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The English Lesson
The English Lesson
By Ethan Tsai
The 28,000 pound twin engines of the A-320 whine as the aircraft touches down with a jolt, making me lose my fourth life in Super Mario World on my Gameboy. I finally give up; the battery is running out anyways. I look out the window for the first time in that torturous 16-hour plane ride. Rice fields everywhereÖhow boring. Imagine spending two entire weeks looking at rice fields. Oh, and donít forget the mountains in the background. Wouldnít anyone rather go white watering rafting on a Class 6 river in Yellowstone National Park? Anything can beat this. Even watching people scramble for their luggage will probably give me more entertainment than the next two weeks. As I step out of the airplane, the blast of 90į humid air hits me full in the face. I am already sweating by the time we get to baggage claim. Instead of a conveyor belt, everything is lined up on the ground. I go look around for something to drink. Dad can go hunt around for the luggage. He is the one who deserves it for bringing me sixty-five hundred miles-all the way to this rotten humid place. Everywhere I go, people stare at me. I want to curse at every single one of them, but I know it isnít their fault for me being there. If there was anyone to get mad at, it would be Dad. He was the one who decided, or rather, forced me, to come here to do some ďcommunity serviceĒ. He said that it was good for me. Like rafting isnít good for you. At least rafting is physically demanding. Teaching just requires you to stand there and talk all day. What good is talking going to do you? Isnít there some famous saying that goes, ďAn action is worth a thousand words?Ē I met up with Dad outside. We found a taxi and got in. Within a minute, the outside world got boring. Just as I expected, there is nothing but rice fields and mountains all the way through. The ride was interminable. I slept until we reached the hotel, or whatever you want to call it. Itís a building with 4 rooms. 3 for guests and 1 ďlobbyĒ, not much bigger than the other rooms. I peeked in the bathroom and instantly regretted it. Mosquitoes lined the ceiling. Spiders conquer the shower. Holes stare at you from the wall. Exploring the rest of the room, I find that mosquitoes and spiders lurk in all the corners. There are no working power outlets. How am I supposed to charge my phone and check Facebook with no power? I have no connection to the real world. Dad says that we will be eating with the rest of our teaching group soon and that there will be other 14-year olds, too. Maybe there will be an American kid who can speak fluent Chinese like me, but I doubt that. I hate this place so much. It turns out that since everyone in this city is so poor that meat is something hard to come by. My dinner consisted of veggies and flies. There are so many flies that they get accidentally eaten very often: a squish of delightful protein every now and then. I already miss my routine diet of Big Macs. I canít wait for the day to end. It finally got dark and I got to go back to our filthy hotel room. The jetlag wasnít helping my mood, and it wasnít until 3 in the morning that I finally fell asleep.
I awoke to Dad shaking me at 7 in the morning. Apparently, we have to go to orientation in thirty minutes. I donít want to shower in the bug-infested bathroom; I know I have to some day or another, even though there is no soap. I already got fifteen mosquito bites all over my body from last night. This is the worst trip I have ever had in my whole entire life. I directed my hatred through the shower head at the mosquitoes looming above me. The school is a 10 minute walk from the hotel. I discovered that the only vehicles here are tractors and taxis. The tractors donít have filters, so wherever they go, a big plume of black noxious fumes follow. We finally get to the school. As I walk into the auditorium, I feel 500 pairs of eyes fall on me as Dad and I walk up the stage to take our place with the other volunteer teachers. Each of the volunteers introduced themselves to the 500 students. I bet most of these kids here are not suffering or poor, but are here for the free education and food. Afterwards, we got assigned to our classes. I have a class of 9 kids. They are all 15 and 16 years old. I am two grades ahead them and taller than all of them by at least a foot. Apparently, they canít afford school some years, so they just skip a year of school to help support their family, and they also canít afford 3 meals a day, so their growth is quite stunted. I walk with my kids to the classroom. They donít talk; they just stare at their feet the whole time. We get to the classroom after walking in awkward silence and I attempt to talk to them. Strangely, they act as though I donít exist. I wonder if they are even human. Why wonít they talk? Are they all dumb? I ask for their names and they stare straight forward. I ask if they