"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Story

The first week of my winter holiday has been nice, highlighted by a few days in Wuhan visiting some of its more famous sites, including the Yellow Crane Tower and Mo Shan (Mo Hill). But before my blog shifts in the coming weeks to recaps of my holiday escapades, I’d like to recall one particular happening from the end of the term.

Something significant happened (or is happening) outside of the classroom involving some of my students that has challenged me but also left me a bit dumbfounded. I write with a bit of hesitancy, because this is in ways resolved and unresolved, and full of complexities that make a right course of action—a godly course of action—far more ambiguous than I’d like it to be. The whole thing has certainly challenged and stretched me.

A couple weeks ago, I ran into Daisy (not her real name), one of my students, at the noodle “shack” I frequent. I joined her and asked her how her lip was doing. She had missed class one day the week before, then came to the next class with a mask partially covering her face, apparently because she had to go to the hospital to get stitches for her lip. She didn’t say much and wouldn’t say what happened. So I asked her again, at lunch. After a deep sigh, she explained.

Daisy lives off campus with two other girls. Additionally, Daisy’s roommates both have boyfriends who practically live there but don’t pay rent. This has bothered Daisy for some time, partly because of the mooching, but more so because she sees the unhealthiness of these relationships, especially that of one of her roommates and very close friend, Jill (also not real name)—also one of my students. Daisy has a certain depth of understanding that really does set her apart from some of her peers.

So Daisy doesn’t like the boyfriend of Jill, and it’s known. Apparently he is controlling and abusive—emotionally and physically. So, in a moment of clarity or something, Jill broke up with her boyfriend—seemingly a victorious moment. The guy came over to the house, and got in shouting match with Daisy, who among other things, told him to leave the house. He got so angry, that he picked up a small table, and whacked Daisy in the face.

I was absolutely stunned. At first I didn’t know what to feel. This was a very new scenario for me. I know this stuff happens, but never has it happened to someone about whom I care so much. I was livid. This may surprise some of you who see me as rather peaceable, but I was ready to find him and beat the **** out of him. Maybe get some of my student entourage and throw a bag over his head and take him in a dark alley. I craved vengeance.

But perhaps I am rather peaceable because that didn’t happen, for several reasons. After I cooled off and started thinking a bit more clearly, I realized the potential challenges with such retribution. A teacher punching a student doesn’t exactly bode well for my professional track record. And I also couldn’t reconcile that action with my belief in the ineffectiveness of retributive violence in most situations in human life. I saw Jesus going berserk in the temple throwing over temples, and felt inspired to let my rage play out. But I also saw Jesus on the cross—the ultimate symbol of nonviolence and trust in God to be the ultimate judge of wrongs.

So I figured I should tell the police, or at the very least tell the school. Because, while this was the first time he’d struck Daisy, this was not an isolated incident, as he apparently has a bit of a temper and has previously physically hurt his girlfriend, Jill. But I didn’t. I didn’t tell anyone, other than some of my fellow foreign teachers. We said nothing of it to any authorities. Why not?

Well, it’s complicated. For one, domestic violence is just not taken as seriously here. I’m told by other foreign teachers who’ve been here for longer that the men would for the most part write it off a small dispute. Especially among older generations the attitudes toward male and female roles are such that this kind of abuse is not so rare, and women for the most part put up with it. (Forgive me, those who know a bit more about China, if this is an unfair generalization…it’s based off what I’ve been told and, to some extent, what I've seen in subtle ways here at the school where guys seem to have a bit of control over their girlfriends).

But beyond this, Daisy asked me not to say anything. She is actually breaking school rules by living off campus, as are her roommates, and if the school knew, not to mention her parents back home, she’d get in trouble. Beyond that, she fears for her class; they have a lot of conflict already, and Jill, her classmate, would likely hate her if she reported this abuse.

Which—I failed to mention—Jill is back with her boyfriend. It was ridiculously predictable. Only hours after my initial conversation with Daisy, in which she described how Jill had been crying a lot and really feeling empty, missing her boyfriend she’d only days before broken up with, he persuaded her to take her back. Sounds like a familiar story, doesn’t it? Apparently the boyfriend gave a sort of apology to Daisy about the table incident, asking Jill to apologize to Daisy for him. Not acceptable in my mind, but whatever.

