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The Good, the Bad & the Naughty, a short story from China.

English language school Shangdi Beijing

The Good, the Bad and the Naughty, a short story from China.

After a prolonged period of stability, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and traveling.

“Good afternoon Krista, how are you?” I chirped, bouncing into the classroom. “I’M FINE THANK YOU, AND YOU?” came her robotic reply. In fact, so ingrained was this response that Krista didn’t even look up from the hairband she was twiddling with. For her the conversation was now over, her duty done. Any answer I might have to how I was actually doing completely inconsequential.

“Nooooo…” I said patiently,

sitting down at the ridiculously small chair at my ridiculously small table. My three ridiculously small students gazing up at me like wide-eyed Liliputians. “Oh… yes” laughed Krista, shaking herself as she remembered what we’d been working on for almost two weeks now. “I’m happy today!” she beamed. “Very good!” I sang, giving her a high five. “What about you Max, how are you?” “I’m tired…. and good” he replied confidently. Clearly happy that Krista’s sloppiness had paved the way for him to shine.

“Simon, how are you today?” 

Simon had been the first to embrace my radical change of policy on the how are you question. He’d been quick to learn the new adjectives I’d introduced. Moreover, armed with a new arsenal of words, he now took the question very seriously. “I’m hungry,” he said thoughtfully, scratching his chin. “But happy”.

English language training school Shangdi Beijing

Max (left), Simon and Krista.

The Good, the Bad and the Naughty, a short story from China.

Max, Krista and Simon were my strongest group. Three of the brightest, most curious and enthusiastic kids at the school. They came to my classes with open minds and wide smiles. They followed the course books without complaint, sang along to all the songs and weren’t shy about asking me questions if they didn’t understand.

The Good the Bad and the Naughty a short story from China.

Krista and Simon. September, 2009.

“Your lesson very different from their school!” smiled Nini, my Chinese classroom assistant. “In China school you must stand, listen to teacher and repeat. Maybe you don’t understand at all. Anyway, you just need mimic, stay out of trouble”.


The Good, the Bad and the Naughty, a short story from China.

Unfortunately, school life wasn’t all a glorious bundle of Krista, Max and Simons. I also had the nightmarish combo of Tom, Jack and Justin. Twice a week, without fail, these guys served up sixty minutes of pure hell. All three had zero interest in me or my classes. Instead, they passed the time play fighting, making monkey noises and flinging the contents of their pencil cases around the room.

In less frantic moments, Tom stared out the window and Justin chatted to Nini in Chinese. Jack usually sat humming to himself, his hands interlocked behind his head. The silliest of silly smiles pasted across his face, like he was having the best daydream ever.

The Good the bad and the Naughty a short story from China.

Justin (left) Jack (middle) and Tom. A real handful.

“Justin, sit down!” I’d say, roughly twenty times a lesson.

“Jack, no Chinese!” “Tom, what are you doing??” It was a rhetorical question really, as it was painfully obvious what he was doing. Right In the middle of what was supposed to be a listening exercise, he was digging his fingers around in his nostrils. 

“Why are you doing that?” Nini barked at him. “Because I’m hungry!” whined Tom. If only he’d been able to produce any of those words in English. I tried everything with those guys. Attacking them with positivity, getting strict, developing levels of patience I never knew I had. But nothing made a scrap of difference.

English language school Shangdi Beijing

The Good, the Bad and the Naughty, a short story from China.

One day, while I was failing to teach them a song, Justin stole Tom’s pencil and broke it in half, just for kicks. This sparked ten minutes of total carnage. Tom punched Justin in the stomach. Justin retaliated by scratching Tom’s face. A highly amused spectator, Jack rolled around on the floor laughing and clapping his hands like an unhinged hyena.

It was my breaking point. That evening I spoke to Trudy, explaining that their behaviour was unacceptable and that linguistically there had been little to no progress. “Keep going!” she told me with a placid smile. “Let’s just wait and see. Their parents pay a lot of money, we don’t want them think there is a problem”.

