Between Two Homes 3: Airplane People


Hey, just so you know, these don’t run in sequence. You can read whichever little piece you want without having to know the other. Anyways, isn’t it oddly intimate and strangely contained sitting next to strangers for over ten hours?

On the Airplane I sat next to an old Chinese man from Wuxi and a woman from the Sichuan province. The old man was with his old miss who sat next to the lady from the Sichuan province. When they got to talking the Sichuan woman asked where they were from, because she couldn’t understand them. It was strange because I could catch most of what they said, but Wuxi is very close to Changzhou. Somehow I started talking with them and they were all very pleasant and as we small talked in that official Mandarin common tongue. The old man wore a Purdue shirt and I told him I was from Indiana and he told me he had a kid in university there. I wanted to show him the tickets I had from when I went on a day trip to Wuxi but for some reason I didn’t. The Sichuan lady talked to me on and off about things I can’t remember. It felt swell to be able to swap simple sentences though.

Once she even asked me what the dessert dish was – it was a chocolate mousse. I translated the word mousse to tell her but apparently it does not have a food meaning in Chinese so she first asked if it was edible and then corrected me to say jelly. Though I then felt this was incorrect, because as far as I am concerned if it is chocolate it can’t be jelly or jell-o. It had to be a pudding or a mousse or something else. Languages have so many gaps between them you are bound to fall in at some point so I did not press the issue any further after she corrected me.

In front of me there was a little mischievous boy with a perfectly circular face and big sideways poking ears making trouble masquerading as some small simian – maybe a little lemur – and pestering for attention. He had shot up from his chair a few times to give me ubiquitous stares which I met with waves and all sorts of faces. It didn’t faze him. When I let my long legs loose and pushed up poke toes out underneath his chair he smacked the edges of my feet. It didn’t faze me.

Little lemur child and I naturally developed a storied airplane history. He was stretching up at the reading light above him and his parents were too tired to stretch arms up for him. On his behalf I hailed a stewardess and pointed her toward him. She’d had enough of his monkey machinations and row running explorations already and curtly pointed to the little remotes in the seats that managed the lights. Guess I should have known that well enough. The little lemur child would not acknowledge the help of either of us anyways and as the polite Americans we were it of course made us both a little sore.

Children are tough entities to strike reason into or extract reason from. They do and you deal with it because they were compelled by some wrenching invisible force to do whatever they just did. I am not sure this one ever actually slept and I am not sure his parents were ever awake more than an hour. The boredom for him must have been a bit rigid so he popped up at me a few times and made perfectly neutral expressions pretty much no matter what I did so gradually I became mostly neutral to him.

I got up to the bathroom a lot that flight because I could not get much sleep either – an unpleasant surprise – and they kept refilling my jasmine tea – a pleasant surprise. Finally the old man whose slumber I kept disturbing arranged a seat swap with me and his wife. Once I settled into the aisle I saw the boy’s round head and satellite ears crop up. His eyes shot to me and for a second the neutrality had faded for a bit of disappointment. Some of my neutrality faded though I don’t know in favor of what. At the end of the flight I’d accidentally scuffle him with the edge of my backpack. He protested for a second and I apologized for a second and no one seemed to notice either way so we both stopped and set our eyes forward. When we landed it was like everyone felt too weary to do anything but get out quickly with eyes downward.

~Austin R Ryan

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The Very First Day of My New Job


The first day of teaching is sort of like the first time performing something. The previous day you spend composing everything you’ll teach, learning your lines, and thinking up some improv in case anything goes wrong. The performance itself depends on your confidence first and your audience second.

I made my way to the classroom a bit early and got in during the students’ break time. On seeing me they all rushed in and started screaming out their best hellos. I brought my large red backpack and had dressed up in my nice black slacks and a green button down short sleeve shirt so that I looked a little bit like mint chocolate chip ice cream. We had been taught not to be threatening, and what was less threatening than mint chocolate chip ice cream? Unfortunately it is not very sturdy either.

I had met the teacher there to help me but only briefly during an intense meeting. Initially I tried to handle the kids. A sea of tiny eyes poked back up at me from absolutely enthralled faces. There were so many hands that I could not process all the possessions of mine being touched. Two sides of my brain started grinding it out against each other as Chinese and English questions bounded in. Both were equally hard to understand at first. Just then the teacher there squeezes in a question about my plan and whether it involves powerpoint.

When I say that it does, she shoos away several children before opening up a compartment with the computer that links up to the projector. As I am plugging in the flash drive and booting up the program, a Chinese error message pops up. A student right underneath me pulls on a pant leg and looks dead at me with eyes twinkling. “Teacher, are you happy?” That question makes my face scrunch up for a second. It is absolutely surreal. The ends of my mouth wiggle as I try to make a big smile. My eyes are still wide with worry and wrapped up in the Chinese teacher’s efforts to fix whatever went wrong with the computer. “Yes, I am very happy.”

