At 1 PM, we met a group of middle schoolers and our camera crew at the front gate of our school. The students were thrilled to get away from campus and we weren’t too upset about having the afternoon off, either.
The students piled into two vans, talking amongst themselves excitedly and stealing what they assumed to be secretive glances at us. We were going to the Lotus Park in Baoding’s Botanical Gardens. The school had decided that we needed to have our pictures taken with the students so that we could remember our experiences here in Baoding. For this reason, we were travelling to the most beautiful place in the entire city for Photo Shoot: Teacher Edition.
One thing that you need to know about China is that I feel like a celebrity everywhere I go. Because of my blonde hair and blue eyes, I am something of an oddity. I have had many, many people ask to have their picture taken with me. This does wonders for my self-esteem.
Even though it was particularly nippy this afternoon, the children could not wait to unload the buses and talk with the two foreign teachers. They wanted to impress us by speaking English, but their limited proficiency left them a little word-impoverished. Our conversations went something like this:
Student 1 (played by adorable Chinese child ranging from 7-13 years old)
Student 2 (same)
Teacher (played by myself)
Laoshi (played by the Chinese teacher)
Student 1: Teacher, what do you like?
Teacher: What do I like?
Student 1: (nods her head)
Teacher: I like to sing songs and read books.
Student 1: (looks questioningly then walks away)
Student 2: Teacher, TEACHER!
Student 2: What is your favorite color?
Student 2: (Pauses with sweet smile on her face) Thank you, teacher. (Walks away)
Student 1: (returns after having spoken with a Chinese teacher) What do you like here?
Teacher: In Baoding?
Student 1: (looks dejected and walks away again)
(Student 1 returns with Laoshi)
Laoshi: She means what is your favorite place in the park?
Teacher: OHH! I like the moon bridge! It should be very pretty. 很漂亮！
In the midst of these confusing snippets of conversation, one of the teachers gifted us with a traditional Chinese snack native to Baoding. The giving of snacks is a common phenomenon in China. The students often give Ashley little snacks that they brought with them from home, including red bean cakes and little crackers. Because I teach middle school, this happens less often for me; this is either because the middle schoolers do not want to share, or, more likely, because they are too old to require snacks to make it through a school day.
The teacher then handed us what appeared to be sticky, red gumballs skewered on a twig. I had actually seen this food before, sold by street vendors in cities that I had visited on previous trips. But I had never had the opportunity to try one. The teacher gave us this warning,
And at that moment, I knew that I would be eating this food out of obligation. This was to be “a little sour.” I began inspecting the food with a new skepticism. Some of the gumballs had a green dot in their center that I automatically distrusted. The stickiness seemed insidious.
I took a bite from the first sour gumball. I was surprised when it cracked easily and then shocked with dismay as I tasted the insides of the gumball. It was filled with red bean paste. Red bean paste is like my food enemy, the villain to my hero story. The tartness hit me like an aftershock.
I commented that it was much sourer than expected, a look of surprise on my face. The teacher watched me struggle for a while, laughing as she realized our palates were going into anaphylactic shock. She handed us a piece of paper we could wrap them in to “save for later.” I think this was her way of letting us off the hook with the students being none the wiser. Either way, the red bean sour gumballs stayed in their paper cages and were eyed with trepidation until they were disposed of.
As we went inside the park, the children gathered at the bottom of the stairs, making their normal two rows, girls on one side and boys on another. They were waiting for the Chinese teacher to introduce the first attraction, but it was pretty hard to miss.
In all seriousness, the rock was very beautiful. The photographer explained that this rock was there when the park was first opened in honor of the empress. This empress herself was not a good ruler, and so they often make jokes about her, but these jokes are in Chinese and fairly difficult to understand.
I laughed anyways.
Out of all the students that went on this trip, two middle school boys stuck out to me in particular. They were always hanging around each other and their English was pretty exceptional. They enjoyed telling me everything they knew about the park. We also switched back and forth between Chinese and English, piecing together what we didn’t have the words for in our second language.
We walked inside a photo gallery of the pagodas and the ponds during all the different seasons. One of the boys, the smaller one with glasses, saw a picture of the park in the winter, blanketed in white, and his face lit up.
“I love the snow! 雪！When I was little, I would walk outside in snow and AHHHHHH… catch it in my mouth! But inside my mouth… 冰的!” We both laughed and opened our mouths to the sky like we were catching snow.
And this was how we communicated, our own little Chinglish that brought both of us so much joy.
The park was very beautiful.
Like I said, the park was very beautiful. But I enjoyed the trip because I had the opportunity to interact with my students outside of class. They were eager to speak with me, and even when the frustration was evident on their faces, they were very willing to struggle with English words in order to practice and become better speakers of English. Their dedication to their language learning, and to their education in general, is something that can be difficult to find in America.
On the far west side of the park, we walked through a row of gingko trees. The wind was tossing the yellowing leaves into the air, sending them twirling to the muddy ground.
“They look like butterflies!” One of my students exclaimed!
I was struck by the beauty of that sentence even more than the beauty of my surroundings. She was right; the leaves danced on buttercup wings, alighting on a twig as a monarch would a rose. Her words transformed the leaves themselves in my mind, until we were walking in a field of vibrantly colored butterflies.
I was brought out of my reverie by the cute, smaller boy.
“When it has wind, the leaves blows,” he said, smiling as he watched them fall to the ground. I smiled at him instead of watching the leaves.
“We say, ‘When it is windy, the leaves blow’ or ‘When there is wind, the leaves blow’” and I couldn’t help but hug him close as I said, “But you were close.”