Daisy has made some good but tough decisions, however. She is moving out of the apartment, and back into the dorms, and is distancing herself from Jill. It sounds as if Jill is the one that has caused the most hurt to Daisy, even more than the physical violence of the boyfriend. But Daisy really wants to just move on, and not talk about it anymore. She said to me in a text the other day: “the world will not stop turning because I was hurt.”

I felt a bit helpless. Not to sound like this situation is about me, but I felt responsible to do something and couldn’t see a clear solution. We, the foreign teachers, offer a great gift to many of these students in that they can trust us, knowing we will listen, support them, and not punish them for wrongdoing or condemn them in the way they feel many local teachers would. There’s certainly a line, however, when it’s not worth keeping a secret anymore when somebody could be seriously hurt. After much reflection and discussion with my fellow teachers, we feel all we can do is support the girls through listening, empathy, and verbal encouragement.

Well, that's mostly all. Once I moved on from macho visions of heroism, I at least desired to talk to the guy (through a translator), and let him know how I felt—that I had no respect for him, he’s a horrible person, or something similar. But I eventually felt that wasn’t best either—partially because Daisy really doesn’t want him to know that she has told her teacher, and partially because such words still felt violent. So I came up with another solution. I’m going to befriend the guy.

I’m not yet sure how this will play out, and the challenge of having the purest of motivations is a bit daunting. Meaning this: I was very angry with him, and naturally villainized him for hurting one of “my own.” But, as I eventually admitted to myself, he’s hurting too. He’s lacking something. As awful as it is what he has done and continues to do to his still-girlfriend, he needs healing as well. He needs a better understanding of what it means to be a man, a strong, loving, wise man who knows how to appropriately treat women.

I shared this idea—which really came out of nowhere, like an “aha” moment of clarity—with my fellow teachers. The response was mixed. Some understood my intentions, but were nervous about how it would play out, or the potential fallout (maybe he fears/suspects I know about everything and am planning to embarrass him or report him, and he snaps and hurts the girls again). I think there was a bit of a sentiment too of "why would you befriend the enemy," which brought intuitive resistance to some, even me, as I’m not sure if I liked my own idea.

But…I’ve come to a place where I’ve forgiven him (enough) to be able to have compassion for him. And because of this—because I’m not trying to be covert or sneaky and win him over and then throw a bag over his head and take him in a dark alley—I feel good about this. If I can’t help in any other way, directly, I can at least place myself in his life and hope through the validation—not of his actions but of his true self—that comes through being befriended by a foreigner here, that he will himself be in some way touched by the presence of Christ in me and be changed by it.

The boyfriend is a great dancer and offers some instruction to other students. I’ve joked before about getting some dance instruction, though with enough seriousness that I’ve thought it worth pursuing. So I’ve talked to a mutual friend who receives instruction from him, and asked him to ask his dance teacher if I can spend some time with them and learn dance from him. It’ll have to wait until March (new term), but hopefully this really manifests and some kind of relationship forms. And, as was important to me, I’ve received Daisy’s blessing on this. She understandably does not have any respect for him or desire to be around him, but knows I can do what I want and understands why I’d want to do this. I didn’t want her to feel betrayed by me, and it seems she’s not.

So that’s where this stands at the moment. I’m still in the middle of it all, so new clarity of perspective and right action may come with time. But I haven’t yet shared the most tender moment of all this. As I was following-up with Daisy the other day, she said that she just wants to move on from all this, reaffirming what she said in her text, referenced above—that she’s not that important in the big scheme of things. I respect her desire to move on. However, I don’t agree with the sentiment.

I often wonder if in America, our brand of Christianity encourages us to think too highly of ourselves. A lot of our language is very me-centered and self-esteem-driven, meant to empower the individual, and might often sound as if God is at our service, rather than the other way around. As much as we need to know our worth and that every individual matters to God, I think we could often use a healthy dose of disillusionment and be told that we really are pretty small and insignificant, when you consider the human population or even the size of the cosmos. There’s a balance to be held here, a tension not necessarily in need of resolution.

However, I think Daisy, and many others in this culture, need the opposite. I told Daisy I was uncomfortable with her feeling that the “world would keep turning” regardless of what happened to her. I told her that I was fine with her wanting to move on, as long she understands that what happens to her does matter, that she is incredibly valuable, and should never think that she should just accept wrong done to her because she is simply a cog in a machine, insignificant other than in her relation to the whole. I told her she was not worthless, and needed to know that.

