Monday, August 8, 2011

Moments: Returning After a Holiday

February 16, 2011

The first step back inside the apartment felt somehow unsettling. The room seemed a little darker than I remembered, the walls a little more bare. The air was stuffy. I walked through the door at three p.m. yesterday, dropped my bags, and began to clean. The floor and the sheets were first priority. The window ledge in the bedroom was caked with dust. I worked away at the cleaning for a few hours -- washed the curtains and the sheets, wiped down the shower and mopped the floor.

The construction next door has progressed -- this morning I woke up to the sound of hammers, saws, and voices. Workers talked just beneath my window. I hate to say it, but now is when the pangs of homesickness creep in. At the time I said goodbye to my family I felt nothing. I was thinking about the security line: about taking out my laptop and taking off my shoes and triple-checking my passport and my tickets. After that, I was checking screens for my gate number in L.A., or standing at a Beijing carousel looking for a green army duffel and a torn black suitcase. Then I was looking for a socket to charge my cell phone... an ATM... a taxi. Now, suddenly, I'm in an empty apartment wiping dust off a window ledge; the skies outside are gray, and the landscape is dead with winter.

A teacher at breakfast asked if I was happy to be back. "It's not that I dislike it here," I said, "but it's hard to leave home." I'll feel fine in a week or two.

The apartment:
video

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Moments: Illness


November 5, 2010

I took two students to lunch on Sunday. We stopped in at a popular campus restaurant, but the place was full of people. The students immediately turned and said we would find a different restaurant. I followed them to a place known to the foreigners as “The Corner Restaurant.” We ate green beans, rice, and a dish the menu called "Crispy Sweet and Spicy Chicken." At three o’clock that afternoon my stomach started the same dull ache I’d felt several times the semester before. I ignored it at first. By five, I was wrapped in a blanket on the couch, holding a hot water bottle to my stomach. Foreign friend Amanda brought toast to me at dinner. Ten minutes after she left, I walked to the bathroom, kneeled before the toilet, and passed out. When I came to, a lurch in my throat left vomit on my sweat pants, the bath mat, the hot water bottle, and the tile. I felt lighter – almost too light. I cleaned with paper towels and went to the couch again.

Almost every hour that night, I woke with more stomach pains and diarrhea. Substitute teachers were called for my classes. Amanda brought toast and rice. In the middle of the night Tuesday, I walked into the bathroom and twice lost consciousness. When daylight came, two teachers helped me to a small campus clinic. There, I could see just a few rooms – a pharmacy, a cashier’s office, a waiting room, and one room with two little stools that faced computer desks. Into the computer room I went, and sat down to face a Chinese woman who wore a white coat and had a firm jaw line. Glasses sat on the tip of her nose. She pressed her fingers into my stomach, asked a few questions, and led my helpers into the pharmacy room. I could see them through the doorway, talking for a while. When they came back, I was handed a box of tablets. The foreign teacher had looked up the word “antibiotic” in an English-Chinese dictionary.

Over the next two days, I watched an entire season of Gilmore Girls while I lay on my bed. Wednesday evening, I assured a supervisor I could teach an eight o’clock class Thursday morning. In the night, I woke with more stomach pain and more diarrhea.

Another visit to the campus clinic, and a better translator. This time I got directions: while taking the antibiotics, eat only liquid foods such as congee or soup. No meat, no solids, no cold food. A new box of antibiotics and a package of anti-diarrheal drinking powder were given to me. I have eaten only congee since. My stomach has so far had no pain. I will continue this for the next two or three days. But all this laying in bed has made me miss home a lot – Mom's chicken broth and English-speaking doctors and English medicine labels.

November 28, 2010

A few nights ago, I felt the same stomach pain that plagued me a month ago. I waited by the toilet, but no vomit came. I couldn’t sleep. The pain started gradually at around seven thirty p.m. At two a.m., on the phone with my parents, my mom and I searched the internet for any disease that remotely matched the symptoms – dysentery, ulcers, appendicitis. I called an American Registered Nurse hotline. At three the pain began to subside, and at four I fell asleep.

