In honour of training myself to roll with the punches here in China, I’d like to share a recent story of where this was ever so apparent.
If you ever plan on teaching in China, be prepared to get some very odd requests.
I had been teaching at a new training school for a couple of weeks when I received a last minute change to my schedule. I was no longer going to teach my Wednesday classes at the school, but rather I was to meet the supervisor at a Burger King near one of the city’s largest public squares. This is where my class would take place.
You heard that right, a class inside a Burger King.
I’d like to say I was surprised or baffled by the request, but at this point nothing really surprises me. Plus, what was once an hour and half class on my schedule was now cut to an hour so I couldn’t really complain.
I meet the supervisor just outside the subway and he apologizes for the change. The original foreign teacher was sick and they needed someone foreign to show off to the parents. He explains that this class will allow the parents to see their children using English in a real-world setting and is also a way for the public to see the training school in action. An extreme form of guerrilla advertising, if you ask me.
The competition within the education market in China, especially Dalian, is fierce and schools are always trying to recruit new students whenever possible, and will apparently resort to overtaking fast food restaurants to gain an edge.
We arrive at the Burger King, which looks identical to those elsewhere in the world, and I notice that the tables and chairs on the left side of the restaurant have been rearranged to form a sort of U-shape to accommodate the class. On each table are the classic Burger King cardboard crowns that all kids love, and miniature Burger King aprons fitting for small children. I am greeted by the Chinese teacher who goes over the breakdown of what’s about to happen.
She will teach the children (5 or 6 year olds by my estimation) some Burger King-related vocabulary while having them taste the various foods. It is then my job to present them with little cards that they will use to ‘order’ the food from me. She points to an arbitrary place in the lobby and says I can make a line and have them go one by one. Seems easy enough.
They ask me to sit at a table by the window until it is my turn. The supervisor brings me a cup of warm water (as is customary in China) and a uniform consisting of a cap and an apron (as is customary for a Burger King employee). He says this is my uniform for the day with a jovial smile.
I give him an “okay” and a thumbs up, while in my head I slowly make room at the top of my “Most Ridiculous Things I’ve Done in China” list. It’s about to have a new number one.
I watch amusedly as the Chinese teacher begins the class while the large group of parents, who have taken up most of the right side of the place, sit with camera phones ready to capture any and all moments. Everything goes as she had explained for the first 15 minutes. She teaches them words and has them come up and eat pieces of burgers, buns, lettuce, etc.
When the the Chinese teacher appears to be finished, an employee hands each of the children a small plastic-wrapped packaged, which turns out to be a toy purse consisting of many different pieces that need to be tied together; an activity that may have taken a full day for a 5 year old to complete alone.
For the next 15 minutes, the kids, with overbearing parents, struggle and repeatedly ask for help from Burger King employees, some parents try to assemble the whole purse themselves, and some parents really try to focus their child and help them with assembly. You know, the usual way a large public parent/child activity goes.
I chuckle and give my head a shake as I watch the hilarity ensue. These parents are really giving it their all when their kids really couldn’t care less.
As we approach the half hour mark, the Chinese teacher gives me the cards she had mentioned consisting of a hamburger, fries, nuggets, and juice. There were enough cards for all kids to have one of each. I put on my cap and apron (which is a little too small for me) and prepare for my time to shine, but not before I am also given a headset with a microphone to make sure everyone can hear me. I now officially look like I should be manning the drive-thru.
The parents return to their original seats and I begin my portion of the lesson, which is really just reviewing the words on the cards and teaching the question, “May I have a hamburger/some fries/some nuggets/some juice?” The children receive the cards as they “master” the corresponding phrases.
I try not to think about how silly I must look or what is happening around me and try to focus on the children. Although, based on how much I’m stared at normally, I think I can assume that the chance to see a foreign man dressed as a Burger King employee yelling English words at a group of 5 year olds must be a highlight of most peoples’ days. I’m sure many videos and pictures were captured and sent through the WeChat universe.
I review the vocabulary for about 15 minutes until I’m told to have the kids line-up. I move to the arbitrary place in the lobby and begin ushering the children over, but the Chinese teacher rushes to me and explains that this is no good. Instead, I’m dragged behind the cash register. (They like their realism here.) And in the spirit of rolling with the punches, I do my best not to roll my eyes and keep the charming smile on my face.
The ten-or-so children line up in front of the counter, and each has a turn to ask for four different food items one at a time. All this while the restaurant operates as normal just feet away from us. The place is loud and busy so I can barely hear the kids when they speak but I think I’m mostly there to smile and nod, so that’s what I do. Nevertheless, it seems to take an eternity for each student to ‘order’.
When it’s all over and the last child has handed in their cards, I hand in my uniform and headset and am sent on my way. No free food unfortunately but I’m sure I brought a smile to plenty of the locals. I certainly won’t forget it.
I can say with full confidence that this was something I never in a million years thought I’d experience. I think it helped that I probably look ridiculous most days here in China so what’s one more thing?
Whenever you find yourself in a situation that seems a bit crazy, just put on a smile and see what happens. It could make for a great story.