Pretending to be a Teacher

Ying as a young girl

As a young girl living under the Communist system in China, nothing was more thrilling for me than breaking government rules and getting away with it. I traded ration tickets at the black market, and bought meat and eggs from the “back door,” where Communist Party members obtained their fine food without being inconvenienced by ration tickets or long queues.

The story “Tea Eggs,” in A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts, is based on my childhood experience growing up in a hospital compound in Wuhan, China, where my parents worked. Like me, the protagonist Yun constantly finds ways to make life interesting.

 In the story, during summer break Yun’s greedy school principal forces Yun and her classmates to manufacture fireworks. Chicken-Lays-An-Egg is one of the fireworks they make. When lit, the chicken would spin in circles, shooting sparks all about and spitting out a little egg.

Feeling rebellious, and to cope with the boredom of the job, Yun challenges her friends to see who can stuff two paper eggs into a cardboard chicken firework without bursting open the stomach.

Though I was never coerced into making fireworks, my classmates and I were “volunteered” three times a week by our principal to stuff stinky vegetables into pickling jars, or to work in bug-infested rice fields as part of our “political studies.”

As a young girl I lacked the patience required for sewing, needlework, and fan dancing—skills expected of girls at that time. Rather, I enjoyed persuading the boys to play the games I chose. One of my favorites was pretending to be a teacher and making the neighborhood boys play the role of my students. I didn’t have a chalkboard, so I used the front door of my family’s apartment. I would stand there, a small piece of chalk in one hand, a dilapidated book in the other, lecturing grimy boys with runny noses as they sat on the floor outside my home. Ironically, I was too young to read. So instead of teaching stories out of the book, I made up my own. When the older boys figured out that my lectures were different from the actual text, they constantly interrupted me and soon refused to play the game.

I think this early improvising fostered my talent for making up stories and ultimately contributed to my writing career.

The courtyard where I grew up

The courtyard where I grew up

One summer, a nearby factory exploded and many of the injured and dead were sent to the hospital where my parents worked. For over a week my little group prowled around the hospital morgue, a two-room shed used to temporarily store the bodies until families could retrieve their loved ones for burial. We waited for the inevitable line of corpses to flow out of the hospital and into the shed. Those long, hot summer days in Wuhan, watching death from a distance, are still vivid in my memories. This became a central part of “Tea Eggs.”

Yun is also fond of playing teacher. But when the boys refuse to play the game, she leads them to explore the hospital morgue. They call it the Room of the Dead. When the caretakers decided to play a practical joke on Yun and her friends, their prank goes terribly wrong.

Pretending to be a Blogger

Until very recently, I rarely read blogs, and writing them was a completely alien notion. Frankly, my real introduction to blogging came when my publisher ‘volunteered’ me to blog on to help promote my two new books—A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts, a YA collection of ghost stories with recipes, and Boy Dumplings, a ghost story picture book that ends with a boy-free dumpling recipe.

Lecture at the University of Colorado

Lecture at the University of Colorado

When I received this assignment, my first thought was, “Well, it can’t be worse than stuffing stinky vegetables into jars.” Then I went to and was awed by the clever, insightful posts and fascinating stories.

As I sit here writing this blog, the image of a young girl comes to mind. She can barely read, standing in front of a group of older kids, pretending to be a teacher. This time though, the audience is polite—they don’t have runny noses and are dressed in clean clothes. I’m nervously waiting for them to call out my mistakes. I just hope that they will bear with me a little longer than the boys of my childhood, until I can find a way to lead them to someplace as exciting as the Room of the Dead.

Ying writes ghost stories, novel, cookbooks, picture books, and hosts cooking shows. Her novel Revolution is not a Dinner Party has received twenty-eight awards, including the ALA Best Books and Notable Books. Ying has visited schools throughout the US and abroad, sharing with students her journey as a writer, how her life in China inspired her writing, and the challenges of writing in her second language. She has lectured on a variety of subjects at writer’s conferences and universities, and aboard cruise ships. Ying is available to talk about her books to book clubs in person, by telephone or online. Ying was born and raised in Wuhan, China. Her website is:


Back to the top of the page


This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.