Lessons Gleaned from Student Mugshots

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Last week was our first week of class.  And like I did with my first crop of students last year, the first day saw me playing host to a Q&A session from my students.  First, I had them give a self-introduction, then helped them choose an English name. Afterward, I made them pose with said names for a photo to allow me to connect their new names with their faces more easily.  Then came the panel discussion where the topic felt more than a bit self-serving.  More often than not, the questions were not particularly beguiling—most revolved around my perceived differences between America and China, whether I liked the taste of Chinese food, some general details about my academic and personal background, where I've been in China and abroad, whether I've adjusted to life at the university, and if I'm able to eat with chopsticks. 

But every now and then, your students will surprise you.  If nothing else, their questions, in conjunction with their mugshots, gave me more insight into their collective psyche.  I don't consider myself much of a portrait photographer, but these are a sampling of some of the most interesting.

This month I am temporarily teaching two additional classes as a substitute for the final foreign teacher who is expected to arrive in Taigu sometime in October.  Their English level is on the whole not as good as that of my regular students, but the Office was desperate, and I'm getting paid a hefty bonus to do it.  Both classes were previously Gerald's, some of whom I knew only in the context of dance parties and social gatherings last year.  They seemed to remember me just as well.

What never fails to go unasked in each of my classes is the classic, “do you have a girlfriend?” question, to which I respond with, “it's a secret,” to mild irritation and fits of laughter.  However, with my first class I made the mistake of saying that I would tell them later.  Virginia, one of the feistiest and most free-thinking students in the class, asked me again before I dismissed class, “so, are you or are you not available?”  I had to tell her the truth.

What amazed me was how differently each student reacted to my impromptu photo shoot.  Since this was the first criterion with which I could use to judge them, I figured that most students would want to make a good impression.  But where some smiled brightly and struck a pose, just as many were shy, gawky, or merely devoid of life.  To put it simply, some treated it like a birthday still, others, like they had waited for six hours at the DMV, and still more, like they were posing for their middle school yearbook photo.

A lesson on name choosing: Candy is not a stripper name.  Neither is Cherry, Angel, Lotus, Snow, or Sky.  Spring is a boy's name.  As are Breath, Caitlin, and Dandelion.  Obama is a mild-mannered sophomore who sits in the back of the class and doodles on his homework.  Salt, Water, Rock, and Sea, are no longer strictly elements of the natural world.  Never underestimate the power of a student's imagination.

What struck me most about Monet was not the way he looked or carried himself, and certainly not his English level (which was nearly non-existent), but the style that he seemed to exude.  It was no surprise then to discover that he was an art major, the first of any student I've taught.  He studied drawing and painting as an undergrad and wanted a name to suit his personality.  And thus Monet was born.

“This woman in the picture, is that your—”
“Yes, that's my mother.”
(Collective intake of breath.)
“But she looks Chinese.”
“She is Chinese.”
(Collective gasp.)
“And that old man hugging you in the other picture—”
“He's my father.”
“So you're—”
“Half-Chinese and half-American.”
(Excited whispers and applause.)
“Oh.” (Beat.) “Your mother is very pretty.”

One student refused to have his picture taken in conjunction with his name, sighting the generally unsavory connection between a picture of a student holding a name placard and the mugshots of hardened criminals from American movies he had seen.  At his request, I allowed him to take his picture without it.

Never let your approval for the name “Apple” be overstated.  Then you might have three or four of her neighboring classmates all vying for the names of other fruits, with one of them sorely mouthing in Chinese that she had wanted to be Apple all along before some girl stole it from under her.  “Peach,” evidently, is not pleasing to the ear.  But “Grape” is.  Go figure.

One student asked me, “if there were only two girls left in the world—a Chinese girl and a Japanese girl—which one would you choose?”  It was supposed to play on the negative opinion our students generally hold of their neighbors to the east, but I was too smart to bite.  Both, I thought to myself.  After all, I have to repopulate the Earth.


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