A student took me to the Xinzheng hospital at ten thirty the same morning. I sat on another wooden stool in a room much like the San He clinic on campus. The student translated the doctor’s questions, and led me upstairs for blood work and an ultrasound. In the lab, I sat at a little window and put my arm on a counter. My student talked to me while my blood was drawn.

Two nurses sat in the ultrasound room. A patient was standing by a bed, unrolling the waist of her long johns and zipping her pants. I laid on the same pillow and paper sheet that she’d lain on. The nurse spread the jelly, passed the camera, looked into her screen and said she could see everything clearly, just like pictures she’d studied in textbooks. I was too thin.

Downstairs again, the doctor prescribed four stomach medicines. It was now twelve o’clock. There was a crowd of people at the pharmacy and cashier windows – patients trying to get medicine before the hospital employees went to lunch. At one window, a woman put on her coat and pointed us to another window.

“Push through the people,” my student told me, “or we’ll never get your medicine.”

December 7, 2010

I finished taking the medicine yesterday. My stomach felt strange a few days last week, and I didn’t have a strong appetite – ate mostly toast, rice, crackers, and bananas. But by Friday, I felt quite normal again.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Moments: Construction


October 20, 2010

It sounds like a jackhammer is about to take out my apartment. The walls and windows shake. I feel the vibrations as I sit in my chair. A grating, never-ending hammering – I woke up to it at midnight last night.

Now that I’ve looked out my window I see it’s not a jackhammer, but an excavator machine. I only know the name because I just looked for it on Google. I wonder if Peter Hall will be shaken into a collapse.

The excessive hammering is the construction of housing for the foreign teachers who have children. The site’s lights stay on late at night and brighten my room even if my curtains are closed. Almost every time I open the curtains, there is a new scene to observe. One day I saw a giant ditch in which four or five women in visor hats shoveled debris onto the bed of a front loader. Above ground, men were shoveling some kind of white powder – ash, maybe? Cement? The stuff filled the air. It swirled above the workers like columns of steam. The next day I saw the ditch was being filled. It slowly grew shallow. With each new layer of dirt, a road roller drove up and down the ditch, setting my radiator to shaking again. A few teachers sat in my living room on Sunday and couldn’t hear a sermon podcast over the din. As I look out now, I can’t quite tell if the workers are constructing, or still removing remnants of the demolished dining hall.

October 27, 2010

The construction site outside my window is mostly level now. The ditch is filled, and the dirt is smoothed into one flat rectangle. I’ve heard teachers say the building will have no foundation. I wait to see if this is true.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Moments: Re-entry


June 14, 2010

Last week, China surprised us “new” foreign teachers by lengthening a national holiday – students and teachers will be free not only on Wednesday, but on Monday and Tuesday as well. Of course, in exchange for the extra free days, we were all required to teach last Saturday and Sunday. The news made me angry at first, but now that the holiday has begun and three free days together are before me, I feel differently. I’m just about done with my first year of teaching oral English. Only two classes left, which I will teach Thursday after the holiday has ended. I start a long journey home on Saturday evening.

When I consider all the relationships that have begun, grown, or dissipated, the myriad of emotions I’ve felt, the extremes of weather I’ve experienced, and all the things I’ve done, I can believe that ten months have passed. But when I think about arriving in China, my Culture Week performances the first semester, or Christmas in Peter Hall, nothing seems to have happened so long ago.

One thing that does most definitely seem as if it happened ages ago is that day I cried and said goodbye to Mom, Dad, and my brothers. I’m very ready to attempt to somehow catch up on the ten months I’ve missed with them.

