Thursday, February 26, 2009

English teaching V: My first attempt at an American accent

The agent Grace, who thought I was South African – and tried to give me work down south – called anyway to offer me work, but with one proviso: could I do an American accent. I said I would try.

I found the school on a one-lane wide alley opposite a community park. The center of the city was made up a number of north/south, east/west, roughly parallel, main roads which did indeed resemble motorways, but once you ducked into the maze-like alleys and lanes the buildings tailed down to only four to six storeys - and life slowed down, almost became peaceful.

Most blocks had a community park like this one: an area with slides, climbing frames, and see-saw for the kids; an outdoor matching stone table and stools and a covered area with the Chinese style red tile sloping roofs for the old people to play mahjong; and trees covering almost every square inch to protect against the sun.

The school was on the first floor of a residential building. I was quickly learning there wasn’t a distinction between commercial and residential in Taiwan. Many of the buildings were an ecosystem in itself: first floor was a bank; second, your office, third a school and doctors, and you lived on the next floor up - just below a karaoke bar.

I was actually nervous about the American bit, and now, after looking at the name of the school, also angry: it was called Harry Potter’s American Language Kindergarten. I might have to tell them exactly where Mr. Potter was from.

It didn’t get better when I went in. The walls were adorned with big pictures of Mr. Potter wearing a reverse baseball cap with his school uniform - and using his broomstick to help him fly up and dunk a basketball.

The main office had a huge black leather sofa and chairs, and a coffee table with solid chunks of tree trunk as stools - presumably half an Indonesian rainforest was now missing.

Like in most of the city the aircon was so strong mosquitos were ice skating on the river of sweat flowing down my back. It seemed you had to carry a coat for when you went indoors - the opposite of back home.

I had been met at the door by a cute mousey girl called Rowena who was wearing a grey business suit with a short skirt and rectangular glasses. She said she was the daughter of the boss. We sat down on the sofa and waited for her mother who was shouting down the phone at someone.

Her mother was a squat barrel-chested woman with a dark complexion, pug face and a bad perm like Dame Edna Edveridge; her blouse and skirt were both baggy flowing floral patterns, but clashing; I was worried, if I keep looking I would go blind. It wasn’t as if she was wearing a designer suit, but she still looked stiff like she was overdressed.

“So you work here as well?” I asked Rowena.

“No. I work for a computer company, but I help my mother - She can’t speak English.”

Marvelous, I thought, and she runs a bilingual Kindergarten.

Her mother finished shouting down someone and got off her chair. I would like to say stood up, but there only seemed to be a couple of inches difference in her height between sitting and standing. I stood up, towered over her, and smiled and dipped my head a little, waiting to sit down. It seemed we were in a smiling contest. She was looking at me like I was her long lost son, and, not to be outdone I brought my eyes into the grin. Just as my legs were about to give out, she put her hand out, palm up in the direction of the sofa gesturing for me to sit.

We all sat down and continued to smile like an old couple bonded by fifty years of love, friendship and all its upheavals.

“My mother says you look like a nice guy?” said Rowena.

“Thanks,” I said, then kicked myself for using my English accent - if they were going to find out my nationality it would be on my terms.

Last night, I sat in the hostel and actually paid attention to all the Canadians and Americans. I loosened my jaw and pulled back my lips to do the American A, and pictured John Wayne.

“Thanks,” I repeated. I guessed I sounded more like Michael Caine.

“My mother says you look very handsome,” said Rowena.

I practiced that American thanks again.

We had the standard questions:

“Did I like Taiwan?”

“Was I settling in ok?”

“Did I mind the food?”

Rowena then translated a story about how her mother had invested all her money into this school. How her mother was very poor when she was growing up and she would like to run a school because she didn’t have much opportunity to go herself. That she had had many problems with foreign teachers: she wanted an American, but she kept getting South Africans and Australians. That she couldn’t tell the difference because she didn’t speak English. But I looked like an honest guy.

“So where are you from,” said Rowena.

After that little speech I was really torn. Felt sorry for the woman, but then I caught a glimpse of Mr. Potter with a skateboard and I decided a lie for a lie.

“Mississippi, Alabama. America’s great Deep South. Have you been?”

“I see…Uh, no. I have the aunty in Florida,” said Rowena.

“Quite close then…I think.”

Then the mother made her excuses and left. That was it, it seemed: no complex questions about my teaching ability and skills.

“My mother is a nice lady,” said Rowena.

“Wonderful,” I replied, thinking ‘what the fuck has that got to do with anything? - She is employing me.’

She handed me this book with a pink alien on the front and I started thumbing through it.

“Anyway, each lesson you will be expected to teach one page,” she continued. I was looking at this page for occupations and obsessing over the American pronunciation for firefighter (fireman).

“What are the key points…to teach?” she asked.

