I taught my students the words ‘suicide bombing’ on Saturday

I taught my students the words ‘suicide bombing’ on Saturday.

The news from Paris broke just as I was waking up in Shanghai. On Saturday mornings I have to drag myself out of bed at 6:30, a feat which has grown infinitely harder now that the weather is cold. I have a habit of checking the news in the morning to help me wake up, and I almost always listen to All Things Considered from NPR.

Scanning headlines. Not much, not much, not much…60 dead? Paris? I immediately thought of our family and friends in London, only two hours away from that Grande Ville. I sent several messages with our mobile numbers in case anyone needed to get in touch quickly.

As the day unfolded, I was in classes. I teach English, but my highest-level classes are more like a combination of Language Arts, Civics, History, and current affairs rolled into one. I push my students hard, and they are old enough to benefit from intense discussions as well as witticisms (mostly on their part, as I am old and lame 🙂 ).

In my afternoon class, filled with 13-15 year olds, we had a great discussion. We joke a lot during our two hours together, and my segue into a serious discussion was preceded by exclamations of ‘Oh my Lady Gaga!’ and copious fart jokes. They have been my students for six months now, and they trust me. I lowered my voice and asked them to talk with me about something serious.

I put the BBC live updates up on our interactive board. I asked if they had heard of big news.

‘Terrorists,’ said Jerry.

‘Yes, where?’


‘Yes. What do you know about it?’

I try to use the Socratic method in my classes as much as possible. I cycle through endless questions, hardly ever giving a direct answer. I ask, ‘Why? Why? Why? Ok, Why?’ like a suddenly-conscious three year old.

They gave details. We read the summary on the live feed. 160 feared dead (at the time). Concert hall attacked. Stade de France. My notes were in red by accident, but it seemed somehow appropriate. I wrote the words ‘suicide bombing’ on the board and asked what they meant.

They looked confused.

‘Ok, break it down into smaller parts. Just like always.’

I drew parentheses around ‘sui’ and ‘cide’.

‘You know the word bomb, yes?’ Nodding heads.

‘Ok, so what does ‘cide’ mean?’ I asked. ‘Have you heard the word genocide before?’ Utter confusion. No nodding heads.

‘Ok, how about homicide?’

Michael pipes up: ‘Yes, but I don’t know what it means.’

‘Ok, well ‘homi’ means human. ‘Cide’ means….’ I mimed Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Jerry: ‘Strong? Muscle?’

Me: ‘Kill.’

All the girls’ eyes widened, and I knew they knew what the words meant already. I wrote ‘kill’ above ‘cide’ on the board.

‘Who is ‘sui,’ then?’

Jeffery, who is very good at guessing the meanings of words, says very quietly, ‘Self.’

‘A little louder, Jeffery!’


The realisation of what those two words meant was palpable in the room. All the students were suddenly really paying attention. I explained that a suicide bomber is someone who straps a bomb to their body and blows themselves up in order to kill other people.

‘Crazy,’ said Jerry.

I wrote 7/7 on the board.

‘Do you know this?’ No nodding heads. ‘Jerry, what year were you born in?’


‘Oh my Lady Gaga, I’m so ollllld!’ They all laughed.

I explained that this was the date of another terrorist attack, in London. I wrote 9/11 on the board. Lambert, the eldest, spoke through chewing his t-shirt to bits. Interestingly, he looks like my teeniest preschoolers when he does that. They eat their clothes out of anxiety, too. I asked what happened on 9/11/2001.

Silence for a little while. Most of them were not even born. It’s like asking me to remember my own experience of the Berlin Wall falling as a toddler. I don’t remember it, except through history class.

‘But you have studied US History!!!’ Jerry pleaded with Lambert. ‘We haven’t yet!’

‘Some planes caught on fire,’ Lambert said.

‘No, they did not catch on fire.’

Jerry: ‘They, uh, exploded?’

‘Not exactly.’

Through his t-shirt, Lambert: ‘They were hijacked.’

The students know that word, probably from video games.

‘The were! Very good. People took four planes full of people and flew them into buildings on purpose.’

Their eyes were so wide. Terrorist attacks sound crazy in simplified English, stripped as they appear when layers of euphemism are thus removed. They all confirmed with me again, ‘On purpose?’

‘On purpose.’

I wrote Charlie Hebdo on the board, and asked if they knew about the previous attacks this year in Paris. I brought the discussion back to Friday’s attacks by asking who did this.

‘IS,’ said Lambert through his t-shirt.

‘Maybe,’ I said (it was not confirmed at the time). ‘But we don’t call them that, because it seems to give them legitimacy. We call them Daesh (I wrote it on the board), because it insults them. Who did these?’ I pointed to the other attacks.

Jerry: ‘The same?’

‘Sort of.’ A necessary oversimplification, for the purposes of an ESL classroom. I added Al Qaeda. They all attempted, and failed, to pronounce it. I drew a massive pink circle connecting the attacks.

‘They are all connected. But now what is happening with these two groups?’

‘They are fighting!’ jokes Lambert, removing the tee from his teeth temporarily. Everyone laughed. How ridiculous.

‘They are! They are fighting!’ I drew a black explosion between the two on the board.

‘WHAAAAT?’ They all said.

Every week, we take the BBC’s 7 Days, 7 Questions news quiz. They work in teams and can bet fake money on the answers. Most of the time, the quiz has bizarre, funny, or obscure news. We always talk about current affairs before the game. I asked them why we always do the news quiz, taking a seat for once in an empty desk. They shrug, still laughing about how two terrorist groups could declare war on one another.

