Stories: Jerry in McDonalds

On one of my first weekend returns from the island to the volunteers’ flat in Shanghai, my co-volunteer Monica and I decided we wanted some kind of western food. Though neither of us is a fan of McDonalds at home, we decided it sounded pretty good for a change so we went to one in a shopping mall not far from the flat. Let me make clear that almost all the Chinese food I had while in China, including that from the school cafeteria, was excellent and I really enjoyed it. I’m not sure why but the food seemed to be more flavorful than much of ours – perhaps they use more locally grown vegetables. In any case, our trip to McDonalds was really about wanting a “taste of home” – not about being tired of the local cuisine.

We enjoyed our burgers (especially the cheese!) and fries at a small table in the restaurant’s large and crowded dining area. Half way through the meal, a young man who was about 10 years old appeared beside our table and asked me in a very loud voice… “What is your name?” I replied that I was John and asked about his name – as I did I noticed his mother was coming up behind him, obviously concerned that he might be bothering strangers. He told me his name was Jerry and we had a brief conversation while his mother nervously watched. He wanted to know where I was from, what I liked to do and it was pretty clear he was taking this opportunity to practice his English. When he asked me “How old are you?” his mother decided that he had crossed a line and started trying to gently coax him into saying goodbye. While I assured her I was OK with that question, Jerry dug in his heels about continuing the conversation and became more passionate. Perhaps he knew his mother wasn’t going to allow it to go on much longer and that’s what prompted him to ask for my phone number. At this, Jerry’s mother stepped up her efforts to end this little episode while a bemused Monica watched from across the table, and I pondered the ramifications of giving him the number. I could tell from his passion that he might easily become a “phone stalker.” Jerry was insistent about wanting my number and as his mother neared the point of physically dragging him away, a fast-thinking Monica suggested that Jerry give me his number so that I could call him. That seemed to be acceptable and Jerry gave me the number. We said goodbye then and a relieved mother led him out of the restaurant.

I never did call Jerry although I thought about doing it several times. I didn’t realize it at the time (I don’t think I had started teaching yet) but Jerry’s English was excellent for his age and his passion for using it was something I would have liked to reward. What stopped me from calling was the fact that receiving my call would give him my number. I admired his mother for how she handled the situation. I suspect this wasn’t the first time Jerry had done something like this and she was probably conflicted about intervening: she had to be proud that he was brave enough to start such a conversation with a stranger and she was probably trying to walk a fine line between encouraging his passion for learning while keeping him from being a nuisance to others. Jerry was my first encounter with kids hungry to use their English. I hope he forgives me for not calling.

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