Highs and lows of Hong Kong school life: humorous memoir of an Australian expat teacher
In Buddha is a Punk Skater, Australian Wayne Furlong recounts the misfits and misfires in his quest to enlighten young minds
Top of the world
“OK, stand up everybody and let’s say goodbye.”
The bell rang as Form 1B quietly rose and stood beside their desks. I pride myself on finishing lessons on time, especially before lunch and double especially on Fridays.
“Goodbye and thank you, Mr Furlong,” they recited and I started to gather up my things.
As I opened the drawer to put the whiteboard markers away, I became aware that something was not right. A strange silence was taking hold of the room and its grip now extended to the teacher’s desk. I looked up.
The students were still standing at their desks.
“You can go to lunch,” I said.
Peter spoke up. “Were we good this week, sir?”
“Yes. You were even better than usual.”
“Well, what about your promise?”
Stephanie stepped forward with a sheet of paper. “Here are the words of the song,” she announced, proudly. “I printed them last night.”
For a moment I was nonplussed. These were deep waters. Stephanie appeared to be talking out the back of her neck. Then memory came to the rescue. A group of them had asked on Monday after assembly whether I would sing the class a song on Friday if they were good this week.
I probably said, “Yes.”
I definitely said, “Yes.”
Then I forgot all about it. I mean, the thing hardly seemed feasible. Still, however half-heartedly given, a man’s word is his bond, and the class seemed determined to hold me to it.
“Oh, yes, the jolly old song. What would you like me to sing?” Stephanie handed me the sheet of paper. Typed in bold letters across the top was the song title and artist, Top of the World, by The Carpenters.
There are two types of people in the world: those who like The Carpenters; and those who don’t. I belong firmly to the second group. “Syrupy” about sums up my view of their work. I don’t like the tunes and I don’t like the lyrics. I don’t like the arrangements. Richard Carpenter’s hair and teeth are too clean and so is the rhythm section. It is music that belongs in a lift because I always use the stairs. Unlike the majority of adults above a certain age, I don’t even like the way Karen Carpenter sings, though I yield to no one in wishing things had turned out better for her. It’s not personal.
Oh well, as the man said, “If it were done, when ’tis done then ’twere best it were done quickly.” I started to sing.
As I did so, I looked out at the faces of the students and they beamed back at me as if having this dose of treacle administered to them by a middle-aged man was just what the doctor ordered. As I sang and saw their enjoyment, I had what I believe is called an epiphany. “Such a feeling’s coming over me,” I thought, “There is wonder in most everything I see.”
By the second chorus I was giving the tonsils full reign over the notes and wondering why it had taken me so long to come to Hong Kong to teach. I finished to applause and shouts of “encore”, which in Hong Kong rhymes with “men core”.
I sang the song once more and the room full of 13-year-olds actually chose to be late to lunch so that they could listen again. I put a bit of “all together now” stuff into the second rendition to hold their interest, but still.
I realised I had the best job in the world and felt good for Karen Carpenter. She would have liked their attitude and so did I. We high-fived each other across the veil and she smiled. In memory of her, I stopped after the second rendition and insisted that they all go and eat their lunch. Food is important.
I waved 1B off with a goofy smile and felt that everything I hoped the world would be was now coming true, especially for me.
A question of apples
I knew why Faith had been absent the day before. She told me she was taking her son Richard for an entrance exam to an elite institute of learning.
“How did your son’s entrance test go?”
“He failed, unfortunately.”
“He failed? He’s only two.”
“Yes, they all have an interview with the principal and he assesses their English.”
“To see if it’s good enough for finger painting?”
“It’s a prestigious kindergarten. The standards are very high.”
“So did the principal tell you why Richard failed?”
“Yes. He asked Richard what the piece of fruit on his desk was and Richard just said, ‘Apple’ instead of saying a full sentence.”
“But anyone would say ‘Apple’ to that question. It was an apple, wasn’t it?”
“He was supposed to say, ‘It is an apple.’”
This was my first glimpse into the parallel universe of Hong Kong English-medium kindergartens. It is a world where a two-year-old has to speak in perfect sentences even when nobody else would. Why stop there? The young fellow should have said, “Judging by its predominantly green skin, I’d say it is a slightly under-ripe Jonathan apple.” The principal would have thought to himself, “Now here is someone I can teach.”