The Good, the Bad and the Naughty, a short story from China.

The Justin, Jack and Tom situation inspired me to introduce a sticker chart system for good behaviour. One afternoon, Trudy arrived armed with a mountain of stickers. There were robots, monsters and racing cars for the boys. Princesses, butterflies and mermaids for the girls.

The good the bad and the naughty a short story from China.

The Good, the Bad and the Naughty, a short story from China.

As self-appointed Sticker God Warlord, it was up to me how many stickers each kid got. If you were nailing it in class, there was the potential to earn a maximum of three stickers. A solid performance, tempered by a few misdemeanours, and you might get two stickers. If you were Justin, Jack or Tom, chances are you’re looking at one sticker, sometimes zero. Once a kid received 100 stickers, they got a prize of some description. It might be a teddy bear, a pencil case, or a toy robot. Depending on the kid’s age and interests. 

“Tom is very angry that he receives zero stickers” 

announced Nini at the end of class one day. “He wants to know why”. “Let me see…” I responded, Tom glaring at me all the while from behind Nini. “I think it might be because he spat in Jack’s face. Or maybe when he threw his book at the wall”.

English language school MOMA Shangdi Beijing

Sticker disappointment for Tom.

For the most part the sticker system worked a treat. Especially in my reading class with the adorable Sonia, Krista’s little sister. She was a lovable six-year old scamp with boundless energy and a mischievous spirit that refused to be tamed.

The Good the bad and the Naughty a short story from China.

Sonia. September 2009.

“Hello Mr. Leighton!!!” she’d squeal,

shoving a picture she’d drawn into my hands. In class Sonia could be manic at times, but she always spoke to me in English. She particularly enjoyed the storybooks we read together and would howl with laughter about how evil Mr. Wolf was. Or about the silly Cat in the Hat.

“How many stickers today?” she asked me one afternoon, balancing precariously on the edge of her seat. “Hmm, I think…. three!” “Yeeeees!!!!” she shrieked, launching herself at me violently. She literally bounced off my chest and hit the floor with a thud before scampering off to inspect the sticker chart.

English school MOMA Shangdi Beijing

Sonia. September 2009.

Sonia enjoyed her lessons so much, she often lost patience with having to wait her turn. On more than one occasion she came crashing through the door in the middle of one of my classes. My bemused students looking on as Nini dragged her back to the play area. “My sister is very silly!” Krista would say with a shake of her head.

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Like most of the kids I taught, Sonia lived in MOMA, the residential complex that housed the school. It was literally a three minute walk from her building block to the school door. Thus she would often come to hang out in the play area, regardless of whether she had a class or not. This of course was the perfect opportunity to unceremoniously grab me during my ten minute break between lessons.

“Mr. Leighton, come tea with me!” she’d yell.

She always made a grand show of pouring me an imaginary cup of tea. “Do you like it?” she’d ask, sitting up straight and stroking her hair theatrically. “Why Ms. Sonia, this tea is utterly delightful” came my reply every time. This always caused Sonia to tilt her head up regally and nod in agreement. “Yes… delightful!” 

In addition to the tea routine, Sonia loved presenting me with the toy doctor’s kit. “Sit down please Mr. Leighton!” she’d say seriously, putting on the stethoscope. She’d then press the resonator against my head/arm/hand/knee, before despatching a grim “Uh oh… Mr. Leighton… this is not good!”

English school Shangdi Beijing

“It’s terminal!” Sonia delivers the bad news.

The Good, the Bad and the Naughty, a short story from China.

With most of my kids aged between six and eight, I really enjoyed the few classes where I could actually chat with my students. In addition to my sessions with Sonia, I also taught a pair of MOMA cousins, Louis and Tim. Their English level was good for their respective ages. As a result, we were able to have proper conversations. Both Louis and Tim were highly impressionable and wide-eyed, perpetually fascinated by the differences between English and Chinese culture.

“You mean people in London DON’T eat rice every day!!?” exclaimed Louis.

