His nickname is Shark. He’s one of my students. Shark is short, small, and wiry, genetically engineered for the hard, quiet life of a peasant farmer or laborer. With his high-pitched, melodious voice and graceful, feminine demeanor, it would be easy to assume that Shark is gay, as in sexually attracted to the same gender.
Shark is a beautiful Chinese man. Young, inquisitive and full of life, he represents the new China, the academic and vocational youth corps of educated cadets emerging like armies of trained bookworms from the most populous country on the planet, with big and exciting plans for the future.
“Have you go to Frang?” Shark asks, sitting beside me in the back of the room on our last day of class before the winter break. The American TV Show Friends is playing on the video screen. Joey is trying to meet a hot girl in Ross’ apartment building, and Monica wants her and Chandler to be a hotter couple than Phoebe and her new boyfriend.
Most of the students are watching, but Shark wants to practice his English.
“Frang?” I ask, leaning in and keeping my voice low. I want the other students to keep watching.
“It’s vary tall and famous place in Pare.”
“Oh, you mean the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, France.”
“Yes, yes. You have went there?”
“Yes, once, when I was young.”
Shark’s dark eyes are filled with boyish delight. “Oh, I want to go there so much. I want to travel everywhere.”
“You can go to France someday,” I tell him. I notice a distinctly bad smell, the mild reek of body odor, and realize Shark has been roaming a day or two without a shower.
Shark giggles. “No, no, I don’t have money to travel anywhere. I’m so poor, and must stay in my room all the time.”
“I mean in the future, you can travel to France in the future, if you want to.”
I know a little about Shark’s cash-flow problems. He once caught me walking home from the campus where I teach to the campus where I live. It’s not the most scenic walk in town, but it’s good exercise. Shark was riding a small bicycle when he saw me. He got off his bike and pushed it so he could practice his English.
Shark likes English. He’s from a small town. His parents are very poor. He lives on a fixed income, barely enough for room and board in the small dormitory apartment he shares with three other students. Shark wears plain, secondhand clothing and cheap, worn-out sneakers. Despite his poverty, Shark is high-spirited. He dreams of a better future: a good job and spare change to travel the globe and soak up other cultures.
Joey’s finally found the hot girl’s apartment, but Ross, who’s already asked the hot girl out for coffee, is in her apartment when Joey knocks. Joey can’t believe it when Ross answers the hot girl’s door. It’s a great gag; students are laughing loudly.
Shark is practicing his English. He stinks. He needs to take a shower. Most of my male students are hygiene-friendly, but a few slip under the radar; either they forget to shower daily or simply aren’t in the habit of doing so.
I dig deep. My gut reaction is to give Shark the cold shoulder. He’s a poor, stinky, sexually repressed outcast of a student, but my god how hopeful and humble he is! The kid breaks my heart. Shark only wants to talk a little. I let him ask his simple questions, and give him simple answers. I must dig deep into the pockets of my own generosity.
I abhor the human habit of what I call selective consideration. In subconsciously sociological and psychological ways, we all tend to give the time of day more to those we deem as important and worthy of our respect and attention. We daily ignore street sweepers and others of low social status, yet clamor to meet and greet celebrities we have no chance of knowing. We favor winners and avoid losers. We dole out our consideration as though it were a rare comodity in limited supply, marching to the beat of the movers and shakers of the world. It seems to help us forge ahead faster.
Wanting to be the kind of man who rarely abhors himself, I pay Shark a little attention. He asks me about my winter break plans. I’m going to Thailand. He inquires about my wife and my family back home. She’s from Thailand. My family lives in California.
“Where are you go after class?” Shark’s effeminate voice is full of hope. “Do you finish now? Maybe I can teach you Chinese and you can teach me English.”
I lean over again and softly declare, “I have three more classes today and finish at noon.” I know what he wants. He wants more. I have to dig deeper.
The ending credits of Friends roll onto the screen. It’s the final gag. Ross is pantomiming in the big view window of his new apartment across the street from Rachel and Monica, who’ve put up cardboard cutouts of themselves in their window so Ross thinks they can’t get enough of his antics. The girls are actually going out to see a movie. Students are getting the joke and laughing. Shark has no interest in the show. He wants to spend some real time with his teacher.
“Can I meet with you when you are finish?” Shark timidly asks.
His thin, cheerful face, now inches from my own, is filled with ambition. Despite his affable nature, I sense an uncomfortable awkwardness about him, a sorrow long in the making, as deep and wide as the mighty rivers and country sides of his rustic roots.
“I have to eat lunch and then I teach a class at 2 o’clock,” I tell him. It’s the truth, but I know it’s also an excuse. It’s selective consideration. Shark’s a bit of an oddball and unpopular with the mainstreamers; he’s got panache but it’s unrefined, social skills but they’re undeveloped and too dainty for his own good. He’s a Chinese female thespian trapped in a man’s body.
I don’t want to be rude. I don’t want to be a snob. I don’t want to be that kind of teacher. The Friends episode has ended, the bell is ringing. I take a business card from my wallet and hand it to him.
“Here’s my number, you can call me and we can meet for coffee or tea,” I tell him. He smiles and looks at the card as though it were made of gold.
“Oh, thank you,” he coos happily, sounding like a man who’s just won a prize. “It would be my pleasure to meet you anytime.”
Students are rushing for the doors. I stand up. “Happy Chinese New Year,” I pronounce, using my diaphragm to project my voice as loudly as possible without shouting. “Have a great break guys.”
One of my students will be calling me soon. His nickname is Shark. He’s a nice young man, a lonely kid who just wants to spend some time with me. I make a promise to myself to give it to him. Not because I want to, but because I know it’s the right thing to do. Because I know, in my heart of hearts, that being a teacher is more about giving than receiving. Just like life, it’s in giving that we usually get the most in return.