Show me a man who considers a two-year-old unteachable because he doesn’t speak in full sentences and I will show you a man who is unfit to teach. Actually, he is unfit to be around children.
Here is the last word in the corporatisation of human endeavour – KPIs for toddlers.
I am on my high horse now. My blood boiled that day and it is boiling now. I want to meet this principal and tell him what he can do with his piece of fruit. I want to tell him he is rotten to the core and he gives me the pip. I want to tell him he is a bad apple. Then, once the bad jokes are over, I want to demand that he hands in his teacher badge.
Teachers don’t pick and choose who is teachable. Teachers know everyone is teachable and our job is to help each child learn something new. Perhaps Principal Golden Delicious could have started by teaching Richard to say, “It is an apple,” since he seems to think this is the starting point from which a young person can launch a successful life of learning.
Starting points. That’s what I’m getting at. The starting point for Richard was that he could recognise and identify an apple in two languages and answer a question put to him about that apple. Richard knew his apples.
The starting point for Principal Golden Delicious is that he is a complete dolt who, unlike the village idiot, does not have the redeeming quality of a kind heart. He is a snob who has no mind for teaching and no heart for people. And if we don’t fight the corporate world he is the future of education. He is the spokesman for the purveyors of education as sorting. He is the spokesman for testing for testing’s sake. He is the spokesman for the unlevel playing field. He is the poster boy of bullying elitism.
He is, worst of all, wrong in his diagnosis. If he did not tell Richard that the purpose of the question was to see if Richard could answer in full sentences, then how can he say he failed that test? He didn’t sit that test.
Faith accepted all of this, being a bit of an elitist herself, and undertook to have Richard tutored in responding in full sentences so that he would be successful next time.
We all know why she was doing this. You meet a better class of person at selective-entry schools.
Thank the teacher day
“Thank you for your kindness and your patience to excavate my daughter’s latent capacity.”
I wanted to start this piece with a laugh about Chinglish because Chinglish is funny, but when I pulled out that old card I realised that it would not only be a shabby thing to do, it would sell Chinglish short.
Go to your local library and peruse sections 370.1 to 370.9 and you will see some of the millions of published books and articles on teaching. In the bigger world outside your library there are Ted talks, power-point presentations, newspaper articles and theses by the truckload in immaculate English, postulating ideas about teaching. Has anyone, though, ever summed up good teaching better than Mr Yip, father of Candice Yip, of the New Territories, Hong Kong?
That was rhetorical. My answer is “no” and I am hoping that, by putting you onside with Mr Yip, and implicitly against those “ivory tower” types, I’ll lure you into agreement. This is an inherently s*** argument from the “dumb redneck” school of philosophical discourse and I apologise for it.
Mr Yip saw what his daughter was doing and he liked it. In communicating that, he had the advantage of unpractised English and no knowledge of educational jargon. That left him with nothing more than sincerity.
The card had two more sentences. “You made her face what she has evaded. You helped her become confident and for that I must be grateful.”
That card will do me as a testimonial. If I was kind and patient to Mr Yip’s daughter and excavated some latent capacity in her while improving her self confidence, well, that is good enough for a career. I remember Mr Yip’s shy daughter and how hard she had to work herself up to speak in class. I remember the blood-drained face. I also remember the quiet smile to her friend when she sat down after doing it. I realise that I am grateful, too.
I thought “Thank the Teacher Day” in Hong Kong was weird at first but it isn’t at all. It’s nice to be thanked, and when you get the thanks it shows what the students and parents think they have learned from you, and sometimes it isn’t what you think. Also, Thank the Teacher Day is kind. No one misses out. Students make sure all the teachers get commented on. Here are a few that I liked:
“I feel happy in your class.”
“I like it when your lesson has a surprise.”
“Thank you for teaching my kid and let her learn happily.”
“You are my favourite teacher because you give me chances to learn.”
“You teach me a lot because you are patient when I have a problem I don’t understand.”