July 5, 2010 (At home in America)

Before this weekend, being with the family hadn’t worn on me at all because there were only six of us at home – Mom, Dad, Kim, and the boys. There was an empty room for me to go to. Now, when I walk around the house people are everywhere. Bedding is on the floor. I’m close to everyone and everyone speaks English. I’m expected to interact with all of them, or at least I expect myself to. I’m still reeling from all the emotions I’ve felt in the past few weeks. And now everyone is going swimming at the neighbor’s pool. If I don’t go, I’m afraid I’ll be looked at as strange, and questioned: “Why don’t you want to be a part of the family activity?”

I feel, around people I don’t know or around large groups, that I’ve been rude and disconnected. Last night at a Fourth of July barbecue I felt I couldn’t summon the energy to talk to even one person. I knew the kind of talk I’d have to do, and I didn't want to do it. Few people ask about China, few people care about China. If I want to talk about it, I have to bring it up myself.

It’s not necessarily the people who alienate me, but the circumstances. I’ve just come from a world that no one here knows much about, a world that may have changed me forever. And now I’m supposed to sit in the family circle in the living room and talk about the new iphone, or a Youtube video, or the Fourth of July fireworks.

And it’s not that the family can do anything differently. I can’t expect them to change their way of life for a few weeks. It’s I who has to fit into their society. I have to find my place again.

Hebrews says of people of great faith that they “admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth… If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:13-16). Perhaps I ought to consider this time as an opportunity to long for my heavenly home. Maybe Christ would say to me, “Get used to feeling like an alien. You are one.”

My house and my family are things I’ve often longed for during the past ten months. Now that I’m here, nothing is as wonderful as I dreamed. But life back in China doesn’t sound wonderful either. I guess I’ve not yet arrived at home.


September 19, 2010

It is a Sunday, four days until I leave for China. We are celebrating Mom’s birthday by having a small, early Thanksgiving meal. Mom put a small turkey in the crock pot this morning. I am struggling with, among other things, a dread and a fear of leaving. I don’t want to leave my family for so long again, and there’s no telling what things will be like when I finally do come back to America again. What if the next re-entry is as harsh as this year’s was? Or worse? No, I can’t ask that question. I still believe it’s right that I go back to China.

September 23, 2010

I sit at the Austin airport, waiting to return to China. First to Chicago, then on to Beijing. I just said goodbye to Mom and Dad, the last in a long string of drawn out family partings. I waved to them about five times as I progressed through the line at security. Only a few tears showed up. I told Mom and Dad, “I’ll be back before you know it,” and Mom reminded me that when I do come back I’ll be an aunt. It’ll be a bigger, better family reunion than before. These are the things to think of. What not to think of is that this will be the last I see Mom and Dad for a while, and the last I see real blue sky for awhile.

I was stopped in the security line because the guards thought I had jelly jars in the bottom of my backpack. I watched a young guard pull out all of Mom’s fudge bars and chocolate peanut butter balls and unwrap thick layers of newspaper to find not jelly jars, but candles. I told him I was sorry, but I was going to China and needed something that smelled good.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Moments: An Orphanage in Xinxiang


Goodbye, China.

I have moved back to the States to be closer to my family and attend graduate school. I arrived home July first, and in August I'll begin studying for an MFA in Creative Writing at Texas State University.

My biggest excuse for the year-long blog silence is that blogspot is blocked by the Chinese government, so I was not able to access my blog from my apartment in China.

I'd like to post at least a small taste of year two in China, so over the next week or two I'll be going back through my journals and posting any little "moments" that seem interesting. Hope you enjoy them. Here's the first one:

May 2010

What a weekend. I wish I had more time now to say just what has happened. I am at the orphanage now, and will probably turn the light out soon. I’ve never seen anything look so much like Oliver Twist – worse, actually. The girls sleep in one open room, all beds pushed against the wall. We played “Uno” in this room just now, before the kids went to sleep. Paint flakes off the wall and falls onto the cement floor. Blankets and clothing are piled in one corner, and on the other side of the room are desks littered with picture books, textbooks, Chinese checkers, playing cards, and colored markers. Each student has his or her own desk, and inside they keep whatever treasures they own. When I told one little girl she could keep the “Uno” cards, she yelled out something in Chinese, jumped into the air once or twice, then marched to her little brown desk and threw the cards underneath the lid. I gave them to her because she has repeatedly grabbed my arm and shouted, “Pai! Pai!” In English, “Cards, cards.” I’ve learned at least one Chinese word here.

