Pain, Hurt, and my frail attempts at being a listening ear.
I met Daisy within the first few days that I lived in this small town in China. She was one of the first to talk to me after my class. She was outgoing, smart, friendly, and her English was excellent. She would recruit her friends to go get milk tea or snacks after class with me and we would all sit and chat. Our campus was filled with small parks and sitting areas where several other students, Daisy, and myself would go to hang out, practice their English, and I would embarrass myself with my Chinese skills.
It wasn’t long into our friendship that one day Daisy broke down in tears, seemingly out of nowhere. I tried to calm her down and her friends tried talking to her and comforting her. The light and easy mood turned somber very quickly. She finally calmed down enough to speak, and through tears and gasps for air she explained to me that her father was just recently killed the month before in a car accident. My heart was shattered. I thought about my own father and what that would feel like. I was brand new to Chinese culture and I literally had no idea how to respond to grief in this context. I’m sure I messed it up and sent the wrong message. But, despite my ignorance of not knowing how to respond, I simply tried to listen and be a comforting ear for her to talk out her confusion, anger, pain, and sadness. There were many days that semester that Daisy would text me just before class to tell me that she was too sad to come to class. I was trying to delicately balance being both her teacher and her friend. I was constantly torn about how to respond to her heartache. I gave her more days of absence than I should have. I gave her more grace on her assignments than I should have. I didn’t even bat an eye when Daisy and three of her friends missed two days of class because they just needed to get out of town and process the pain. Sometimes, it’s more important to be filled with grace and empathy during someone’s darkest days than to make sure they get their lesson for the day and do their homework. Trying my best to be a good teacher was a priority for me, but when a student is going through the deepest possible pain imaginable, I think my role is to just love them and care for them the best that I know how. Nobody can really teach that stuff. I just had to go with my gut intuition and hope it was the right decision. I learned that my students observed these actions throughout the semester and respected me more for it.
Teaching in a foreign culture isn’t always about the curriculum, the lesson plan, or the assignments. It’s sometimes about being a safe place for your students to vent, process, and mourn. I was happy to play that role.