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Bad Moon Rising, a short story from China.

English school Shangdi Beijing

Pop Bad Moon Rising, 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.

I can pinpoint the exact moment our seemingly idyllic teaching jobs began to unravel. It wasn’t an earth-shattering incident, but it did represent the tumbling of the first domino. Setting in motion a string of bizarre events that would ultimately sour our Beijing dream. “I need to speak to you guys” said Lily one afternoon. We were gathered around the kitchen counter at school in the prep hour before lessons. “What’s up Lily?”

“Today is my last day, I’m leaving!”

Lily was S’s teaching assistant. The two got on famously, much more than Nini and I for example with our endless miscommunications. “I have three jobs,” explained Lily, eyes to the floor. “I am working from 9 in morning until 9… 10 at night. I so tired… can’t do anymore. Also, this job is so far from my house”.

Bad Moon Rising a short story from China.

Lily at school. November, 2009.

I felt sorry for Lily. The poor girl worked around twelve hours a day to earn what I knew was a terrible salary. It was also a shame for S, who was losing a good assistant and a friend. “Yes, is a pity!” said Trudy, somewhat absently. “But don’t worry, I already have interviews for a new assistant. There are some excellent candidates”.

Lily’s excellent replacement turned out to be a nineteen-year old girl who called herself Water. Having asked Nini to work with S, Trudy told me that Water would be my assistant. I remember feeling quite hopeful, a sentiment that was soon to be… dampened… if you’ll excuse the pun. “Hello Water, how are you?” I said on her first day. “I nineteen” she replied, with a wide smile.

Short stories from China

Bad Moon Rising, a short story from China. 

“This is Water!” I told my students. “Naaaaah!” giggled Krista dismissively, while Max shot me a disbelieving look that suggested he thought I was pulling their legs. In a break between lessons, I finally confronted the elephant in the room.

“So why are you called Water?” I enquired. “You wanna water?” she responded, with furrowed eyebrows. “No… YOUR name is Water… why?”

“Oh… I like drink water! And is easy for kids remember!”

Bad Moon Rising a short story from China.

Bad Moon Rising, a short story from China.

The classes did not go well. As awkward as my relationship with Nini had been, she at least stayed in the background. Only swooping in to translate something, or when the kids got too rowdy. Unfortunately, Water was right in my face throughout each class, echoing every single thing I uttered back to the kids. It was both annoying and unnecessary. 

Furthermore, her terrible pronunciation only served to confuse the kids. “Ok guys turn to page twenty!” “Oooh-key geese turn-a to paysh twain-tee”. Water then began turning the pages for them, student by student. “Err Water, don’t do that please. They can turn the pages themselves”.

English school Shangdi Beijing

Water with Teddy, November 2009.

She also insisted on providing them with the answers to my questions. “What’s the day today Jack?” I’d ask. If he didn’t respond in precisely 1.2 seconds Water would enlighten him in Chinese. I kept telling her to stop repeating me and to give the kids time to think. But she just didn’t get it.

Eventually, as was my way back in those days, I lost my patience and told her to stay quiet. Water was not impressed. Glaring at me with folded arms, she retreated to the corner of the room and remained silent for the rest of the class. 

Leighton Travels travel reports short stories.

Bad Moon Rising, a short story from China.

By the end of our first week together I was pulling my hair out. One afternoon I handed Water a worksheet and asked her if she could make some copies. She came back five minutes later with a cup of black coffee.

During class, whenever she spoke, it took me five minutes to repair the linguistic damage she’d done. For reasons unknown, she also sat in on my lessons with Happy, who clearly spoke better English than she did. In fact, he ended up correcting her a couple of times.

“What do you think about Water?” Trudy asked one day.

Unable to hold back, I told her exactly what I thought. “Please try harder with her” replied Trudy impassively. “She has good attitude and is cheap. You know, it’s difficult to find a good teaching assistant”.

English training school Shangdi Beijing

Grace ignoring Water.

