Each day in class I have exactly the same routine—I unpack my bag, write the topic of the lesson in big letters on the blackboard (along with any requisite warm-up questions), and say the same two things: "Hello, everyone!" and "How are you?” Then I take attendance. And just like clockwork, one or two students will undoubtedly pull me aside to report that so-and-so has "asked for leave," sometimes hinting at a reason, and sometimes without so much as a matter-of-fact nod, as if "asking for leave" and actually "being excused" are one and the same. And every time I tell them that “asking for leave” and just plain “being absent” are ostensibly the same thing, at least when it comes to grading, and each time they nod and smile and go back to their seats.
My students have had a bad habit of not coming to class. Admittedly, the situation is much better now than it was this time last year when more than half of my class would “ask for leave” for one reason or another, but still, the excuses are amusing. The best, though, by far was last year when James was doing a walking lesson through campus. As he was describing places and things in English, he went through a student's dormitory only to find one of his students playing Warcraft even though that student had “asked for leave” to do experiments with his adviser. As much as I loathe the “asking for leave” ritual and no matter how easy it is to abuse, it is one of the few times in class when students, without any prompts or soliciting from me, will actually volunteer information, no matter how inane or inconsequential.
I've gotten excuse notes before in class, but this is by far my favorite.
In addition to getting them to speak more, I'm doing my best to motivate my students to change other ingrained habits about oral English class. One of the most prevalent also happens to be the most grating on my sanity—the eternal query of “how are you?” To this end, one of my Chinese friends told me a joke. A group of Chinese coal miners are trapped in a coal mine after a mine collapse. After many days of the miners surviving on small reserves of food and water, international aid finally comes to try and perform a rescue. Calling down into the hole, an American aid worker asks, “How is everybody doing down there?” The Chinese coal miners steel themselves for a moment, a little nervous about speaking in English. “Fine, thank you, and you?” they shout back. Surprised and relieved, the aid workers leave, confident that the miners are well taken care of.
The joke not only illustrates the problem with rote memorization without context, but also the difficulties that arise in a culture where there is little contact with the outside world. Though things have gotten markedly better, it was especially hard for my first-year English majors at the start of the semester. For most of them, I was the first American they had ever met, and having a foreign teacher in and of itself is an adjustment—learning how to participate, engage in discussion, and interact in group activities with one another. But even then, conversation is limited—there are always those subjects that we can't breach in class. The truest showing of “freedom of speech” comes only with those Chinese friends who have weathered the challenges of opening up to and befriending us, to engage in the dialogue for which we were all sent here in the first place—of promoting cultural exchange and understanding.