Uncle Stupid [A Substack Exclusive]
A new essay of mine about teaching in Beijing, China written for Hello Carrot, Goodbye Stick subscribers.
My boss and I got off on the wrong foot. I never learned her Chinese name, but the English one she’d chosen was Kathy. The problem was that she couldn’t pronounce the “th.” So, when I met her, she said, “Hi, my name is Kasey.” And I said, “Kasey?” and she said, “No, Kasey.” So, I turned to the woman beside her and asked, “Kasey?” and she said, “Yes, Kasey.” We shook hands and she said, “And I’m Samansa.”
This was my first job abroad — a “teacher” for a daycare center in Beijing, China. My name is Ben, but the children called me “Ben-ben.” When I was introduced to the parents and their child, they’d say, “This is Uncle Ben-ben.” They’d hand me the baby, the baby would burst into wild tears unspooling down their chubby cheeks as the parents said, over and over, “Say hi to Uncle Ben-ben! Say hi to Uncle Ben-ben.”
When I noticed that Kathy and Samantha found this endlessly amusing, I asked why. They had looks on their faces like doctors who now have to tell their patient, “I’m sorry, but we weren’t able to reach the last fidget spinner.”. Once the children and parents left for the day, they told me:
“Ben, in Chinese, means stupid.”
“So,” I sighed, “they’re calling me Uncle Stupid-stupid?”
Since the cat, it seemed, was out of the bag, they broke into fits of laughter. I think they said, “Yes,” but it was hard to tell between the spasmodic gasps for air.
So, there I was, Uncle Stupid. I was twenty-one and wearing a bright purple polo that said: “ROCKSTAR” on the back, and “Stupid” on the front.
In the afternoon, as I sat in the office surrounded by similarly purple-shirted rockstars, Kathy came in. She dimmed the lights and announced something in Chinese. All of my Chinese co-workers laid their heads on their desks. Samantha, who sat beside me, tapped my arm and said, “Nap time,” then, she planted her face on the desk, closed her eyes, giggled gently, and added, “Uncle Stupid.”
I sat under the dimmed lights as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer played softly in the background and thought, How the fuck did I get here?
I’d been in China a week when my recruiter visited my hotel room and said, “I got you a job interview.” Her name was Jennifer, a woman whose particular sect of Buddhism told her to pray 5,000 times a day and so, in between talks, she murmured to herself, clicking a digital counter she kept banded to two fingers.
We sat in my cigarette-stained hotel room and she showed me a video of a middle-aged white woman performing sign language to background music called “Outside-Outside,” with subtitles “Outside, Outside, you see sun, wind, and clouds! Outside, Outside.”
“You do this in interview,” Jennifer told me.
“This is a video on sign language,” I said.
I elaborated: “This is a video on how to talk to deaf kids. I don’t know any deaf kids — well I do, my cousin is deaf, but — like, I don’t — well, I can’t do this.”
She murmured faster and her frown deepened. It looked like she was casting a spell on me.
“You don’t know how to do this?”
“No, of course not… I’m not deaf nor do I know anyone who is deaf. Again, except for,” I made random gestures with one hand and pointed at it with my other, “…this,” I made a peace sign, then finger-guns, “I can’t do sign language.”
“But this is how we learn English,” she said, like she just realized she’d picked up the wrong American at the He Speaks English market. She just kept staring at me, murmuring to herself, until I said, “I guess I could fake it?”
She smiled, nodded, and said, “Good!” She pointed to the video. “Study. Make song and sing.”
“I have to sing?”
“Yes — of course.”
“Could I just sing — like, any kid’s song?”
She mumbled while she thought and then paused to say, “Yes.”
I laughed. “Well, okay.” I closed my laptop. “Any idiot could do that.”
She frowned. “Don’t be idiot then.”
In the elevator up to the office where I’d be having my interview, Jennifer took out her phone, scrolled through her pictures then turned the phone to face me.
“Who is this?”
I looked at the picture. It was her, in a hat.
“You?” I said.
She made a pouty face. She put her phone away. She didn’t speak to me again until we arrived at the door.
I waited. She went in. I looked out the window at a wall of gray smog and questioned my life choices. The door opened and I was led in. Jennifer waited in the hall.
There was a Chinese man smoking a cigarette and a Nepalese man who smiled at me, held out his hand, and asked, “You are American?”
“Have you been a teacher before?”
I hadn’t, so I lied. “In college. I worked at a school.”
“Good. With small children?”
“Yes,” I lied again.
“Do you know children’s songs?”
“Can you sing one for us?” He smiled. The Chinese man lit another cigarette.
I nodded.“Like Old McDonald?” I asked
“That will do fine.”
I took a breath.“Old McDonald had a farm,” I sang, “e-i-e-i-o…”
The Nepalese man smiled encouragingly. He even bobbed his head a little.
“…and on his farm, he had a cow. And the cow goes moo…moo…moo…”
I suddenly realized I didn’t know what came next.
So, I just kept mooing.
Holy shit… Did I just forget the words to Old McDonald? I thought.
The Chinese man snuffed out his cigarette and the Nepalese man’s smile began to slip.
“Mooo…mooo…mooo…” I kept mooing, trying to buy myself time, trying to think of something to say. “Moo…moo…”
The longer I mooed the fewer options I realized I had. Then I saw the realization pass over both their faces — Holy shit… did he just forget the words to Old McDonald?
I finally stopped mooing and the three of us sat in silence. The Chinese man lit yet another cigarette.