“Crazy” echoed Tim, visibly aghast. “Teacher… is true people in Britains making the marry many times? My mother say for you is like changing socks. New wife… old wife… new wife again”. “How many wife you had?” asked Tim, sounding genuinely concerned.

English training school Shangdi Beijing

Louis (left) & Tim. September 2009.

It was always entertaining with those two, even if sometimes I grew bored of their tiresome rivalry and constant bickering. Whenever we played a game, they would battle it out as if their lives depended on it. “You’re cheating!” whined Tim, when Louis rolled a six on the dice, moving him way ahead on the board game.

“Teacher, Tim pronounce that word wrong,” complained Louis. Desperate to be the first to finish a workbook exercise, they’d scribble themselves into a competitive frenzy. “FINISHED!!!!” screamed Tim, so aggressively he was literally panting. “NO, I WAS FIRST!” countered Louis, his face reddening. 

English school MOMA Shangdi Beijing

With Louis & Tim.

“Teacher, I think three stickers for me today” suggested Louis one evening. “But only one for Tim because he make many mistake”. “Nooooo!” roared Tim, pushing Louis in the chest and knocking his glass of water over. The resulting spill soaked Louis’ course book and narrowly missed my laptop.

The Good, the Bad and the Naughty, a short story from China.

As challenging as my lessons sometimes were, S was definitely having a tougher time. It was her first teaching job and all her kids were aged between three and five, with little to no language ability. 

Her most challenging student was an autistic boy called Deric. It took S nearly a month to get him to start producing single words. Even then Deric lumped a heavy “a” onto everything he said, from “Deric-a” and “book-a” to “yes-a” and “dog-a”. Some days, Deric was so distracted he failed to even acknowledge her presence in the room. Turning to Trudy for advice, we learned that autism was something of a taboo in China.

“I think maybe his parents will not accept this,” mused Trudy. 

The Good the Bad & the Naughty a short story from China.

Deric. September 2009.

S also taught a gorgeous three year old girl called Yo Yo. She was a tiny little thing who could barely stand up unassisted. Which often led us to question what the hell she was doing taking English lessons. 

“Yoyo family very rich” whispered Trudy.

“Her father work in oil. Their family has three floors of one MOMA building”. For the most part S and Yoyo just played with toys and drew pictures. It was certainly a proud day when, after months of practice, she finally answered the question “What’s your name?” “Yoyo!!!!” cried Yoyo with a wonky smile, before losing her balance and falling over. “I want to take her home!” announced S, doe-eyed. “Do you think her mother would notice?”

English training school MOMA Shangdi Beijing

Yo Yo. September 2009.

The Good, the Bad and the Naughty, a short story from China.

It was the 1st of October 2009 and we had the day off for the 60th anniversary of The People’s Republic of China! Hearing there was going to be a huge military parade on Tiananmen Square, we initially thought we could go to watch. However, it soon became clear that the event was invitation only, with insane levels of security. 

“Don’t even go near Tiananmen that day!” advised Richard over the phone. “The police go NUTS at times like this. Sometimes foreigners get arrested just for looking at someone the wrong way”.

The People's Republic of China 60th anniversary celebrations Beijing

The Good, the Bad and the Naughty, a short story from China.

“You can come to school and watch on TV” offered Trudy. “It will be something amazing…. very proud for China … many important people!” Hence we headed to school that morning to catch the show, armed with a flask of coffee and a bag of mooncakes.

Oh lord how I loved those mooncakes! Traditionally eaten during Mid Autumn Festival, they resemble the British pork pie. Except they aren’t filled with meat. Rather, fillings vary from red bean, mango and date, to lotus flower, durian and a host of similarly bizarre flavours. I liked just about everything I tried, even the weird salty ones that had a dried egg yolk plonked in the middle.

The Good, the Bad and the Naughty, a short story from China.

Mooncake October Golden Week National Holiday China

Mooncake, baby!