understand my Chinese; they donít reply. This goes on for 50 minutes, and I finally tell them they can leave. They donít even move or react. This is so absurdly stupid! How does Dad expect me to do this for 3 hours every day for the next 2 weeks!? I have no idea what I am supposed to do. I end up telling them that I have to go meet up with my dad and I leave the room. I am thoroughly intimidated. I sure hope they donít stay there forever. I see Dad standing at the gate of the school: a beacon of hope for my very confused mind. I meet up with him and immediately turn my past 50 minutes of impatience to anger. I yell at Dad for his stubbornness and his unfairness. Dad should not have the right to make me go to somewhere I do not want to go. It is so unfair. What do I learn preaching in front of unresponsive dumb kids that have no future anyways? Dad goes on and says something that I donít hear. I donít care because Dad canít do anything logical, so why listen to him? I storm back to our hotel room and spend my energy on the last of my Gameboy batteries. It is lunchtime, but I donít want to go. I hate everyone and everything. After lunch, I am supposed to team up with 2 other teachers and play games with our students. I am just going to let them take care of it. I might just go and watch them, just to show that I ďcareĒ about kids with no future.
Itís 8:00 in the morning! Iím late for teaching. I quickly get changed and start running to the school when I stop and realize that the class doesnít really do much anyways; so I just walk there slowly and take my time. I get to the classroom. The kids were all sitting down in perfect rows, all quiet and still. I walk in and nobody moves. Not a single muscle. Staring straight ahead. I don't know what I am supposed to teach them. English? How do you start teaching English? Well, I guess when I was young, I started with the alphabet. I asked if they knew the alphabet, not expecting much from them. It took 10 minutes to get them to respond. None knew it past the first three letters. I wrote the 26 letters on the blackboard. I really hate blackboards because of all that chalk dust flying around. I guess I'm just not use to blackboards or maybe my kayaking muscles are too strong, but I broke the chalk twice before I finished the alphabet. The puny little 16 year olds just watched in what looked like fear. I went on with teaching them the alphabet and they all just stared at me. I ask them to say the all 26 letters with me, and all of them say it so softly that I can barely hear them. They're such idiots. Another hour passes by and I leave the classroom. I just go back to my room and sit there for the rest of the morning, thinking horrible thoughts of Dad. I can't figure out how all the other teenage teachers seem to care about these dumb kids. Lunch is, again, more vegetables and insects. After lunch, itís the second session of teaching. As usual, things go quietly, until one of the boys actually says something. I'm halfway through teaching numbers and he figures out that sixty through ninety is just the number with a ďtyĒ after it. I guess it was just luck that he found that out, or maybe I have a hidden talent of teaching, but Iím still surprised at that kid who normally never said a thing. I found out later that the kid's name is Shi Wang Jun, and it occurred to me that I didn't even ask for my student's names!
The next day, I ask for all of their names. I give them all English names and that seems to break a barrier between us. They actually start talking during that session. I talk about how to start conversations, and the kids instantly raise their hand when I ask them a question. I donít know why, but I actually kind of feel happy when they get something right. I donít know why. I shouldnít feel happy when some random person whoís doomed to failure at life does something right.
The next day, I actually have some urge to get to school. I get up at 6:30, and I change and shower. I walk to school and arrive there a bit early. I realize that besides English classes that the foundation gives, they also give E.Q. classes to show the kids that life isnít that hopeless. I think that this will only raise their hopes and when they realize that life is still hopeless for them, they will be even sadder. Oh well. Their sadness doesnít really impact me halfway across the world. Anyways, I just found out there is an English contest at the end of the camp. The prize is like nothing: 30 Yuan for first prize, 20 for second, and 10 for first. Keep in mind that 1 US dollar is almost 7 Yuan, so first place doesnít even earn enough to buy one Starbucks Frappuccino! I also heard that these kidís families make around 500 Yuan a year, which is like 70 dollars. My iPhone is worth almost 3 times their annual salary! Back to teaching. I talk to my students about what they want to do for the contest. They decide on doing a skit. I teach them some more about talking in English and we played some games.