S and I arrived at work one day to find a tall Chinese man sitting in the kitchen reading a children’s book. Lifting his head, he smiled politely, but declined to indeed introduce himself. Sometime later Trudy popped her head into my classroom.

“Leighton, so sorry to disturb you. I want you meet David”.

“Hello I’m David,” said David with a courteous, Davidly nod. “David and I studied together at Wall Street English. You know Leighton…. at the moment my school losing a lot of money. So from today David will be my marketing expert!” From across the counter I could see poor old Water trying to follow the conversation. Her head bobbing up and down, a picture of incomprehension. 

Bad Moon Rising a short story from Shangdi Beijing

David the marketing expert.

From that day onwards, David the marketing expert came to school every day. For the most part he sat on the kitchen counter reading a book. Sometimes, he’d be resting on the sofa reading the same book. From time to time, I’d arrive to find him pacing up and down with his hands behind his back.

When Trudy came, she and David would disappear off into her office for long, noisy conversations. From what I could gather, these chats were ninety five per cent Trudy, three per cent silence, two per cent David. One day he asked me if he could observe one of my classes. Sitting silently at the back of the room playing with his phone, he couldn’t have paid less attention to what was happening. After a while, he simply got up and walked out without a word.

“Look what David made!”

announced Trudy, bursting into my classrooms with an armful of leaflets. “Oh great!” I cooed, with what I hoped was the required amount of enthusiasm. The leaflets looked ok I supposed. There was a picture of the school, which was good. However, there were also several blonde-haired, blue-eyed children reading from a Roald Dahl book. Which seemed highly misleading.

Bad Moon Rising, a short story from Beijing

David being David.

Bad Moon Rising, a short story from China.

I was wondering what the next step would be in David’s fierce marketing revolution. A week went by, during which absolutely nothing happened. There he was, reading on the sofa. Reading in the kitchen. And, judging by the amount of time he spent in the restroom, reading on the toilet. One time I actually caught him staring at one of the walls. After a while he rubbed the paintwork with his finger, quietly humming to himself.

Handsome, polite and well dressed, David seemed like a nice guy. I just couldn’t for the life of me work out what his purpose was. Following the mastermind leaflet idea, I wondered what he was working on now. I also found myself pondering why he was at school ALL the time. And just how much money Trudy was paying him for his dubious services. 

Bad Moon Rising a short story from China.

Bad Moon Rising, a short story from China.

In any case David proved very popular with Nini and Water, who worked themselves into a giggling fit whenever he made his daily approach. “David is come!” shrieked Water, biting her lip. He’d been part of the furniture for around a month when Trudy announced some of our students would be taking part in MOMA’s annual art competition.

The event was scheduled for a Sunday afternoon. Everyone who lived in MOMA could take part, while an old art professor was coming to judge the kids’ work. “This will be excellent for our school,” grinned Trudy, David nodding obediently from the sofa.

Bad Moon Rising, a short story from China.

English school MOMA Shangdi Beijing

MOMA Art Competition. November 2009.

The art competition turned out to be lots of fun. There were kids of all ages everywhere. They drew and they painted, they doodled and sketched. The professor, a softly spoken old man, shuffled around from kid to kid mumbling unheard scraps of advice. All the while, Trudy dripped all over the parents. “You know, this painting is by a student from my school!” 

Bad Moon Rising a short story from Shangdi Beijing

Trudy, November 2009.

David handed out leaflets. Once they were gone, he reverted to his default position of doing nothing. Standing away from the tables with his hands behind his back. With my own role for the day equally undefined, I decided to join him and have a chat. The perfect opportunity, I hoped, to glean some information. 

“Now I am finish my degree in administration,” he explained.

“But I am also very interested in marketing. So for me this is good experience, it’s very kind of Trudy to let me learn”. It was at this moment that I realised Trudy wasn’t paying him anything.

Bad Moon Rising a short story from Beijing

David in stealth mode.

