I can do it but I prefer to point.
It doesn’t take nine months to learn how to open your mouth and say “I want this one.” or “I want that one.” or “How much is it?” or “It’s to go.” or “Turn left.” or “Turn right.” or to count to ten, for that matter. Fact is, I do know how to say those things. The information is stored in the “Grudgingly Learned Chinese” file of my soft drive. Yet, nine times out of ten, my instinct is to point, which leads them to respond in the same manner until the whole thing descends into a shameful mime from which I emerge feeling like a moron. Specifically, a successful moron. That is, a failure.
Strange thing is that I even hold back from engaging in English when the opportunity is there. Take the guy who works in the dairy shop down the street. He takes pride in showing off his English (for some reason guys here have their egos all wrapped up in their ability to be slangy and casual when they speak English). He even threw a suave “Hey cute girl.” my way as he jogged across the street to the public toilets while I walked home from work. Now who could fault a guy for that, eh? But I took that as my cue to start buying my yogurt elsewhere. So now every time I walk past the shop windows and try to ignore the fact that I’m sneaking a look at who’s on shift, I hear that familiar refrain again: moron. (Reminds me also of that skinny queen who was pushing gym memberships outside the McDonald’s. He even got my number and was relentless with the texting for a time. Who knows what that could have led to!)
Another scenario: worse than when a class goes horribly is when it goes really well. That’s when real terror seeps in. When the kids, as they can’t help but do, openly show their true feeling and demonstrate that they like me, really like me, by the way they look at me, buzz around me, or even stop for a hopelessly-faltering attempt to communicate with me in English in the hallway. As excruciating as it is, I much prefer it when both them and I clearly can’t wait to be rid of each other at the 90 minute mark. There’s something clean in that. In knowing that it has crashed and burned so badly that there’s no possibility of afterlife. That’s what’s sweet about failure, I guess. An unmistakeable dead end. The only ground left to cover is the same one you just trampled your way here on.
Success, on the other hand, is terrifying because it brings possibilities with it. It multiplies on itself like some kind of manic fungus. As I look back at my early days here, I imagine how things could have turned out if I had applied all of myself, really gunned for it in every arena, if I’d made a conscious decision to be good at something for once. Then what? If I had bothered to learn Chinese properly, I could be having decent exchanges in Chinese by now. I could undertake everyday transactions without feeling my dignity erode each time. If I had indulged the dairy-shop casanova or the gym queen, I could have had real inside access to other Wenzhounese and Wenzhounese life instead of clinging to the edge of it. I could have had real exciting shit to write about rather than milking the littlest thing that happens for all it’s worth as a moderately interesting blog entry. If I had worked hard enough at all my lesson plans as I did at the ones that turned out to be a hit, I might have had a real ride of this teaching thing and not have needed to escape crying to the office or to the bathroom as often. (Oh, believe you me, that last part would have happened regardless, there’s just no sustained winning with the little people.)
But, there’s also this: that, even with the best case scenarios, sometimes the magic simply wouldn’t have happened in the classroom, or that there would still be a point beyond which even a white person (much less me) could never, ever penetrate into Chinese society, or that (insert any other setback here). So, in the face of those “then what?”s and “but there’s also”s, it seems – has always seemed – best to do just enough, to make friends with that mouldy feeling of failure, to endure the occasional highs rather than get on a high and crash or, worse, get on a high and stay.
Thing is, I didn’t start out aiming to fail at this latest venture but I didn’t starting out specifically aiming to succeed at it either. I just sort of ambled in and stuff happened. And as usual, by conditioning or by instinct, I erred on the side of failure. Plug in any other descriptives in place of “Chinese” or “teacher” and the same fear of the consequences of success applies. I have more failed attempts that I have the energy to count. For languages alone I have the leftovers of French (four years), German (four years), Amharic (a lifetime). For homes I have stop-starts scattered across continents and I don’t even know which place will take the dubious honour next. For education, don’t even ask me what I learned in seven years of university. For friendships, I’m good at beginnings but a disappointment at some point along the way. For careers…let’s not even go there. For love affairs…closed for construction, again. Between the safe finality of a crash-and-burn dead ends and the limitless possibility of a no-end-in-sight paths, I’d it’s pretty obvious which way I prefer to point.