Last Friday was surreal. Izel, the head of another school I work at called me up the day before and asked if I could go visit a Kindergarten somewhere outside of the city. Since I don’t work on Friday afternoons at the university, I said why not?
We met at her school, a private one run almost completely by her, and I was greeted by the three other teachers working there. All of them happen to be from Africa. Two of them, a younger woman and man from Ghana, and another early thirties guy from Kenya. They all work under Izel, who is originally from the Philippines.
I asked what the plan was and she said we were being picked up by one of her adult students, a chinese man who owns an export garment factory and two kindergarten schools. We were to go visit both of his schools because the children there had never seen foreigners before and he thought it would be a good idea to broaden their horizons.
We arrived at the first school, which was in Shiba, about an hour northeast of Huizhou. Shiba is a very small town, more like a village where the wealthiest in town are lucky to drive cars and if you have a motorbike, you’re doing pretty good. The kindergarten building was shaped sort of like a castle and had cartoons of Mickey & Minnie Mouse (among others) painted huge all over it.
As an attendant opened the gate to let us drive into the courtyard, situational thoughts ran: A Filipina, Kenyan, two Ghanaians and an American walk into a Chinese kindergarten. Yeah, the joke’s on us. There was a big red banner in Chinese that said, “Welcome American Teachers to our school!” We were all American in their eyes.
We piled out of the cars and stood in the courtyard, trying to figure out exactly what was going on. An attractive Chinese woman in her early 30s came over to us and said hello. She also happened to be one of the heads of the school. She had a camera in hand and immediately started taking pictures of us; no doubt with the intent of publishing them to attract more enrollments.
After our arrival photo shoot, I walked into one of the classrooms in session and introduced myself to the little ones.
“Hellooo!!!” I waved with both hands and smiled as wide as my cheeks could go.
The 5-6 year olds immediately looked up from their desks and gave me a blank stare of reserved curiosity, the kind of look clowns are probably used to getting. The Chinese teachers asked them to follow their lead, “Good afternoon Teacher!!!”
Nothing. A few of the kids started laughing at me, others just gazed at this weird thing standing in front of them. So, I put up a hand and happily walked around trying to give them high-fives. A few of them held up their little paws, a couple looked on the brink of tears, and one boy even stood up on his chair and stretched out his hand, anticipating my arrival to his side.
At this point, my six-foot-two colleague from Ghana, we’ll call him Terry, came into the classroom and let out a big “Hellooo!!!” to which the kids turned around and once again became dazed by this new being. Unfortunately for Terry, some of the children started crying and screaming, yet most of them just looked on in surprise. The Chinese woman with the camera was behind him taking shots of us left and right.
Terry and I went from classroom to classroom doing the same thing and with the same results: crying, screaming, laughter, and bewildered curiosity. I felt like some kind of strange being from another world. One of the kids even pulled on my nose, as if trying to yank away my “mask”.
After making our rounds playing, singing songs and dancing (I did the moonwalk to amazed laughter), we were told that we needed to stand near the school gate to wave goodbye to the kids and their parents as they came to pick them up. Of course, this was a bit of a plug for the owner as a way to show the parents his school was special in terms of learning english.
As we stood there smiling and waving, a crowd of people, young and old, started to gather outside the gate. They all looked on with the same faces as the children we’d just met. Some of them yelled “Hey man!” or “Nice to meet you!” I must have posed for over a hundred photos with the children and their parents. One grandfather rode in on a bike and was looking at us like he’d just seen a ghost. He kept pointing at us, but mostly he was curious about Terry. He kept rubbing his face with both hands, as if he was trying to rub something off. Finally, he walked over to Terry and took a closer look. Terry speaks pretty good Chinese, and he thinks he was saying, “Why don’t you wash your face?”
Terry just shrugged it off and laughed and leaned in to tell me grandpa smelled like he’d been drinking all afternoon. The old man went in to pick up his grandson and came back, slowly lifting him up and setting him in a seat on the back of his bicycle. No he isn’t! we both thought as he got ready to ride away, the little one holding onto his backsides. They slowly wobbled away out the gate and disappeared. Just to think, this is probably an everyday occurence for the little fella.
As the children started thinning out, there was still a pretty good size crowd of curious onlookers. The woman with the camera tried to tell them to go away, but had no luck, only laughing when she was walking back from them. We asked her why she was laughing so much and she said that one of the onlookers asked her, “Zhengde ren 正地人?” Which roughly translates into “Are they real people?”
Terry and I burst into our own laughter and decided to start walking around like robots to add to the moment. I couldn’t keep a straight face as the last parents and their kids waved goodbye to us.
After about four hours of being something else, my cheeks never hurt so much.
P.S. I’m trying to get a hold of the pictures to post here. Fingers crossed.