Three Too Many Fish

"Do you want to eat here in the classroom, or down in the teacher's lounge?"

On the first day of school last week, I had the chance to connect with a fourth-grade class I'll be co-teaching this year. Due to some first-day confusion, my lunch had been apportioned to the upstairs classrooms - not downstairs in the teacher's lounge as it normally will be. I jumped at the chance, figuring that breaking bread together would set a friendly foundation for those tough moments later in the year when anti-homework protests and lamentations over vocabulary quizzes begin.

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As a guest, I was first in line for a buffet-style self-service station at the front of the classroom. The day's menu: noodles, a vegetable medley of bamboo shoots and one of bok choy's distant cousins, and strips of fried fish. I was smooth sailing until the fish, when I acted more in accordance with my stomach than with my conscience. I lay four golden strips atop my bowl and took a seat. In the teacher's explanation that followed, I managed to pick out the words "fried fish", "one", and "per person". I may have slid by as a glutinous guest that day, but I'd rather not be remembered as the 美國人 whose four portions of fish deprived Joyce, Kate, and Jim of their shares of protein on the first day of school.

I approached the teacher with my overstuffed bowl and explained my error. I had half-expected her to trivialize the misstep and insist, "no, no, it's okay - there's plenty for everyone". Instead, she validated my mistake and motioned for me to return the extra fish to the serving bowl. With 24 eyeballs glued to my plate and 24 more to my face, I delicately placed three strips back where they belonged. There were no awkward shifts, no snickers, no looks of disdain - just a gentle acknowledgement that yeah, I had taken too much food, and yeah, Joyce, Kate, and Jim were satisfied that balance had been restored.

In little ways over the next three days, similar episodes repeated themselves: washing my hands outside the bathroom, writing my Chinese name on a chalkboard, or interacting with other teachers in the hallways. None carried the same clear faux-pas status, but all were highly visible actions performed as if on stage in front of a curious, attentive, and captivated audience. If their reactions are any indication, I have to believe that what I do and say at school feeds into students' subconscious analyses of how adults - and foreign ones when it comes to me - carry themselves in the world. This has me thinking (and possibly overthinking) the importance of modeling behavior and setting examples for impressionable minds - minds barely older than the 8th Harry Potter movie. I'm one of three-dozen adults roaming the halls at Tao Hsiang Primary School, but I can't help but conceptualize what it means to be a role model in this environment.

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In this vein, I think last week's lunch with fourth-graders handed me some helpful first lessons: one, listen to instructions and two, ask clarifying questions (and when those instructions are in Chinese, ask many, many more clarifying questions).

Author: Alex Villec, 2017-2018