Earlier we sat on stools in a circle in the courtyard and sang songs. They wanted the other foreign teacher and I to sing a song, so we gave them “Amazing Grace.” Colored flags are strung over the courtyard. It was here I played badminton with a boy a few moments after we arrived. Badminton was the first task I found to keep myself busy with, so I kept at it until the little boy put his racket down and said he was tired.

The dining room is another white-washed, paint-chipped space. There are two long, narrow tables lined with stools. We ate corn porridge, steamed bread, and fried fish for dinner. The meat, I'm told, is a rare treat for the kids. The kids stand in a line at the dining room door and quote a Tang dynasty poem before every meal. Then everyone pulls their bowls and spoons from lockers. We’ve eaten steamed bread every day. The aunties roll it into little buns and season it. It supplements the bland gruel – porridge made from rice or corn or wheat. Sometimes we have a plate of vegetables, too – salted cucumber, salted radish, or salted eggs. Most everything is very salty.

I believe the only rooms I haven’t described are the bathrooms, the little room where the volunteers are sleeping, and the boys’ room. That’s the orphanage. Not a very large space for all the people that live here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Southeast Asia Journals: A Visit

(Continued from "The Southeast Asia Journals: Part Two," which was posted Thursday, February 11, 2010)

January 19, 2010

On the moped, I watched hills and rice fields fly past while I clutched the seat handle behind me. Mr. Ng would every now and then shout back tourist information – here were rubber trees, or here was a nice view, or here were minority villages.

As we drew closer to Phu Bon, we saw more and more minority buildings. They looked somewhat like I imagined they would – boarded one-room houses that sat on stilts above dusty ground. The walls weren’t thatched like I’d seen in pictures from the sixties. Only the roofs had straw.

Every now and then I’d see a man or woman walking along the side of the highway with a great basket strapped to his or her back. They were the basket backpacks Lap had once described to me during a translation session for the dictionary. He’d sketched them on a notepad, and together we’d written a description.

The landscape was more open than I had pictured. Not much jungle, just open dirt and rice fields, and sometimes a hill. From my seat, I could see far into the distance.

The main Phu Bon street felt almost like Pleiku or Hoi An, except that it intersected with dirt roads that led off to the villages, and most of the storefronts were shabby.

Lap’s family wasn’t there when we arrived, and I was afraid for a moment that we wouldn’t see them. A phone call to one of the family members revealed there had been a miscommunication. The family had understood we would arrive at nine, but Mr. Ng had meant to express that we would leave Pleiku at nine. It was now close to eleven. After waiting for several hours, the family had gone back to the village to eat lunch.

I felt anxious – were they upset that they’d had to wait? My discomfort grew when I heard Mr. Ng speaking with them on the phone. I didn’t know what he was saying to them, but he wasn’t hiding his frustration. When he got off the phone, he told me, “The minorities, they don’t understand nothing.” He kept smacking his lips and sighing. Not until this point did I sense his prejudice, and I thought, What have I done?

I was made uneasy not only by Mr. Ng's attitude, but also by the miscommunication I’d just witnessed. I knew it was only a small taste of the language barrier that would soon confront me. Mr. Ng was operating in broken English, and the family would be operating in Vietnamese, their second language.

We sat down, and the three men ordered coffee. I kept trying to ask Mr. Ng about the meeting between Benny and the sisters. How long had Benny stayed? Where did he go? I didn’t know if I should offer to buy a meal for the family, or where we could eat. Mr. Ng kept saying his signature phrase: “Don’t worry nothing!”