At the end of November we finally gave up on our shitty apartment and told the agency they needed to move us. We’d invested so much time and money in trying to make the place work. When the boiler died on us for the third time in two weeks, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Hearing of our predicament, Trudy told us about an apartment for rent in MOMA. The joint was literally fifty steps from the school. Trudy was very keen for us to move into MOMA and quickly set about making it happen. Dealing with the landlady on our behalf, she negotiated the monthly rent and deposit. All I had to do was sign on the dotted line. Bundling all our stuff into a taxi, we made the short move one frantic evening after classes. 

Bad Moon Rising a short story from Shangdi Beijing

“Taxiii!” Shangdi style.

Bad Moon Rising, a short story from China.

The new place was an incredible upgrade, a spacious, modern, temperature-controlled apartment with an elevator that opened into our private hallway. We’d really landed on our feet and knew that we owed it all to Trudy. As a result, I wanted to work even harder to make her school a success. But unfortunately, my loyalty was about to be severely tested.

MOMA Apartment Shangdi Beijing

Our apartment in MOMA.

It was sometime during the first week of December that David failed to show up. He didn’t come the next day either, nor the day after that. “Where’s David?” I asked, but Trudy was vague in her response. “Oh, he is busy now with his study” she replied vaguely. “Maybe not come back for a while”. We never saw him again.

As the weeks passed, Trudy became more and more withdrawn. She no longer bounced into school and there was generally much less camaraderie. I had been discreetly trying to move Water further into the background. One afternoon, before my private class with Happy, I told her she didn’t need to come, that she could just relax. She obviously told Trudy about this, as the next day I got my orders. 

“Leighton… Water must be in your class every lesson. She need help you with everything”.

With Christmas approaching, S and I set to work on a yuletide extravaganza. Using our Halloween success as a blueprint, we created flashcards, colouring sheets, a YouTube playlist and a homemade board game. Trudy bought a Christmas tree and asked us if we could make decorations for the school. The blow of actually having to teach on Christmas day was softened when Trudy revealed her plan to throw a Christmas party. “It will be a big banquet!” she said, revealing that everyone in MOMA could come, regardless of whether their kids attended the school.

“Maybe you can do another play!” she laughed, clapping her hands together.

We spent the better part of a week knocking out handcrafted decorations. Naturally there were a few hiccups along the way. Nini had no idea what reindeers or mince pies were, while Water was surprised to learn that Christmas trees aren’t typically purple. And that it wasn’t appropriate for Saint Nick to be dressed up like a gay super villain. “Only ray (red) and wai (white)?” she asked, incredulous.

English school Shangdi Beijing

Bad Moon Rising, a short story from China.

By the time we were done there were posters everywhere, snowmen stencils on the windows and scattered bunches of bells and holly. We were feeling pretty pleased with our efforts, until S discovered several rows of her paper chains were missing.

“They’re just gone?!?” she said, utterly perplexed, Nini and Water shrugging uselessly in the background. “Have you seen the paper chains?” she asked Trudy. “Oh… I moved them” came her vague reply. After a bit of digging around, S found them screwed up in the bin outside.

English training school Shangdi Beijing

Christmas in Beijing. December, 2009.

Bad Moon Rising, a short story from China.

A few days later, a tired looking Trudy shuffled through the front door and joined us all at the kitchen counter. “The Christmas party is cancelled” she stated. “Maybe we do next year. Don’t worry…. this will not affect my business”. Totally baffled, I waited until the end of classes that evening to find out more. “Trudy, why is the party cancelled?” “No reason” she replied. And that, it seemed, was the end of the conversation.

The week before Christmas saw the arrival of another unspecified member of staff. This time it was a young girl who stationed herself in the play area, where she spent her shifts leafing through course books and fiddling with the toys. “I have no idea!” whispered Nini, when I asked who she was. I tried to introduce myself, but the girl didn’t speak a word of English. “She is Emma, ma (my) fren (friend)” explained Water. “Oh yes, Emma is our new assistant”, Trudy told me. “She responsible for the play area. Look after kids outside class, tidy up toys”.

Bad Moon Rising a short story from Shangdi Beijing

Emma at work.

Just a few days before Christmas, Trudy hit us with a bombshell. It was a Friday afternoon, half an hour before my first lesson. “I have bad news,” she said, clearing her throat.

