The Lego Teacher by Felix Wong13 min read

11 March, 2020 0 comment

Illustration by Arty Guava

When I turned nineteen, I booked a one-way ticket back home to Hong Kong with the hopes of becoming an English teacher. As an immigrant myself who once struggled with the language, I believed others could benefit from my knowledge and experience. I could stand as living proof that, with time and hard work and enough Hollywood movies watched, English can be mastered by anyone. The outrageous money that came with teaching in Asia would merely be the cherry on top. Little did I know, no employer would share my sentiment.

After countless interviews, follow-up phone calls, and mock classes, I remained jobless. It didn’t help that I had no prior teaching experience, but neither did my Western friends, and they were landing teaching gigs left and right. It became apparent to me that Hong Kong desired certain features in teachers. Western features.

Parents wanted to say their kids learned English straight from the “source”, from the mouths of white Westerners. Qualifications and certificates be damned. So long as you have white skin – blue eyes and blonde hair would be a bonus – there’d be a job for you. I’m about as Chinese as one can get, and that was trouble.

#

Roland’s commercial unit was divided down the centre. One half was outfitted as a karate dojo, with padded floors, punching bags, and a faint hint of sweaty feet, the other half as a classroom big enough to accommodate a dozen students. Despite being mid-interview, I still wasn’t fully convinced I was in the right place.

Roland was a karate master, not that you would be able to tell from his beer belly and plastic flip flops combo. The dojo, for many years, had been his main business. When the city’s interest in karate ran dry, Roland had to get creative. He nixed half the dojo and turned his attention to a side venture – Lego recreational classes. Some classes were held on site, while others at various international schools. Roland described the responsibilities of a Lego teacher as such: “just make sure the kids don’t swallow any pieces.”

Roland had initially greeted me in Cantonese, but in an attempt to appear more Westernized, I lied and claimed to speak only English. I played up my years in Canada, choosing not to mention I was born in Hong Kong and had undergone two years of elementary school there. But none of this mattered to Roland. What he needed was an assistant to help his sole teacher drag thirty-pound suitcases of Lego to schools around the city.

“Wait,” I said. “I thought your posting was for a teacher?”

“Well yes, but you don’t have any experience. Shadow my instructor for a few weeks, then we’ll talk about the rest. How’s that sound?”

Drag suitcases to get my foot in the door? I could do that, absorbing some teaching skills and techniques on the job. Then even if Roland stiffs me, I’d be able to stick the title of “Teaching Assistant” on my résumé and move onto a real placement elsewhere.

#

I had no idea Hong Kong housed an island named Discovery Bay, let alone that it had a private school. Discovery Bay was situated away from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, designed for wealthy Westerners who longed for home but didn’t really want to go home. To get there, you needed to hop on a train, a ferry, and a bus – totaling a commute of two hours from city centre. Its citizens were so detached from the rest Hong Kong that they zoomed around on golf carts and dressed in floral patterns as if they lived in the Bahamas.

Like the island itself, the school was just as otherworldly. Towering eight stories high above the ocean and surrounded by palm trees, it looked less like an elementary school and more like a vacation resort. At the entrance, I got the sense I might have been in over my head.

I observed as Jaspreet, the instructor of the Lego program, conducted the lesson. Following a five-minute presentation on the biology of butterflies, Jaspreet passed out sets of instructions and Lego kits, and tasked the students with putting together butterflies of their own. The rest of the hour went by as Roland had said – we just made sure the kids didn’t try to ingest any Lego pieces.

“See? It’s easy,” Jaspreet said. “These students aren’t here to learn. Their parents fill up their schedules with silly extra-curricular activities like this so they spend less time at home playing computer games. You can teach Lego too.”

“Yeah. Maybe.” The job did seem straightforward. The kids kept themselves so busy that we were rendered practically unnecessary. Nonetheless, the thought instilled in me a pang of fear. If I was doing this class alone, would I be able to keep all these students in check? I felt annoyed – cheated, even — that Roland had pulled a bait-and-switch on me, relegating me to an assistant, but maybe he had a point. I didn’t have experience, and jumping into a teaching role would be detrimental.

