A Distressed Student
When the telephone rang late Sunday night, I figured it was a panicked student leader wanting to talk to me.
I’d been gone for the weekend in Nanning for some shopping and swimming pool time. For 3 days, I hadn’t been available for discussions on the school’s yearly Halloween bash taking place on Saturday, October 30th.
Last year’s party was a great hit and this year’s would as well if the English Association leaders would get on the ball and meet with me. So far, I hadn’t heard anything from them. With less than a week to go, we had a lot of prep work and planning to do.
Thus on Sunday night, I thought surely this would be one of them on the phone, ready to start organizing and getting ready for our fun-filled evening.
“Hello!” I answered with a chipper, inviting greeting.
There was a slight hesitation on the other side until a male voice stammered, “Hello . . . uhm . . This is Lan Tongliang . . . I am . . . your first year . . . English Education class. I . . . English is so bad . . I have a problem . . . ”
The call then erupted into sobs, sniffles, and tearful gulps as my student tried desperately to tell me what was wrong.
Was it family illness? Classmate difficulties? Depression over English? Money woes?
I honestly had no idea.
Whatever it was, it was heartbreaking to listen to the poor thing search for words to express his thoughts while emotionally falling apart.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” I finally said in Chinese. “Let’s see each other. I think you need to talk to me face-to-face. Can I come to your dormitory? Do you want to meet somewhere? How about the cafeteria?”
Tongliang wasn’t at all keen on meeting, leaving me to wonder if this was a private matter he didn’t want others to know about. I almost thought he was going to hang up on me when an intelligible English word popped out: dog.
“A dog?” I asked. “You’re calling about a dog?”
“Yes,” he sobbed. “My dog. My little dog. . . . I don’t know what to do.”
After that, the full story emerged.
It seems that Tongliang bought a dog in the local market and has been keeping it in his dormitory room. How long he’d had the dog, I had no idea, but keeping pets in the dorm is expressly forbidden by school authorities. Students can get in a lot of trouble for having them, although every so often, they sneak in a puppy or kitten for a short time period. Sometimes they take the animal home with them on a weekend visit. Other times, they just toss them out when the dormitory monitors threaten to turn them in.
In Tongliang’s case, I’m guessing an authority figure got wind of his puppy and demanded that it be gone ASAP, like that evening.
“I love my dog,” Tongliang said. “I want to find him a good home but I don’t’ know anyone. I have no time tomorrow to find him a home. I have classes all morning. I’m too busy. So I call you.”
A peeing, crying, teething, playful puppy was the very last thing my jealous Little Flower or I needed. And although I’m a sucker for wayward pets, not to mention desperate students dissolved into tears, there was no way I was going to volunteer myself as another dog owner.
To be fair, Tongliang didn’t ask me to take his dog. He wanted to know if I knew someone who would like a dog.
I gave him the telephone number of Little Flower’s weekend sitter, my co-teacher Abby Yi, and suggested he call her. Maybe she could look after the dog for a few days until he found someone.
I also suggested he ask the shopkeepers outside our gate. Many of them had dogs and might like to have another one. That way, he could see his dog whenever he wanted.
All were good ideas and Tongliang seemed happier.
He thanked me and hung up.
30 minutes later, his second call came. He hadn’t bothered Abby about his dilemma, mostly because as a Chinese teacher, she shouldn’t be helping students hide their pets. As the foreign teacher, I can get away with things more easily, especially since I already had a dog of my own.
Instead, he had carried his puppy outside the back gate and found a fruit seller along the road who was willing to take the dog. She would sell it in the market the next day, keeping the money for her troubles.
“I think tomorrow I will find her to give her the hong bao (red envelope with money inside),” he continued tearfully. “That is our Chinese tradition.”
The hong bao was a hope that she would feel somewhat obligated to take better care of the puppy before selling him. After all, she could just promise to help him and then dump it on the street.
Whether this would work or not, my student had no idea but it couldn’t hurt.
There was more crying from his end and a lot of comforting words from mine before he finally ended the call.
A distressing evening for both of us.
I did feel bad for my student, and even worse that I didn’t help him out. English studies, pronunciation practice, organizing school events, advice about school life . . . all of that I can do.
But when it comes to dumping your own responsibility into the foreign teacher’s lap, that’s a whole other ballgame.
We all have to think of the consequences of our actions before we do something. Finally, my student was realizing that buying a pet in the market demands a lot more thought than an emotional tug on the heart and that it looks cute.
What will you feed it? How will you hide it from the authorities? What will your dormmates think? Who will look after it when you’re in classes? What if it gets sick?
Most people in China, including my student, don’t think about such things. Responsibility and diligent care of pets is still a new concept for the Chinese, especially those in the south where animals are eaten, not kept as family members.
Yes, I feel awful that Tongliang’s puppy is no longer with him and that I didn’t volunteer as his doggie’s caregiver. But this is all part of growing up. He could have tossed the dog into the street, or done something even worse. Instead, he found a willing seller and was even wise enough to consider the hong bao to aid in his plea.
Not a very desireable outcome, but a well-learned lesson about life and responsibility.
We’ve all been there. Just this time, it was Tongliang’s turn.
Until next time, here’s Ping An (peace) sent your way for your weekend.