It's only been 1.5 years since we were "foreign teachers" (although 2.5 years since I was actually in the classroom), but sometimes I forget how different our life is as foreign students. Not just our daily activity, but also our status in China. We certainly still get lots of attention as foreigners, but we live on a campus with close to 100 foreign students, half of whom look noticeably foreign. People almost get used to us. As foreign students, we have no prestige. But as teachers, we actually carry a "Foreign Expert Card," which we sometimes literally use to "pull the foreigner card."
Yesterday we helped with a Christmas program for another university in Yinchuan, and we got a reminder of what it was like to be Foreign Experts again. We don't know any foreign teachers at that university - there may not be any - but we had a few connections so our team decided to go help out. This campus was only about a 25 minute bike ride away, but it was pretty far out on the edge of town. Past long rows of greenhouses and mud sheds. Past large fields of newly sprouting trees. Past the fancy new buildings of other college campuses also sprouting up on the edge of town. No neighborhoods, no shops, no restaurants - just one bus stop down the road and a few fruit sellers by the campus gate. A group of mini-vans for hire waited on across the road since no taxis come out this way. Their drivers were gathered around a bonfire, waiting for someone to come along and request their services.
This is not a top-level or even mid-level school. The students are almost all from small Ningxia towns. Many of them have probably never seen a foreigner before and most have never talked to one. The word about the Christmas program spread and the original 70 students mushroomed into a couple hundred. The teachers scrambled to move us into a new classroom - a large auditorium with stadium seating and giant screens connected to a computer in the front. This campus was only a year or two old, and it was still looking quite new and fancy. The teachers ushered us in, eager to show how much they were honored by our presence and wondrously amazed to find we could speak Chinese. See what I mean? Prestige. Nobody treats students this way.
Our friends who were heading up the program talked about some different Christmas traditions and beliefs, interspersed with the whole group coming up to sing several Christmas carols. When the students spotted our teammate's daughters (Juliana had stayed at home), a couple hundred cell phones whipped out and started snapping pictures. Each time we came up to sing a Christmas song, the students clapped enthusiastically and took more pictures.
After the formal presentation was over we moved to different corners of the room for question and answer. The students shyly gathered around and awkwardly looking at each other hoping someone would talk. A couple of brave boys came in a little closer and several girls linked arms for moral support.
One of the brave boys shook my hand and said, "Nice to meet you! You are very beautiful." I had to laugh. I almost forgot how people used to say that all the time. I'm not being vain, they really did. Guy and girl students, random grandmas and shopkeepers. Usually at inappropriate times like when you are trying to have a serious conversation with them or trying to buy milk at the supermarket. I would be more flattered but mostly they think I am beautiful because I look so foreign and because I have such white skin, which is enviable in China. And because I have yellow hair and blue eyes. I don't have either, by the way, but reality does little to sway preconceived notions.
In between awkward pauses the brave boys yell out mildly coherent questions. They are supposed to be related to Christmas, but we give that up after a few minutes because really any question will be an accomplishment. The usual questions proceed, in somewhat more garbled English than normal. They also repeat their questions in Chinese, which is helpful when the English doesn't make a lot of sense. When in doubt I just make up my own question to answer and they are happy since they don't understand most of what I respond anyway.
When the awkward silences start to build up, I try asking them questions instead. Where are they from - that's usually easy enough to understand, what year are they - freshmen, what do they do when they have free time - sleep, shop, one girl said "farm work.
Over in Kevin's group, the students are even more intimidated by the thought of trying to talk to two guys. Kevin looms about two heads above the group. The students are all too shy to ask questions, so their teacher starts ask questions for them. "These students are not very good," she says, "Their English scores on the GaoKao (the huge standardized test to get into university) were around 30 out of 150pts." Not exactly a motivating speech, but if the students even understood, they are probably used to hearing that type of thing. The main education philosophy seems to include "learn through shame and scolding." The students know this is not such a great school, but probably some of them are just happy to be going to any college.
I've missed students. I miss their awkward shyness as they stand around forgetting every word of English they've ever learned but still desperately hoping you'll talk to them. I miss how intimidated they are just by the foreign face. They are so cute and so young at 20 going on 15. I want to get to know them better, especially these students who have likely never been to a city bigger than Yinchuan. I even miss their dumb questions like, "Can you use chopsticks?" (after I just told them this is my seventh year in China), their ever-repeated questions, "Do you like China? Do you like Chinese food?", and of course the one that never will die, "How do I improve my oral English?" I miss even that.
As the time ends and the students file out, they stop to mob us for photos. Once the photo ops start it's hard to end them, with a dozen more students crowding around waiting to grab your arm and turn you toward the appropriate camera-phone wielding student. I forgot what it was like to be all famous. Tonight my picture will go up on twenty more qq or renren pages (kind of like Facebook), probably with some caption like, "My foreign friend!! Did I mention we are very close? Like best friends! p.s. She knows Obama."`