Lily sent me too much fruit. Again. She’s ordered two of my students to come and make me lunch, which they do obediently. Part of me does not care for this – they’re my students, not my servants. And shouldn’t they be in class? It’s so hard to tell here. Some students “finish” their tests months before others, and they still show up to school and wander around.
During the very nice lunch with my students, two girls I don’t know wander in. They blush and hide their faces and walk all around the office, stopping by me a few times and sort of pointing at me but not responding to my questions. Eventually, one gestures to her camera – they want photos. I’ve gotten a little more used to this after several months. I agree. They then proceed to bring out their diplomas, and pose holding them in front of me a la graduation ceremony style. I smile, but I’m a little put out now. I don’t even know these girls – why are they making this pretend memory like I had anything to do with them graduating? Is it so they can show potential employers that their school had an American, thus making the degree worth more? A mean thought, perhaps, but a true one.
After the admittedly well-prepared lunch with my students, I decide to take a fruit plate back to Lily. Stone was going to do it, but I was determined to repay some of the kindness I’d been shown. I was so determined that I missed all the warning signs which were blatantly clear beforehand. My students calling Lily to tell her I was coming. The strange waiting period before leaving.
“Ah, Jean! Yes! Yes! How are you? Yes! Come in, you come in to teach my class!” Lily says excitedly as I try to offer her the fruit plate.
“Oh, no, Lily. I’m just here to drop off some of your lunch…” I can see the portcullis descending behind me. I must get out!
“Drop off? Ok, very good, yes, but now you come in! Yes! Yes! You see my students!” And she grabs my arm and all but drags me into the classroom. I heave the heaviest mental sigh of my life.
See, it’s not that I don’t want to visit the other teachers or their students. It’s important that I do so. I just don’t like the spectacle. Because unlike an American classroom where I can sit in the back and observe, taking notes and blending in, here I’m literally put on a platform in front of the students. I can’t see how they learn because they’re too busy watching me. The teachers fact check with me on every point – there’s little observation. Also, I get horribly inauthentic when put in such situations. I slip into “Improv Actress” mode and I can feel my body get all staged, my voice alter to speak to an audience. Lily sits me down on a chair in front of everyone, and proceeds to tell them how wonderful I am. It felt so awkward.
And then it got more awkward.
The school’s photographer shows up with his video camera and regular camera, and I see my visit for what it is. That photographer has a habit of showing up whenever I do anything that is not teaching my students. I have a suspicion that I am watched for different activity. That would explain the waiting period at least. I grit my teeth and make sure I’m providing my more attractive angles to the camera.
And then it got more awkward.
“Jean, the students know an American song. Would you like them to sing it to you?”
“I’m sure they sound great, but I was really just stopping by to give you your lunch.”
“They sound great? Yes, they sound great. Great. Now they sing for you!” She orders a student to the AV equipment, and all at once I’m politely listening to a class of about twenty-five to thirty kids singing Justin Beiber’s “Baby.” I smile and clap and pretend like I don’t hear Lily encouraging me to sing with them, to teach them the words, etc.
There’s a sort of “Q&A” where everyone stares at me with owl eyes until Lily makes them talk to me. One girl wants to know if I like her (I’ve never met her, and say yes). Another wants to know if I like China (again, yes). Lily wants asks me to extol upon the middle school studying habits of American students. As a college teacher, I tell them that middle school students love sports, have a lot of school clubs, and wish they had less homework.
Then we reached the zenith of awkward – I thought.
“Now class, ok, Jean has very good singing voice, yes. Maybe she will sing a song for you now?” Lily beams at me. I stare at her blankly a moment, smile shellacked on my face.
“Lily, I don’t have anything prepared.”
“Oh, you just sing some song to teach them English, yes ok!”
“Lily I really just stopped by to drop off your lunch.”
“Lunch? Yes! Ok, maybe it will be better…” She asks a question in Chinese. There are titters, and then a girl points to a boy in the back of the room. The class cheers. The boy stands up. “No! Come up here! Here, to the front, yes! Now, you can sing with Jean. Sing with her in English.”
I was wrong – this is the zenith of awkward.
I felt mortified for this poor boy. Good singer or not, this was like something from a stereotypical high school movie. The awkward presentation of talent before the class through demand, not request. And the kid can’t look me in the eye for more than a second at a time. That’s when my “Improv Actress” decided she had had enough of my timidity and embarrassment. She’s much better at being the center of attention anyway.
“Tell you what, I will sing a little bit of an English song and you can sing a little bit of a Chinese song. Can you do that?” He doesn’t understand, but through rough translation with his friends he agrees.
So I sing.
I sing two verses of “Hey Jude,” and I sing it to this poor teenager. He is my focal point. The rest of the class goes to the fog of audience, which helps. And Lily is correct – I do have a good voice. I know the kids are listening. The part of me that is worried about whether the obnoxious school photographer is shooting video of my spectacle fades too. This is part of the reason why I do theater at all. There is something relaxing and empowering about speaking to a group of strangers through a medium. I guess it is the same for all art. It’s nice to perform, too – apart from selling the importance of business English, I haven’t been in front of an audience for a while.
Finished, there are the requisite “oohs!” and “aahs!” The boy, a little less put out, closes his eyes. And then he starts to sing. He has a nice…tenor I would say. With Chinese music, even the pop music, it’s a little hard to judge range because the songs require a specific tonality for the words to make sense. He’s lucky, though – as he sings, another boy joins in, and a few girls. By the time he is done, most of the class is singing along, bolstering him.
When he’s done, he gives me a little bow and slinks back to his seat. My moment of actual performance done, I feel the object of the spectacle again. I tell Lily I must go and prepare my lessons. She is disappointed I won’t stay and teach the rest of her class. The fruit tray is on her desk, and I am gone.
Rereading what I’ve written, I feel like I should try to summarize my discomfort somehow. There is a difference between performing for choice and being told to perform. There is a difference between being a character and putting on a show, and in being the show. When I perform, I am there by choice. I assume a role in a different narrative, and relay that new narrative to an audience. The reason I consider myself a spectacle is because I don’t have to do anything other than exist to attract attention. I am the show. And it is not as much fun as I thought it might be. Having strangers stop by to stare at me while I work – not talk to me or anything, just to look at me through the glass like a goldfish. To be called on to simply do something “American” on command, without the decency of a fish thrown for my efforts. It’s tiring.
That’s about all I need to say about it.
If there is one silver lining to this, it’s that my students want to learn about the Beatles. They’ve never heard of them, but they really liked my song. So, I brought the British Invasion to Wenjiang. Soon, troops of students will be singing “Hey Jude,” and “Let it Be” in the plazas of the town. Now, that would be a spectacle worth seeing.