Friday, July 25, 2008

Boss Yang and Teacher Gene

Following my previous post, there was curiosity on how I "got that American professor sacked." Actually, he wasn't a professor. He was an elementary schoolteacher in America who greatly leapt forward to being a graduate school teacher in China. So here is the story about an uneducated Chinese boss, an incompetent American teacher, and nasty, judgmental students in the mid 1980s.

* * *

The head of the Education Office at my graduate school, Boss Yang, was himself uneducated. He had come to his position, elevated by his lack of education, during the Cultural Revolution and there he stayed. Rumor had it he was a relative of General Yang Shangkun, soon to be China's President. He certainly acted like it. The first story I ever heard about him was how he gained his glorious nickname by yelling at an American teacher who dared to argue with him, screaming curses at the frightened foreigner as the latter fled his office.

Apparently, Boss Yang believed that the only qualification required of a graduate school English teacher was nationality. He hired an American, Gene, to teach us. A gangly man in his late-thirties, Gene the erstwhile elementary school teacher walked into our classroom twice a week and hung a white flipchart on the blackboard. On each page of the flipchart were simple English words that we had learned in middle school. Each word, hand-written in large black ink block letters, occupied a line. His pointer crossing the letters, he would read humorlessly aloud, "Hello" "World", and wait for us to repeat after him. Whether this was his way of teaching elementary school in America, we did not know, but it certainly was not something we appreciated. We looked at each other, shrugged, and kept silent. We waited for him to change his teaching method. He didn't. After two weeks, my roommate and I stopped attending Gene's class.

Then one day a fellow student told me Gene had invited our entire class for lunch in his apartment. I couldn't believe it – that meant anywhere between 10-20 people, and I had heard that Gene was stingy. "Maybe he wants to buy us back to his class," my roommate said. In any case, we were curious to see what an American ate for lunch, or what he would make for us, so the whole class went—not a single absence.

We jammed inside, near the door of Gene's apartment, which was quite spacious, the envy of his Chinese colleagues. "Please sit and help yourselves," Gene said to us, and began to eat his peanut butter sandwich. None of us sat down – there were only a few chairs in his room. Nor did we help ourselves to lunch – there was only a cold loaf of sliced bread on his coffee table, sitting beside an open photo album flaunting his water skiing youth. No dishes. No rice. No bowls or chopsticks. Not even a jar of peanut butter. Gene bit his bread leisurely, ignoring our silent existence. Frustrated and insulted, we quietly left his room one by one and he made no attempt to persuade anyone to stay.

Gene's reputation of stingy evilness ran apace; soon his classroom was as empty as the wilderness. Gene complained to Boss Yang about us not attending his class, and my roommate and I were summoned for questioning. We sensed an opportunity to get rid of the incompetent American teacher. My roommate, Wang, was a conservative Chongqing girl, and she resented Gene for patting her back during a school party. Knowing that Boss Yang would not give weight to the incompetence of Gene's teaching, Wang and I complained about Gene's "improper behavior" toward female students, which effectively upset Boss Yang – he easily took issues with a foreigner's behavior. I don't know how much our trick had contributed to Gene's departure, but his contract was not renewed after that term.

Gene did have followers, three of them, all girls in their final year of graduate school. The girls were pretty; their behavior was not. They followed Gene everywhere like his dogs, while Gene barely spoke to them. According to gossip, all three girls wanted to marry Gene so he could take them to America. I, like most of my fellow students, was disgusted.

Gene took none of his entourage with him; instead, he married a classmate of mine, a newly divorced Beijing girl he had been secretly dating. It had to be secret because foreign teachers needed Boss Yang's permission to visit student dormitories. The girl dropped out of graduate school to go abroad with Gene; when she was leaving not a single person on campus said goodbye to her. We watched, from our dorm windows, her lone back disappearing from our sight with no sympathy. The last thing we heard about her was no sooner had she got her green card that she divorced Gene.

Little did I know that I myself would one day fall in love with an American.

(Excerpted from "On Becoming an American," Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2008)


Matthew said...

This and your previous post are wonderful--I really hope my copy of your book arrives in time for my parents to bring it out here. Also hoping my wife will someday enjoy her life in the states (maybe next year).

Unfortunately, the perception of white skin = credentials for a foreign English teacher in China is still around. I've seen plenty of awful teachers in the few years I've been here.

Xujun said...

Thank you so very much, Matthew! I hope you enjoy my stories. So you have a Chinese wife now? Congratulations! Let me know if she needs any help after she comes here.