Thursday, April 8, 2010

"Today, children, we have two very special guests..."

Yesterday I experienced yet another "first," though this one was something very unique. I went to an elementary school to visit some children and encourage them to learn English. But this isn't any ordinary school. It is a school for children of migrant workers.

These children come from "the slums" (quoting the woman who brought me). Companies travel to cities all around China and hire homeless people or peasants to do hard labor for extremely little pay then transport them and their families to their company's home city to work, usually making them live in terrible conditions. 

Fortunately, there are some schools like this that offer the children of these families a basic education, though the parents must still pay some fees. I met a Chinese girl named Mandy (English name) at church who attends my university and teaches at this school every day as part of a non-paid internship. She asked if I would come to her class to motivate them to learn English. Another student from my university here named Chad, who teaches at this school about every month, also came along.

What's more, the children have never before come in contact with a white person (or Caucasian for all you politically correct readers). Though they've seen them on advertisements and whatnot, they have never had the opportunity to see a real, live white person because they've lived in very poor places all their lives.

I went along with a university student from the Caribbean named Sharon. Most of these kids have never seen a black person either, so it was quite the experience for both of us.

When we arrived, many of the children were playing outside. As soon as we walked through the gate they all came running like the paparazzi. It was crazy. Since we all arrived late, Mandy and Chad were hurrying us through the swarms of children.

There were about 60 children (10- and 11-year-olds) in the class we visited. It was completely silent when we entered.

Kids who weren't in the class were trying to peak in through the windows.

We began by introducing ourselves. We spoke in English, and Mandy translated. Following that we had a question and answer time -- unscripted for sure. Consider how you would answer the questions I was asked:

Why is your skin white?
Why are your eyes blue?
What kind of food do you eat?
Is the U.S. more beautiful than China?
Do people in the U.S. think white people are the best?

Although those questions were hard enough to answer -- let alone to a group of children -- the most difficult question came from Mandy (the Chinese teacher).

"Can you sing an American pop song for us?"

Actually, I should have expected it. When I was here two years ago I visited a local elementary school supposedly to play some English games with the children. Instead, I was forced to sing Edelweiss (from The Sound of Music) for them. I'm still at a loss as to why they chose that song.

But this time I was going to hold my ground. I insisted that I don't listen to pop music -- and I don't. I threw just about every [truthful] excuse at her, but she pulled the it's-such-a-pity-that-these-children-finally-have-the-opportunity-to-see-an-American-and-now-you-won't-show-them-your-culture card. Sharon (the Caribbean woman) even jumped in and said she was being too pushy...but to no avail.

Mandy said some stuff to the class in Chinese, they all clapped their hands in excitement, then she turned to me and said she just told them I would sing a song.

*Pause for dramatic effect*

Everyone was staring at me. I started laughing nervously, trying to think of some "American" song to sing. After about 30 seconds I told Mandy I couldn't think of any good songs that I knew. She recommended the National Anthem.

*Pause again for dramatic effect*

I decided that it's too difficult to sing a capella. Besides, it's not really music if you know what I mean. I pauseed for another 30 seconds. Then a very random song came into my head. *Deep breath*

"Sommmmme-times in our liiiiiiives we all have paaaaaaain we all have sorrow..."

Everyone's favorite: Lean on Me.

It's impossible to capture the moment in writing. It was reminiscent of that scene in Sister Act 2 when the boy performs Oh Happy Day in front of the school. The only difference was I am not a singer. But I sang with the confidence of one. You only live once, right? I felt like one of those cocky people auditioning for American Idol who is actually really bad and gets laughed at by the judges. The only difference was I knew I was bad...I just didn't act like it.

After a few lines, Sharon jumped in. Apparantly Lean on Me made it's way to the Caribbean.

When I got to "You just call on me brother when you need a hand," I started clapping on the off-beats. Pretty soon everyone was clapping. When we finished everyone went crazy. It was one of the most awkward, funny, surreal moments of my life -- everything from the song selection to the environment to the stares of the children to the un-impressive singing skills to the overenthusiastic reaction.

After the performance, Sharon and I taught them B-I-N-G-O and Old MacDonald. When class was over the kids bolted out of their seats and swarmed us once more, though this time we had nowhere to go. Most of them just wanted to touch the foreigners. They were in awe of Sharon's hair. She said she felt kids constantly touching and pulling it.

As for me, they seemed most interested in touching my arms. They had never touched white skin before. It was a little awkward, but I'm sure I would have acted similarly if I was them. I handed my camera to Mandy, but unfortunately it's a little tricky to operate. Also, I was standing by a window. So it's not the best picture. But since I have yet to post a picture of myself in China...

In case you're wondering, the two-fingered "peace sign" in China is a "V" for "victory." It's almost just as common as smiling for pictures in China.

We finally made it outside and were met by another group of children waiting for us. Some of them almost seemed more excited to get their picture taken than to meet the foreigners. But others were entranced by the foreigners.

This boy stuck by me everywhere I went, and his expression never changed. He would poke me every once in a while and keep staring intently at me. He gave me a few hugs. He wasn't fazed by the camera in the least. I'm not even sure he realized I had a camera. There was something about his expression that brought out the sort of innocent curiosity of a child more than any of the other kids I saw. 

The kids were eventually loaded on buses and taken back to their homes. It was encouraging to learn that they are fed meals at school and given supplies for little cost. And even though they are growing up in very difficult environments, they were still full of smiles and energy.

45 minutes later I was back in my dorm room.


  1. Wow. That is really interesting. There are probably very few people alive today that probably get to experience something like being the first foreigner a child meets. Does that make sense? Probably like what the first settlers and Native Americans went through (although they had never really heard about each other before). We are so used to being around others of different ethnicity and don't think twice about it.

    Thinking of a song on the spot is super hard too. I don't blame you for being a little nervous. When you said you couldn't think of one, I thought "WHAT?!?! There are millions of pop songs." However, the first song to come into my head was Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" which would not have been the best choice. Plus, like you said, you don't listen to pop music so that makes sense too.

    Great pictures, by the way. Too bad you couldn't get more pictures with the kids. They looked like they were having fun being around you guys.

  2. Haha, yeah I suppose I was kind of like a pilgrim wondering into a Native American land (minus the gun and long beard and funny hat).

    It' especially difficult going to KTV (a popular kind of karaoke bar) and singing with friends and not knowing any pop songs. That's about all they know over here. Oh well.

    The frustrating part about being a photographer is that you're never in any of the pictures. I have more pictures of the KIDS, but no more of me with them. I realized I will probably return to the U.S. with 3 or 4 pictures of myself in China, haha...but at least I will have many of China.