Principal Yang’s Barbershop

Xiao Zhou is crying. Big tears. The kind of tears reserved for upside down goldfish, and rooms full of finger-wagging adults. Twelve-year-old Xiao (pronounced: She-Oww but like ‘e’ and ‘o’ are one vowel) Zhou (pronounced: Joe) is dripping with blubbering, mournful, sorrowful upside down goldfish tears. To his right is a line of boys, faces splashed with increasingly frightened looks. In front of Xiao Zhou is a courtyard full of students and teachers, all curiously eyeing the spectacle. The bell rings and the teachers and students disperse, saving the other boys—momentarily—from self-imposed humiliation. Xiao Zhou, of course was not so lucky. Behind him is the happiest face a human being can make, I’m sure of it. Under the auspices of this ear-to-ear grin, Xiao Zhou makes a half-hearted attempt to depart for class. Locks of black hair slide off his body-shrouding apron.

“Are you insane? I’m not through with you yet, Xiao Zhou.” Principal Yang beams and gives me a wink before setting his shears back to work.

It’s the end to the monthly ill-fated game of cat and mouse for Xiao Zhou and most of the sixth grade boys at Sanzhuang Elementary School. A game they play relentlessly, over and over again, despite the sure-fire result that their incipient hairstyles modeled after Korean pop stars and Taiwanese kung fu heroes will be destroyed. Their adversary: Sanzhuang’s resolute Principal Yang, who waits anxiously, clippers and shears at the ready, for the day when hair becomes long enough to violate school code. He trots out tiny wannabe Jay Chous, bangs falling far short of their goal of visual impairment, and slices and dices their lettuce until they’re returned fully to awkwardly clumsy adolescence. Each time they knock on the door of teenagehood, Principal Yang mows them down with delight. And each time, they lament their elusive privilege to resemble a human mop with a whole bunch of tears.

o-BABY-MOP-facebookActual human mop

Principal Yang, for his part, is not only a despotic beautician determined to crush the follicle aspirations of China’s youth. He says if he weren’t a principal, he’d open up his own barbershop. But, I can only imagine the present arrangement to fuse cold, hard discipline with haircuts is about as close to cloud nine as Principal Yang will ever be.

“OK. Let’s take a look.” He pulls out a mirror and gives Xiao Zhou an extended look at his new haircut, providing the student a chance to confirm that he hates his new haircut. “ Wa! How about that? In like a bum out like an emperor. The guy looks sharp.”

Xiao Zhou nods, defeated. Principal Yang removes the apron and instructs the student to return to class. I move into the barber’s chair: a rickety wooden bench. He shakes out the apron and fastens it around my neck.

“You sure do look like an idiot.”

“I’m usually more accurate.”

I’d tried to cut my own hair—something I’ve been doing for years after reasoning that barbershops and hair salons are full of cheats and thieves. But, I’d really fucked it up this time, and, according to Principal Yang, the back of head looks like a mutated leopard.

“Let’s see. I’m going to give you the number one, best head in China.” (It sounds better in Chinese).

“Alright. I trust you, Principal Yang.”

“A man should trust the barber over all others.” It’s a profound statement, and perhaps partly the reason for my suspicions of hairdressers. They can strike at any moment, after all. He goes to work, seeming to express mild surprise (discontent?) that his subject isn’t crying.

Barber

It’s just he and I now, and the faint creek of his scissors against my mutated leopard head. The rest of the school is sitting in class. I look onto the courtyard and beyond it, the deep blue sky consumed by undulating mountain chains in each and every direction. Living in the constant midst of such hulking green-black barriers, it’s hard not to view them metaphorically. You’re perpetually in a world with no horizon. I don’t mean that necessarily in the bleak, hopeless way it can be construed. I just mean, you simply can’t ever see anything else from where you sit. Your view isn’t constricted by the limited capabilities of your eyes. No, it’s external, something you can’t control—something nearly impossible to blast away—and certainly, without a great deal of imagination, impossible to see through. It’s not as though some days, weather-permitting, you can see far, far, far. No, your perspective always screeches to a halt at the peak of a mountain and a few China Mobile cell towers. It’s hard to really make sense of a world that’s looking at the mountain’s opposing face. It’s hard to imagine looking at that opposing face. It’s hard not to feel frozen in space.

