Maslow posited a hierarchy of human needs. He said that the basic needs are physiological, like hunger, thirst and sleep. Teaching isn’t included in the most basic needs of Maslow’s hierarchy, but teaching English in China allows me to eat well and sleep comfortably. Continuing up the hierarchy, Maslow also talked about higher level needs like belonging, esteem and recognition. Teaching English in China addresses these needs additionally, but in a perverse way.
The other day I received a phone call from someone who claimed to know me. She asked me questions about a poem that she was writing or reading, I never knew, but I talked to her for more than 20 minutes as I walked to the French supermarket Carrefour. I didn’t know the girl’s English or Chinese name, how she knew me or how she got my number, but we talked until she abruptly decided to end the conversation and hang up.
I walk around town with my head down. I stare at the pavement in front of me when I walk. Everywhere. All the time. In this way, I can avoid the constant and endless stares from everyone everywhere. Young, old, men and women. They stare as they walk. They stare on their bicycles. They stare from their cars and lories. They stare from their shop windows and apartment stoops. They stare singularly, in couples and in groups. They stop talking and working to stare more completely and intensely. Daytime and nighttime, in the middle of the city and out in the suburbs, the stares never end.
The stares don’t always come from strangers; I am stared at by people who have seen me walk to school every day for the last year. I wear the same clothes and walk at the same time and, amazingly, they stare as if it’s the first time they’ve seen me. If I rode a tricycle and wore a dress to work then I would understand the attention. Truthfully, sometimes I have dressed unusually just to be spiteful and give people reason to stare but I know it’s not entirely about my clothing. During the winter, I wore black Chinese made slacks, black Chinese made shoes and socks, a black Chinese made winter coat and black Chinese made gloves and still I was stared at as if I was wearing a dress and riding a tricycle.
The stares are forever. They are permanent. They are the single thing I can count on most and they tell me that I am different. I am stared at not because I am similar in any way. Not because I eat, sleep, laugh and cry like anyone else. Not because I put my pants on one leg at a time. It’s because I am everything different. Unusual. Separate. And that’s where the isolation comes from. As hard as I try to be something integrated and conjoined, I am constantly and continuously reminded how much I am not.
The stares are a symptom of my place and status in China. I am, after all, a teacher, and teachers have a long history of respect and reverence in this country. I am also an English teacher—English being the language of money in China right now. Lastly, I am a foreign English teacher—the first, final, and foremost expert on the language of money. My view of China is formulated partly from what I see as I look down at the various body fluids left by people and their pets but my relation to and place in China is formulated largely from what I look down to avoid seeing: my non-belonging. As much as I can feel needed and contributory in the classroom, I can feel stripped of any and all of those feelings as much as my sense of humanity and dignity when I am outside of that classroom. The glass is never more than half full and half empty.
I am a foreign English teacher in China, therefore I am a celebrity. Celebrity should probably fulfill some of Maslow’s higher needs of esteem and belonging, but it does the opposite. It carves out a place for itself and leaves you with the hollowness. What feeds that emptiness is what creates and ultimately sustains you.
Celebrity is not what it’s cracked up to be. It’s reason enough to crack up. Phone calls from unknown people and the constant stares are 2 of the more prominent and public results of celebrity, there’s also the anonymous picture. Passers-by, usually in tourist areas like the Great Wall, will actually stop and ask to have their picture taken with me. Individuals and groups may ask for this or any contact information I have and am willing to share. I find myself in a world where everyone has happy, good things to say and everyone wants to practice their English. I would feel warm and welcome from this if I didn’t feel as if everyone only wanted a piece of me; a piece of what I have to offer in the classroom. I am everything different. Unusual. Separate. I speak the language of money so I am of use and potentially helpful. I am less of a human with thoughts, feelings and life experiences than I am a foreign English teacher. I find myself in a world where everyone has happy, good things to say and everyone wants to practice their English with the foreign English teacher. Not me, but the English teacher. Somewhere lies the real me, wanting to be a part of something larger and more important than myself more than superficially.
And these are results of celebrity that are less visible but disturbing. I become a façade and my service as an educator becomes a commodity that can be traded, rented, bought, and sold and everyone wants a piece of that service. I become a popular foreign English teacher because of that service alone and soon everyone wants a piece of me. As a popular foreign English teacher, I am the commodity that can be traded, rented, bought, and sold. The measure of my worth is based entirely on the fact that I am a speaker of the language of money who is of use and potentially helpful. I become a celebrity yet am unknown and invisible. Everyone knows me and they don’t know me at all.
All of this makes for a terrific psychological challenge. Add to that the feelings of exclusion and isolation caused from the differences of food and language and you’ve got yourself a fine candidate for psychotropics.
Is it all that bad?! I make my stay here in this pleasant country sound nightmarish, but I’m not attempting to point fingers or even to say that blame is necessary. I’m talking about human nature’s fascination with celebrity as it might relate to something like Maslow’s ideals of esteem needs. If I were in China to satisfy people’s glamorous prejudice of foreigners then I would disappoint. Since I am in China to teach people English, I am available to trade, rent, buy and sell. Wild are people’s expectations and assumptions and wild are their behaviors to and treatment of others. Wild are their thoughts, wild are their actions.
Teaching I like. China I like. Celebrity you can keep. I so miss the anonymity of home. How often do I walk these Asian streets and secretly beg to be ignored! My private desire is to be reached and known and familiar. But celebrity means that people watch you shop and follow you and buy the same dish soap that you buy. Celebrity means that you are given preferential treatment at hospitals. Celebrity means that you can make a fool of yourself without anyone recognizing it as that. Celebrity means that you never have to be alone, even if you’re lonely. Celebrity means I can enjoy myself any time I want, as long as I desire myself as others desire me. I am a foreign English teacher in China, therefore I am a celebrity. I would enjoy that more, but if I had the time to get to know everyone that wanted to know me, I’d not have the time to fulfill the most basic needs of eating, sleeping, or teaching English.