The music in question was playing over all the speakers in the school,
a trickling, tinkling piano piece.
"It's the music for the end of the lesson." offered one of the bolder girls.
"No," I explained, "There's a bar I sometimes go to where they always
play this. I'm sure I've heard it before and it's driving me crazy
that I don't know where. I want to know what it's called."
Comprehension dawned in the face of the only boy who had so far been
actively asking questions. He seemed delighted that it was his turn to
"It's called Memory of Childhood. It's by Richard Clayderman. I can play it."
So now I knew what it was. Half the mystery was solved. Of course I
still didn't know where I had heard it. I would never dream of owning
a Richard Clayderman album.
We went back to the Q and A session I was there for.
It had started on Monday when we received a phone call from our FAO
saying that she wanted to talk to us about "something important." It
left us a little nervous as it could be anything, good or bad. When
she showed up at our apartment it was clearly nothing bad as she was
smiling – she smiles a lot but does tend to frown when there is bad
news or when she is concentrating on trying to understand something we
She sat down and explained. Her English, though better than she thinks
it is, is hesitant, so it took a while but the gist of the matter was
that she knew we had Thursday and Friday free from teaching, for
school exams, and she hoped we wouldn't mind teaching a couple of
demonstration lessons at other schools to convince them of the
benefits of taking foreign teachers next year. We readily agreed. Any
new day out – even one that is technically working – is something to
be cherished in Baiyin. It was agreed that I would teach a primary
school lesson in the morning and a high level senior class in the
afternoon. Mike had only one – an intermediate senior class in the
afternoon, but would come and observe me in the morning.
So, at 9:45, Jane turned up at our door and we set off for Baiyin
Primary School Number Eleven, which is, if you take a short cut
through the hospital grounds, a short walk from our apartment. It is a
large, modern school with an impressive array of security at the gate.
Once we had negotiated our way into the grounds we were met by the
Vice-Principal who ushered us off to the fourth floor office of the
Principal himself. Various other staff members joined us and while
Mike and I sipped the obligatory hot tea and looked around helplessly
a conversation went on around us in Chinese. I heard the word for
"teacher" a few times and the words for "English" and "American" but
apart from those and our names understood nothing.
Eventually they explained a little in English. I was going to teach a
hand picked class of about sixty of the best eleven- and
twelve-year-olds in the school. The room had computer facilities and a
smartboard if I wanted to use them or they could provide me with a
chalk board and coloured chalk. Having prepared a non-IT based lesson
I accepted the latter. Evidently they approved.
Five minutes later I was in the classroom and ready to teach. The
children were lined up at their desks and the entire teaching staff of
the English department plus Jane, Mike and the VP were lined up at the
And there was a photographer.
I wrote my name on the board and started.
The lesson had gone well. Very well. I'd concentrated on questions and
question forms. Played some games tossing a couple of coloured balls
about. Made them ask me and each other all sorts of questions. The
kids loved it. When it was over they mobbed be, hugging my waist,
grabbing my arms, begging me to autograph their books, chanting my
name. It was embarrassing and it took at least ten minutes to break
away from them. The lesson was a standard one. It's never – even in
China – got such an enthusiastic reaction.
Back in the staff room it seemed I was just as big a hit with the
staff. They questioned me about how I had come up with the ball toss
game. I assured them it's a standard language teaching activity. They
complimented me on how well it had all gone. They assured us that they
would certainly want a foreign teacher of their own.
And then they invited us for lunch.
As we left the building there was an honour guard of students with red
sashes over their blue and white uniforms, lining the drive to the
road. As our taxis sped off the students were already removing the
sashes and re-entering the grounds.
At the restaurant, which was clearly a rather up-market one, we were,
as is the norm for parties in good Chinese restaurants, shown into a
private dining room where we were given the guest of honour seats
while the school senior staff arranged themselves around us. It was
normal by Chinese standards which means that by ours it was an
elaborate banquet with dish after dish piled high on the table, all of
the delicious and all of them replaced by the attentive waiters with
further dishes as soon as they were empty. They were all eager to find
out more about us and the conversation took on the aspect of a Q&A
session with a celebrity as they quizzed us hospitably about our
lives, countries and educational techniques. Conscious that we had
more lessons to teach in the afternoon, neither of us chose to drink
beer, restricting ourselves to more tea.
