Laowai, Inc.

That’s what I’m going to call it from now on when I get paid to be me. It’s a new thing for me to consider myself a brand-name, and I’m going to milk it.

I’m working for a language center called Lucky which recently opened a new branch in the northeast part of town, along Dong Ma Lu. They’re trying to attract students, so in addition to their slick and expensive billboards, they also show interested parties around the center, which is a fascinatingly modern place, as though they’d situated their language center on a spaceship. Classes are not for large groups, but for three or four people at a time, and are held in small, shiny new rooms encased in glass with a whiteboard on one wall and a simple table with black webbed office chairs about it. The offices are all similarly glassed-in, so when you’re walking along the halls in between, you feel very much like you’re on your way to Magneto’s prison, or that with the addition of a few large cylindrical tubes you could be in the kind of Habitrail I used to have for my gerbil Gus when I was in 6th grade. Adding to the odd vibe is the way the teaching system works. The curriculum is completely standardized and ordered rigorously by level, so the teachers are at least theoretically interchangeable. You show up, take a look at your evening’s classes, then fetch the appropriate lesson file from a file cabinet in the main office. Showing up at the door of one of the classrooms while flipping through a lesson is precisely the way I would imagine a doctor feels. “So. . .” flip, flip, flip, “I see here that you’re suffering from painful boils. It seems you’re also having trouble with your future continuous verbs. Let’s see what we can do about that.”

Especially fun is the foreign teachers’ office. It’s larger than most because several of us are on staff at a time. And we’re on the corner of the main hallway, so anybody who comes up the stairs or goes anywhere on the second floor passes by our office. This is strategic, of course. Why? Because anyone showing up to investigate an English-language learning center will be far more inclined to sign up if they see westerners on hand, happily ensconced behind a glass barrier, smiling and waving when people pass by. All the office needs is a tire swing and some fake rocks and it could be the chimpanzee enclosure at the San Diego Zoo. The fun thing is that although we’re up there several hours at a time, we might or might not even have actual students, which means we get paid hourly to sit in the office and look western. I myself spend most of my time studying classical Chinese philosophy, which is a step up from my last such job, in which I was supposed to maintain a pristine, unsullied foreign-ness.

I really wonder sometimes what China will be like in twenty years. Will it be more like Hong Kong, where being western is neither here nor there? And if so, would I want to live there? I might have to actually have marketable skills.

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3 Responses to Laowai, Inc.

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report

  2. aimee says:

    Hi Rob

    Love your blog… are you interested in doing a quick interview for the China Travel Blog? Drop me a line and I can send you more details.

    Cheers

    Aimee

    • Rob Moore says:

      Sure! I think this will include my E-mail address. Just drop me a line and let me know what you’re thinking.

      Rob

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