She got silent, fought tears for a few moments, then gave up the fight and said, with her voice cracking, “thank you.” I gave her a quick hug. A moment later, she grabbed me again and gave me a much longer hug, holding me much more tightly this time. I think I told her what she needed to hear, what she’d been longing to hear from someone.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The semester ends

I’ve had a bit of a cold this past week. Though, it’s probably the most “convenient” time for it to happen, as the term has ended this week, with a fairly hectic few weeks behind me of preparing, administering, and grading exams, and several exciting weeks ahead, as I intend to spend some time over our five-week long winter holiday exploring a bit more of China.

It’s kind of a nice feeling to be wrapping up the semester. It feels like a significant accomplishment. After nearly five months in this role, I’ve watched my “natural teacher” find a platform, an opportunity, an outlet, a project, a call—whatever word captures it best. I’ve done a lot of things right, and felt praise and affirmation for my success. I’ve also done a lot of things wrong, which, in a way, I’m grateful for, since those tend, for me at least, to be what thrust me forward, compel me to improve, grow, and prepare for future challenges and opportunities with the wisdom gained from doing it wrong the first time.

Some of where I feel I need to grow as a teacher is technique; a lot of it may just be confidence. I’ve made what might be rookie mistakes: probably apologized a bit too much, probably wasn’t clear enough on expectations I thought I'd made clear, probably didn't fully know what some of my expectations even were, probably didn’t push students enough, probably wasn’t flexible enough to what the students needed, among other things.

Many of the challenges were also due not just to being an amateur but to the challenges inherent for all foreign teachers at this school, many stemming from issues of communication, language barrier, or different cultural expectations about a number of things: learning styles and how students expect to be taught; the often nebulous expectations of the department (a more complex matter); not enough resources and supplies to fulfill my vision of how my classes should go.

And, a lot of where I need to grow is simply in confidence. I expect the spring term to provide both a fresh start and a chance to build upon what I began this term. Grading exams sure thwarts such attempts at confidence though. I had a pretty big spread on all my exams, with some students excelling and some students failing (though no one failed the class). Why so many Fs? Maybe my exams were too difficult. Maybe I didn’t teach the material effectively. Maybe it was an English problem. Maybe there are some poor students in my class. Maybe they didn’t study enough. It’s easy to point the blame at myself, to feel somewhat responsible for my students’ shortcomings. Despite a number of my A-students who made significant improvements this term, it’s hard not to focus on those who struggled.

And even though I know a certain amount of detachment is important here—these are my students, not my children, and I don’t need to feel responsible for their destinies—it’s still a challenge. Because, I do care about my students, and want them to succeed. I suppose this is another lesson I’ll continue to learn through practice: it’s difficult to help people that don’t want to help themselves. I can only do so much; I can only play my part. I can't force anyone to learn or care about the material, though I can do my best to create the opportunity for learning to take place.

But for those that do want to “help themselves,” well…I guess I better do some serious semester-end reflection and figure out how I can be a better teacher second semester. I’ll be teaching the same 42 students (two cohorts) next term and am excited about this continuity, both for the benefit of their learning as well as for my relationships with them. All in all, the semester probably did exactly what it should have done for me: confirmed my abilities as a good teacher, but revealed several areas where growth is needed. A success, I'd say.

Enjoyed a few final dinners, ping-pong bouts, and mid-morning karaoke sessions with my students. A bit sad to say so many farewells this week, as students have all gone home as of this afternoon...a precursor of things to come at the end of June when I return home. But no need to go there yet.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Beijing pics

Tiananmen Square

The Forbidden City

The Great Wall

Temple of Heaven

Summer Palace

Saturday, January 9, 2010

December Recap, Part 4: On Christmas Far From Home

Christmas was unique, as expected. But for being my first Christmas away from family, it didn’t bring with it the depth of sadness I anticipated. There was a bit of melancholy, for sure; my experience of the holidays is so wrapped up in traditions, places, and experiences with family and friends that a break from all of that wasn’t easy by any means. But I think we made it “work.”

For one, Joann gave up being with her family for the holidays to share Christmas with me in China; that in itself was special. Not only is it helpful to have someone witness, in person, my life and community here in China, but having someone close to me to share the holiday experience with helped prevent the loneliness that could have emerged. I know Christmas can be a great time of togetherness but that it can also, for some, magnify or expose brokenness in relationships or deepen one’s sense of loneliness. I guess I’m grateful or fortunate or whatever the right word is to have experienced the more positive side of things.