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“Cutting hair is a wonderful thing. You can talk to the people. You can make them happy,” (An unusual result for this particular barber) “you provide and create and, of course, you socialize.”

“If you enjoy it so much, why don’t you open your barbershop?”

“I can’t do that, now. Don’t you see, no one wants an old man for a barber. They want a sharp, young guy or a slick, pretty girl.”

“You’ve got style, Principal Yang. No doubt about that.”

“Yes, yes. That’s true. I do have style. Much more than these young boys. A fact. But, besides, there’s no money in the hair world.” He says, as though repeating something he heard someone else say once. He shakes his head in lament and whirls around to tackle the stray scraps hanging over my forehead. “Ahh, being a principal is so tiring at times. So troublesome. If there’s a problem who do they call? They call me. Everyday, something. Always something. A barber—when the kids smoke in the dorm, when the education bureau comes to town, when that kid fell in the damn toilet, do they call the barber? I doubt it. They call the barber when their hair is too long.”

“Barbers have no influence, Principal Yang. They have no place in society—not like principals. No money, no influence—like you said.”

“Wa! Money and influence. All that stuff. You know, Mr. Luo, those are things so many people always want.”

“I would say you have that. Don’t you think you have that?” Being a school principal here, he definitely has that.

“Those are things everyone always wants: Why? Because no one ever has them.”

“What do you mean?” He squinted and snipped at the top of my head.

“Well… you can measure those things—and things you can measure can always be more. You’ll never be able to have all of it. Those are the things you have to get somewhere else. The only way you’ll ever get it all is if you take it from everyone else. But, what about the things you can make by yourself, without doing anything but sitting and talking to your friend or looking at those beautiful flowers about to burst—happiness, pleasant times?”

He held my head fixed and I gazed at the courtyard and out to the mountain faces.

“That’s the good stuff.”

He put down the scissors and replaced my view with a mirror. I looked at myself and the new cut.

“Wa! How about that? Now, that’s how you give a haircut.” He said, beaming.

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Kids teaching kids

When I started writing, I told myself and my 5 or 6 readers that this wouldn’t be a teaching blog. There are a lot of teachers doing that already, and doing it well. I thought I’d be better at writing about the bizarre state of affairs that is my Southwest Chinese life. I’ve done that. I haven’t really written a single thing about teaching, which may give some of my 6 or 7 readers the impression that I spend more time thinking about which of the nine unpalatable stalls in my school bathroom is the most palatable on a given day than I do in the classroom. It’s closer than I’d like it to be, but it ain’t that close.

 

In 1994, I started pre-school. For the younger set, 1994 was the year god rewarded the great nation of Canada with Justin Bieber. From 1994, to 2013, I spent my autumns, winters, and springs in a classroom. I woke up at 7 am. I ate lunch at 12. I ran to the bus, and later my Honda at 2:30. I did some homework and I perpetually stared at the clock.

It’s kind of funny, how many hours I probably spent staring at classroom clocks. Hundreds, thousands maybe. What a grand metaphor for being a student. Staring, waiting. I stared at those classroom clocks for almost 20 years. Doubtlessly, I did the same in my final class ever; the insufferable Sales Force Management (at Tulane) except by then the digital clock on the top right hand corner of my MacBook had replaced the clunky analog from 7th grade math—an all-time clock-watching event. When I wasn’t watching the minutes tick, I suppose I was learning. A great deal of things I was taught in school now escape me, but I think at least 51% of the stuff is still in my head.

