The seat was in tatters, the gears didn’t work and was literally falling apart. He’d already worn out 2 similar bikes that year at a cost of 120 MUs each. I suggested buying a decent bike once instead of a new pile of shit every few months, but Kevin was adamant that he ‘didn’t want to spend a lot of money on bikes.’ I gently pointed out that he was already doing that, but he shook his head and said he ‘didn’t see the logic’ in my suggestion.

The computer

A few months into my contract, Kevin started talking about buying a laptop. He spent a few weeks reading brochures he’d collected from local computer shops.

I’m not a computer expert by any means, but the sheer amount of time I spent on my laptop must have given Kevin the impression that I was. He eventually asked me for advice about which computer he should buy. Since he just wanted to tool around on the internet, I picked a mid-range computer from one of his brochures. It had decent specs for the price, and it would have seen him right for a few years at least. He could even play games on it if he wanted to. Kevin agreed that my choice and reasoning was rock solid.

Unfortunately, Kevin did not actually take my advice. He went to a local online auction site instead and paid a small fortune for a comically huge, ancient laptop with a Chinese OS. Kevin wasn’t even vaguely familiar with Chinese, and I could barely keep a straight face when I saw the computer for the first time. It was nearly half the size of a desktop case.

Every so often I asked Kevin how his dream computer was going. He would nod unconvincingly, say it was going well and stare off into the distance.

The penny pinching

Kevin claimed to enjoy living frugally, and would go to amazing lengths to spend as little as possible on utility bills. For example, he:

• kept his fridge on the absolute minimum setting, stuffing all his drinks and perishables in a tiny freezer section that was barely cool

• rarely used his air conditioner, even in summer

• didn’t have hot water because he absolutely refused to switch on the gas hot water system

• wanted nothing to do with the gas floor heating, even in the dead of winter.

Kevin’s solution to bitterly cold nights was to sleep under a massive pile of blankets while wearing every item of clothing he owned. During the coldest months of the year he complained constantly about his freezing apartment but wouldn’t do anything about it.

Unlike Kevin, I had my gas hot water service on except during the summer months when I found cool showers preferable. I used my air conditioner when it got too hot and I had my floor heating on 24/7 in winter. I also had my fridge on the normal setting all the time and I cooked with gas every day.

Kevin was saving money, though. His combined monthly utilities bill was usually around 2 MUs! In contrast I paid around 12-18 MUs. To put those figures into perspective, you could buy a decent pizza with that amount. To further put those figures into perspective, we were each paid over 2000 MUs a month.

Every so often Kevin would ask me how much my utility bills were. When I told him, he’d bray like a donkey and say something about how he had ‘beaten me.’ Then he would go out of town for the weekend, blow 300-400 MUs on all kinds of crap, and come back moaning about how he never seemed to be able to save money.

The washing machine

Kevin and I were neighbours, and our apartments were on the ground floor of a very small block. There were only 4 apartments in total, ours and 2 short-term rentals that were almost always empty. The only other living space was above us and it was occupied by the elderly couple that owned the block.

A communal washing machine had been set up for us downstairs residents, and it was right outside Kevin’s door. The thing had definitely seen better days but it worked well enough. I used to put a couple of loads through it every Saturday morning and never had any issues.

Kevin usually did his washing on Saturday mornings as well. His method was rather unorthodox, though, since it involved cramming every single item of clothing he owned (all of it microfibre sportswear shit, in case you were wondering) into the washer. I’m not kidding – he used to pack the drum so tightly that during wash cycles it barely movedNeedless to say, Kevin’s clothes got wet but not actually washed. Afterwards he would hang everything, dripping, around his apartment. It took days to dry, and he had nasty black mould growing all over his linoleum floor and walls. And yes, he was completely baffled as to where it came from. His place smelled like a crypt.

Once, I tried to let Kevin know as tactfully as possible that he wasn’t actually washing his clothes. He said that he ‘didn’t want to spend all day doing laundry.’ All day? A week’s worth of my jeans and T-shirts took an hour or two to wash, tops, and it’s not like I waited by the machine for it to finish.

Another time, I asked Kevin why he hung his clothes inside instead of using the big clothesline on the roof of our building. He said that he ‘didn’t want anyone stealing his clothing.’ It was such an unlikely scenario for several reasons. First of all, we lived in a hidden nook in the city. It wasn’t easy to describe where we were and we had practically no foot traffic. Second, our landlady was up on the roof all the time tending to her own washing and her myriad jars of strange herbal concoctions. Bloody hell, one time when it started to rain the lady very kindly had my dry clothes off the line and folded before I could even dash up the stairs to do it myself! But no, the real reason Kevin’s gear was safe was because it absolutely reeked of body odour. Even naked thieves would have stayed naked rather than pinch anything Kevin had worn.

