It’s amazing how many near-death experiences can be squeezed into a two-hour stint within the confines of an elementary school in China. The most mundane, some might say instinctive, actions can have drastic consequences if not carried out correctly. Going down stairs, washing hands, walking across the room– all scenarios in which elders must enforce safety, whether it be for the child in their own care, or in the care of another ayi (the Chinese caretaker.) Every movement of the child must be watched, and commented on, in order to ensure their survival. The extent to which these ayis hover over the children entrusted to them makes me wonder, are they more concerned with the child’s safety, or are they more concerned with appearing concerned?
Four days a week I had a front row seat to this spectacle at the kindergarten where I would attend classes with my employer’s daughter. At school the ayis put on a show for each other, engaging in an unspoken contest of who is more attentive with their employer’s child. Amateurs simply force their child to sit in their lap during any seated activity. More seasoned caretakers go to much greater lengths to prove their worth. The children under the watch of these women may as well have stayed home, as they won’t be getting any sort of learning experience on their own. Not on this ayi’s watch. When it’s time to clap, ayi grabs their hands to make them clap. When it’s time to eat, ayi all but chews their food for them. She places the child in his chair, pushes him up to the table, and proceeds to carefully deposit all the food or drink into the child’s mouth for him (all the while incessantly wiping his chin and constantly instructing him to chew slowly and drink carefully).
Any ascent or descent invites a whirlwind of comments on the proper way to use a staircase. Daredevil foreign kids who hop from one step to the next will quickly be intercepted by an ayi (not necessarily the one taking care of that particular child, mind you) who points out that by behaving so recklessly, they are endangering not only their own wellbeing, but also the wellbeing of every person around them. In most cases, the mother of the child is standing right beside them, and has clearly not found their child’s actions dangerous enough to be interrupted.
There is also a wrong way to wash your hands. Most children stand in a trance as their ayis do the washing for them: turning on the water, squirting the soap, rubbing their hands together, drying them off. This is the correct way. The wrong way goes something like this: a two-year-old attempts to go through these steps on her own, and gets water on her sleeves (where was the ayi to help roll up her sleeves?) This results in a gaggle of concerned ayis flocking to the poor, damp child and shoving paper towels up her sleeves to keep her arms dry. There is, of course, also a lecture in store for the neglectful mother.
The charges of the most attentive ayis have become so crippled in their ability to do anything that they fear even traveling across the classroom without an ayi’s hand to clutch. The most traumatic event for one of these children is when the ayi excuses herself for a moment to run to the bathroom while the child is seemingly distracted by some activity. The scream-crying that erupts from the classroom upon the child noticing his ayi’s absence usually only lasts a few seconds before the frantic ayi flurries back in.
Foreign mothers and ayis generally make no attempt to talk to one another. During the slightly calmer snack portion of class, ayis congregate around the table of children eating to keep a constant watch as the mothers retreat to the back walls for a hard-earned chat with their girlfriends. The resentment was clear both from the ayis and the Chinese teachers, who delighted in any chance to scoop up the plate of a fumbling child or help push in a child’s chair, all while glancing at the negligent mothers talking amongst themselves. It was abundantly clear what was on the minds of the teachers and ayis: they were doing it right, and we Westerners had a lot to learn. And maybe, in a way, they were right.
In a crowded, competitive society in which children are taught from kindergarten to study hard in preparation for one big test at the end of high school which profoundly influences their higher education and career, perhaps the children allowed to learn from their own mistakes and think independently are precisely the ones left behind. But what does this mean for foreign children in the care of an ayi, the children who will go on to expensive international schools and never be placed in the Chinese education system? I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to myself as a kindergartner– scraped up knees, my hair in some bizarre up-do as I had styled it myself, making messy art projects that I thought were so exquisite at the time– and feel that these children were missing out.
Previously published in NewsChina
The general riff between Chinese and Foreign in the classroom began to reach its peak towards the end of the final semester. The Chinese teachers disliked everything about how the foreign parents dealt with their children and were no longer keeping quiet about it. Criticisms that were typically saved for the kids themselves, i.e. You’re gluing that animal’s leg on the wrong way, or If you run you’re going to knock other people down and hurt yourself, were instead being directed straight at the moms themselves. Multiple times throughout the 2-hour class the moms were addressed, first in private and finally as a group, with the issue of “watching your children more closely”. Foreign moms rolled their eyes at this while Ayis nodded heads in agreement as the teacher went on to describe a few horrifying scenarios: children playing with the classroom rug and bumping heads whilst neglectful moms chat about the weekend, the assistant teacher racing after children who go to the bathroom on their own with no help whatsoever (the bathroom which, incidentally, is attached to the classroom.)
