JISHOU, HUNAN — I suppose I should not be surprised that Chinese adolescents can be as catty and mean-spirited as Americans are, but two incidents this week still bug me. I need to vent, so if you want to skip all this drama, go ahead.
To set up incident number 1, I need to explain my oral English examination format. Modeling the Cambridge Business English Certificate exams, I meet two (sometimes three) students at a time for about 20 minutes. I test them on vocabulary and pronunciation, then give them a topic on the spot to talk about between themselves for a few minutes. There is usually time left for me to ask them a few questions to verify listening comprehension and coach them on pronunciation issues.
Students sign up for these sessions in class about two to three weeks in advance. With more than 200 students to evaluate, I’m booked pretty tight.
A couple of days ago, I was scheduled to meet three girls — roommates, as it turns out — who I will call A, B, and C. And B are among my best students in their class; their spoken English is not perfect, but they can chatter away at fairly high speed in English. C is a less motivated student, and much quieter in class. If students had been picking members for softball teams, I suspect she would have been one of the last ones that one team would have reluctantly picked. You know what I mean. I certainly do.
Anyway, C told me that A and B, seeing that their roommate (and supposed “best friend”) was the odd girl out, told her she could join them for the examination.
The hour of destiny arrived and I found only C outside my office waiting. She explained, abashedly, that her “best friend,” A, had called her 20 minutes before the appointment and told her that, since C’s English skills were so poor, A and B didn’t want to share their exam time with her. She should meet with me alone.
Mind you, this poor girl, C, had to explain this to me in English with less than 20 minutes to prepare. She was able to do it lucidly and unambiguously, and even request that I not tell her fair-weather friends that she had shared this information with me. Poor English skills? Uh-uh, girl friend.
OK. They aren’t perfect. She has some pronunciation issues. She confused the word “taxi” with “test,” which had me totally confounded for about five minutes. Why would two girls agree to share a cab with her, then at the last minute tell her to get out? When I realized taxi = test, it made a lot more sense. Well, in a way.
C suffers from a serious lack of self confidence. She swore to me that her pronunciation was poor, yet did as well as, and in one case better than, A or B. Her original college plan, she told me, was to study interior design, but her parents required her to study English on the mistaken assumption that English majors stand a better chance in the crowded Chinese job market than design majors. They clearly don’t hang around with the rich folks who inhabit the big cities here with ginormous flats begging for some original design work.
[Amateur’s aside: Interior design in China is, I am sorry to report, boring. I love my friends here dearly, but their homes are stark and cookie-cutter like. I feel like I’ve been transported back to a 1980s Architectural Digest photoshoot every time I visit someone’s new home.]
C told me that she had to obey her parents, though she does not especially love English. Convinced that her skills were atrocious, she was visibly surprised when I told her that, in fact, her pronunciation was not at all poor — I have a few freshmen who are nearly unintelligible — and that with some effort, she could overcome her vocabulary and grammar issues. I also suggested she pick up a sketch pad and some pencils and start drawing in her spare time. The five-week winter holiday starts next week, after all.
As I promised, it didn’t let on to A and B that C had spilled the beans, nor did I point out to any of the three that their internal divisions totally fouled up the rest of my schedule for that afternoon. I’m still debating how to address the schedule fuck-up with the class next term without pinpointing the ABC team as the culprit.
On to incident 2. The night after the ABC caper, I was chatting with my friend, K, on QQ. In the course of our conversation about her employment woes, which I will share later to give you an idea of how Chinese bosses work her, I told her about these girls. K asked me if they were roommates, and when I said they were, replied, “Oh, then it definitely wasn’t about her English. It was some girl thing.”
Then K offered her own experience as a for-instance. Basically, in their senior year, one of her roommates would spread nasty gossip about her when she was out of the room while the girls played cards. When K returned to the dorm, the others would fold up the card game and go about their nightly ablutions, not speaking one word to K. This went on for months, until their graduation.
I have no idea why that one roomie had it out for K. Maybe it was some personality problem — K, dear girl, is rather outspoken — or jealousy about K’s academic prowess. Or something else that I, as a mortal man, will never fathom because I’m male and they aren’t.
It gave me added insight into my friend, and her classmates, whom I have all taught, but it also made me realize that people are people, no matter where they live or how they grew up. I suppose that’s good to know, but in these two cases, very sad.