My Life as Uncle Stupid in Beijing, China

Lessons learned early on in the world of teaching English abroad.

Benjamin Davis
Human Parts


created for this piece by Nikita Klimov

My first job abroad was as 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.”

Kathy and Samantha, the two Chinese women sent to train me, 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.