As we waited, I learned he had served with the Southern Vietnamese armies during the war.

“What happened to you when the U.S. left the country?” I asked.

He laughed. “I went to prison.”

I don’t remember now how long he said he was held. I only remember that he kept laughing like usual and acted as if the imprisonment had been no big deal.

“Tell me,” he said. “If you did not go here with me, who would you go with?”

I told him about the man at the travel agency.

He laughed. “Ah Cham! He my friend! I know Cham. He speak English very well. He works for the government. I fought with the U.S., so I can’t work for the government. The government don’t care about me.”

So here, perhaps, was the reason why he could bring me to the sisters and translate, and Cham couldn’t. Knowing that Cham worked for the government made me somewhat grateful I hadn’t held out for his help, but even so I wished for his perfect English and calm, collected manner. Mr. Ng's smiles and high-pitched talking bothered me.

When the waiter brought the bill for the coffee, Mr. Ng said he didn’t have change to split the cost with Joe.

“I owe you,” he said.

Yeah right, I thought.

After a half-hour or forty-five minutes, two mopeds parked in front of our tables. A man, a woman, and a younger boy and girl. Only one of Lap's sisters had come. I noticed her right away; she looked like Lap. I’d been imagining what his relatives would look like. I knew it was them. But my heart was beating hard. I stood up, but I didn’t know what to do. Approach them? Hug them? I didn’t know them. I decided to take a few steps toward them and smile. I didn’t know a word of their language, not even 'hello.' I contemplated shaking their hands. In the end, no introduction took place at all. We simply beheld each other, and smiled. Mr. Ng immediately started speaking to them in Vietnamese, then turned and asked me if I wanted to stay here, or go to the place where they had eaten with Benny.

I said we should go to the place where Benny had gone. I didn’t like our time being so completely under Mr. Ng's direction, but I didn’t know what else could be done. I didn’t know if the family had eaten or not. We had yet to say a word to each other when the decision was made, and everyone immediately climbed back on the motorbikes. I tried to smile at the slender woman, the face that looked like Lap, as much as I could. But I already felt despair that I could say nothing meaningful to her.

It took some time to find the restaurant. When we did, we found it occupied by a wedding. Mr. Ng disappeared, and Joe and I stood by the mopeds, silent and stiff. The family members were wandering about, looking to see if there was an empty room. Finally, Mr. Ng returned saying that we could not stay, so we got on the motorbikes. I didn’t know where we were going now. Soon, we drove into the garage of a white building down the street, and entered a large room filled with checkered table cloths. We sat down in a circle. Still, so little had been said. Mr. Ng looked bored.

“Tell them I am very happy to see them,” I said.

I kept hoping to see the faces of the family smile at me -- some sign that they were pleased or happy. They did smile, in the quiet moments. But when I tried to tell them something, their faces looked confused and drawn. I prayed Mr. Ng was telling them what I was actually saying, and he was probably doing his best. But even for the simplest phrases I expressed, I am doubtful that the right message was passed on.

I had written questions in my journal. I wanted to ask about the war, about what H’Blu felt when her brother left, or what she felt when her father was imprisoned by the North Vietnamese. Now I realized such conversation was not possible through Mr. Ng's translation. He often needed me to repeat a question two or three times before he could pass it on.

H’Blu gave me a small, strapped basket like the one Lap had drawn pictures of, and a drinking gourd. Mr. Ng told me H'Blu had made the basket, and that the gourd was used to drink wine.

I suddenly felt rather ridiculous to pull out Lap’s 123 page thesis. I hadn't before considered the impracticality: most of it was in English. What would they do with over a hundred pages they couldn’t read? I gave it to them, and tried to have Mr. Ng explain what it was. I said I thought maybe they’d like to see what Lap had been working on for so long. She took it, and passed it on to the next person, and each family member looked at it. I watched their faces. I confess I had been half-hoping for smiles or tears, and was somewhat disappointed when they responded with neither. I was thankful that Lap had sent me pictures to give them, and a letter -- surely these items would be meaningful to them.

