Ping Pong Secretary

Our students enjoy a lighthearted moment in our dreary classroom

Finally, almost two weeks after our arrival, we were shown to the building where our classrooms and offices would be. It was somber and gray, with naked concrete floors. We climbed three flights of unlit, concrete steps, past a malodorous bathroom to the top floor. Old-fashioned two-person wooden desks finished with streaked reddish-brown stain were crammed into two classrooms. A couple of fluorescent tubes hung from the ceiling, but much of the time, the electricity was off. Each room had a large wall of dusty, broken windows that provided enough light for most activities, although reading must have been difficult for the older students.

Gauss and I were assigned a secretary named Xiao Hu, but she could only type using the hunt-and-peck method, and was unable to read English. If we wanted her to type something, we had to submit a printed article from a book or magazine, or print it by hand in block letters. This little girl—she couldn’t have been a day over 18—painstakingly matched up, letter by letter, the printed or handwritten copy with the keys on the typewriter, pressing the key with one finger and keeping her place in the text with the other hand. If she got distracted and the place keeping finger happened to stray, she resumed typing from a new spot on the page, leaving a gap in the text that rendered it unreadable. This happened the first time we gave her an assignment, much to the confusion of our students. It was at once infuriating and hilarious.

A single paragraph could take her an hour, assuming she stayed on task. But most of the time she could be found in the hallway playing ping pong with another young woman, also on the payroll, whom we referred to privately as Xiao Hu’s assistant. A couple of days into the semester we gave Xiao Hu a paragraph to type at the beginning of a two-hour class period, figuring that she would be done about the time we finished teaching. But minutes after the starting bell rang, we heard the plink-plink-plink of the ping pong ball and the giggles as she and her friend attempted to best each other just outside our classroom doors.

If there was one thing China had in abundance, it was people, and the government guarantee of employment meant that lots of them were doing jobs that really didn’t need to be done.

The office technology was mid-sixties: a few manual typewriters, carbon paper, and hand-cranked mimeograph and ditto machines. Although there was a single photocopy machine on campus, access was strictly controlled and we were not on the list of those with privileges. Gauss and I discovered that there were almost no English study materials, we would have to produce our own. This meant composing the materials or choosing a passage from literature or a magazine, typing it on mimeograph forms, and then running copies on the ancient duplicating machine in the English department office several blocks away from where we taught.

Since our secretary had no secretarial skills, we had two jobs. Xiao Hu did not appear to be bothered by the fact that she had been assigned to a post for which she was completely unqualified. Instead, she showed up dutifully, played ping pong enthusiastically, knocked off early, and collected a salary.

We administered a written test and then conducted oral interviews with our students. The written test was hard for most of them, and a few were completely lost when we slowly posed simple questions in English (e.g. “What is your name?” “What is your favorite food?”) Although they had studied some English before, it was through grammar lessons and the translation of written material; many had not actually heard the language being spoken. Even those who could understand were hesitant to speak, sometimes because they were nervous about addressing the teacher in a conversational tone.

Two of the students stood out. One older fellow, more fluent than the rest, seemed to be a natural leader. He told us in imperfect, but intelligible English that he was the “class monitor.” In my mind a monitor was a brown-nosing teacher’s pet who wielded power by doling out potty privileges and eraser-beating duties. I wanted to chuckle when I heard the quaint term applied to this dignified gentleman in a university class, but kept my amusement in check. The man’s name was Zhou Longbao, and because of his given name, his leonine features, and his regal bearing, we gave him the English name “Leonard.”

The other, about ten years younger than Leonard, was lively and unafraid. He plunged ahead, energetically talking to us in spite of lacking many of the necessary words. Gauss and I took an instant liking to him. He told us his name was Li Yongpeng, and he asked us to translate it directly into English. Working together on the characters he and Gauss determined that his name literally meant “Eternal Phoenix” Li. We had to tell him that such a name would elicit snickers abroad, but I assured him that I would find a meaningful name for him. I asked him what he liked to do. Like my brother, he had acted in amateur theater, so I gave him my brother’s name, “Aaron.”

We divided the fifty students based on their fluency. Since Gauss knew more Chinese, he would take the less accomplished group and provide some translations in a pinch. After a couple more days spent making a course plan and writing some lessons, we began to teach.

The students were a varied bunch of University personnel ranging from graduate students about our age, late 20s, to senior faculty members. The youngest had just completed bachelor’s degrees, the first students since the Cultural Revolution to get an uninterrupted college education. College campuses had been closed for years, so some in their mid-thirties—like Aaron—were returning to resume their educations. Although some had quietly continued to study on their own, they did not have formal degrees. Other class members, like Leonard, old enough to be our parents, had learned Russian and spent time in the Soviet Union in the 1950s.

The Cultural Revolution years were especially hard on academics. The death of Mao five years before our arrival set in motion events that bettered their situation and began to release China from its isolation. The new leaders in Beijing knew that it was time to catch up with the rest of the world in trade and technology. No longer reviled as “stinking intellectuals,” our students were being called upon to be their country’s eyes and ears to the outside. The government planned to send them to universities throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe to get advanced degrees or work as research fellows.

On one hand, to be chosen for study abroad was an enormous honor, and potentially valuable to each student personally. The government stipend was about $450 a month, which at the time would barely cover room and board near any American campus. To the Chinese, who earned an average of $30 a month, it was an almost unimaginable sum. By living frugally, many were able to save money during their stints overseas. In addition, the knowledge and experience they would gain could advance their careers once they returned home.

On the other hand, the assignment meant two years away from loved ones, as family members could not accompany them. There were probably two reasons for this policy: it was cheaper to send only one person, and family back in China was a good guarantee that the visiting scholar would return to the motherland, preventing a brain drain.

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One thought on “Ping Pong Secretary

  1. “Xiao Hu did not appear to be bothered by the fact that she had been assigned to a post for which she was completely unqualified. Instead, she showed up dutifully, played ping pong enthusiastically, knocked off early, and collected a salary.”

    That had me laughing out loud.

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