Not just about toilet paper

The other day in class, a student came up to me during break and asked if I had a minute to answer a question. Usually students ask me for help with something that they are learning in one of their other English classes,  and I’m happy to help. Below is how the conversation went down. (For anonymity’s sake, let’s call the student Stuart.)

  • Stuart: Teacher, in America, what do you do if you ask your roommate to buy things at the store for your apartment? Do you pay them back?
  • Me: Well, yes, usually I would pay them back, unless we take turns buying things.
  • Stuart: Well, do you ask them directly to pay you?
  • Me: It’s tricky. (Thinking that he needs to answer this for an “American culture” question in a book, I try to teach him some vocabulary.) In America you don’t want to seem stingy, and sometimes you might tell people you owe me money. If it’s $20.17, you would just say you owe me $20.
  • (We continue talking for a few minutes about splitting the bill at restaurants and then I tell him that break is over and we can continue this after class. Sure enough, after the bell rings, Stuart waits patiently until everyone has left the classroom and then begins asking more questions.)
  • Stuart: So in my dormitory, I always buy the paper for the toilet, you know?
  • Me: Yes, toilet paper.
  • Stuart: So I bought a big bag of toilet paper (motions with his hands how big it was), but now it’s down to here (motions with hands to a small amount). My roommates always use the toilet paper but don’t ever buy any.
  • Me: That sounds annoying.
  • Stuart: Yes, very annoying. They never do laundry, I always have to pay for it. What should I do?
  • Me: Have you tried talking to them about it? I know it’s difficult, I’ve had problems like this before. Maybe you can say that you bought the toilet paper last time and ask them to buy some next time.
  • Stuart: Ok, so I should tell them directly? Ah, but that’s difficult.
  • Me: Yeah, go for it! This will be your homework, ok? Report back to me about it next week.
  • Stuart: Ok (smiling), thank you!

Stuart was really concerned/annoyed/frustrated with his roommates being slackers and not paying for things, and he didn’t have anyone to vent to. He came to me to ask what to do, which is the perfect example of how, to many students here, foreign teachers are more than just teachers. Could you ever imagine asking one of your college professors about a roommate conflict? My students are remarkably forthcoming with personal things– I’ve heard about their heartbreaks, their family troubles, their dreams for the future– and I’ve only been their teacher for three months. To my knowledge there is no counseling center at DUT, so when students are stressed, lonely, or upset, and feel like they can’t talk with their friends, they either internalize it or talk to a foreigner who can offer them some outside perspective. I’m happy to chat with my students, and I genuinely do care about their wellbeing.

I heard the other day that one of my bubbliest students is “very sick” and might not come back to school for a few months. I wasn’t sure what could be wrong with him because he always showed up to class with a big smile on his face. In his class, he was one of the first names I was able to remember, because of his outgoing and fun-loving personality. As an example of how awesome he is, in a skit that he performed last week, he pretended to be a girl, complete with a towel wrapped around his head like a headscarf, and two toilet paper rolls stuffed in his jacket as boobs… it was hysterical. I wish I had my camera! Anyways, after I heard that he was sick, I got worried and kept wondering what could be wrong with him, and it made me realize how much I care about my students. I feel like a protective mother duck!

So…moral of these stories…it’s not always just about toilet paper…


One thought on “Not just about toilet paper

  1. Congratulations Kim! I think your students like you a lot that they are willing to share their thoughts with you!
    Yeah, I agree with you that there’s no real counseling center in Chinese schools. Some students would talk to other Chinese teachers when they need help. I think it is because Chinese teachers sometimes just know too much about the students and sometimes might report the problems to students’ parents, that students would not normally talk to them.

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