If that ain’t love…

It’s Wednesday 14th February, which can mean only one thing. It’s the day after Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent and the day after Pancake Day? Well yes, but that passed me by. It’s the day before Chinese New Year’s Eve? That certainly hasn’t passed me by, but that’s something to write about some other time. No, silly, it’s Valentine’s Day.

As a History teacher, I could tell you the genealogy of the Roman god we use as an emblem for this day (who didn’t have his own festival during the Roman era). I could tell you that in China we have several Valentine’s Days, because (massive generalisation alert) Chinese people love romance. Oh yeah, and commercialism.

I could tell some stories about dating in China, but I won’t, because I’m a paragon of discretion, and also some of the stories aren’t mine to tell and I’ll get in trouble if I spill the beans. And I need to hold something back for the book I’m one day going to write and make millions from (teaser: a former colleague once wept as he clutched at a woman he’d met online, sobbing “I don’t care how old you are, can’t you see I really NEED this?”).

There are many types of love. Eros, agape, philia, storge.

But let me tell you about love in the workplace.

  • There’s my boss, who’s exactly my age and half my height. She invited me out for dinner, grabbed my boobs and bit my arm so hard she left a perfect ring of tiny teeth marks for a week.
  • There’s my line manager, who gives me brutally honest – both good and bad – feedback on my looks (“if you’d looked like your passport photo when you came for the interview I would have kicked you out” along with “you have a hot body”). She is super sweet and buys me little treats, although I suspect she has nefarious intentions in trying to up my caffeine intake. After the triple-espresso incident I don’t let her make me coffee anymore.
  • There’s Liam, my oracle and twin. Maybe he’ll get his own blog entry someday.
  • There’s my little family, my colleagues. Most of the company work on a different floor to us and we accept this daily snub with glee, caught up in buying ever-more extravagant gifts of fruit for each other.

And then there are the students. They’re generally bright kids, rich beyond my dreams and somehow also beyond their own as they’re singularly lacking in the awareness to understand their incredible good fortune. Some work hard. Some don’t. We teach them one-to-one, for blocks of two hours at a time, leading to the sort of situations where I can spend 10 hours a week in a tiny room with one kid, more time than I spend with any of my friends. This often ends up in a Stockholm Syndrome where despite me shouting at them (“do you have a brain? is there something wrong with you? how can you have forgotten this?”) they profess their love, telling me they hope they can spend MORE time with me, telling me about their secrets and their friends and their friends’ secrets.

Exhibit 1: E

E was 12, with arms and legs slightly too long for him. He wore a retainer on his teeth that he liked to take out in class. He thought I didn’t realise that he was playing computer games in the loo for 25 minutes at break time. E believed firmly that the Great Fire of London was in 1966, that a thousand and a million are the same thing, and that the KKK is a one of the three monotheistic Middle Eastern religions (turns out he had confused it with Judaism, as you do). He tried to tell me that the Holocaust didn’t happen, so I made him look at so many pictures and read so many accounts of it that he cried, “teacher, why does history have to be so disgusting?”

I bought him some Christmas candy (yes I speak American English now, yes I hate myself for it) and his eyes welled up. He took selfies of us together (with the rabbit ear filter on), telling me he’d never forget me – which I have to say I’m sceptical about, given that after three months of intensive lessons he could still only sporadically remember which decade either of the World Wars took place in.

Exhibit 2: C

C was 17, at school in the UK because neither his school in China nor his parents understood how to deal with his Aspergers Syndrome (his dad left, his mum complained “I beat C but he doesn’t get better!”). He told me he was studying A-levels in History, ICT and Shipping Logistics, which is certainly an unexpected addition to the A-level offering. Over Christmas we met every day to revise what he’d been studying in History lessons.

C would come to class every day and open his rucksack. Out of it, he’d take a toy car, his notebook (where, on every page, he’d write his name in English and Chinese) and two bottles of water, one for him and one for me. He would pass one over to me and when I’d thank him, he’d say that it was 2-for-1, and I’d tell him once again that it’s usually best to just smile and nod in this situation.

C likes to ask the same questions over and over. Every day regulars include: which do you prefer, Airbus or Boeing? which do you prefer, British Airways or Delta? which do you prefer, Jaguar or BMW? what do you think about Donald Trump? why can’t I use ‘swearing language’ in my history essays?

