I feel like a celebrity, standing here under the hum of fluorescent lighting. No, rather, more like a zoo animal. At the front of the class, where I am standing on a raised platform, sits a podium: my cage. I pace back and forth, readying my lecture—thrown together last night from scraps of old lesson plans. But this is Oral English, right? No need to plan. The raised platform gives the illusion that I am taller, elevated a good half a foot off the ground. It makes me the center of attention, a strange and exotic creature that can do tricks for the masses. Behind me, sits the blackboard, still chalky from previous classes. Today the blackboard has English writing, no doubt written by an English teacher: Good Morning everyone, and underneath that, Good morning teacher. If this is what these students are currently learning, then my lesson plan is going to fall on deaf ears. Oh well, this would not be the first time. In front of me, sits a class of 30, all expecting me to teach them how to speak perfect English. In front of each of the students, a black computer serves as their screen, as their hiding place, where they bury their faces every time I ask a question. The room looks sterile, with white linoleum floors and a dropped pock-marked ceiling. Outside is sunny, blue skies dotted with clouds, and, just like a student daydreaming in class, I desperately want to be out there. Outside. Anywhere but here. The first bell rings. It is shrill and mechanical, like a bunch of robots caroling in unison. I sit down behind the podium. I feel the eyes of 30 students, all waiting in anticipation for my next trick, for me to start my act. I ignore them. I ignore the Iphones snapping pictures of me. I ignore the Chinese spoken in hushed tones, and I pretend to not understand. I do understand. Much of what they are saying I have heard before. He’s handsome, he doesn’t understand Chinese, he looks like he is mixed. I’ve been through this situation before. The second bell rings. I stand up. The room gradually grows quiet. Is that power? No, just expectation. The expectation that I will now perform. I start speaking, slow and clear. I receive puzzled stares, like the students are unaware that this strange creature had the ability to communicate with them all along. I say something about class. Some nod. More look puzzled. I start writing on the blackboard. The sound of chalk dragging against slate is the only noise that echoes throughout the room. The floor is mine. I am the center of attention. I am in control.
Dianshi College, the TV college affiliated with Yunda, is out in Yanglin, 2 hours away from the city center. A shuttle bus runs starting at 7:00 from the Yunda old campus, where I live. The air in the morning is dry and cold, and during my walk to the bus stop I see old Chinese men doing their morning exercises. One man walks backwards from the West gate to the South Gate every day, shuffling and rocking his way uphill, and everyday I pass him at the same point of his journey. I can tell if I’m late by his presence, I know the bus will leave soon if he has already passed the fountain filled with turtles and koi. I have never been late to the bus stop. The bus sits alone in the basketball court, looking ashamed of its presence as the Yunda busses from across the way sit in neatly ordered rows. It is an outcast, a loner, just as Dianshi College is outcast in Yanglin, far away from Kunming, because China is a place that values government funding over private money. Dianshi college was founded by investors, so, in general, it works as a business. To adopt the name “Yunnan University Radio and Television College,” the founders were required to pay 15% of their total profits to Yunda for the use of the name. The name Yunnan University.
My students at Dianshi are all the ones that didn’t achieve the best scores on their gaokaos, the college entrance exam, so their parents are required to pay 10,000 CNY a year for an education, an education that would cost 3,000 at a government run institution. But this is where the problem comes from: the gaokao is law here, and people who do not test well will never get the ability to go to a good university. I’m imagining how my life would be different if I was born and raised in China. Tests, although I was decent at them, never had any basis in reality for me. What did the SAT teach me about living life? Absolutely nothing. I can’t recall any question on the SAT, little more my scores on the different sections. Some people aren’t like that. Some people take the SAT multiple times, in the hopes that a higher score will allow them to go Ivy, to go to Stanford, to go to one of those places with names that the world knows. They cling to their scores like it verifies their intelligence, like they are smart because they are judged by a standard. That’s how it is here. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has to buy into this system. It is not an option to refuse. Refusal means rejection. There are no loopholes (unless your parents are involved with the government), and there are no ways that you can demonstrate that you are a good, intelligent student without the accompanying score. Students are reduced to numbers, to statistics, and Universities will only accept the students that can bump up the University average—it is all about hierarchy and ranking. It kind of makes sense in a country as big as China, but, in general, malcontent with this system is growing.