Jaspreet slapped me on the back and smiled. I was glad to have him around.

The next day, I was told Jaspreet had quit. Roland’s only instructor. Gone.

“Congratulations, Felix. You’re promoted,” Roland declared.

“But–”

“If I didn’t have karate, I would happily do the classes with you. But there’s no one else.”

And like that, I jumped into a teaching role overnight.

#

Fake it till you make it, the saying goes – yeah, that didn’t quite work. As it turned out, I wasn’t so hot at teaching.

On my first day, I reached the school only to notice I had forgotten to pack the instruction booklets. After begging Roland’s receptionist to email me the files and sweet-talking the school’s office into letting me use their printer, I realized I had also forgotten the motors. The motors formed the foundation for the day’s model. Without them, the models could not be built. So I told the class that when Jaspreet quit, he took all the motors with him.

As I had suspected, I couldn’t maintain the kids’ attention during the opening presentations. It didn’t help that Roland’s PowerPoints were dry, all revolving around either animals or niche subjects like aqueducts. I didn’t care to learn the history of aqueducts either. Pretty soon, I did away with the presentations altogether.

The Wednesday classes had a violence-prone student. Drool could often be seen dripping down his mouth, not unlike the Xenomorphs from the Alien films. He scared the shit out of the class, and I certainly didn’t know how to deal with him, especially when he would take a literal bite out of the other students.

Roland wanted photos of students with their finished models, which were to be sent to parents as a weekly report. But with classes every day of the week, there were simply too many names to keep track of. I couldn’t match the faces with their names, let alone with their respective parents. Most of those photos never left the company hard drive.

No matter what went south each day, I continued believing that with enough time spent acting the role, I could blossom into a capable teacher. Isn’t that how it works in movies? After every class, I thought of the big picture, that this was all part of the long road to English teaching. I reminded myself of the embarrassment I faced in my years as an immigrant kid in Canada, how my classmates would poke fun at my Hong Kong accent, how I couldn’t gather the courage to speak in front of others until well into my teens. I wanted to teach English, so others wouldn’t have to experience this same humiliation.

For reasons still unfathomable to me, Roland placed complete trust in me, a bumbling nineteen-year-old. In the rare occasions when he asked how a class went, I’d make something up. Great. Kids were ecstatic to learn the difference between monkeys and chimpanzees. Roland grew to think I was doing so well that he began joking about having me take over some of his karate classes.

“Just run drills,” he’d say, often sounding more serious than not.

As if things were ever so easy.

What I needed weren’t more classes, but training and guidance – things I couldn’t get from Roland, or his receptionist, or the long-gone Jaspreet. I turned to the internet, spending an hour or two each day combing for teaching tips. I started to dress older, adding a wristwatch to my outfit and tucking in my shirts. But nothing changed the fact that I was playing make-believe.

#

Roland didn’t make it easy for me to keep up my façade. Some nights, upon returning to the office after class, he’d ask me out to dinner. He said that was the kindness he was shown when he was my age, as a young man striving to carve out a place in the world. I wondered if it also had to do with him being middle-aged and single, without anyone or anything to go home to.

Roland even tried to set me up with his receptionist. I had, out of reflex, lied about being single when I was not. Soon, the receptionist began asking me out to dinner as well. Had I the guts to be honest, I would’ve told her straight up, “You can do much better.”

I never accepted their invitations. I worried that, under an extended interaction with either one, I’d crumble and admit to my growing tapestry of lies. Suffice it to say, I became pretty good at conjuring excuses on the fly.

#

“Any luck with hiring?” I’d ask Roland from time to time. “I could really use a proper teacher to train me.”

Despite making numerous job postings over the months, Roland never hired another teacher to replace Jaspreet. The work hours were odd, and while the pay was good, it wasn’t as good as what one could make at an English tutoring centre. And nobody wanted to spend hours transiting through the city with thirty pounds of Lego in tow.