C doesn’t talk to people he doesn’t like, which is most people. He called my manager a prostitute once. Being a 17 year old boy with poor social skills, he doesn’t have a great deal of interaction with girls. Once he identified that I was someone who would answer his questions (or at least try to give some sort of answer, even if that answer was to say that it wasn’t an appropriate question), the questions came in thick and fast: do you prefer to drive or have your husbnd drive you? do you prefer to look after yourself or have your husband look after you? why don’t you have a husband? do you have a boyfriend? could a man and a woman of different ages get married?

I think you can see where this is heading.

At the beginning of January I asked C if he had any new year’s resolutions. He nodded enthusiastically. “This year I’m going to be an adult!” he told me. Yes, 18 years old, are you going to learn to drive (C believes that the UK age of driving (17) is irresponsible and that China has chosen a better age (18))? He looked straight at me. “I’m going to be an adult. We can get married!” He reached out to stroke my arm as I edged away.

If you open my desk drawer you’ll still find unopened bottles of water (come on, you think I drink anything other than hot water?).

Slugs and snails and puppydogs’ tails

Little boys are horrible. Six year olds, specifically. Snot, fighting and being awful to each other.

Little Raphael is a case in point. When he’s not paying attention, or when he’s paying too much attention, he blows spit bubbles. It’s my least favourite thing of anything my students do, which is impressive as they’re often quite repulsive. Every time he does it I tell him to stop and tell him I won’t give him a sticker at the end of class. Sometimes this goes in and sometimes he just stares at me, spit bubbles ballooning out of his chubby face. Then I say “goodbye sticker!” and out of his unfortunately slightly gormless face comes a confused and slightly wronged face – what did i do? He reminds me of a small drunk, a miniature McNulty, barrelling about agape at the injustice in the world.

Raphael would love, more than anything, to be one of the cool kids in class. He tries so hard to be part of their gang but never quite manages it. Recently we were discussing dinosaurs and we all agreed that dinosaurs are very cool.

“When I grow up I want to be a scientist!” announced Raphael, proudly. “I want to discover things about dinosaurs!”

One of his classmates started laughing. “As if you could ever be a scientist!”

And all the other boys laughed.

This class are off to primary school this week. Chinese children start school at 6 years old and are often extraordinarily ill-equipped for it. A nation of only children brought up by their grandparents, these children are fitted on from a young age. The parents work and the grandparents (sometimes 4 to 1 child) give their little precious everything they never had. I see children being fed like birds, opening their mouths and waiting for grandma to stuff more food in. I see grandfathers trailing their grandchild, praising every tiny thing. “You’re the best! You’re number one! You’re better than all the other children!” (about being number one… I’ve had fights break out in my classroom over it, and every child I’ve taught would rather rush their work and finish first than do it all correctly). I very frequently see 4 or 5 year olds being carried like babies. 

Chinese children spend six years being told how amazing and special they are, allowed to rule the roost (bar the occasional violent beating), running around causing havoc in restaurants almost as bad as in middle class parts of London, unable to feed or dress themselves. And then… primary school.

40 or 50 students per class, intense competition and years of rote learning lie ahead.

Raphael, of course, doesn’t know quite what his future holds. He’s always seemed slightly carefree, either impervious or (more likely) oblivious, confident that he is NUMBER ONE despite any evidence to back this up. He looked puzzled when my Teaching Assistant stopped the other boys laughing at him by saying that everyone is allowed to have a dream, like he’d suggested he wanted to grow up to be a panda instead of the number one scientist…

At the end of class I gave all the students lollipops and wished them well at primary school. They rampaged about one final time while I led them out of class to find their parents. All the children scampered off until I was left with just Raphael. His grandma hurried forward and checked he wasn’t cold (grandparents fight an endless battle against their grandchildren being cold, even in the Shanghai summer) and asked him how class was. He showed her the lollipop, clasped in his sweaty little hand. 

Then the smile fell from his face. He stood completely still. Grandma asked him what was wrong. He appeared to get smaller by the second, then turned to me, his face hardened by resolve and sadness. “I’m not allowed sweets anymore,” he told me. “Mum says I’m fat.” He handed back the lollipop and, downcast, walked off, ignoring Grandma’s pleas that he was just perfect.

Welcome to the end of your childhood, Raphael.