When it finally all broke up and we took cabs back there was barely an
hour left before round two of the day.
Baiyin Experimental Middle School is a long way out in the west of the
city where everything is expanding as the city grows and where every
building is brand new, the roads are wide and un-potholed, and every
civic monument is shiny and gleaming. The school is no exception. It's
only been open for three months and is a huge ultra-modern complex in
extensive grounds. Once again the Vice Principal, aided by the head of
the English Department, showed us proudly around. There was one
enormous building filled with nothing but classrooms. A second housed
all of the school's laboratories and specialist departments and a
third had two floors of school library and two floors of school
offices. They were a very progressive school, we were told. They never
had more than fifty students in a class and much of their student body
came from the rural areas around the city as well as from the city
Instead of the offices we were shown straight to our classrooms, Mike
to his and me to mine. My room was big and, once again fully equipped
with computer technology controlled from a computer desk at the front.
Once again I didn't need it.
These students were older and more intense though once again the
entire back wall was lined with teachers eagerly waiting to see what I
With senior classes I usually adopt a different approach and the
lesson I'd chosen was one that I had been teaching all week to my own
Seniors. Like all my senior lessons it starts with an easy task to
establish vocabulary and then moves on to group discussions where they
try to collaboratively complete some kind of task, speaking only in
English – in this case a logic puzzle.
Once again after the lesson I was showered with praise. The students
were less effusive than their eleven year old counterparts but they
still all wanted to speak with me or shake my hand or get my email
address. When I finally escaped, Jane was waiting for me outside the
Over in the offices the entire English department were waiting for our
conversation. Mike was already there and it proceeded much as the
morning session had though this time they were also anxious to get out
opinions of their text books and exam papers. The books were much as
I've seen before, which is to say that they are filled with peculiar
topics, mistaken advice and grammatical forms that haven't been
current in general English usage for forty years or more. The exam
papers, though, were better. In fact they were much better and I could
detect only a couple of vaguely debatable answers on them and mostly
they were well-structured and appropriate.
They also wanted to take us to dinner.
But before that they asked if we would mind returning to the teaching
block for informal chats with groups of students from various classes.
In the classes the groups ranged from about a dozen to a full class,
seated and attentive. We had general sessions where they asked me
questions ranging from the trivial (Where are you from?) to the
ridiculously complex (Do you think that China will ever replace
America as the world's leading power?) to the bizarre (Can you sing a
song for us?)
Mike meanwhile had started his student interaction outside with a
basketball game in which he led a scratch team against the school
champions and got soundly, if not unexpectedly, beaten, before
completing some classroom question sessions of his own.
And then it was time for dinner. This time we were chauffeured over to
the restaurant by the VP who had what is probably the nicest car I
have seen in China. Even in the US or the UK it would be considered
the luxury end of the market.
The restaurant was once again an upmarket place. This time it was the
other standard of high end Chinese cuisine – a hot pot restaurant. In
our room each of the place settings at the huge round table had an
individual burner onto which our chosen basic hot pot was placed to
bubble and boil away. You can have spicy ones or plain ones in a
variety of flavours. Mine was a hot spicy chilli soup. The table is
then covered with mountains of thinly shaved meat and plates of
vegetables which you drop into the soup to cook and then fish out, dip
into your chosen selection of flavourings and eat. It sounds delicious
and it is delicious – the only problem is that fishing a slice of
cooked sweet potato from a bubbling cauldron of lava with chopsticks
is not that easy a process for those of us whose skill comes and goes.
The result was that quite a lot of my food was dropped onto my plate
from a height that was greater than prudent and splashed up unto my
shirt. Every time I did it the school senior staff laughed amiably and
offered to help me, apparently impressed by my dogged determination
not to let it beat me. This time I was, of course, additionally
handicapped by the fact that I could now drink beer with my meal –
just as well given how hot and spicy it was – and by the fact that my
glass was never allowed to become more than half empty before someone
Conversation was much as it had been at lunchtime though several of
the teachers at this school were not just good at English but
genuinely fluent, so it was a great evening. They too, it seemed, are
determined to get their own foreign teachers as soon as they can.
At about eight thirty we finished off the meal. Dropping the
flame-snuffers onto the burners and downing a final drink. We were
driven back to our apartment in that same luxury car and with a final
goodbye ended what had been a fascinating day – even if I had eaten
more than I would usually eat in a week.