Sunday, September 5, 2010

Last impressions

I have been back in the US for about a month now. Thinking back to my time in China, the place, the people and my memories are already fading fast. I think the main reason is that these two worlds are so different so when I step into one country, the other takes on a dreamlike quality.

I think of China as a list of contradictions. Industrial wasteland + lush countryside. Frustrations with a student who has given up on learning English + joy over one who has broken out of her shell. Mostly, it was the feeling of being part of and distinct from something at the same time.

In America, I must answer the annoying question, “How was China?” There is no way to answer it, to list what it is and is not, to describe what I thought then and what I think now. I cop out with the answer, “It was a good experience.”

And it was. But I have a difficult time telling you how.

Let me try with this memory: In my last days in China, I went to a Senior 3 student’s hometown in the countryside. Daniel was a gregarious, handsome 17-year-old who had insisted for weeks that I meet his entire family. So I did. I met mother and father, younger brother, grandmother and grandfather.

Grandpa Lu was the first traditional Chinese doctor in the town. He had his own practice on the first floor of the family's large house. Grandpa Lu intrigued me. He was a self-made man, putting himself through school, eventually becoming a kind of local celebrity. I had so many questions for him, but he only spoke in the dialect of the town, different from any Hunanese dialect I had heard and very different from Mandarin. Daniel translated for me.

We talked about Grandpa Lu's childhood, how the village has changed over the years, how the country has changed. He and his wife had seen the changes together. As little kids growing up together, they were friends first. I wanted to hear about their childhoods.

That's how Grandpa and Grandma Lu ended up singing a song. It was the song they sang every morning before class began, and this was the first time they had sung it in more than fifty years.

To be honest, I don't understand a word of the song. I just know -- and I feel this way even now when I listen to the clip -- the audio somehow captures the essence of my experience -- incomprehensible, nostalgic, strange, beautiful.

Friday, July 2, 2010


I am experiencing déjà vu. My suitcase lies open and everything that should be in it is sprawled on table, couch and floor. Rolled-up clothes, bottles of moisturizers, books I can’t bear to part with. This was the same scene eleven months ago in Chicago when I was making preparations to go to China. Now I’m onto the next destination.

On July 1 I leave for Taipei to spend the summer in a Buddhist temple. I would like to say that I’m going there to meditate and do some soul searching. Actually, the reason is more practical. My aunt is a nun there and I need a place to stay this summer before I start school in the fall. In return for a room and meals, I will do whatever needs to be done in a Buddhist temple, like the cooking of vegetarian dishes or perhaps the scrubbing of the meditation room floors.

The jobs won’t be glamorous, but I hope along the way a little soul-searching will in fact come my way. All my life I have been too hurried to arrive at the next place; I was never one to live in the moment. In high school I couldn’t wait to leave home and become a bona fide adult. I charged through college in a little over three years and a few months later landed my first job. But here I ran into the problem: I was unhappy. I should have “made it.” I had graduated and found a job. Wasn’t that all there was to it?

In the years since graduation, I have realized no one is meant to have a lifetime figured out at 22. I look back now at that fresh-faced graduate with a mixture of envy and pity. A part of me wants to return to that time, when I felt like I could conquer the world. At the same time, I was foolish and made the mistakes of an amateur -- in work, in friends, in love. I cringe when I think of that young woman, too eager to please and agree and let herself be taken in. I cringe, too, because though much has changed, there is still that part of me that wants to loved by everyone.

So the thought of spending six weeks in a temple in a reclusive town is, to be honest, terrifying. I will have people around me – monks, nuns, other volunteers -- but mostly I will only have myself, my thoughts and my neuroses for company. I will be forced to confront my weaknesses.

I don’t know where this experience will take me. To a more spiritual place? To insanity? Wherever it is, I will be open to trying something new. If China has taught me anything, it is that I will be able to handle it.

Monday, June 28, 2010


In the days leading to my departure, my cell phone buzzed with anxious texts from students asking if they could stop by my apartment and say goodbye. Often they came bearing gifts – a photo frame, a calligraphy set, a giant red good luck knot.

