On the everyday weirdness of teaching English abroad.

IMAGINE, IF YOU WILL, that you’re teaching English in China. Imagine that one of your university students invites you to her English talent show one night and you decide to attend.

You walk into a giant auditorium where it turns out you will not be part of the audience but are instead a celebrity judge with a name tag and a seat of honor up front, and you are given judging criteria and are expected to deliver comments and score the contestants on a variety of factors, and you can “be accurate within two decimals places,” and the tools you’re provided comprise a grading rubric written in Mandarin, a glow-stick necklace, and plastic hands that make a loud clapping noise when you smack them together.

Imagine the contestants include:

  • Two male students, one of whom is wearing an Orlando Magic jersey, doing their best to imitate the style and flow of a popular American rap song while simultaneously performing a choreographed robot dance.
  • A student giving a speech about life, which turns out to consist primarily of repetitions of some choice cliches (“life is unfair, life is beautiful, live your life, life in the fast lane”).
  • A rock opera, of sorts, where girls dress in drag and half-assedly mime along to the lyrics of several pop songs…twice. (The CD skips about eight minutes in so they decide it’d be best to start again from the beginning. They even re-introduce themselves.)
  • Several painfully shy Chinese girls swaying back and forth and warbling words to a mashup of Avril Lavigne songs.
  • One of your own students who blushes deeply and stutters during his performance every time he makes eye contact with you.

Imagine there’s an intermission contest to see who can complete English tongue twisters the fastest and — surprise! — you’re a contestant (and of course you win; you’re the guest of honor!) and your prize is two used plastic Mickey Mouse pencil toppers.

Photo: Author

The judge to your right can’t speak English and the judge to your left actually is scoring contestants to two decimal places. From behind you comes the dull roar of 150 Chinese university students and teachers rustling their papers, talking and giggling loudly, and taking pictures of the back of your head with their camera phones. Afterwards, there’s an impromptu photo shoot where you pose for about 30 photos with your adoring fans.

Imagine that you go home and open your thank-you-for-participating gift and find the item in the picture shown at right.

That was my Monday.