 

I spent 20 years watching the clock, launching spitballs at nerds, and doing a rather healthy dose of actual learning stuff in between. Every kid in every classroom knows that they are in school on the pretense of education. They are there to learn, right. If I asked each of the billions of schoolchildren on earth, “Why are you in school?” I’d get billions of variations on, “I’m here to learn and get an education,” along with reasons why that’s supposedly important to them. But I think, learning, the process of being classically educated, is often a passive byproduct of school for kids. School is where they discover what it means to live in a civilization. I wonder how society would be different if everyone was home schooled. I shudder.  Kids make relationships, develop crushes, figure out who fits where on Darwin’s ladder. I’ve often said recess is the ground floor of humanity. Just utter chaos. Dog eat dog.

 

As such, teachers’ roles become amplified to the nth degree. Such a fact is even truer of boarding schools. I think the word teacher is too often accepted at face value. Or further, accepted at face value incorrectly. People want to view teachers as “math” teachers, “English” teachers, “art” teachers. But, it is in no way that simple. Schools, and by that logic teachers, are the foundation, the base level of society. Parents have as much, if not often more influence on individual children, but parents only get one, two, maybe three or four shots. Teachers get thousands. Not to mention, your parents, they went to school too once.

 

As much as I want to avoid, cliché, I can’t not reiterate that I never felt this way before the roles were reversed. I saw teachers as roadblocks, rather than bridges. What’s more, I think I always thought I was smarter than many of my teachers, or at the very least, that I would be smarter than them when I acquired a little more knowledge. I often looked down on teachers, because frankly, that’s kind of what society does (“If you can’t do, teach…”). If I hadn’t become a teacher, I’d almost surely still feel that way. Teaching is an under-respected profession, when it probably should be the most respected profession of all. Anyways, you’ve heard that song and dance before.

 

What absolutely blows my mind though, is that I spent 20 years staring at clocks, texting my friends in class, and often disrespecting my teachers, and now, immediately after my student career is over… I’m on the other side of the classroom.

 

 

In 8th grade basketball practice I missed a shot. “Shit,” I exclaimed under my breath. The infamous Sherman School tattletale called me out to our coach (total uncool move). The coach reamed me for a minute, told me that “that kind of language is unacceptable,” yada yada yada. It probably took a lot for me not to break out in tears (read: I cried profusely).

 

Every night after dinner (literally right after dinner, which is just an all around poor decision) I play basketball with the kids. It’s usually me vs. a bunch of them. If there’s an exceptionally large number, I’ll take a very reluctant teammate. It’s unstructured and chaotic, but I’m the closest thing to a basketball coach they have. The kids usually speak in local Baizu dialect. I’m sure they’re talking trash, making fun of me, whatever. But, it’s not worth my time to figure it out. What I don’t know can’t hurt me kind of thing. I know next to no Baizu, but I know one word: “Ni ma bi.” It’s kind of the equivalent of “Fuck your mother,” but it’s more ubiquitous (generally, the equivalent of “fuck”). Either way, it’s a “bad” word. I used to hear it a lot, but since learning it’s meaning, I’ve eradicated it from my classroom. I’ve cracked down on “ni ma bi,” and I’ve cracked down hard. The other day, a kid missed a shot, and he exclaimed that 6-letter word. I immediately stopped the game, grabbed him, and took him to the principal’s office. He cried, I felt a smidgen of remorse, but mostly, I was angry with him.

 

What gives? Ten years ago I was that same kid. Furthermore, after I made him cry, I surely went back to my room and sent an email to one of my friends with multiple “fucks,” “shits,” and “rump-holes.” I find myself in this situation all the time. I’m imitating the exact same behavior that I was subject to for all my years as a student. Not only am I a teacher four months after I ceased being a student, I’m a teacher in a country that’s yin to my country’s yang. So, at once, I’m a freshly minted specimen with tons of “negative” behavioral habits, and I literally do not even know what acceptable behavior looks like in this new society.

 

That(^) led to some disastrous inconsistencies in my first semester. For example, I’d say nothing if a student was eating ice cream in class (a cardinal sin at Sanzhuang Elementary) but I would flip my shit if a kid called me by my full name (customary). Some kid could tell me in Baizu that he curses my ancestors and hopes I burn in hell and I’d politely smile and give him a high five. Another kid could say something that I thought sounded like a curse word and I’d pretend—yes, I only pretend (but they don’t know that)—that I was going to get my bamboo stick and actually use it. It was just totally screwed up.