“Do you think I am crazy? I like you.” This one is my favourite. Katie was eccentric and eccentric doesn’t often work in a Hong Kong school. She sat next to a pencil that she called her brother and it had to have a worksheet, too. Frequently, Katie would contrive, with assistance from others, for her brother to end the class in the chalk ledge under the blackboard. I never caught anyone putting it there. It was an elegant trick and well executed.
Katie was accused of being scattered and having poor concentration. Somehow this must have translated to her as “crazy”. No one, especially Katie, can be pinned down by two adjectives, even if one is an adjectival phrase. Katie was also intuitive, serious, funny and short. She was sad sometimes. She lacked confidence. She could be relied on in any situation to see implications that the rest of us don’t. Sometimes this is derided in a world that likes to define its boundaries so that it can keep things in check. School, for example.
I often sought her thoughts in discussion. I felt that I, along with her classmates, could only benefit from a glimpse into her view of the world.
When I left her school, Katie gave me a gift. It was a stitched-together dog with one limb of soft brown and three of white and eyes made out of black buttons. They follow you when you move. I am looking at it now and it is looking back, unnervingly alert. It wears a simple sleeveless jumper and skirt in muted lilac. Hanging free and loose around its neck is a red cloth-and-tinsel necklace with yellow tassels because it is not just a muted dog. It could be a sheep. It is a completely original animal.
I love that gift.
I made a point of meeting Katie’s mother at parent-teacher day to tell her how much I enjoyed teaching Katie and how smart I thought she was. Her mother sighed in relief and smiled because finally someone had said what she knew and she could own the truth publicly at last. She couldn’t understand why other teachers thought Katie was stupid and why she had to silently take that slander as if someone’s failure to know Katie’s intelligence was anyone’s fault but their own.
I doubt Katie would have had great success in her senior school years. I hope I’m wrong about that and I definitely could be.
Here is a little “Thank the Student Day” message for her:
Thank you, Katie, for being funny and always surprising. People can sometimes be boring but not you. Having you in the class meant that the rest of the students had to think about other points of view and some of them got better at it. You helped broaden their thinking even though that was really my job. Thank you for them. Thank you for bringing your brother and for the occasional challenge of catching him getting to the board, and thank you for the dog. It was very kind and showed more persistence and concentration than your teachers think you have. So did coming to school every day even when you felt alone and defeated.
The picture on the bus shows a young man with perfect hair and a soulful look in his eyes. “Chan Sir. Power English.”
I take an instant dislike to this pretty young man. I look into his eyes and see nothing interesting. He is a fraud. I know he has never read a novel in his life because if he had his eyes would show self-doubt. He would be looking out at something past his limpid reflection in the lens.
“Look at me”. The English teacher as Unattainable Object of Desire. He wants to be a pop star in a boy band and for a hefty fee his pretty, pouty mouth will reveal the secrets of English mastery. Two hundred thousand years of human evolution and now we know the secret was hair gel.
Tutorial schools and centres abound in Hong Kong. They advertise on buses and in magazines. All over the city, tutorial factories offer televised lectures by celebrity tutors and good people pay them good money for a bad lie.
There is no such thing as “Power English”. One look at Chan Sir tells you all he knows about pedagogy. Teaching is outward looking and he is Narcissus looking at his own reflection.
Teaching relates to the learner and Chan Sir relates to the teacher. Teaching wants to know the learner because the learner and the learning cannot be separated.
Chan Sir is a fraud and we all know it. Like many frauds, he is wildly successful because of our capacity to not believe our own eyes. We believe wealth and good looks and advertising. We believe certainty when the speaker self evidently has no basis for it other than unjustified self-belief. Look at the last election results if you don’t believe me.
We know the truth and yet we choose to not know it.
Chan Sir is a liar. The journalist who tells you climate change is not real is a liar. The leader who tells you he will fix your life if he stops giving our taxes to the needy and the displaced is a liar. The boss who tells you he knows better than you and you must meet his standards is a liar. He is as incompetent as you are.
We do not need to hate Chan Sir. We just need to turn away.
© Wayne Furlong 2018.Buddha is a Punk Skater: An Ordinary Teacher’s Search for Truthis a Proverse Prize Finalist, 2017. Published under sole and exclusive licence by Proverse Hong Kong 2018.