My Life as Uncle Stupid in Beijing, China
Lessons learned early on in the world of teaching English abroad.
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.
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 around two fingers.