The military parade was mental, what with its cloned soldiers, trumpet-playing sailors and fighter jets spouting streams of coloured smoke. I’d been expecting the general tone to be “Happy Birthday Everyone!” But actually the overriding sentiment was “look at our weapons bitches!!” And look we did, the screen overflowing with machine gun-wielding women and a convoy of colossal tanks. Furthermore, just when we thought we’d seen it all, a line of trucks clanked into view carrying a number of long-range nuclear missiles.

The People's Republic of China 60th anniversary celebrations Beijing

The People’s Republic of China’s 60th anniversary celebrations

Every now and then the camera panned to the crowd. People whooped and clapped with joy, some of them so overwhelmed by the occasion they were openly sobbing. The coverage also treated us to regular shots of a serious-looking President Hu Jintao dressed in a slate-grey Chairman Mao style tunic. Watching it all unfold in the silence of the empty school was a captivating, bewildering experience I’ll never forget. 

The People's Republic of China 60th anniversary celebrations Beijing.

The People’s Republic of China 60th anniversary celebrations Beijing.

The birthday parade marked the beginning of a weeklong national holiday. For us, this meant no classes and the perfect opportunity to do some Beijing exploring. First on our list were the delights of Chaoyang Park, Beijing’s largest green area. The government had shut down a chunk of the city’s factories prior to the parade, so it was a rare day of beautiful blue skies. 

Chaoyang Park Sun Park Beijing

Chaoyang Park, Beijing.

Families picnicked together on the grass. Teenagers played soccer on an enclosed 5-a-side pitch. Groups of sullen teenagers sat huddled in mobile-phone bleeping circles. We also stumbled across a cool Bruce Lee Exhibition, with its collection of rare film posters, movie costumes and collectible action dolls. 

Bruce Lee exhibition Chaoyang Park October 2009

The Bruce Lee Exhibition, Chaoyang Park.

The Good, the Bad and the Naughty, a short story from China.

The holiday week went by in a flash. We paid a visit to Yuanming Yuan Ruins Park (Old Summer Palace), an extensive complex of gardens and palaces featuring some of China’s most impressive European architecture and fine art. Another day, we took an afternoon walk through the peaceful, tree-lined Embassy District. I couldn’t help but be amused by the seemingly frozen security guards at each embassy gate. Usually a young, skinny Chinese man dressed in a grossly oversized uniform. In the event of some kind of security breach, I couldn’t see those guys putting up much of a fight.

Yuanming Yuan Old Summer Palace Beijing

Yuanming Yuan (Old Summer Palace), Beijing.

One evening, we went to a friend’s apartment in the residential district of Jinsong. The weather was still fine, so my friend Chris and I sat on the ledge by the open living room window. In the kitchen, Chris’ Chinese girlfriend Sofia was giving S a cooking class, the results of which became available for dinner. Finally, there was a dramatic sunset, the likes of which you don’t often see in Beijing.  

Beijing sunset October 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Naughty, a short story from China.

Teacher, you see China birthday party on TV?” asked Louis back at school.

“Very cool, China so power!” echoed Tim in a rare show of unity. “If we want we can destroy anyone… like Japan” continued Louis, all starry-eyed. “Japan need be careful… Japan very bad! Teacher, Tim look at my homework, no three stickers today!” “Nooo!” screamed Tim, beating his fists down on the table. “Teacher he lie! He always lie, Louis bad like Japan!!!”

‘The Good, The Bad and the Naughty’ is the eleventh tale from my short story series Challenged in China.

I’ve also written hundreds of travel reports from all across China.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • Memo

    You are obviously one of the most patient people on the face of the earth – which is why you are a great teacher of young children. Three stickers for you!

    August 16, 2020 - 11:02 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    Kids can be a handful! The youngest I’ve taught was middle school, but even then, a few hours with those kiddos drained me at the end of the day. It’s great you had fun teaching them, despite the challenges…and it’s great that many of them are eager to learn! Mooncakes are one of my favorite desserts, although I agree with you that I’m not the hugest fan of those with the egg yolk inside. The military parade looks super bad-ass, and it’s true that it’s meant to show the power of China to the world. Can’t wait to read more from you!

    August 17, 2020 - 1:05 am Reply

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