The terrible hygiene

As I mentioned earlier, Kevin didn’t have hot water because he refused to pay a few MUs for gas heating. He showered at home in summer, but not in winter. Instead he used to wash in the evenings at the gym after working out. If it sounds like a system that could work, it didn’t because Kevin didn’t go to the gym every day. There were days he went cycling, running or to martial arts, and on those days he didn’t shower. Like, at all.

Kevin also didn’t wear any kind of deodorant or anti-perspirant. He told me that he used to, but had stopped. For some reason he’d become 100% convinced that his body had undergone a ‘dramatic transformation’ that was ‘a result of living in China for so long’ and rendered him ‘just like the locals, because they don’t need to wear deodorant!’ It was true that most of the locals didn’t need deodorant, but no one could say the same for Kevin. The reality was that he’d been in the country for just over 12 months, not long enough to reverse the evolutionary forces that had conspired to make him stink like a corpse, but plenty of time in which to lose the ability to smell himself. I cannot describe just how disgusting he was, except to put my hand on my heart and say that on several occasions I saw co-workers recoil in horror at his foul body odour.

The perpetual illness

Kevin was always sick. Our germy kindergarten students, his appalling personal hygiene, and his mould problem at home were probably factors, but I suspect that his diet also played a part. For someone so active and into sports, he seemed to have no idea about nutrition. I’m not exaggerating when I say that his dinner consisted of a dozen or more ice creams, every day of the week.

A few months into my teaching contract, Kevin came down with the worst case of conjunctivitis (pinkeye) I’ve ever seen. His eyes were so red and pus-filled that he looked like he’d been hit in the face with birdshot. I couldn’t help but tear up involuntarily in sympathy. He went to the doctor and got it under control, but for a couple of weeks at work I washed my hands constantly and I followed him around swabbing everything he touched with isopropyl alcohol.

Another time Kevin came to work with a horrible case of diarrhea. He knew that I used to have a pharmaceutical-related job, so he asked me if I knew of anything that could help him get through the day without needing to run to the bathroom every 10 minutes. I told him to make an appointment to see a doctor, but in the meantime go to the pharmacy next door and buy some loperamide tablets. I even wrote the name down on a piece of paper for him. He didn’t do that, and spent the rest of his workday rushing to the toilet instead. He did go to the doctor that afternoon, at least. No prizes for guessing what medicine the doctor gave him!

The Engrish

I eventually joined Kevin’s martial arts studio. One night after training, some of the other students asked if we wanted to go out drinking with them. I said I was sorry but I had work the next day. They nodded, said they understood, and repeated the question to Kevin.

Kevin’s response was stupefying. He shook his head and said, “Noh, noh. Mee goh hooome now, mee goh hooome now,” in a bizarre faux-Asian accent. He sounded like a mentally retarded E.T. He even mimed exaggerated jogging movements and made an inverted ‘V’ sign over his head with both hands like he was trying to do the actions to YMCA. I stared at him, wondering if he hadn’t taken one too many punches to the head. He was deadly serious though, and not at all trying to take the piss. “Mee goh hooooome now,” professional English instructor Kevin kept saying.

Much to my annoyance, Kevin also used Engrish on our students at work. As in, the ones whose parents were paying for them to learn English from native speakers. One day while I was updating reports on the computer, Kevin came over to announce that a particular student wanted to exchange her adopted English name for a new one. Our conversation went something like this:

Kevin: Can you change Victoria’s name while you’re on there?

Me: Sure. What does she want to change it to?

Kevin: Banilla.

Me: Banilla? What kind of name is that?

Kevin: It’s what she wants.

Me: Oh wait. Heh, heh, you don’t think she means Vanilla, do you?

Kevin: Yeah, maybe. But that’s not how she pronounces it.

Me: Yeah, well no surprise there, huh? (Most of our students regularly mixed up ‘b’ and ‘v’ sounds)

Kevin: Anyway, just change it to that if you can. Thanks.

Me: No problem. So… Vanilla? She really wants to change her name to Vanilla?

Kevin: Yeah. That’s what she said.

Me: OK. Heh, you really have to hand it her, eh? From Victoria to Vanilla…

Kevin: Yeah. Also, it’s Banilla, not Vanilla.

Me: What?

Kevin: I said, it’s Banilla. Not Vanilla.

Me: Huh? It’s Vanilla, isn’t it?

Kevin: That’s not how she says it.

Me: But there’s no ‘b’ in Vanilla…

Kevin: I know, but that’s not how she says it!

Me: OK, sure, but there’s no such name as Banilla. It’s Vanilla. Vanilla, with a ‘v’.

Kevin: But that’s not how she says it! It’s Banilla.