The final Chinese class of the semester could not have ended on a more perfectly ironic note. In a portion of the class called Drama Time the teachers would don costumes and use characters to teach the children a new lesson each week. Having just been taught the Chinese word for “to walk”, they decided to enact a scene in which Mama Cat and Baby Kitten could use the new vocabulary while also sending a valuable message.
“I don’t want to walk,” whined teacher 1 as Baby Kitten, “I want you to carry me.”
“No no,” cooed teacher 2, Mama Cat, “you’re all grown up now! You can walk on your own.”
Children and ayis alike applauded the end scene in which Baby Kitten walked off with Mama Cat all by herself. We finished off the class with a group song in which everyone walked in a circle while singing, using their hands to pantomime beating a drum or blowing a horn. Children in the care of their ayis only made it about half a lap before realizing that they were walking on their own and, as all hands were occupied with pantomiming, no one was assisting them. Cries broke out all over the room which were silenced only once ayis picked the children up and proceeded to carry them for the rest of the song. Taking what would be my final look around that classroom, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that the irony was lost on everyone but me.
Foreigners outside metro stops citywide have been seen walking off in a huff, outraged by what seems to be an outbreak of race-related overcharging.
“This is ludicrous,” muttered Daniel McKay of Portland, Oregon, rummaging through his wallet for another one-yuan note. “I don’t have time for this.”
“Dwoh-shaow chee-yen?” McKay asked again, then leaned in and asked louder, forcing the baozi vendor to resort to hand gestures when he seemed unable to understand the amount specified in Chinese.
“Tai gui le,” was all he could muster up as he turned away, waving his hands and adding a “No fuckin’ way.”
“They’ve had a good run, but we’re on to them,” said McKay, found later at a different baozi vendor. “I once paid three kuai for one of these little bread things, only to see some Chinese dude come up behind me and pay two. After a while you’ve gotta put your foot down. It’s like, how much am I willing to pay for something I can’t even pronounce?”
This irritation is increasingly apparent on the once-popular snack streets, where exasperated foreigners can be seen practically breaking into a sprint, yelling “Aww hell no” and making references to the recession. One particular sweet potato cart has seen a 42% increase of “You gotta be kidding me” in the past month alone, as well as an estimated 17% of customers comparing the experience to “highway robbery.” The mental health of such vendors is even being called into question, as onlookers proclaim, “If he thinks I’ll pay that much, he must have lost his mind.”
“I can have a cocktail on the Bund for that price,” exclaimed one expat to a cluster of confused looking jianbing merchants.
“It’s total bullshit,” remarked Jake Stevenson, working in Shanghai as an English teacher. He admitted to being a frequent patron of the street food vendors outside any number of expat bars around 3 A.M. “These only cost one kuai each over where I work in Pudong.”
Stevenson then proceeded to buy out the chuan stand’s remaining supply of lamb for the night. “Yeah, I didn’t have change for a fifty, so, whatever. And anyway that’s, like, what—thirty cents American?” Stevenson laughed, throwing a half-eaten kebab at a stray dog.
Some expats have stated that the “questionable pricing” of certain items at fabric markets leads them to wonder whether they are “really even brand name.” When asked their opinion on the recent outbreak of scams, travelers visiting the Beijing Silk Market were baffled. “This girl just sold us 12 scarves!” beamed Sue Hobaker of Jacksonville, Florida. “She gave us a ‘friend price,’ so we had to jump on it! We can’t say exactly how much we paid—she asked us not to tell. But let’s just say we would have been crazy to turn her down.”
Hobaker’s husband, being taken to a traditional Chinese tea ceremony by some newly-found friends, was unavailable for comment.
This happened one night when I ran into a friend of a friend. We began a brief, passing conversation and I sufficed to ask how he was doing. But rather than answering with anything pertaining to his personal life, he slammed me with a movie quote.
“It’s niiice, very nice.” (In what I assume was an imitation of Borat’s voice.)
