For anyone who has ever had students from China, you know that any good essay, project, presentation, or -heck- paragraph, begins with that beloved, ingrained phrase, “as we all know.” The best part is that most of the time, we don't all know it. I've gotten such beauties as, “As we all know, Chairman Mao founded America during the Qing Dynasty,” and, “As we all know, flossing makes your teeth loose and fall out.” So for me anyway, this little phrase is usually a red flag to announce that something wrong this way comes.
My first year teaching, I co-taught a listening and speaking class with a 40-year veteran teacher. He was in his late sixties, and was a veritable walking textbook of lesson plans. He'd truly seen and done it all. We made a great team, and the students loved our overly-enthusiastic-20-something-VS-the-crotchety-grandpa shtick. I have never had so much fun teaching a class since.
Early on in the year, we assigned a presentation project for which the students had to research something about American culture or history and teach what they learned to the class. The subject was pretty open and simple, but students liked it because it allowed them to pursue whatever genuinely interested them and had drawn them to this country in the first place. We had a presentation on how American high schools work, how Americans go shopping, and another on basketball. It was going really well, and my co-teacher and I sat across from each other with the class in the middle as we watched and assessed.
Then, Barney stood up. “Barney” was his chosen American name, and despite cautions of forever being identified as a large purple dinosaur, he insisted on “Barney.” I've had weirder names over the years, including: Mavis, Mildred, Cherry, Machine, Felix, Rainbow, Berry, Azure, Daisy, Paolo, Hazmat, Deshandra, and variations of classics brought on by misspellings, such as “Cholé” for Chloe and “Bard” for Brad (who unfortunately didn't care for poetry or for being asked if he did). And there were always a dozen Jacks. Big name over there, apparently. Did I mention that all of these students were from China? I thought Chinese Paolo took the cake until a coworker of mine who had taught in China once had a student who went by “President Ronald Reagan.” No no – not just “Ronald,” or even a familiar “Reagan,” but the fully titled “President Ronald Reagan.”
Anyway, Barney stood up and projected his first slide. It was a photo of a Hasidic Jewish man talking to other Hasidic Jewish men. I tried not to cringe in fear of what might be coming next. “Hello, OK, hi! So, as we all know, the Jews are the smartest race.” My jaw dropped and my eyes bulged. I whipped my gaze across the room to my co-teacher Fred, hoping that he would know what to do. I had only been a teacher for about three weeks, and he had forty plus years under his belt – surely, I could count on him to know how to handle this situation!
Barney continued, with a big smile: “They are the smartest race because they always have all the money. Really! In every culture around the world, and especially in United States, the Jews have always been in charge of the money and have a lot of it. They know all about it because it is in their blood. I think maybe I can learn from them!”
I looked around the room. This wasn't happening...this wasn't happening! The students were placid; in fact, they were actually taking notes on this. One in the front even yawned. Fred had his elbows resting on his knees, hands over his face.
Barney clicked to the next slide. “Here, this is the photo of a face for the Jewish man. There is another thing they can do! Do you see his big nose? It is because he can smell things better than we can. Chinese people have the small noses and we can't smell so good. I think American noses looks small too. But this guy, he can really smell a lot! It is because they can cook so well and their food is famous in America for being the best because they use their noses and smell everything! I wish we can do that!” He went to the next slide. “The Jewish people in America are so important and popular. They are even big part of the history here! But for some reason, they hide. They are a secret part of the history here, but very important. If you study the history of United States, for every important thing, you will find a Jewish guy was there. And if you look at the seal of the president of United States, you will see a Jewish symbol what is called the Star of David inside the design!! Look! They are so popular and so famous! I think we can learn from the Jewish people how to have a better life, just like they have in the America. I wanna to ask my teachers,” he gestured at us and everyone in the room turned around, “can we maybe have the Jewish teacher to join our class?” He was so excited. The other students looked excited, too. A boy on the right added, “Yeah, my major is the Business Management and I think I can learn more about the business from them.”
I had absolutely no idea what to do. None. I opened my mouth, but no words came. I could barely keep my breath. I think my throat made a noise or two. I looked again to my co-teacher, silently pleading with him to help me out. Fred dropped his hands from his face and inhaled sharply. “Tell me, Barney.” He paused a moment. “Where did you get your sources for this....this...this presentation?” He was straining to keep a straight face.
Barney's face lit up. “Oh! I can show you! It was from the Google. I read it on the Internet. As we all know, if you read something, it is true. So, you see, I think the source must be very good excellent.” His laptop still projecting, Barney minimized PowerPoint and opened up his browser. He pulled up an antisemitic website made by Neo-Nazis. “I learn so much from this website!” He said again. Fred asked him to scroll down a bit so he could check it out. He remained very calm throughout, and didn't say a word.
Finally, Fred had finished his assessment. The students between us looked confused by what was going on – we hadn't done this to any previous presentation. Fred walked to the board and wrote “RACISM” in bright red marker. He turned toward the class, and then back to the board again and underlined what he had written. “Who can tell me what this means?”
