Thursday, November 8
Due to Hurricane Sandy, the other family our ayi works for had to return to the United States for an indeterminate amount of time, in order to retrieve water-logged (and, apparently, never-used) wedding gifts from the flooded basement of the New Jersey house they haven’t lived in for more than a decade. To the Princess’ delight, they left their dog, Mokka--and a mountain of mini-bones and doggie-sausages, with instructions on their liberal use as rewards for sitting, staying, and timely off-leash returns--with us.
We haven’t had as much time as I’d like to spend with the dog, though, what with taekwondo, hamster-hunting (yes, the fourth hamster we’ve purchased in the last six months went--temporarily, I am happy to report--missing last week), and homework. The girls are getting much more efficient, but the volume of work has increased and their own standards are simultaneously escalating, which means we haven’t seen much gain in leisure time. Their benchmark may be rising because the girls are getting better and better academically, feeling more and more pride in their work. Perhaps they are simply understanding the instructions and what is required of them more fully. Or, it may be because there are certain disciplinary and community realities currently in play that the language barrier previously spared them.
For instance: Apparently, one of the children--let’s call him the Karate Kid--began kicking one of the other kids’ cubbies one day. As will happen in the loose round-up of barbarians we call a “second-grade-class,” another kid observed the new activity and, noting its obvious improvement over any sanctioned diversion, joined in. Together, they kicked so hard and so long that the cubby broke.
The victim of this crime noticed it, of course, but he opted not to tattle. According to the girls, it took several days before the teacher discovered the destruction. But discover it she did, and, when she had, she naturally demanded to know who the destroyers were. One way or another, they were identified, at which point Wang laoshi commanded them--not to switch cubbies with the owner of the now-broken cubby, or to repair the cubby, or work to pay off the value of the cubby, but…to kick their own cubbies until they were broken, too.
Now the girls, not being the cubby-kicking types, are unlikely to suffer (if suffering is what follows when the punishment for a crime is to repeat the same crime with permission) from this brand of justice. They, instead, are being kept in line by a mélange of social pressures, class envy, favor-bestowing, and public shaming that would make Louis the Fourteenth proud. This year has seen the introduction of the xiao dui zhang, the zhong dui zhang, and, I presume, the gao (or maybe da) dui zhang, although that last one is so exalted I’ve never heard of it being bestowed.
What is a dui zhang, you ask? Well, like a miniature American flag or a paper-back bible, it is both nothing and everything. I heard the girls talking about the subject--who in the class had received xiao dui zhang, who the zhong dui zhang, what the requirements were for such an honor--long before I realized that they were talking about the badges I’d seen pinned to some of their schoolmates’ shoulders. These badges are white and bear one, two, or three bars on them. Depending, I presume, on whether the kids are still wearing the green scarf or have moved up to the red scarf, the bars are either green or red. I have recently learned that one and a half RMB (about twenty-four cents) will buy you one at the local office-supply store.
But of course, their value is not in the plastic they are made of, but in the right to wear them, granted by the teachers for…and that is where things become hazy for me. The badges and bars themselves are directly related to the Young Pioneers, the Communist party youth branch. But because there is no real difference seen between being a good party member and a good student (appropriate enough, at this age, I suppose), they are generally given out for some combination of good behavior, good academic performance and, apparently, popularity. I do not know, although MTH and I have our suspicions, whether the size (or existence) of the mid-year parent-to-teacher hongbao have anything to do with their conferral.
I do know, as the girls’ reports to us became more and more angst-ridden, that many of their friends had the honor bestowed upon them before they themselves did. They did seem to feel (although MTH and I were more dubious) that they WOULD, for sure, be given the opportunity to wear the xiao dui zhang, at some point, as the honor would rotate amongst the children, and, per the girls, “everyone will get a chance.” They told me that each row in the classroom had a badge and that, once granted to a member of the row, the honor of wearing it lasted a single week, at which point it was passed on to the next person.
Based on what I’ve seen thus far, a turn-and-turnabout rotation seemed unlikely in the extreme, but I bided my time. And, indeed, they turned out to be right, or sort of. The Rooster came home one day beaming, telling us that the Little Martinet, who sits in her row and had already won the chance to wear the xiao dui zhang, had chosen the Rooster as the badge’s next wearer. Or, perhaps she didn’t so much choose her as break a tie between her and another member of the row, both of whom qualified this week by, according to the Rooster, “getting the EXACT SAME number of stamps in our xiao benzi!” The stamps’ contribution to xiao dui zhang eligibility making me understand why having a stamp slashed out after the glo-stick fiasco was so meaningful.
And the Princess? Apparently her turn in her row had also come up, and she had ALSO, in an extraordinary coincidence, exactly tied another member of the row for number of stamps. Why she changed her methodology I don’t know, but for the Princess’ row, Wang laoshi decided to call a vote. And so the three remaining kids in the row voted on whether the Princess or the other child, who I’ll call The Obvious Choice in a Public Vote if Your Goal is Success in the Chinese Classroom, ought to get to wear the badge. I report with pride that the Princess received 33.3 percent of the vote. The loss notwithstanding, she had been assured that the next week her turn would come, as she was the last one left in the row, and she seemed, if mildly hurt, relatively philosophical about the vote and its outcome.
As I said, the girls initially told me that they would be allowed to wear the xiao dui zhang for a week, after which it would be passed on. But at the end of the Rooster’s week, the word came from on high, passed on by the Rooster herself, that we were to go buy a xiao dui zhang badge. This we did, whereby proving, after only a brief bout of panic, that the closet-sized store in the secret lane near our house really does have, as the Little Gentleman’s mom assured me in the pre-first-grade scramble, everything.
We sent the badge to school with the Rooster, and, now, this week, both she and the Princess have gone to school with the little badges safety-pinned to their sleeves. Whether this second badge-wearing week is representative of an oversight on the part of the teachers (I can only imagine the punishment for impersonating a bona fide xiao dui zhanger), or the girls have misunderstood, I can only guess. I have heard that, at least in some schools, both the scarves and the badges are batched, with the “best” kids getting them first. So perhaps what the girls thought was a rotation was really a step-wise promotion. Regarding what is to happen with the Princess next week, I await my instructions.
And then there are the stamps. The Rooster told me this week that if she got x-number of stamps in her xiao benzi, then she could get a truck sticker, and if she got three truck stickers then…to be honest, I can’t remember what the carrot is. Or maybe I never knew; it is possible that it was lost in the wails that erupted when she discovered that she had not brought home her er hao ben, in which she was supposed to write one of her exercises, an exercise she assured me--probably accurately--would not be deemed stamp-worthy if done on a plain piece of paper rather than in the little number 2 booklet.
It was as I was trying to reassure her that the stamp system, while possibly useful as a tool, was not in and of itself important to her education (“Then why does Wang laoshi think it’s so so so sooooo important?”) that the Princess looked up from the couch, where she was cheerfully cramming her English homework onto the two inches of white space left on the Xeroxed sheet detailing the assignment, and said “You know what? I think they are using those stamps to train us the same way we use treats to train Mokka.”
That delivery of that comment, set against the thirty-minute crying jag the Rooster went on last night when she realized she’d failed to fully show her work on two of the sixty problems on yesterday’s math mid-term, are as good an encapsulation as any of how the year is going so far.