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问候童年 Time Machine and a Homecoming through Time and Space

I landed on a chair whose smooth texture and tough hardness I once knew so well. Approximately 50 pairs of eyes were starring at me, as I placed my non-recyclable lunch box and chopsticks on the equally familiar-looking desk. 

 

Time machine? It felt surreal yet so real. So familiar yet so estranged. Even the pair of cheap, un-environmentally-friendly chopsticks have rendered themselves part of a rather distant past, though appearing infrequently from time to time. In a similar manner do I dream from time to time about returning to the ancient temples of this elementary school that proudly preserves 700-year-old works of remarkable architecture in the heart of China’s modern capital today. It truly is a splendid setting for eager young minds to learn about the classics and modern thoughts alike. As I walked past each building whose name had blurred a little over the years, I compared them to my memories of them that I turn to so often, being as nostalgic a person as I am. Revisiting my elementary school around eight years after I graduated from here had always been on my agenda. This was a much-anticipated homecoming.

 

I tucked the chopsticks into the rice, whose body had partly covered and partly sunken into the shredded pork section of the lunch box. Adjacent to that, were sliced bean curd, chicken, and some vegetables — not exactly fond memories, school lunch boxes, that is. Piled up in a larger box next to each classroom, the Little Boxes would emit an odour that was not particularly pleasant. We would take one, eat everything quickly, and throw (often not without a subtle expression of disgust) the box away in the same Big Box outside our classroom, piling them up again on top of other Little Boxes, sometimes containing unwanted leftovers of their former content. Sometimes, we would line up next to the classroom on the far left corner of the floor for soup.

 

‘We have two teachers today?’ A few kids wondered out loud, smiling at my homeroom teacher — their homeroom teacher now — and myself in a friendly fashion that I liked. Ms. Liu, who taught me Chinese for my entire six years at Fuxue, had invited me to ‘teach’ her current class and ‘watch over’ them over the lunch period as she had a meeting. Without responding to the children’s enquiry initially, she grinned rather naughtily, paused for a few minutes as they continued gazing at my lunchbox and me with eyes filled with curiosity, and finally introduced ‘Ms. Xu’ (indeed, a literal translation would be ‘Teacher Xu’, which made me blush a little) to the class. At 12:30, Ms. Liu ran to her meeting, leaving the students and me. She reassured me that she would return by 13:10 at latest.

 

I pulled out my Murakami book from my bag while the fifth-graders started their assigned homework. Lunch break is around one hour long in most local schools in Beijing, but it never really is a break per se. Homework time is what I might call the most part of the ‘lunch break’, although you do get more homework to take home when you are done with the ‘homework’ assigned for lunchtime — from my own experience, in elementary and middle schools alike, we would finish eating as quickly as we could, hoping to get back to work as soon as possible so that we could enjoy a few minutes of play outside after our teachers checked that the assignment was completed impeccably. If not, you would be asked to rework anything that was not meticulously done, and to line up again to request for the teacher’s inspection once more, crossing your fingers in hope of winning the teacher’s approval this time. Students who had to stay behind in the classroom did not enjoy themselves as much, understandably. It is a good incentive, surely, despite its superficiality in creating a mentality where ‘getting work done early’ equals ‘more play time’, and in retrospect, a clever approach to cultivating a strong work ethic from an early stage of our childhood.

 

‘Be quiet!’

 

‘Shut up!’

 

The elected class monitors stood next to me, in front of the classroom, emotionless and cold. 

 

‘Silence!’

 

‘Focus on your homework!’

 

They yelled at their peers and quickly decided to use a common strategy to govern this mini-polis: a strategy that I had seen when I was a student here, where the monitors would write down the names (hmm, actually, they were numbers — each student gets a number at school to simplify this whole process) of any first-degree schoollawbreakers on the blackboard using a notoriously much-dreaded white chalk, which their teacher would be sure to see upon his/her return. Doubtlessly, he/she would immediately proceed to the next step: chastise those individuals without much mercy. I probably frowned subtly, once again stunned by this power dynamic and weirdly cruel system of governance as I turned to look at the whiteboard, now featuring quite a few numbers, ’11, 9, 40, 30, 21, 48, 1, 34’, etc.. Yet, some rather brave souls plausibly too accustomed to all of this to care had continued distracting their peers from finishing up their schoolwork. In the meantime, the corridors outside and the classroom were not without their own drama. I heard that the boys’ bathroom had flooded, a student of this homeroom had a nosebleed that had not stopped for the last forty minutes, and that another student had been ‘playing in the toilet’ instead of having lunch alongside his/her friends in the classroom. Hmm. Okay. Interesting…

 

‘Hey, tell him to stop talking. How can I focus on my homework?’ A frustrated little girl said to her classmates who were in charge. All dressed in uniforms they were. Uniforms of slightly different colour from my time here. I felt oddly out of place, and old. Repeatedly, some of these student leaders and ‘ordinary citizens’ of the class approached me to seek my approval to do certain things, such as using the restroom, fetching old newspapers as vain attempts to stop the bathroom flooding incident (one female monitor declared to the class that all boys should proceed to the bathroom immediately if needed and ordered them to rub their feet on the newspapers carefully before reentering the classroom), turning on the AC, etc. Although only eight or nine years older than them, I felt as though I had travelled through a strange time machine to land in a different time in a place that I once knew so well, although everything had altered ever so slightly.