 

Think of a girl who gets pregnant at 16 or 17. She has no idea how to raise a kid. She’s a kid, as the saying goes. In a much less responsible, significantly more convoluted, slightly older way, I feel that way about being a teacher at my unadvanced age. I need a damn sign to remind me to make my bed in the morning (it says “Make it!”). The state of my room hasn’t changed much from college, except that I couldn’t fit as much stuff in my boxes, which means my floor is still visible (and not covered in booze scented clothes). I’m an English teacher and my handwriting still sucks. There are certain words that I am going to great lengths to remove from my conversational vocabulary. I feel like a spy leading a double life. I’m not who I say I am!

 

The three groups of people who probably give the least facks in the world are, three year olds, college kids, and retired people. Three year olds can literally shit their pants and it isn’t their problem. College kids are in limbo between authority figures. Not really their parents, not a boss, certainly not their professors, maybe the bouncer. I think my biggest authority figure in college may actually have been my landlord, who I saw in person one time in three years. As for retired people, well, they can literally shit their pants and it’s not their problem. All joking aside, these three groups of people either have no concept of authority, don’t have authority, or could care less about authority and don’t need it to fit into society. Students are subject to authority. Teachers are authority. I went from one pole to the other, with only a stop in limbo land along the way. My concept of authority figures stems only from my experience under them, and I obviously was never completely fond of their tactics.

 

So, is that what I’m supposed to become? Is that what I’m supposed to have become 8 months ago? When I tell a student not to say “ni ma bi” am I telling her not to grow up like me? Is that what all my teachers were saying? I am the second, and for some students, the first line of moral defense. Yeah, I’m supposed to teach them English, but that’s easy (well, kind of). There’s a book for that, and it says you have to do it this way. There’s a test too, and everyone gets the same one. But, the other stuff, the important stuff, there’s no standardized test for that. Do I need to teach them to stand when I say, “stand?” Do I need to teach them to put their hand on their heart when they sing the national anthem or only use swear words when I’m not there.

 

Remember, the second the teacher leaves, the students go absolutely bonkers.

 

The way I see it, school teaches students about two worlds. One is their reality, the society of their peers. This is the one they absorb not by design. The other is the ideal, the society in which they interact with authority and learn acceptable behavior. The one they absorb by design. We all learn both. These two worlds will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Which, finally, gets me wondering. Is this concept of authority something we invented out of necessity, or is it inherent in us? Right now, I am in a position of authority, but it’s awkward and doesn’t feel right. That is, I feel like a role model, but not an authoritarian role model. When I raise my voice, it’s forced, not natural. The fact is, every bit of my new identity as administer of right and wrong is drawn from experience; what I was told as a kid. When I yelled at the student for swearing, I was tremendously angry. But, I would never yell at my friends for doing the same exact thing. Why was I angry? Because I believed I should be angry. It wasn’t the saying, it was the say-er. If that kid is going to grow up one day to, like me, hypocritically tell people not to use that word, what’s the point? It’s a massive cycle of one big silent agreement. Teach ‘em how they should act so they know how to teach other people how they should act 20 years down the road, and so on, all along flouting that very discipline at each opportunity. It’s all very confusing to me, is what I’m trying to say.

 

I’ll leave with this: You’re in a boardroom. You’re 28 years old, well on your nice and tidy career way. You’ve been in the corporate world for years now. You’re a boss and you have bosses, part authority part subject to it. You’re following all the rules: Paying attention, taking notes, speaking professionally, clapping when someone speaks, not shitting your pants. Then you look around, and you realize every single person around the mahogany table is someone you grew up with. You know all of them. They’re all your friends. Everyone else realizes it simultaneously. What happens? Does everyone start cursing, jumping up and down, letting out their suppressed flatulence, and throwing spitballs at each other?