“Some parents not satisfied with the teaching”.

“Oh?”

“I receive feedback that S pronunciation is not good”.

“And Leighton, your lesson sometime boring!”

What? These revelations felt like an almighty slap in the face. As shocked and confused as I was, I tried to stay calm, asking Trudy for clarification. I had so many questions it was hard to know where to begin. What exactly was the problem with S’s pronunciation? What aspects of my lessons could be improved? Who had the feedback come from? I honestly couldn’t think of any kids who’d come across as bored in my classes.

Bad Moon Rising a short story from China.

Tim and Louis. Quite possibly “bored” in class.

As disappointing as Trudy’s disclosures had been, it was nothing compared to the barrage of nonsense that followed. The complaints, she told us, had come anonymously from a group of local mothers who’d formed an online chat group. These mothers hadn’t actually been into our classes, which led me to speculate whether a child had complained. Was it possible that a four year old was expressing concerns over his teacher’s pronunciation?

“I think you are not doing your best” continued Trudy. “Yesterday I hear S say the word cat in class. I feel… something wrong. Leighton, maybe you spend too much time repeat words, kids can feel boring. I’m sorry, my English is not good enough to explain”.  

Bad Moon Rising a a short story from Shangdi Beijing

“caaaat”? “cot”? “kit” “coot”?

Bad Moon Rising, a short story from China.

We tried to get Trudy to see reason. To explain that repetition was an essential component of language acquisition and that there was nothing wrong with the way S said cat. But we were banging our heads against the wall. The final insult came when Trudy told us she had emailed the agency about her concerns! And that Maggie would be in touch with us shortly. This was the last thing we needed, what a mess!

Just moments after our awful meeting, I had to put on a Santa costume and sing Christmas carols with the kids. Nini, who could see something was wrong, asked me what was happening. When I told her, she shook her head knowingly.  I’m sorry” she said, “I expect this”. “Why?” I answered, with a horrible feeling that the plot was about to thicken. “You know, Water is a spy! She watch everything and report back to Trudy… make trouble”.

English school Shangdi Beijing

Christmas Day class with Justin, Jack and Tom.

“Mr. Leighton! Jingle bells again!” whooped Justin manically, before performing a sudden karate kick on Jack. Removing my Santa beard, I sighed and sat down at the table as Nini looked on anxiously. “Please don’t tell anyone I told you!” she pleaded. It was Christmas and suddenly I wanted to be anywhere but this classroom… this school… this city… this country.

‘Bad Moon Rising’ is the thirteenth chapter of 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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7 Comments

  • Mary Phillips

    OMG. This is what happened to us in Cuzco. My heart sank to my stomach as I read this. Complete lack of power to do anything to counter it.

    January 29, 2017 - 3:06 pm Reply
  • natty4t

    The Grinch who stole Christmas! Awful treatment ?

    January 29, 2017 - 11:11 pm Reply
  • nationalparkswitht

    Oh😢

    August 17, 2020 - 4:47 pm Reply
  • Memo

    And I was actually feeling sorry for Water until the ending! But then I can also remember Slovakian bankers who complained that my pronunciation was too American.

    August 18, 2020 - 12:31 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Oh lord, really? I don’t think you’ve told me that before. I expect more details via email!

      August 18, 2020 - 9:06 am Reply
  • Rebecca

    Dang, that is some serious teaching drama going on! I’ve heard of the difficulties of teaching in China, especially those that are start-ups and are underfunded with overworked staff and teachers. I don’t know if that was what you experienced, but from what I’m reading, it sounds like that’s the case…I think Trudy has good intentions, but at the end of the day, it’s about money and how much she can bring in with clients. Sorry you had hit a wall during Christmas; I want to see what happens next following this!

    August 18, 2020 - 10:34 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha it was the worst of times when that went down, right at Christmas. But it’s kinda funny to look back on it now. How young I was and how I dealt with it. Thanks for reading!

      August 18, 2020 - 10:36 am Reply

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