I wanted to know so much what they felt, or thought. But often, when I asked them a question through Mr. Ng, he never returned me an answer at all. The bulk of the conversation was them saying “thank you” through Mr. Ng, and me telling them that the basket and gourd were “very special” to me. Beyond that, I don’t remember much of what was said. Ultimately, very little was communicated. I remember asking them their ages, and it took some time before they had finished discussing with each other and speaking back and forth with Mr. Ng. Finally, Mr. Ng wrote on a napkin the ages he had understood. The boy and girl were eighteen, he said.

I asked what their work in the village was like, and Mr. Ng asked the question for me, but then gave me his own answer: “They’re rice farmers,” he said. “All the minorities are rice farmers. Poor.”

I vaguely remembered what Lap had told me about the process of planting rice. He had tried to explain the tool they used – some sort of long, hollow stick was used to plant the grains in the mud.

The food came, and we ate silently. The family had not suggested anything to eat, and of course Joe and I knew nothing of Vietnamese food, so once again to my regret, the situation was placed in the hands of Mr. Ng, who chose whatever he wanted – there was chicken, pork, rice, squid, soup, and I don’t remember what else.

I took pictures and videos of the family, and then we left. H’Blu hugged me tightly. I looked back over my shoulder at her as the motorbike pulled away. I spent the two hours back to Pleiku wondering if the meeting had benefited them at all. I clung so tightly to the basket and gourd H’Blu had given me, that my arms were sore when we arrived at the hotel. I reminded Mr. Ng to pay Joe for his coffee, and he did.

August 4, 2010

Last week -- six months or so after visiting the Siu family -- I visited their brother, Lap, here in the States. He speaks with H'Blu and the others regularly by telephone, and I wanted to hear what his sister had told him of the visit, and to give him my account as well. I was surprised (and not surprised) to hear that soon after I left the town of Phu Bon, police stopped Lap’s sister as she rode back to her village. They questioned her, and took from her the dictionary and letter that I had given her. Most surprising of all, someone knocked on her door a day later, returned the papers to her, and said he was sorry.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

I'm Back

...back in the States, and back on the blog. Sorry for the six month absence. Blogspot is blocked by the Chinese government, so when my internet proxy died back in February, I could no longer access Blogspot.

I'm returning to China in September to begin my second year of teaching. I think I've found a proxy that will allow me to keep posting when I get there.

I do still plan to post the last of my journal notes from the Southeast Asia trip -- Southeast Asia Journals, part 3, is coming soon. In the meantime, here are some brief thoughts I wrote during my second semester in China.

3.22.10
As the second semester flies past, I find my students more comfortable and more honest in their interactions with me. I can ask their opinions in class now, and get answers. We’ve talked about cloning, about whether or not the Chinese should be banned from eating dog meat, and whether, as Christopher McCandless said, “Happiness is real only when shared.” Last week we talked about inventions. Our textbook unit was titled, “I Like This Machine!” It gave a lot of outdated scientific discoveries as conversation topics and suggested I have students practice labeling the parts of a computer. Instead, I gave them play-dough, and asked, “What invention do you think will be created in the next twenty years?” They presented flying cars, UFO’s, time machines… my favorite was a machine that records our dreams at night, and transmits the memories onto a TV screen so that we can watch them when we wake up in the morning. Food, clothing, or mechanisms that would allow us to live forever were quite popular, or inventions that would free us from any kind of labor. A robot that does all our work for us. A machine that fixes our writing mistakes. Edible books that, when consumed, fill our minds with knowledge that we could otherwise only attain through reading. Many suggested a chewing gum that would allow us to never go hungry – chew a piece of gum and be filled.

I am enjoying the change of atmosphere. Last semester I felt restricted to simple, objective topics. This semester, class feels much more real.

