When I chose to learn Spanish at MHS, it was for several reasons: one, I already knew some words. Please, thank you, bathroom, and my numbers one through ten…I knew several words for foods: tacos, burritos, churros, empanadas…Once I can name some of my favorite foods in a new language, I feel much more comfortable learning everything else!
Reason two, most college and universities required two years of a foreign language, and I figured Spanish would be easy…
Three…and FUN! A language historically intertwined with salsa music and mariachis, sombreros and flamenco dancers had to be fun. One year my Spanish name was Mercedes; another year it was Raquel. I liked the names—they were my Spanish class alter-egos. I went on a mission trip to
with one of my Spanish
teachers, and I had a blast acing every test I took. Mexico
I think my experience is similar to many high school and college students in the
picking up another language because it’s fun and cool, with the dream that
maybe one day we’ll visit the country where it’s spoken. US
I’m not sure my Chinese students would describe learning English as fun. Oh, sure—I have some university students who are taking my classes on the side. For them, it’s just another part of their schooling, and at 20 years old, their enthusiasm and curiosity often spice up a class.
However, I also have many students who come to class after work for that three-in-a-row all the teachers have (6:40 – 9:30 p.m. on weeknights). It is painfully evident how exhausted some of the students are. These working professionals do everything from surgery to food delivery for Sherpa’s. About once a week I’ll have a student fall asleep in my class. When I walk through the computer lab, I’ll see three or four students asleep at their desks. It doesn’t help that some of the classrooms are 80 or 90 degrees Fahrenheit—the mall has turned off the A/C for the year, and eight floors of electric and body heat float up and settle on the 9th floor where our center is. On a sunny Saturday or Sunday, some students will be at their computers as long as I'm there--over eight hours. It's like a second job that they're paying for.
A handful of my students have a spouse from an English-speaking country, and some occasionally travel for business. However, most of my students are learning English for one reason: English-speaking countries (the
Canada, Australia, and the ) are still the most
powerful in the world, and English is the language of power. Improve
my resume…Be more competitive in the job market…My company is paying for my
English lessons…I haven’t met a single student who’s learning English “just
for fun”. To me, it’s a little sad. United Kingdom
Many of my students have had the same English name as long as they’ve been studying—10 years, maybe longer. It’s not a fun alter-ego anymore; it’s as if they have a split identity, an English-speaking part of them that might allow them to become a bit more stable or successful in the world. I wonder: Do they feel as though they are giving up a piece of who they are—part of their Chinese identity—in order to make room for the English part—in order to get ahead?
For more than a few of my students, there is a desperation to their learning, it seems to me, that has an entirely different feel than my fun lessons with Senor Verde.
There is a vegetable market a little ways from my apartment that some friends showed me. The produce there is great, and there’s meat, too—it’s all clean and up off the floor and quite nice. But to get there, I have to walk down a road several blocks long. On this road, there is food garbage littering the street, making it slimy: rotting bok choy and cabbage, bits of ramen from that morning’s breakfast tossed into the gutter. Sometimes blood will trickle across the pavement from cuts of fish or pork. A stray dog or cat, its fur matted with dirt, will often sniff around these places, dodging scooters and bicycles and children in strollers. Every other stall along this road is blasting one kind of music or another—traditional Chinese, dance music, Kpop (from
). Half of the men are smoking cigarettes. Sometimes, filthy, crippled beggars with
patched clothes will sit in the street, or hobble along with a crutch and a tin
cup. There are no bathrooms here, my
friends have told me. If you live within
ten square blocks of this place, you have to use the public cesuos next to the main street (Haining
Lu). Imagine this. Really think about it. If you are a child, maybe eight years old,
you probably wake up at least once a week in the middle of the night needing to
pee. You probably have to wake up an
older sibling (if you have one) or a parent to take you to the bathroom blocks
away at three or four in the morning.
There’s no soap there, no toilet paper, and of course they are
When my mom came to visit me, we walked through this neighborhood a couple of times to get to the vegetable market. Once, a fire truck tried to get through. Between haphazardly parked cars, swerving scooters, beggars, animals, and families stopping every minute to shop in one stall or another, it took the fire truck about five minutes to go one block, blaring its horn the whole time. The firemen weren’t hesitant to lean out the windows and yell at people, or laugh.
With streets like this, if a fire broke out, it would burn the neighborhood to the ground before the fire truck could get through. With hygiene like this, if some contagious disease found its way here, half the people in the neighborhood would have it before they knew what hit them. And if you think they could afford to go to a decent doctor, you’ve been in
too long. America
My point is that poverty in China is still very real, even in Shanghai, even in 2013. My students are quite privileged if they can afford English lessons at the center where I work. As soon as they learned the word “cosmopolitan”, they applied it to
couldn’t stop talking about how modern and high-tech is.
But no matter what they say, I know they are not completely ignorant of
neighborhoods like the one near my apartment.
I can almost see them thinking: That could be me. If I don’t keep studying, keep working, keep
trying…it could be my children, too.
They don’t talk about it, though.
They just keep learning English. Shanghai