‘This is why. Does anyone know someone in Paris? One of the teachers here has a friend who could hear the gunfire from her hotel room.’ I pointed to the board. ‘Imagine if this were Shanghai.’

All the air suddenly went out of the laughs. They looked at me with genuine concern and sadness, in that typical way of teens who just realised how serious a situation would be. Suddenly it was real to them.

‘Would we be in class?’


‘Would we all be safe?’


‘Maybe. But maybe not.’


‘This is why we do the news quiz. This is why you must pay attention to the news,’ I said. ‘Because something like this could reach into our lives without warning, and change everything. You have to pay attention to what is happening in the world. It is important. Does anyone have any questions I can answer?’ A pause.

‘Are you all ok?’ Nodding heads.

‘Oh, it’s break time. Thank you for the great talk, guys. See you in 15 minutes.’

Machuria is Calling

Americans in China was the theme for This American Life last week.

It was interesting and refreshing to hear perspectives of one of my very favourite podcasts on my newest home in these wanderings. China is complex. It’s big. It’s fascinating. It’s so very far away, in the minds of people in the US. It’s that vaguely scary or at the very least bizzare China of the US media.

I especially identified, somewhat weirdly, with the stories about the man who’s been living here for more than seventeen years and currently lives in a village called ‘Wasteland’ in the North of the country. It’s very different from my experience of a mere 39 days, of course. He lives in the interior and shuttles between there and Hong Kong, where his wife is a lawyer. His stories about the village made me long for a village in China, for a way to escape this giant metropolis and see what it’s ‘really’ like out there.

Is this the 'real' China?

Is this the ‘real’ China?

Shanghai, in all its glory and LED-clad sparkle, doesn’t always feel like CHINA China. It sometimes feels like demi-China…like the historic influences of the French and their lovely little concession have seeped into the very soil. The crops that grow now are more outward-looking. There are proper hospitals and ubiquitious Starbucks. There is even one in our neighbourhood, down by Lianhua Road Station where few expats seem to venture. It’s always busy.

The writer who lives in Wasteland evoked the desire to escape because the China he spoke of is the one where my Mandarin would grow by leaps and bounds and not by baby steps. I’m a bit of a spectacle on some streets in Shanghai, but I’m sure that I’d be an even bigger one in Wasteland. I’m interested in rural China, and living there…it calls to me like Patagonia once did.

He spoke about wanting to have a card with shorthand on it, to answer the inevitable questions that come up in every conversation with those who live in and around his village. Among the answers:

“I am American.”
“I am 1.85 metres tall.”
“Yes, I can use chopsticks.”

Is this the 'real' China?

Is this the ‘real’ China?

Despite being in Shanghai, I want to make a card that answers similar questions. Even in this strange blended land where being a foreigner is not exceptional (except to a three year old on her father’s shoulders, visiting for a tour of Shanghai from somewhere else who points at you and shouts “WeiguoRen! WeiguoRen!!”), I often feel the need to explain my presence. Especially down where I live, in Minhang.

My card would go something like this.

“I am American, but my husband is English.”
“I am 1.85 metres tall.”
“I am new to China.”
“My natural hair and eye colours are what you see.”
“Yes, I can use chopsticks.”
“I will pose with you for two pictures, and only if you ask before taking them.’

I would add a tear-off section that could be given back to me, saying, “Teach me a new phrase in Chinese.” Then I could learn a bit more.

Cool neighbourhood we walked into, down a close alleyway. Amazing!

Might be closer….

I now have my full-blown residence visa and my passport is back in my possession. I need to get out of Shanghai and see ‘real’ China. Real China.’ It’s easy to fall into the idea that Shanghai is not China, somehow. Maybe I’ve only been circulating in the parts that are not. Maybe if I went down more side streets and spent more time in the small shops near my apartment instead of Expat bookstores I would have experienced it by now. But then, it’s easy to fall into the idea of a ‘real’ place. ‘Real’ India is an ever-present quest for some tourists in that country. You hear them talking about it in hushed tones, over the clicking of their DSLR cameras…”I want to see REAL India. I want to photograph this village so that I can show my twitter followers the REAL India.” Not to mention that it’s a bit uncomfortable to take the photo of an unsuspecting nine year old girl in her parents’ courtyard.

Or “real” America. I want to see Toto and amber waves of grain and the Washington monument. Or ‘real’ France. I want to stand under the Eiffel Tower eating a baguette and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. Or ‘real’ England, where Stonehenge is in London and I can eat jellied eels all day next to Parliament.   Something about these ‘real’ places is the stereotypical; the film-based, the expected. We want to go to the places we pictured in our minds.

Maybe this is the 'real' China?

Maybe this is the ‘real’ China?

But still…that piece made me want the ‘real’ China. I long for it. I want to take a bus to the middle of nowhere. I want to hear dialects whose names I’ve never even heard of. I want to eat food I never even conceived of. I want to get away from the thousands of Starbucks. I want to go somewhere that people have no idea what pizza is…I want them to tell me the things that they know about this world. I want them to help me to see how life once was, before it changes forever.

I want the hard things. I want the squat toilets. I want the quiet at night. I want (or maybe even need) a cold, quiet wind in the wilderness.

Maybe I’ll be able to get it soon. I can now travel in China, after all.

My #TravelStoke Map, 2015

Coleen Monroe-Knight’s Travel Map

Coleen Monroe-Knight has been to: Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Canada, Switzerland, Chile, People’s Republic of China, Germany, Denmark, France, United Kingdom, Ireland, India, Iceland, Italy, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, South Korea, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, San Marino, United States, Vatican.
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