“Well,” the Nepalese man said, fixing his smile.
I looked around the room to avoid eye contact.
“I could sing a different song?” I said.
The Nepalese man just looked at me for a moment stone-faced, before saying, “Uh, no that is fine. We’ll talk to your recruiter now.” He held out a hand.
I shook it and left.
I stared at the slate of poison smog pressing against the window as I waited for Jennifer to come out. When she did, she was smiling.
“They were impressed. You start Monday.”
She led me toward the elevator. I followed, frown first.
In the elevator, she looked at her phone then held it up to me.
“Who is this?”
It was the same picture of her in a hat.
I shrugged. “Not you?”
She beamed, nodded, placed her phone in her pocket, and we descended in silence.
I couldn’t sleep, so while everyone napped, I did nothing. I continued to do nothing for a couple more hours. Then I did a little more of nothing just in case I had not previously finished all of the nothing I had to do. I worked so hard doing nothing I decided I owed myself a break and went to the bathroom to have a cigarette. While smoking, I realized I actually had to use the bathroom. Halfway through, the lights came back on outside, in the center. There was commotion as teachers mulled about and families arrived. Then just as I was finishing up, I heard my name being called from the hall.
It was Kathy.
“BEN! Where are you?”
She was getting closer.
I thought, She isn’t heading for the bathroom…? Of course, I am a new employee — the employee bit notwithstanding, we certainly didn’t know each other well enough for her to come looking for me in the bathroom.
She was now inside the bathroom.
She walked further in.
Good god, lady.
She stopped, sighed, and then turned around and left.
I finished up and stepped out of the stall. One of the kid’s parents was standing there with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He made the universal thumb flick gesture at me and I lit his cigarette.
“Thank you,” he said, in Chinese.
“You’re welcome,” I tried to say, but in retrospect I might have said, “Horse, “Bravery,” or “motherfucker.” I really couldn’t get the hang of Chinese.
When I finally left the bathroom, I saw all of my co-workers gathered in one of the playrooms. I went in.
“Oh Ben! I was looking for you.”
“I was in the bathroom.”
“I checked for you there and didn’t find you.”
“Uh huh. I was in a different bathroom.”
The reason everyone was gathered in the playroom was to perform demos of the classes we would be doing the next day. The weirdest part about the demo was that the other co-workers acted like the babies throughout the performance. So I sat back against the wall and watched as three of my co-workers made baby noises, talked in short sentences, and pretended to be infants while the instructor talked to them all like they were babies. It was all very serious.
They got to a part where the instructor broke out a bucket of tambourines and handed them out. One of the pretend babies picked one up, placed it on his head, and giggled. “Bladiblahbooboo,” he said.
“For fuck’s sake,” I muttered from the corner.
The instructor politely took the tambourine off the pretend baby’s head and showed him how to use it. No one laughed. They all started shaking the tambourines and singing:
“Oh, Mr. Sun, Sun! Mr. Golden Sun, Please shine down on me!”
I turned and saw my boss Kathy observing the scene from the back of the room. She was swaying along and clapping to the music with the rest, even though she was not taking part in the, “dramatization exercise.”
She turned and saw me sitting against the wall with my jaw on the floor staring at the scene before me. She caught my eye and rocked back and forth faster, exaggerating her sway. Then she clapped a little louder and smiled at me. She started nodding her head at me.
Oh, I realized, she was trying to get me to sing along and clap with everyone. I rolled my eyes at her. While my co-workers stood around singing, I looked down at my hands and tried to trace the decisions I’d made that landed me here.
“SUN, SUN MR GOLDEN SUN PLEASE SHINE DOWN ON ME!!”
There was an elevator, something about deaf kids, Christmas carols — where had I gone so wrong? I looked up from my hands to see Kathy smiling at me. There was something off about that smile, like it was salting me before a bite.
As the other teachers wound down Mr. Golden Sun, Kathy stepped forward, clapping. Someone threw a tambourine at another and they all began fake-crying and -laughing.
“Okay! Children, attention! Now we are going to have our American teacher lead the class!”
I put my notepad down, stood up and walked over to Kathy. I waved. All of the other teachers stared up at me from the ground. One of them said, “Ooo!”
Kathy clapped her hands to get their attention and said, “So, who wants to sing Old McDonald with Uncle Ben?”
“Yay!” they said. They all clapped their hands and started chanting:
“Ben! Ben! Ben!”
If you know me #IRL (oh god I hate myself) then you’ve probably heard some variation of this story bundled together with my many weird stories from living in Beijing, China. I actually wrote a whole book of similar tales called “Early Childhood Education in the Belly of the Smog Monster” that has sat on my computer for 10 years and will likely never see the light of day.
Still, periodic essays like this might appear.
I thought it would be nice to have something exclusive to this newsletter so people who follow my work aren’t always reading the same things. I will republish this in a week or so in my travel magazine Farewell Alarms but for now, it’s all for you. <3
Thank you for reading. If you’d like to see some of my other work from this past month, you can find the worthwhile ones here:
No One Can Figure Out Why John Fed Himself to a Bear in Back Patio Press.
The Last Cinnamon Raising Bagel is Full of Assholes in PublicHouse Magazine Issue 14 (Apologies, you’ll have to order this one or wait for them to release the digital copy)
And yes, you’re right, I am getting better at drawing, thank you. (Also thank Nikita for that beautiful fucking moo-cow art. That would have been the main photo if not for the aesthetic of the other pieces so far).
Cool cool. Try not to die everyone.