After those first few days, the week passed surprisingly fast, but after each day passed, somehow, I wanted each one back. I became quite good friends with all the other teachers. We all talked together and helped out in each otherís classes and sometimes, we combined our classes and played games on a bigger scale such as tag and ďgreen light red lightĒ. I also became very good friends with Shi Wang Jun, whose English name is King (Wang translates to ďkingĒ in English). He started walking with me and talked to me a lot. He likes basketball a lot and he dreams of becoming a doctor where he can help other people to repay what we have done for him. I told him that I would support him in any way that I could.
It became time for the contest. My class was the smallest and youngest class out of all 500 students, so we didnít stand much of a chance. I still told my class that they could win. My class was really shy. They didnít speak very loud or with very much confidence, but at least they pronounced their script quite well, if I say so myself. And hopefully, thatís all that matters. There was an intense hour as all the classes came up and recited in English. It was finally judgment time. The next five minutes was the longest five minutes of my life. Longer than those painful hours of conditioning for kayaking. Longer than those minutes of nervousness as I waited at the start line in my kayak. And then they announced the winners, starting, torturously, with honorable mentions. We werenít listed in any of the three honorable mentions, and I thought that we couldnít get anything higher than honorable mentions. Then came 3rd place. Unbelievably, my class, the puny class of mine, got 3rd place! I couldnít believe it. My students were grinning from ear to ear. Dad was standing there smiling, applauding, and proud of me. I now understand how one can get happiness through others achievements. I was really happy for my class. Even though they won only $1.50, this was like they won a 1.5 million dollar lottery. Thatís how happy they were. And honestly, I was too. I wouldnít be happier if I won the International Kayaking Championships.
It is the last day. The day I have, for some reason, dreaded. My happiness from yesterday ended. I realize that today is the last time I am ever going to see my students forever. These two weeks of teaching and not seeing the fruits of my work. But I guess I am saddest because of not being able to see or communicate with these kids again. I became really good friends with my class and they donít have computers to talk with me or the money to send mail to me either. Dad says that we will have to leave at noon. I go over to the school to say my final farewell to my students. I hug each and every one of them. It was at the last kid that I broke down in tears. My class was also crying. I guess itís kind of hard to have someone who actually cares for you come and leave in two weeks. Dad told me that these kids donít have caring parents because they arenít expected to live past a year, and as a result, the surviving ones have fake birthdays and parents unable to care for them. One of the girls, sobbingly, says that I will be in all of their hearts forever. This is the first time I have ever cried in public. Earlier, Dad told me that some of the adult teachers, including him, donít say goodbyes to their kids because they donít want to show others their weakness by crying, and I told him I wouldnít cry. I thought I was strong enough, but I guess I was wrong. I was still in tears when I helped Dad put the luggage in the taxi.
On the journey back to the airport, itís as if scales have fallen off my eyes. The landscape is incredible. Red and blue flowers blooming along the hillside with small humble cottages nestled in the shadow of the huge looming mountains. I roll down the window and lean my head out, feeling the clean warm air. There is a very quiet sense of peace. I watch birds fly together across the blue sky and over the mountain tops. All this nature somehow makes me happy. As we move towards the city, I notice buildings with a very unique architecture unlike anything in the United States. I donít remember seeing this when I was coming here. Every roof I see is black tiled. Even the gas stations have these tiled roofs. Before long, we arrive at the airport. Everywhere I walk, the people stare at me, but I donít mind. I lead Dad to the gate. As we board the plane, I realize that I already miss this place. I really hope I can come back again. I take the window seat and resist the urge to take out my iPod. Instead, I look out the window and absorb the scenery outside. I take a deep breath. Dad is right again.