Teacher Liu’s Intermediate Chinese class was due to start five minutes ago, but there’s no sign of him or any of his students. The University of Zambia’s Confucius Institute is growing quiet as the afternoon descends on Lusaka.
Just then, a short, stocky man with Emporio Armani emblazoned across a maroon sweater strolls into the lobby with a sling bag on his shoulder. “Are you Teacher Liu?” I ask. “Yes…” he replies, with something between a guilty and a naughty expression on his face.
Three Zambian students appear as if on cue, and we all take seats at a long table in an adjacent meeting room. This is an extracurricular Chinese class, open to the public for a small fee and subsidized by Hanban, the arm of China’s Ministry of Education that oversees the management of the world’s 516+ Confucius Institutes from Beijing.
One of my classmates is a woman in her forties who recently sent her kids to summer school in China to give them a competitive edge. She hopes that proficiency in Chinese will open doors for her too. Another is a young man who recently returned to Lusaka after three years in northeastern China, where he taught English to primary school children, and spent his free time becoming a confident Mandarin speaker.
We open Beijing Language and Culture University Publishing House’s Intermediate Chinese textbook. Teacher Liu reads from page 44: Ni zui lixiangde gongzuo shi shenme? Immediately, he translates this elementary question into peculiar English, as if through a mouthful of toffee. “What’sss your ideal job?”
There are several factors that help to define an ideal job according to the book, and salary is the first. “Your colleagues, your commute…” he reads in Chinese, and then: “Doing a job that matches your major at university.” He laughs loudly, and the naughty expression returns to his face. “Like me!” he says, returning to quirky English. “My major is software engineering, but now I am a teacher!”
Liu followed his wife to Zambia in 2012, where she was setting up Mandarin courses across the country on behalf of her employer, Hanban. She had been appointed co-director of Lusaka’s Confucius Institute, but soon after her husband joined her in Zambia to take up a teaching post, her contract came to an end and she returned to China.
The endearing fifty-something joked about how his wife had abandoned him just as he’d arrived, but you could tell that he enjoyed his temporary life there. “My task is not finished – I came here to teach you!” Liu told us one afternoon when he sensed our interest in the textbook was waning.
But Liu chose to spend most of his time at the University of Zambia sharing his passion for martial arts, and he was best-known as the Kung Fu teacher, a role that he took very seriously.
“Kung Fu class is Monday to Thursday from 5pm to 6pm,” Liu told me excitedly, in the middle of our first Chinese lesson. “You should come!”
Part II of Teacher Liu’s portrait will follow soon.