Teaching English to foreign students is always a bit surreal. Here you are, surrounded by young adults, surrounded by people who have graduated high school or even college in a few cases, and you end up speaking to them like they're really big children a lot of the time. A student offered a satisfactory definition, and Fred continued on, slowly enunciating each syllable. “Yes, very good. When a person hates another person only because of the race” he quoted back to the class. “So, I have a question for you. Is this website a racist website?” He pointed to the screen. The students looked at the projected image. Most of them weren't getting it. Barney was completely baffled. He was beginning to wonder if his presentation hadn't been A+ material after all.
Barney was the first to speak. He was still standing near his laptop. “But, I think the website is so good! I learn good things – the things it say are good! It is great to know much about money!” A few classmates nodded in agreement.
Fred kept the conversation rolling. “Yes! You're right! It is great to know about money, just as it is great to know a lot about anything.” The class nodded along with him. “But this website here, the people who made it don't like Jewish people. In fact, they hate them.”
Barney was shocked. There was a little chatter going around the room. “But, OK, so racist is when a person hates because of the race, sure, OK. But this website don't say 'hate.' It have no bad words like that!”
Fred smiled. “Yes, correct again! Very good. You are right – there are no negative words that we see here. So how do we know that this website doesn't like Jewish people? How do we know how it feels?” There was a long pause. Fred continued again, “OK, how do you know how I am feeling?” He demonstrated by saying “hello” in a cheery voice and then in an angry one. They got the message – it was all about tone. He led them back to the website and asked them to find its tone. They were slowly catching on. “What if I said, 'all Chinese are good at math.' Is this OK for me to say?”
Barney folded his arms across his chest. “Well it is true.” The class agreed with him. “That is something that we all know.”
“OK, but why are the Chinese so good at math?”
“Because we work so very hard at it. Harder even than the Americans.”
“Sure – but because you work to be good at it, not because you are born with that knowledge.” Fred retired to his chair and let his message hang in the air. I heard a few “ohhhhh” sounds. Barney offered to redo his presentation; we agreed and gave him the weekend to work on it.
Fred glanced over to me. I had been completely silent, learning a different lesson than our students. He was good. I hoped it wouldn't take me forty years to be that good. “All right,” I said. “So, who's up next?”
Mirabelle shot her hand up in the air. I gave her a smile and she connected her laptop to the projector. I looked at Fred; he was laughing and trying to explain the term “jump shot” to a boy next to him. He mimed the action and threatened to whoop all of them on the court after class.
Mirabelle projected her first slide and announced, “I wanna to talk to you today about plum-bing.” She was very serious.
Fred's shoulders shook as he struggled not to laugh. I decided I'd take this one. “I'm sorry, I didn't quite hear that – did you say your topic was plum-ming?” I tried that old trick of repeating a mispronounced word back at her. It didn't work.
“Yes, I talk about plum-bing and explain the American plum-bing and how it is a little different from the China plum-bing.”
Fred was in a fit of giggles.
I went for the direct approach; I couldn't have everyone learn that word wrong. “Great! But, I just have to stop you for a moment – it's pronounced 'plumming.' The 'B' is silent.”
Mirabelle was unfazed. “No, it is plum-bing.”
I laughed a little. “No, really, I'm quite sure about this one. It's 'plum-ming.'”
A boy near me snickered. In her robotic tone, Mirabelle repeated, “No, it is plum-bing.”
Fred let out a quick peal of laughter and clamped his hand over his mouth to contain the rest.
I tried again. “Really. You can trust me on this; I wouldn't lie about pronunciation. The 'B' is truly silent. It's 'plum-ming.”
They turned on me. “No it's not! It has a 'B!' I know this word already! My teacher in China taught me 'plum-bing!'” The whole class was up in arms over this.
I tried not to laugh. I tried so hard not to laugh. I had Mirabelle minimize PowerPoint, pull up dictionary.com, and enter “plumbing.” Sure enough, the pronunciation key and the audio file were on my side.
Emotionless, Mirabelle clicked on PowerPoint again and resumed her presentation. “Perhaps we learn the British pronunciation in China.” The class liked that rationale. I put my hands over my face and stifled my own giggles.
Mirabelle advanced to her second slide. It was an old photograph of a man in a suit with a pocket watch. He looked like a nineteenth century hero of some sort. His leg was posed up on a rock, his hands were at his hips, and his gaze looked to the future. “This is Thomas Crapper. He is the father of the modern toilet. In fact, his name has even come to mean 'bathroom.' So now when we want to go restroom, we can all say, 'I'm going to the crapper.'”
Fred and I both lost our composure at the same time, and burst out laughing. Our students were confused, and poor Mirabelle almost let a curious emotion show on her face. Gasping for breath, Fred waved his hand in the air, “go to lunch...” He managed to get those words out in between laughing. “Just go to lunch, and we'll...finish this after!!”
The students left and we dried our tears. “Amy,” Fred said as he put his hand on my shoulder. “This is the best damn job in the world.”