I looked at the page trying to find some conditional clauses or the present perfect tense, but…

“The ‘be’ verb and ‘jobs’. Look, policeman, firefighter, etc, and “He is…I am…,” she interrupted.

“I see,” I replied. And it dawned on me I was going to teach four year olds.

“You are a foreigner so the kids want to have fun with you: play games with English. I know you foreigners are very creative - Like to make the education fun.”

“Of course,” I replied. “Not an introvert in the west - we can all make mold growing on an orange into a party.”

“Anyway, let’s go into the classroom and watch one of our teachers,” said Rowena. “Then you can do your demonstration.”

We took our slippers off and stepped up into the classroom. The floor was raised pinewood flooring, pinewood mini tables and chairs sat on rubber mats, and the walls were covered with alphabet cards; everywhere little Taiwanese kids ran around bumping into each other and stealing each others Gameboys. The scene made me register rumbling nerves.

“This is Craig. He is from Vancouver,” said Rowena introducing the foreign teacher.

I looked at him: blond hair, a natural stocky build, a suntan which looked like it had always been there, and a permanent squint from long exposure to a hot sun. I guessed he was Australian or South African.

“Hi,” he said. “Where are you from?”

He was South African.

I sat on a little chair, knees around my ears, fidgeting; feeling large, mulling over a few nerves. I was a reasonably outgoing guy, but I had been an accountant for the last three years, showing my character through work related jokes and pranks with my peers. Now I had to sing, ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ and make it entertaining to a bunch of kids I couldn’t communicate with…Oh, and do it with an American accent.

“You just do 15 minutes,” said Rowena who was sat next to me. “Like I tell you.”

Today’s lesson was actually animals. I had to drill the picture cards: monkey, elephant, hippo, tiger and giraffe; then teach the sentence pattern: What is it?- It is a (insert animal). I was supposed to first drill the picture cards for as long as it took for the students to remember… Then teach them the sentence pattern and how to use it by body language and suggestion…Then I was supposed to play a serious of interesting, team based games revolved around -What is it? It is a (hippo). This was all supposed to take 50 minutes or so, and I was supposed to keep them entertained with my exciting games, organize them when they didn’t speak my language, there would be no writing, just oral practice and then you were supposed to send their out of the class happy, full of English to go home and tell their parents about the nice foreigner they met.

It was suddenly my turn. I got myself up by rolling myself onto my hands to push me up, and went to the front of the class with Rowena.

“This is teacher Dan,” said Rowena.

“Hello Teacher Dan,” shouted the kids.

I smiled and waved, but my stiff shoulders and body language gave the resounding impression I didn’t want to be here. I sat down knowing I should have done more, that first impressions last, and I was already digging myself out of a deep pit.

“Okay children,” said Craig’s teacher assistant, a Taiwanese girl called Claire. “Let’s all sit in a circle here. Come on! Come on!”

I stood waiting for the circle to form. “Dan! Come here. Quick! Quick!” said Claire.

“Sorry, I was waiting for everyone to sit down,” I replied.

“Not everyone, ever, sits down! Just go. Go!”

I approached the circle of kids: one or two, having come to cooperate were looking expectantly for direction; some were playing with their pants or nose, some hitting the kid next to them, while the rest played human jack-in-the-box with the teaching assistant: they sprang up; she pushed down. I stood in the center of the circle absorbing the chaotic vibes coming my way.

“Elephant! Hippo! Monkey!” I shouted in my best American accent holding up the picture cards.

“Lower the cards,” said Craig. I was stood in the center of the circle with the cards near my chest meaning the bottom edge of the card wasn’t revealing much to the children a long way below me.

I tried again. “Elephant! Hippo! Monkey!”

“Hold the picture card up for a few seconds and then say the word slowly,” said Craig.

He had a point: best to achieve repetition before going to the next card.

“Not that slow. More natural,” said Craig.

Trying to do my American accent I was speaking like John Wayne on dope while pulling a joker like grin.

Ten minutes later. “Do the song,” said Rowena. The difficulty of getting going had broken my spirit, and I was still doing the repetition; people who had their family taken from in sudden horrific car crashes due to a lapse in their attention moved on quicker. Never mind the glazed look in their eyes and the distressed contortions of the little girl at the front who had put her faith in my teaching methods, and was desperately trying to repeat the word when her mind had unraveled long ago.

“Old MacDonald had a farm,” I said.

“Old MacDonald had…” I repeated before realizing my pitch shouldn’t be like I am on the terraces.

I slowed it down and gave up on the joker grin. Two minutes later and I had the first two lines being repeated.

My confidence was coming back but then the bell went for lunch.

I walked slowly back to the staff room with Rowena fearing the worst.

“You were a little nervous, today,” said Rowena.

I prepared myself for the worst.

“But I think you will learn. It is not often we get the American so…”

I agreed to start the next Monday. Pride was telling me I could do better. I just hoped pride was right.

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