 

‘Ms. Xu, you need to step in now!’ The little boy sitting close to me hinted with a serious facial expression, annoyed by my incompetence in governing their classroom. Often enough, I pictured my elementary school classroom as the daunting room in a giant palace back in ancient China, where a roomful of civil servants would report to the emperor nervously every morning. The teacher often seemed like the emperor (empress?) to me, as if in a heartbeat, he/she may condemn one to death. As I did not wish to become that empress, I gently smiled at the boy in response to his demand, and continued reading Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase. He was not very happy, definitely, upon noting the lack of real response from my part. The novel had gotten a little abstract by this point, and I was struggling a little to concentrate with so much noise and so many random thoughts flooding my head at once. Nevertheless, I would do anything to prevent myself from becoming a dictator in this classroom where I did not even belong.

 

I also recalled from my time at Fuxue that I was asked, on several occasions, to stay in the classroom to help my peers with their schoolwork during lunchtime. I was happy to oblige, knowing that my classmates would make some academic progress with the help of peers while still immersed in the academic environment at school that was overall free from distractions. This was a time when video games and yoyo’s had started dominating childhood in China: consumerism and materialism, maybe? Vaguely, however, there was some early awareness of power in there, too — as an appointed peer supervisor, I was designated much autonomy to decide the extent to which my peers had met the requirements, and even had the power to report any negative aspects of their performance to my teachers, who would often call my fellow students’ parents. And of course, you might be aware of how many, if not most, Chinese parents at competitive schools are nicknamed ‘tiger’ mums and dads. They would beat their children up without hesitation. Fortunately, my parents have always believed in ‘happy education’ and offered positive incentives instead of negative ones. My peers’ situation, though significantly different from my own, was not too hard to imagine. Looking back, I never abused this power, but there was one instance in particular that I still cannot forget to this day: a very tall and chubby guy from my class cried. He was frightened of me, a skinny, introverted little girl. It might sound dramatic, but sadly, it was the reality. I tried assisting him with some schoolwork, but he still failed to meet our teachers’ mandates, so I had to… You know. Tell. One could tell from his face that his parents chastised him and probably beat him up as well. I felt bad, but there was not anything else that I could do…

 

Am I an outsider here? I had once belonged in a group like the one sitting in front of me, perhaps not knowing how much of a group the individuals collectively form. Whilst Western schools often capitalise on the value of individualism, Chinese schools often stress on the significance of group identities. Despite the fact that my mind was ordering me to look at everyone as an individual, my gut feeling was to view them as a whole and generalise about the group.

 

Of course, my primary function of this little homecoming was not to spy on the kids for my teacher, which I probably (and rather intentionally) failed miserably. Per Ms. Liu’s request, I was to introduce myself, compare and contrast the Eastern and Western education models, offer general advice, as well as answer questions from the pupils. Upon my teacher’s return (finally!), the Q&A session officially kicked off.

 

‘What’s the learning atmosphere like in the U.S.?’

 

‘Do you have exams in America as well? What are they like?’ (Note here that they were asked to use the polite form ‘nin’ — ‘you’ in Chinese — reserved for elder people, instead of the formal form ‘ni’ when addressing me…)

 

‘Is the Western education system preferable to ours?’

 

‘How did you get interested in politics? Is it really big in the States?’

 

‘Is racial discrimination serious there? Is there a lot of violence? Is the U.S. safe?’

 

 

Forget the stereotype that Asian kids as shy and reserved. I was surprised myself at the sheer level of enthusiastic participation from across the classroom: whilst I was expecting a few outgoing students to speak up for their friends, the majority of the cohort had raised a question, and even two or three at times. At one point, Ms. Liu had to step in to introduce a new policy where each person could now ask no more than one question. I was delighted to share my perspective on a range of topics from advice on getting into my middle school, learning foreign languages, adapting to a new environment, to more general suggestions; from politics in the U.S. to a comparison between the Western and Eastern education systems, etc., using the blackboard and chalk at times to illustrate my points. They were an amazing group of audience.

 

Whilst it is not at all uncommon for high school and university alumni to return to their schools, primary school ‘alums’ are rare creatures. Simultaneously as I reminisced about my time at the school and pictured the younger version of me sitting in their classroom, listening to a college-age graduate talking about her experience studying abroad, I also could not help wondering about the future that lies ahead of everyone.

 

It was a truly peculiar experience: eating lunch with 50 strangers closely examining me with their curious eyes was one thing, but more importantly, not only did it feel absurdly paradoxical that I felt like the 11 year-old me in this particular physical atmosphere despite possessing the appearance of a legit adult, I had also travelled across time and space, having just flown in from the United States, where I attend college, and inevitably being oh-so-jet-lagged. 

 

What a journey.

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