When the powerpoint loads up I see that three children pulling at my backpack, about to pull things out. The mandarin words for “please sit down” come rushing back to me and I tell the crowd to disperse for their seats and pull my backpack back to me. All contents still seem to be there. I have brought stickers and candy with me that I plan to use to bribe the children into good behavior.

When the class starts, I stand up and give the class a small hello and introduction in Chinese. It does not seem they understand a lot of what I say. There are blank stares and a fair share of laughter. There’s also a lot of smiles, but my stomach is rocking so hard I can’t tell what those tiny teeth want from me. All these stares from eyes more eager than I had ever seen… It feels like I am being devoured. I think I am being chewed up by kids half my age, but it is my own lack of confidence that really grinds me down to mush.

“Teacher, are you happy?” The boy says again. Why you are still asking? What in the world is happening right now? I look at him for a second. I swear there’s so much shaking energy in children that at times their eyes seem like fuses twinkling on the edge of the next thing they’ll explode into. That smile is still stretched onto each of my face, though my eyes are wide and can’t crease at all for fear of failing to register a single visual sensation. The room is so full of the colors children love piled on top of construction paper practically cut from my own youth. I look back at him and nod vigorously.

Then I start up the powerpoint. My heart is pounding at me to wrap everything up quickly and the words issue out in blurted burst far too fast for the kids to pick up. Heads tilt. 什么?什么?什么?shenme. Chinese for “what?” Whispered words that speak to failed communication. That shit sits ugly in my dreams during Chinese nights. So I start in with gestures.

But gestures are not always a universal language. It takes me several tries before the students understand what my wafting hands are signaling. The teacher steps into help. “来(lai)!” She yells out loud. It means something like “come here” but has a lot more uses. The kids are very slow to silence, even in spite of the teacher’s anger. I am in between her and my own powerpoint, shaking. I look over and feel nauseous at how crowded with words I made each slide.

The gestures start to come and the class goes on, but not so gracefully. I squeeze out a few activities, like getting them to write down some words they know and put their hands up if they have English names. Most do not. I am already notorious with names. I could not get a handle on all of my aunts’ names until I was a teen – it was funny, they used to quiz me on it. With Chinese names the task is twice as hard because there’s no context. English names line up with a cultural figure, an old friend, extended family, a character on TV, something. But with Chinese it isn’t so. Not every kid will be named after someone famous like Mo Yan or Liu Bang or even something close to a Chinese friend or teacher.

Every activity takes twice as long as I imagined, mostly from explaining the task to the teacher, having her quiet the class down, and then translating it for them. I just barely scratch along to the last thing – a dialogue – and it is way too hard for a lot of kids. The bell rings as they try to complete the task. Pleasant piano tunes trickle through the intercom system. All the kids rush me. Their little hands start tugging and grasping at my arms, my bag, and even my flash drive. I try to answer their barrage of questions. Before long I have to grab my red bag away from some kids and secure my flash drive. As I do, I realize I hadn’t used any of the rewards I brought with me to class.

“Teacher, are you happy?” Those words reverberate like echoes across a classroom crammed to the brim with sensation. It bounces off walls of stimulus. “Yes, I am happy.” But it feels like the Earth is quaking and I can’t do this. It feels like I am a mile out from being a real teacher, let alone the one I want to be. When I finally step outside the teacher, Angel, and I speak a little bit. She tells me that the class is a bit badly behaved normally, but I think it is just covering for me. The feeling of failing is so immense that it shrouds me in anxiety, so I just say I will do better next time and beat out a path to my next class. Kids line the hall to say hello to me. I try to respond without getting caught in conversation. It is easy to feel spiteful, like their energy sunk me. But I know better than that. My Father of four and Mother of a small business centered on kids taught me to be better than the bitter bite of my pride.

Another teacher stops me and tells me that there was a mix up; I don’t have to teach it right now. The paranoia bites me so deep that I think they all know how bad I did and don’t want me to teach until I can do better. This piercing feeling of regret at having failed children and adults alike pushes up an awkward apology. “It is like this for all of us the first week.” The teacher says, “It is okay.” But I hardly even believe it. I am stretching out every inch of my legs into a shambling stride back to my apartment on campus. The next hour or so is a lot of pacing and talking to myself. The hour after that is trying to learn what my fellow AYC teacher here did. Back to the drawing board. Let’s rehearse these lines until I’ve got every ounce of intoned intention down right.

~Austin R Ryan