The stories ranged from the banal to the bizarre. The English Speech Competition will be held tonight in the Great Hall. A student film competition is being held, in which students create independent films that are then judged by a Hong Kong film director. A student in Dormitory D, according to his friends who posted a notice online, is obsessed with fecal matter, and has spread it all over his dorm walls.
The last one -- while stomach churning -- was sort of what I was looking for. If you wanted to find out if this was really true or not, what would you do? Silence.
"Follow the smell," one smart guy said. We all laughed. But no seriously, I said, what would you do. After much pulling and tugging they came out with it -- go to the dorms, look around, try to find the guy, try to talk to him, try to talk to other people...
I was about to put the activity to bed when one last student raised her hand.
"I want to tell a story of a freshman girl who was cheated 3000 kuai," she said.
One of my pet language peeves has become "cheat." The word is commonly used in Chinese, but the English translation, while not technically wrong, comes out odd a lot of the time. To their delight, I taught the students phrases like "She got scammed," and "scam artist" and "he ripped me off."
The student continued with a woeful and seemingly apocryphal tale I had heard before -- the young girl was approached by two "students" who had lost their money and their teacher. The girl helped them, and they were so grateful, they managed to get in touch with the "teacher." They all met up, but then the tale became more even more pitiful. They needed money for "research..."
It might have been the one time in my life I've held my tongue and was grateful that I did so. I was dying to interrupt with "How could this girl be so stupid?"-- but I managed not to. It was clear that the story was going to go on and on, so at a certain point I stopped the girl, and opened up the story to students' questions.
"Where did you read this news?" asked another student.
The girl who'd told the story mumbled something none of us could hear, and I asked her to repeat it.
"I know this news because the poor girl was me," she said, to audible gasps.
A story is just a story until it happens to someone you know. Suddenly, the kids were paying attention. My head was bursting with questions, but I left them to the students, who were suddenly like reporters at a press conference.
After a few minutes, the girl was getting so battered with questions that I intervened. I tried to put things in perspective -- I could feel class sentiment congealing into the kind that walks past a guy bleeding out on the road. I told them that it was good to try to help people, but you have to judge things carefully, and if you feel things are getting strange, you can always walk away.
I told them a story of a winter night in Beijing. A woman around my age came up to me on the street and asked if I could buy her food. She had the dress and appearance of a migrant laborer. Normally I wouldn't have stopped, but something in her demeanor demanded it. I told her I was going to the store and could buy her something there. In the store, she asked me if she could buy something -- I couldn't quite understand her question in Chinese, but thought I had caught something referred to medecine or hygiene. She came to the counter with a package of dinner rolls, several packets of instant noodles, and a package of maxi-pads. Jesus, I thought, there's no way she's a scam artist if this is what she's buying.
Out on the street, she began to launch into another sad tale of how she needed to get home, to another province...
"I'm sorry," I said. "I have helped you all I can." I turned my back and headed toward my building -- with a guilty feeling that she was probably telling the truth.