Me: Look Kevin, I get that, but she means Vanilla.

Kevin: No. It’s Banilla.

Me: It isn’t, Kevin, and you know it. And it’s your job as an English teacher to correct her and teach her how to pronounce it properly.

Kevin did not agree, though. He shook his head and stalked off, looking thoroughly annoyed and convinced that he was dealing with a total idiot.

The ‘teaching’

When Kevin got tired of playing Hangman or Bankrupt (easily 90% of his lessons) his classes morphed into noisy PE sessions. I always knew when one was about to commence because I could hear the sound of tables and chairs grinding across the floor of his classroom. With space claimed for wrestling or running, loud thuds and grunting noises invariably followed.

Somewhere around the middle of my contract, my boss wanted Kevin to do English classes for babies. I’m not joking – some of the students weren’t even walking yet. Literal babies. Kevin didn’t like the idea, and admittedly, it was a pretty bad one. Fortunately for him it was supposed to be a teacher and mother + baby kind of deal, so at least he wouldn’t be alone with a room full of infants. Which is still a really, really shitty idea.

Predictably, Kevin had no clue how to handle his baby classes. His grand plan was to have them sing along to a kids’ music CD… for 2 whole hours. As you can imagine, that plan was a massive failure. Within seconds of hitting the play button on the stereo, Kevin had a dozen babies zipping around trying to take the room apart. With no Plan B, he spent the entire time in a cold sweat, stammering apologies and looking foolish in front of the mothers. When it was finally over, he threatened to quit on the spot rather than do a baby class ever again.

At the urging of my boss, I took over Kevin’s baby class. I was pissed about it initially, but it actually worked out OK. I blew bubbles, played with blocks, doled out crayons and paper and generally just fucked around. It was a pretty chill babysitting job, which was a nice break from my normal class teaching essay writing to 12-year-olds (which was what Kevin had to exchange with me to get out of his baby class).

A week later, the baby class was cancelled. I was told that the mothers were disappointed because their infants, who hadn’t even said their first words in Chinese, weren’t speaking fluent English yet. Ha, ha, ha!

The Open Day

Toward the end of the academic year, Kevin and I were asked to help put on a special Open Day event for the parents of our KG classes. The boss thought that if they saw us in action it would be an effective way of convincing people to re-enrol their kids for the following year.

Kevin and I were each given a topic and asked to start putting together a “show class.” We had 6 weeks in which to prepare, make resources and whatnot, and drill the students over and over. At the end of the 6 weeks we were supposed to do a dress rehearsal for the boss and our Chinese colleagues to critique. We would do the “show class” in front of parents 2 weeks after that.

I set to work on a solar system-themed lesson. My boss was very happy with it and suggested only minor changes. Kevin’s class, however, was another story. I was very fortunate in that I got to see it.

Kevin began the lesson with his students clustered around a table with a small whiteboard on it. He had a bunch of handwritten notes attached to the whiteboard, and more notes scattered on the table. He kept urging the kids to interact with the notes, but it was obvious that they had no idea what they were supposed to do. He tried to model for them by interacting with the notes himself, but he didn’t seem to know what to do either. He became agitated, and eventually walked out in frustration. It was pretty clear to everyone that Kevin hadn’t prepared anything. I wondered what he’d been doing for the past 6 weeks.

From the start, I knew that the whole Open Day “show class” thing was a complete sham. I was deeply uncomfortable with it right up until the day we did it for real. At that point, I realised that my boss wasn’t actually trying to fool anyone. The parents also knew it was a load of scripted horse shit and they still enjoyed it.

Up until the Open Day, I’d been thinking that maybe Kevin’s unwillingness to participate was because he had integrity and didn’t want to bullshit parents. If that had been the case, I’d have supported him. It was merely an assumption on my part, though, because he never mentioned anything about it. The reality was that he didn’t actually give a shit about his students or his job. On the other hand, I’d worked my arse off to help make the Open Day a success. He got away with not contributing anything. I was so pissed off that I became openly hostile toward him. I refused to speak with him at all, even about work-related things.

The end game

A month or two before I left China for good, I started talking with Kevin again. Although I disliked some of the things he did and the choices he made at work, I didn’t hate him. I told him as much. And for all the faults I saw in him, I didn’t think he was a bad person. I didn’t mention that bit.

Earlier in the year, long before Open Day, Kevin had given me a skipping rope for my birthday. I’d been talking about wanting to buy one for a while, so for him to remember me in that way was very touching. He gave me a second birthday gift, too, but I don’t recall what it was. I’m quite sure I failed to acknowledge Kevin’s birthday at all, which was a bit of a dick move.

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Posted by H.R. van Adel in Teaching, 0 comments