Teacher Michael, Happy New Year!
The following is solely representative of my own opinions and attitudes. In no way does it reflect the attitude WorldTeach, which I am volunteering for, nor the school I am working for.
The weather’s become bitterly cold. The average temperatures have dropped to around the mid-low forties at the high, although those numbers always seem to change throughout the day. The mild Christmas weekend we had here, when I started to overheat in my hat and scarf, seems to be long gone already.
That doesn’t seem to bother the kids though. They’ve gotten a sort of hackey-sack contraption, a common toy across China, and are playing with it in the hallways. Some of them told me there’s a small competition during their PE classes coming up. That would explain the toys’ ubiquity; not even a fad has the power to distribute a toy like that so evenly throughout all the classes, and across gender lines as well.
The toy would be strange to a foreigner’s eyes at first glance. I had a brief moment of self-aware bemusement when I saw them playing with them — I wasn’t surprised at the flashy colors and construction of the toys themselves as I was four years ago when I first encountered them, just the fact that I hadn’t seen them around campus much before that. They’re built similarly to badminton shuttles. They have a weighted bottom half made of metal coins and a rubber base. Attached to the base are four artificial feathers, arranged into a cross shape to help even out its trajectory as it flies through the air. People usually gather in a circle and try to keep it in the air for as many consecutive kicks as possible. When I was in Beijing, I also gawked at some people playing a volleyball-esque game with it, complete with a small court equipped with a waist-high net. I had to wrap my mind around the fact that they were basically playing volleyball with their feet. In awe of their foot-eye coordination, I walked away slowly.
But aside from the birdie-contraption, the kids are kids as always — running about, roughhousing in between classes, gossiping about this and that, and of course, working on homework. Cold or not.
Christmas came and went without much fanfare. Many of my friends here decided to travel, and I felt their absence when those of us who remained held our get-togethers. And after a four month lapse, I finally roused myself to go to church two weeks before the 25th. Mass was mass, confession is confession, and I’ve since started to work on learning the Chinese version of the Roman Missal. The jargon is old; much of it probably hasn’t been changed a lot since Matteo Ricci did the back-breaking and mind-bending work of translating Christianity into China.
It’s the 31st now, New Year’s Eve, and I don’t feel much anticipation for 2016. Even in the most meaningless days of 2014, a year spent in hopeless, helpless, rotting stagnation at home, Christmas and New Year’s had still been something to look forward to. But since they’re largely meaningless here — their real equivalents aren’t until February — life goes on. People here only note them because the western world does; and because retailers see them as more opportunities to push promotions.
Or so I thought.
I usually head to my office after lunch. Lunch period ends for the kids at 12:50, and is followed by a thirty minute period called afternoon rest — a short siesta. The kids are told to nap; teachers might take one as well. Wednesdays and Thursdays, I teach the periods immediately following afternoon rest; Mondays and Tuesdays I don’t start until the second period after. I usually take this time to tweak my lesson plan, catch up on grading, or write, as I’m doing now.
Every now and then, as I arrive in the office, I have a little surprise on my desk. In the first few weeks, they were some plants, courtesy of the other teachers in the office. A few weeks ago, I found a small rectangular box with a note in Chinese on it. After some examination, I found that it was from two of my kids in Class 1: Linda, an adorkable little girl who’s good at chess, but not quite as good at speaking English, and Alice, a standout who never fails to speak English to me first outside of class. The note read, we noticed you have a hard time reaching our projector screen sometimes, so here’s a collapsible pointer so you don’t have to use a broomstick. We hope you like it!
I’ve been using it since.
Two days ago, I found a letter on my desk. The envelope, made of heavy kraft paper — heavy, similar to a paper grocery bag — was placed inside a plastic film bag, and addressed,
(Grade 7, Class 1)
Class 1 is a teacher’s dream — well disciplined, and an overall above-average English level. They’re extremely cooperative and enthusiastic whenever I have class with them. One of the happiest accidents I’ve had while being in Qingzhuhu occurred a few weeks ago on a Friday. I don’t have classes on Fridays, so I figured I’d head to the office and get some work done since I’d planned on meeting with friends over the rest of the weekend. Along the way I decided to pass by the classrooms of classes 1 through 3, whom I teach, on the second floor, and then go up the stairs to the third, where my office is. Betty, an English teacher, was teaching Class 1 at the time. Having a brain fart about whether or not “ninety” had an “e” in it, she invited me into the classroom to let me confirm whether or not it did. Later, during the last period of the day, I happened by again. This time, the class was having an English speaking competition. Afterwards, I shared a few words of encouragement with the class about having the courage to compete. Afterwards, I left with a wistful smile. It was an unexpectedly full day, and once it was over, I felt a little sad. All good things come to an end, I guess.
Back in the office, I examined the letter. Inside the envelope was a card closed with a twine rope tied in a neat bow. The cover had a small false brass sailboat glued on. Below it read,
at this time of sorrow…
that is yours for all the tomorrows.
I doubt whichever group of students decided to buy this card completely understood what that poem means. “At this time of sorrow” is the big tip-off; I’m most certainly not in a period of mourning or anything. The “Happy everyday” is a pretty common Chinglish misunderstanding of wishing someone a happy something. In Chinese, you could say that and it’d sound completely fine — 祝你每天幸福! Zhu ni meitian xingfu! or something or like that, but in English you first omit the “wish you” — the 祝你, zhu ni, and just say “happy” followed by a holiday. You can’t really say something generic like “everyday” unless you’re knowingly playing off of that convention. And if you were, you’d emphasize that fact, and say “We wish you a happy every day!” to make clear to your recipient what you’re doing.
Regardless, I started to wonder. Maybe they understand more than I think they do. These past four months of teaching haven’t been easy, by any means. Living abroad, especially in a place with a lower standard of living than you were raised in, has a way of revealing to you your privilege; revealing, in all its ugliness, your pettiness; of exposing just how immature and childish you really are when your conditions don’t match your expectations. Despite the depth of my knowledge about, and breadth of my experiences in China, I’ve allowed myself to be dragged along by my life here, rather than to actively contend with it. The key to thriving in a foreign environment is to never go on autopilot, to always examine how you are reacting to your environment. You cannot allow yourself to hold mini-grudges for all the perceived slights you receive — after all, insult and injury in a foreign culture is often mere misunderstanding. Living abroad takes an elevated amount of empathy and patience than what would be normal in your home country. I knew that going in. But I still allowed myself to become that lazy, and as a result, I’ve become a meaner, pettier man than I was when I first arrived.
So, I wonder.
If they knew.
I wonder, if on some level, they understood.
I removed the twine and opened the card. Inside had some neat handwriting, courtesy of Alice, the one who always practices her English with me outside of class, even if she knows she can communicate more easily with me in Chinese.
Dear teacher Micheal, [durn kids!]
I’m very happy, if you can come to our New year party. We have many interesting things are waiting you. You can play with us, and we can talk each other, we are friends.
Welcome to our party.
(Grade 7, Class 1)
Happy New Year!
Well, looks like I’ve got a New Year’s party to attend on Thursday.
And in my heart of hearts, I’m truly excited.