Having finished my classes for the night at my second job, I’d decided to hang around the training center for a bit and chat with the owner and the woman who manages that branch. We were discussing the different classes and the students in them until I’d started to stumble on some of their names. Let’s face it, 30-40 7 or 8 year old kids a week… I mix some of them up so often it’s shameful. Of course it isn’t just about race; I’m relatively new at the language center and some of the kids only come intermittently, some of them have similar names, and sometimes I’m just plain too tired from working two jobs to remember who is who. But the owner and the manager had realized I didn’t which student was which, and even though I’ll get most of the names down eventually, they didn’t pass up the opportunity to poke fun at me for it. Wary of having put my foot in my mouth, I’d attempted to justify it as anything but what it looked like, only to luck out when they actually started complaining to each other in agreement! They went on about how some of the little boys act like babies when they’re mistaken for a different kid, and how a mother once got really offended when they’d call her kid the wrong name. Baffled by what my two bosses were saying, I couldn’t help but ask them if Chinese people really, actually have trouble telling each other apart.
“Oh yes! All of the students in Shenzhen wear the same uniform. That’s 50,000 kids in each grade wearing the same clothing!! Little girls are easier because of their hair and if they’re pretty or not, but boys are so difficult. All the boys get the same haircut. Every single one! All black hair and the same foreheads too.”
“And if they have the thin face then I can never tell. It’s all one boy to me. Fat boys are easier as long as there aren’t many of them.”
“Once they get old, women look the same too. They wear three types of clothes and that doesn’t help.”
Their rants left me with a stupid grin, because in all honesty I’d had no clue how to respond to any of it except smirkingly nod and try not to come off as the dumb white guy who thinks all Chinese people look the same. The owner concluded to me, “There are just too many people here. It’s hard for all of us. We have trouble with adults too, not just children. I really only know the people who matter.” And if she’s not the only person in China who feels this way, then the indifference for each other that Chinese people are so well known for might be slightly more understandable. While I definitely hadn’t been expecting any of these answers, after having heard all of this I guess I’m not surprised. At my public school I teach 15 classes a week with 55 students in each, and at least once a week I need to double check that I’m in the right classroom after mistakenly recognizing students from a different class. I’d always just figured it was because I was a foreigner.