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In Any Language, Here Comes Trouble

On my first day as an English teacher in China, I was outwitted by a peaceful dragon named Trouble.

The school year was about to begin at the Foreign Language Training Center, located on the campus of Jiangxi Normal University in Nanchang. I was to conduct individual interviews of my new adult Chinese students and assess their English-language ability. As a first-year foreign teacher at the center, I was nervous but well prepared for meeting the students. On the assigned morning, I proceeded to the classroom with my list of interview questions and a stack of evaluation sheets.

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At 8 a.m., the classroom door abruptly opened, and in strode the first student on the interview schedule.

"Hello! I am Fu An Long! I am 34 years old!" the interviewee energetically exploded.

In English, "an long" means "peaceful dragon," but there was certainly nothing peaceful about this overzealous man. Tightly gripping my extended hand, he pumped it enthusiastically.

I welcomed my new student by his surname, Fu, and invited him to sit. He plunked down on the stool opposite me and waited.

I began with basic questions in English about his family, education, and hometown. He understood me well and answered clearly. When he stumbled over the more random questions, I placed him in the intermediate English class.

After five minutes, I thanked An Long and asked him to send in the next student.

As the morning progressed, I began to feel more at ease with the students. I was uplifted by their enthusiasm for studying English. One thing concerned me about the interviews, however. Of the 10 male students I had spoken with, six had given me answers similar to An Long's. I wanted to believe no cheating was going on, yet my teacher instincts told me otherwise.

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During a 10-minute break, I peered into the hallway to find An Long and two of his male colleagues huddled together near the stairwell. With great patience, he was having the two repeat his answer to the first interview question. After correcting their pronunciation, he moved on to the next answer he had given me.

I realized then that I would have to change all the questions for the second set of interviewees. But first, I decided to have a heart-to-heart talk with An Long.

"Fu An Long, may I see you a moment, please?" I called.

HIS two followers looked worried, but Fu gave them a reassuring smile and followed me into the classroom.

I spoke privately to my new pupil about the importance of the English-language interview. I explained that I had worked very hard to prepare my questions, that the students should answer these honestly, and that this would help me accurately place them in a class suitable to their language skills.

Fu listened attentively. He nodded at appropriate intervals. He apologized when I finished. He appeared so contrite that I was convinced there would be no more disturbances from him for the rest of the year.

Then came his parting words. "I have an English name. I had a foreign teacher, Miss Kate. She gave it to me."

Fu An Long, the "peaceful dragon," paused with impish delight. Grinning, he announced, "It's 'Trouble'!"

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