One afternoon last week, three girls from one of my senior one classes came to see me. I had a particularly soft spot for these three. Their class was one of the worst performing in their grade. Most of their classmates had absolutely no interest in learning English, and most could not speak even simple sentences. Yet these three girls were anomalies in their class. They loved English. They talked to me before and after class and came to all of the English club meetings.

Although their English wasn’t the greatest, I knew they tried very hard. And that’s what mattered most to me. Sometimes when teaching their class, I felt like my presence was futile. So many heads on desks. So many yawns. I told myself to focus on the students who cared about learning. As I taught, I looked from one of their eager faces to the next, avoiding the dull, bored expressions of the rest.

That afternoon, sitting on my living room couch, I unwrapped thegirls’ gifts -- a stuffed animal puppy, a journal and an Easter egg-looking ceramic with yellow chicks inside.

They each had also written a note. The first was folded in an intricate origami design and I carefully unfolded it. “Beloved teacher,” it opened. “Very happy to be your student. This is fate, is not it? I learned a lot of knowledge and your teaching us how to pronounce.”

The letter continued, “I envy you beautiful voice, enjoy you both speak English and Chinese … In short, the teacher I so worship you.”

I was so touched by the note that the grammatical mistakes barely registered. It was by the time I read “beautiful voice” that my breath caught. In an instance, I was crying the kind of crying you only do alone in a dark room. But here I was, in mid-afternoon, in front of my students.

“I’m cr-crying because I’m happy,” I said through my sobs.

In truth, my tears were partly out of guilt. I felt like I hadn’t done enough for my kids this year, especially in their class where I spent more time telling students to wake up and pay attention than teaching the lesson. But my tears were mostly out of gratitude for being reassured that even the little I felt I did was enough for them.

I stood up and wiped my face with my palms. I tried to say something lighthearted, like, “Your written English is so good you can make your teacher cry.” But it failed to ease the discomfort in the room.

“Let me take a picture of the three of you!” I said brightly to change the subject and, I hoped, the mood.

The four of us went outside to the road that ran by my apartment building. Against a gray stone wall, I snapped a couple of photos and then we said goodbye.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Leaving me with a good emotion

I have been cantankerous lately. I think it's a combination of a) not knowing 100% what I will do this summer, b) the weather --lots of rain, everyday, c) feeling fat because I can't run outside on the track (see b), and d) feeling like I haven't done enough for my students this year.

My students haven't noticed my bad mood because my usual teacher self is always cheery so when I am not cheery I only appear calm on the outside. But internally I have felt a mess. I have been in a rut, and I was starting to worry I would never get out of it.

Luckily for me two students pulled me out today.

I went to the Senior 1 office tonight to finish giving oral tests to some of my students. When I was finished, a boy and girl student poked their heads in.

"Do you need to take the test?" I asked, slightly annoyed because I had just put away the test materials.

"No," said the girl. "We want to talk."

Still sunk in my grouchiness, my immediate reaction would have been no -- except that I really liked these kids. They were the few of my 800-plus students whose name I actually knew. The girl was Duan Si Si and the boy Li Jia Lun.

Their English was great and I could tell they tried hard at making it better. They always took advantage of the few minutes before and after class to ask me questions. They cared about what I said, hung on my words. They wanted me to like them too. In the past, they even apologized for their classmates when they could tell I thought the class didn't go well.

So I told them to sit down and we talked. First they asked when I would leave, and when I told them in one week, both their faces fell.

Duan Si Si turned to Li Jia Lun and asked him to write down a word in English. She looked at the word, then turned to me and said, "Thank you for representing our class. Even though oral English is one class a week, you do a lot." Li Jia Lun nodded in agreement.

I smiled and put my hand to my heart, what I do when I am touched and at a lost for words. Then I quickly changed the subject so I wouldn't start crying. Maybe she thought I was brushing off her comment, but in fact what Duan Si Si said made me feel like a new person. Her one comment had reminded me of why I came to China.

We talked for about 45 minutes, mostly about school life and their dreams. They both want to be translators. They both want to study abroad. They wanted advice from me. I told them something generic, like to continue studying English everyday, and encouraged them generally. But the simplicity of my statement -- "If you try very hard, you can do it." -- had a greater effect than I thought it would.

