I landed on a chair whose smooth texture and tough hardness I once knew so well. Approximately 50 pairs of eyes were starring at me, as I placed my non-recyclable lunch box and chopsticks on the equally familiar-looking desk.
Time machine? It felt surreal yet so real. So familiar yet so estranged. Even the pair of cheap, un-environmentally-friendly chopsticks have rendered themselves part of a rather distant past, though appearing infrequently from time to time. In a similar manner do I dream from time to time about returning to the ancient temples of this elementary school that proudly preserves 700-year-old works of remarkable architecture in the heart of China's modern capital today.
Revisiting my elementary school around eight years after I graduated from here had always been on my agenda. This was a much-anticipated homecoming. Ms. Liu, who taught me Chinese for my entire six years at Fuxue, had invited me to 'teach' her current class and 'watch over' them over the lunch period. She introduced 'Ms. Xu' (indeed, a literal translation would be 'Teacher Xu', which made me blush) to the class and ran to a meeting.
I took out my Murakami book while the fifth-graders started their assignments. Lunch break is around one hour long in most local schools, but it never really is a break per se. From my experience, we would finish eating as quickly as we could, hoping to get back to work so that we could enjoy a few minutes of play after our teachers checked it. It is a good incentive, despite its superficiality in creating a mentality where 'getting work done early' equals 'more play time', and in retrospect, a clever approach to cultivating a strong work ethic from early on.
The elected class monitors stood next to me, in front of the classroom, emotionless and cold. I once belonged in a group like the one sitting in front of me, perhaps not knowing how much of a group the individuals collectively form. Whilst Western schools often capitalise on the value of individualism, Chinese schools stress on the significance of group identities that naturally go along well with nationalism that is taught rather than felt.
'Focus on your homework!'
They yelled at their peers and quickly decided to use a common strategy to govern this mini-polis, writing down the names (hmm, actually, numbers -- each student gets a number at school to simplify this process) of any first-degree schoollawbreakers on the blackboard, which their teacher would be sure to see later and chastise those individuals -- '11, 9, 40, 30, 21, 48, 1, 34', etc.
'Hey, tell him to stop talking. How can I focus on my homework?' A frustrated schoolgirl said to her classmates in charge. Some of these student leaders and 'ordinary masses' of the class approached me to seek my approval on certain things, such as using the restroom, turning on the AC, etc. Although only eight years older, I felt as though I had travelled through a strange time machine to land in a different time in a place that I once knew so well.
'Ms. Xu, you need to step in now!' The boy sitting close to me hinted, annoyed by my incompetence in governing their classroom. Often enough, I pictured my classroom as the daunting room in a giant palace back in ancient China, where a roomful of civil servants would report to the emperor nervously every morning. The teacher often seemed like the emperor/empress to me, as if in a heartbeat, he/she may condemn one to death. As I did not wish to become that empress, I gently smiled at the boy, and continued reading A Wild Sheep Chase.
My primary function of this little homecoming was not to spy on the kids for my teacher, surely. Ms. Liu organised a mini-Q&A session upon returning.
'What's the learning atmosphere like in the U.S.?'
'Is the Western education system preferable to ours?'
'How did you get interested in politics?'
'Is racial discrimination serious there?'
Forget the stereotype that Asian kids as shy and reserved. I was surprised myself at the level of enthusiastic participation from across the classroom: whilst I was expecting a few outgoing students to speak up for their friends, the majority of the cohort had raised a question, and even two or three at times.
Whilst it is not at all uncommon for high school and university alumni to return to their schools, primary school 'alums' are rare creatures for all parties involved. It was a truly peculiar experience for me, yet beautiful in many ways. I had also travelled across time and space, having just flown in from the United States, where I attend college, and inevitably being oh-so-jet-lagged.
What a journey.