Ok then. Thinking that it was over, I ventured to ask about our mutual friend. But no sooner had I begun talking than I was interrupted with–
“60 percent of the time, it works every time.”
… I’d been hit again. I let the conversation end there, as it was unlikely that anything resembling an original thought was going to come out of this person. I wondered: just how often had this situation happened to me? And how many minutes of my life had I lost to overused and poorly-reenacted movie quotes, taken completely out of context and dropped into a dialogue in which they had no place and made no sense?
We’ve all been there, in more or less the same scenario, with the substitution of one over-quoted catchphrase for another. It seems that any movie that is slightly funny is doomed to join the ranks of comedically abused films. The misuse of famous lines from these films causes everyone but the unfunny to lose interest in the movie, as all the humor has been violently beaten out of every word by sheer overuse—a comedic tragedy of the commons. Overzealous fans of these flicks can be heard chanting their battle cry of “I’m kind of a big deal.”
No, not really. You’re not kind of anything, except a god damn over-quoter.
An over-quoter, or O.Q., is one who grossly overuses movie and/or TV show dialogue as a means of communication. In my experience, the lines that are most grossly overused are plucked from famous comedies. These lines are used by the over-quoter in lieu of any original punch lines in an attempt to inject humor into a conversation. The O.Q. then leaves it to you to make the transitive connection: this movie is funny; I like this movie; therefore, I am funny. The more dedicated O.Q.’s will assume the role of the character being quoted; they will force you to stand through entire monologues as they imitate voices and facial expressions while you struggle to keep smiling and feign laughter.
One symptom that the most egregious over-quoters seem to share is a disconnect between their internal monologue and the reality of the situation, such as not knowing their audience but finding their quoting to be relevant and funny regardless of the reaction it gets. Sure, sometimes a germane and well-timed quote can enhance an anecdote or enrich a conversation. But the failure on the part of the O.Q. occurs in the use of quotes as a replacement for, rather than an accessory to, any original humor. The most embarrassing situation (embarrassing for the listener, because the speaker is too disconnected from reality to tell) follows when an O.Q. drops a quote that no one understands, often from a movie or show that the audience hasn’t even seen. This leads to even more time being held hostage by an explanation of the scene(s) in the movie/TV show leading up to the quote. Here the O.Q. unknowingly works against himself by breaking yet another rule of humor: if you have to explain why something is funny, it probably never was.
This type of discourse has become so prevalent in the English language that it even exists in other forms. The first cousin of the over-quoter, equally obnoxious but less offensive in that it doesn’t consume entire portions of conversations, is the one-liner. The culprit here clings desperately to the phrase-of-the-day that has gone mainstream and interjects it into conversations to fill a silence. Some of the most infamous include, “bad news bears,” “FAIL,” and this year’s champion: “epic.” These phrases differ from their movie quote brethren in that one-liners, much like a criminal record, were never funny in the first place and yet refuse to go away.
So what are we to do with the over-quoters of the world? Why is it that some are driven to abuse lines previously delivered (more successfully) by others? I suppose there are many reasons, but what I find apparent in most of these individuals is the burning desire to be the comedian of the group. There is a difference between being a person who happens to be funny, and being a comedian. O.Q.’s, I beseech you: Don’t try to be a comedian. It reeks of trying too hard.
Granted, everyone caves to the pressures of society; we change the way they dress or act depending on how we think others will perceive us. There’s no crime in that. But at some point we all have to say, “Damn the man,” (quote!) and do what we do in our own unusual way. Humor is no exception. While we may connect with people who share our sense of humor, the way we each express ourselves and our personal take on humor is unique and can’t, and shouldn’t, be copied.
Some of the most entertaining people to talk with are those who are self-admittedly “not funny.” These sorts of people tend to be genuine in their own, sometimes awkward way, providing a kind of natural humor that proves you don’t need to dominate the conversation as the “funny guy” in order to be funny. Everyone has something to bring to the table, and a natural dialogue in which people’s strengths are inherently displayed is far superior to the tension of a group of individuals with something to prove. So maybe you’re not the funniest person in the bunch—so what? Perhaps you have some interesting facts or anecdotes to offer. Or maybe you’re a great listener with the ability to put others at ease. Or, if you answered “no” to all of the above, then I hope you’re at least attractive.
View this piece on the Hypermodern