Duan Si Si's entire face lit up. "Really? You think so?"

I nodded enthusiastically, and I really meant it too. Here she was, young, confident, smart and good at English. I believed that in 15 years she could make her dream come true.

Halfway through our conversation, the students' head teacher, Mr. Lee, sat down and asked his students to translate for him.

"My students are very lucky to have a foreign teacher," Mr. Lee started by saying. "When I was in high school, I didn't have a foreign teacher."

He went on to say how terrible he was at English as a high school student. Despite his poor grades, he became close to the English teacher. The young woman had taken a liking to Mr. Lee when he devised a way for her to quickly grade tests -- put the tests in a pile and use a nail to poke holes through the correct multiple choice answers.

His English never improved, but he always had his science subjects. Chemistry, biology, physics. He was great. But he became turned off to science because of his head teacher, a bumbling, passionless physics teacher who had no control over the class and inserted "uh" in every sentence.

"My classmates and I made a game of counting how many times he would say 'uh' in one class," Mr. Lee said.

When, as a senior 3, he had to choose between majoring in science or the humanities, Mr. Lee chose humanities. He is now a Chinese teacher.

Mr. Lee vowed never to be a Mr. Uh.

"In a man's life," Duan Si Si translated for Mr. Lee. "If you are a good teacher, it will leave you with a good emotion."

I couldn't agree more.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Ready to leave

Prepare for a rant ...

The tiny annoyances that I found amusing at first are now, every single one of them, unbearable. The smells from below the sidewalk, the pushiness of people, the general disorderliness. I am ready to leave all of it.

Although there is much I will miss about this year (mainly my students), there is plenty I won't miss. For one, I won't miss having cigarette smoke hanging in the air wherever I am. I won't miss the smell of beetlenut. I won't miss the early morning sound of my upstairs neighbor clearing his throat and then heaving a heavy wad of spit somewhere over my head. I won't miss bathrooms in China.

China is a developing country, I remind myself. Hygiene standards are obviously not what they are in the United States. But there are some things people can do to make life cleaner and healthier. (For example, babies can wear diapers and not piss and shit in the street.)

Recently a restaurant manager asked me when I thought China would catch up with America in development. We were talking about how quickly China was changing, with all the new buildings and roads.

"Do you think in thirty years?" he asked.

"Maybe," I said with fake optimism.

The truth of what I was thinking was that China could develop all it wanted, but there were still fundamental problems with human rights and the environment. Tall buildings and new highways do not alone make for a developed country.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Skinamarink-ing toward happiness

The great thing about teaching Junior One students? When I am feeling down, I can teach them a song and make them sing it to me. Which is exactly what I did this afternoon.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Last chance

My students received their last batch of pen pal letters today.

"This is your last chance," I told them. "Think hard about what you want to write."

My students were surprised that we would not continue writing letters next year. I broke the news that I was only teaching at their school for this year. After that, there would be a different foreign teacher.

"No!" they cried. "Too soon!"

One of my students wrote to her pen pal, "Tell you bad news. My oral English teacher Jolie will leave. So we also keep in touch by ourselves. When I heard that, I'm very sad."

I was touched, and it occurred to me that these last few weeks would be my last chance too. I must make the most of the remaining classes with my students.

It's strange. The first few months of coming to the school seemed to drag on interminably, but the last few have rushed by me. I've barely been able to stop and really absorb that this experience will almost be over.

Lately, I've pondered one question: Have I done enough? My self-evaluation depends on the day. On bad days, I am reminded of some students who still can barely read a simple sentence or say a greeting to me. I wonder if I have made any difference.

On most days I know I have had some impact, even if the results of my teaching are not so tangible as a grade. At the same time that there are students who seem to be stagnant in their English learning, I see others bloom. I notice them take the initiative to speak to me in English, whereas last semester they hung back or only used Chinese. And instead of pausing every few words when reading sentences, they push ahead. I notice less fear.

I've learned in my own life that the biggest obstacle to anything is your own self. Lack of confidence can be crippling, and I don't want that to be the reason my students don't succeed. I have my one year to show them it's possible they speak English, and then it's in the hands of the next volunteer.