“Life Forum” was an activity suggested to me by the other freshmen teachers: for large classes, split the students into groups and have each group choose one question to ask their teacher. Today, the first time I tried the activity, I told my students they could ask me anything – questions about my life, culture, travels… whatever subject they were interested in. Some groups asked the questions that I expected to hear: “Do you have a boyfriend?” “Do you like China?” “Tell us about your hometown.” Others asked questions that were more meaningful then I expected, especially since their class has a much lower level of English than others.

One group asked, “Why did you come to China?” Thirty students looked at me, waiting for my answer. This class has behavior issues, the worst of any of my classes. Usually I can’t get them to keep quiet, but the room was silent for this question.

“Well, I wanted to learn how to live in another culture,” I said. “I wanted to see what life was like here. And I wanted to become friends with college students like you.”

A few faces brightened -- the few that understood what I had said.

Then came the question I wasn’t ready for: a member of the last group stepped forward and asked, “Do you love us, and why?”

She had to repeat the question for me. She’d said it perfectly the first time, but I thought I had heard wrong. I hesitated to answer. Last semester, due to their low level, behavior issues, and large size, I dreaded their class more than any other. Now, they were waiting for me to offer some proof that I cared about them. I felt challenged – the tone of the question was unmistakable. These students had seen my worst moments of frustration and impatience, had watched me stumble through poorly crafted lesson plans. A part of me was not surprised that, when given the opportunity to ask me anything, they chose to ask me if I cared about them. They must have been wondering.

I stalled at first, tried to think. Somehow the first few words that came out sounded more like an apology. I told them I knew that sometimes I make mistakes, but that I do want to know my students, and that the more I know my students the more I love them. Their looks told me that either no one understood or no one was impressed by my answer.

“Yes,” I said quickly. “I love you.” But that was easy to say. They wanted me to give them a reason. I had to prove I was telling the truth.

“I don’t know all of you very well,” I said. “But I like to talk with you.” I still wasn’t giving them a reason. I finally gave in, and stated the simplest, most tangible reason that came to mind.

“Well yes… yes, I love you. I love you because you are much better students than I know I would ever have in America.” I didn’t have to wait to make sure they understood. The room erupted in applause. After class, four of them came to me, assured me they loved me too, and asked if they could visit me.

The Bribe
Parents, apparently, don’t need encouragement to be open with me. Last Monday, a student made her first appearance of the semester. Halfway through class, I noticed that she was limping. She came to me afterward and said she’d been missing class because her leg was hurt. She wanted to visit me, and catch up on all the material she’d missed. I wasn’t thrilled at the thought of a private tutoring lesson, but I figured she had a good reason, and I was happy to see that she wanted to catch up.

I scheduled a meeting with her, and just as we finished talking, another woman entered from the hallway. I saw the resemblance immediately. She carried bags of food. I introduced myself. She took my hand. She had better English than her daughter, and asked me to sit down at one of the desks and eat lunch with them. She offered me a spoon in place of the chopsticks, punctured a bag of yogurt with a straw, gave me tissues, and kept repeating that I should “Eat much.” I didn’t really want to eat. I knew it would be a mostly silent lunch. She insisted, and I thought maybe it was good for me to stay.

I sat sideways in the row in front of my student, reached over the back of the chairs and picked rice, tofu, and sprouts from the bags that sat on the built-in desk. The mother told me I was beautiful and young, that I could learn Chinese very quickly. I didn’t know how to respond, but to keep telling her she was kind, and to obey each time she pointed to a bag and said, “Eat this, eat this – very delicious.” Her daughter sat quietly the whole meal, and looked at her mother for help each time I asked a question.

When I convinced the mother that I was full, she insisted I take the food home with me. She gave me more napkins, took my empty yogurt, and tied each plastic bag.

The student will come to my room this Friday, and I will spend an hour reviewing the lessons and practicing pronunciation with her.