I suspected Roland also faced issues of his own. It had become obvious his karate business was on the verge of collapse. Whenever I walked in on his classes, I’d spot only a handful of students – sometimes as few as two. The classroom half of his space didn’t fare better and often went unused, since most Lego classes took place off-site. Factoring in the sky-high rent of Hong Kong, there was no way that equation could balance.

One day, I noticed metal hooks newly installed in the ceiling. I learned they were for silks. Roland had begun subletting his dojo to aerial yoga instructors in the evenings. Though he wouldn’t tell me specifics, I could things were not going well.

I once tried to quit, out of both guilt and growing frustrations with the job. I didn’t give any concrete reasons except that the position wasn’t for me. Roland laughed it off as a prank. Rather than pursuing the topic, I just continued lugging around those suitcases.

#

The final straw came when Roland brought me to an apartment on the southern side of Hong Kong Island – the rich side. His services had expanded to include party hosting, and that day, he was running a karate-themed birthday party for one of his students. My job was to dress up as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and pop out at the end, as a surprise to close out the party. I don’t recall getting a choice in the matter.

I sat in costume for an hour inside a spare room, waiting to be called. In my head, I pictured myself making a grand entrance. I’d combat roll out then hop into a fighting pose, winning applause and admiration. But I barely made it two steps into the living room before the twenty kids swarmed me. Their sugar-fueled shoving and screaming instantly terrified me. This was no classroom setting. I froze – the world’s worst actor. One of the kids pointed out how I wasn’t a real Ninja Turtle, and just like that, they flocked back to Roland.

I waddled back into the spare room to change, but not before taking a picture with the ensemble. I figured it’d give my friends in Canada a good laugh. In that moment, upon seeing myself reflected on the phone screen, I realized how stupid I looked. What the hell I was doing? How did I stray from English teaching to Lego teaching, to dressing up in green tights and an oversized turtle head?

Roland must have come to an epiphany too, because the ride back to his office was silent.

#

At the time, my mom found a mysterious growth on her stomach. There was no point in lying any longer, but that was nonetheless the story I sold Roland – that my mother might have cancer and I needed to fly back to Canada and be with her. I didn’t tell him that the growth was quickly determined to be a stubborn lump of fat. The lie felt easier.

He reassigned all my classes to his receptionist, who had become well aware of my bullshit. She didn’t respond when I asked her out for a farewell dinner.

#

My next job in Hong Kong was found within the week, at a recruitment firm three blocks down from Roland’s. I gave up my goal of English teaching and settled for office life. Though data entry didn’t pay nearly as much, at least it didn’t require pretending.

Processing spreadsheets one afternoon, I received a message from Roland. He asked about my mother.

I stared at the chat window for a long time, typing out various sentences only to delete them. Roland must have known I never left Hong Kong if he was contacting me at that hour. Maybe, on some level, he wanted the same thing I did: for me to come clean, to reveal that I actually spoke Cantonese, that I butchered all my Lego classes, that I was not single, that my mother was not suffering from a life-threatening illness. Whether Roland would forgive me was a nonissue. I wanted to tell the truth.

In the end, I just blocked him. Somehow, it seemed like the kindest thing I could do.

 


Felix Wong has lived half his life in Vancouver and half in Hong Kong. His stories have appeared in The Sun, Ricepaper, and emerge 18: The Writer’s Studio Anthology. He is currently in Hong Kong working on a book about Chinese ancestor worship customs and his aunt killed in the 1991 Lauda Air Flight 004 plane crash.


Lay Hoon aka Arty Guava is an Illustrator and Graphic Designer based in Vancouver. She grew up in Malaysia and spent most of her adult life in Singapore before moving to Canada. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Bioengineering but chose to make a career switch after about 1 year of working in the field. Art and Design have always been her calling. She is passionate about culture, people and nature and how these themes interact with each other.

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