earned income

18 May

Yesterday, I got another package from my mother, who is wonderful. She sent me a bunch of US change, because I had asked her to include a roll of pennies for my primary school students. I have been trying to think of some small memento that I can give them when I leave. Something American, something they can’t get in China. Something easy to ship and inexpensive–just a simple token. I settled on pennies when it occurred to me that they have probably never seen US money in person before. A penny is definitely uniquely American, and I can explain the concept of a “lucky penny” and tell them that by giving them the penny, I’m wishing them good luck in the future. Of course, it would be nice if I could give all of my students a penny, but 600 pennies would be too heavy to make shipping them practical.

I receive my mail at the school, not at my apartment, so I was opening the package in my office when James walked in. He was very curious about the pennies, confirming my guess that American money is seldom seen in the part of China. James has been to America before, and he prides himself on his knowledge of our culture. He began pointing to the coins and naming them–“This is a quarter and it’s worth 25 cents, correct?”.

When he got the the penny, he said, “This is a one cent piece.”

And I said, “Yes, but we commonly call it a penny.”

To which he responded, “I think they only use the word penny in British English.”

One of the interesting things about the nature of this job is that my coworkers in the English department are all Chinese people with university educations and years of experience in the field of English. They are used to being the experts. I don’t have a university education specifically in the study of English, nor is my education in teaching (which is a whole different barrel of fish), and I don’t have years of experience. And yet my expertise trumps theirs almost every time.

This creates some awkward situations.

I’ve run up against this before with James, because as head of the English department, he is in charge of the standardized English tests that the students must take, as well as the elaborate schedule of practice testing that is constantly in progress. James’ English is excellent–he speaks English better than anyone else I talk to on a regular basis here in China, and by a healthy margin. And he gets very frustrated by the standardized tests and practice tests–I don’t know who writes these things, but it’s clearly not native speakers. They usually consist of reading comprehension and multiple choice fill-in-the-blank style questions, and sometimes they contain really blatant and awful errors. When James runs across these errors, he often asks me for confirmation…and he really is asking for confirmation; he’s already pretty sure he’s correct.

Usually, he is correct, but on a few occasions I haven’t agreed with him, and when that happens, I’m always aware that I have to handle the situation delicately, because as I learned the first time it happened, if I step on his toes, it makes for a really tense day at the office.

I’m never quite sure how to handle these disagreements. On the one hand, I feel like I have a responsibility to correct my coworkers when they are wrong and when they’ve asked me to do so. On the other hand, they don’t always take it very well.

The problem is that I will say something like, “Oh, we definitely use the word ‘penny’ in America.”

And James will say, “I was under the impression that you don’t, because…” and he’ll launch into some big, well-reasoned defense. And he can cite as much evidence as he wants, but at the end of the day, I still win the argument based on “because I say so”.

To my coworkers, English is an academic problem that they spend their careers working on. They struggle and they theorize and they research. One time, my other officemate Joy explained to me how she deduced that she should say “lesson plan” instead of “teaching plan”, and her explanation was 10 minutes of academic resources and online dictionaries and the Chinese equivalent of google scholar. To me, the usage of English isn’t my life’s work. It isn’t even really work–I could do it when I was 5 years old (just like my coworkers could speak Chinese pretty fluently at that age). And, at the end of the day, despite Joy’s intricate defense of her use of “lesson plan”, I could tell her she’s wrong with some authority. And I can understand why, sometimes, that creates awkwardness.

Of course, I’m no expert on educational jargon so for all I know, half the country could be saying “teaching plan”. Quite a bit of language use is still regional in America, and that’s often the tack I take to avoid friction–I state my opinion clearly and then add an “it could be regional” disclaimer. Most of the time, it really could be regional, although sometimes I don’t believe it for a moment, I’m just trying to end the conversation without stepping on any toes.

Today, James argued with me about the penny, and this time, I just couldn’t bring myself to say that it might be regional. We call it a penny. The end. I wasn’t a jerk about it, I don’t think, and his feathers didn’t seem too ruffled. Still, it got me thinking about what, exactly, I’m here as an expert in. The answer’s complicated–I’ve been trying to pin it down since February, and I’m not there yet.


One Response to “earned income”

  1. Kathy May 19, 2011 at 7:28 am #

    Trying to send enough coins to make change..
    several quarters, several dimes, several nickels, pennies..
    love you..I should have sent 100 each care package..
    you would have had enough then..

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