The ability to create a feeling of being at home made this Christmas a nice mix of old and new, of familiarity and novelty. Joann came bearing gifts not only from herself but from my family. She also brought decorations to adorn my fake trees with (they do sell them here) and…maybe most importantly, the pomander.

Many of you are familiar with this particular quirk of mine, but for those who aren’t I’ll explain. My mom, before I was born, acquired a “festive decorate pomander”—essentially a red, wickless candle in the form of three carolers. But the key to its importance to me is its heavenly scent. And having shared this pomander with others over the years, I can see it’s personal opinion—most are not all that impressed by the scent. It has kind of a pine smell I guess, but…well…I really don’t know how to explain it, other than that it smells like "Christmas." It’s partly the smell I love, but probably more the way I’ve been conditioned to associate that smell with memories of Christmases past. As soon as Joann revealed it to me, it went on the nightstand to keep me company over the holidays.

Actually, a lot of the gifts I received this year reveal my olfactory obsessions. My mom gave me a bar of soap clearly purchased at a bath salt store in Seattle we came across several years ago that had one particular scent—“sage”—that I loved. I received several books, which I quickly smelled. Joann gave me a near-empty bottle of her perfume to spray in the air whenever I miss her (now that I share that, I’m not so sure that’s as not-at-all-weird as it first seemed). My Grandma sent me fabric softener sheets, significant for her and I because the smell of this particular brand always reminds me of being at her house growing up (I’d leave her place with my dry clothes possessing “Grandma smell”). And Maria, one of the other American teachers here, gave me several small bottles of Bath and Body hand sanitizer (Lime Coconut Verbena being my favorite) and some vanilla scented candles.

It’s known that I’m a sucker for scents (and I’m appropriately mocked for it). I guess it’s one of many quirks. Quirks…like the used tissues that get piled up on my nightstand. Like my obsessive checking of Seattle Mariner blog sites run by stat-nerds so that I can stay updated on the latest off-season transactions. Like the fact that maybe sometimes I prefer Chris Tomlin’s version of “Where the Streets” to U2’s original (may Bono live forever). Like my dancing. Like my tendency to be a bit direct and blunt at times. Hey…I’m willing to accept you all and your quirks too.

But coming back from that bizarre digression to Christmas in Xiaogan. On Christmas Eve, Joann and I exchanged a couple gifts and watched "The Shawshank Redemption;" my rationale being, it’s about hope, as is Christmas (at least theologically, hope is pretty central). And Christmas Day was special. Continuing the tradition of my mother, I made pancakes for Joann and I…as well as maple syrup from scratch (not that hard), applesauce and eggs. And true to tradition, I made them in to particular shapes upon request. I always asked my mom to make pancakes into shapes—Mickey Mouse, a basketball, a skateboard, Ken Griffey Jr.’s head, etc. I made Joann a pancake in the shape of Princess Diana twirling.

After breakfast, we exchanged more gifts and checked our stockings. That afternoon we gathered with my fellow foreign teachers for a gift exchange, which included the singing of Christmas songs and baked Christmas goodies. The real riot was that night though, as Jeff and Karen—the Cameroonian couple—prepared us a huge meal for which they had spent all day preparing. We feasted on a variety of meats, drank champagne, sang some karaoke, and even had a mini dance-party where Joann and I had the opportunity to showcase our…talents? fervor? good intentions? silliness? Not sure how to describe our dancing; but it worked.

It felt like Christmas. Being in a relatively Christmas-less place, it helped to have like-minded people to share the season with, people with whom I could celebrate and remember the event at the root of Christmas. I think of Christmas as a time of remembrance: remembering traditions and what’s important to us, but also remembering The Story, not just in its quaintness but in all its power and beauty and mystery and meaning.

I did have a unique experience sharing this Story, which led to a “Peter moment” for me. A few days after Christmas, I spent some time telling my class the two Christmas narratives, with which they were basically unfamiliar. I first read “Twas the Night Before Christmas" and shared a bit about Santa and how that tradition developed and how it plays out at Christmas. Then I read them Luke 2 and explained a bit about the birth of Jesus and why it has mattered so much to so many people over the course of history. I was speaking fairly objectively, considering the setting; lots of “people say this” or “some believe this.” My point wasn’t to be preachy but to give a clear picture of the origins of Christmas.

There’s that interaction between Jesus and Peter where they are discussing Jesus’ significance in an impersonal sort of way, discussing what “others” say about Jesus. But then Jesus makes it personal, asking Peter: “But who do you say I am?” prompting Peter’s confession: “The Messiah of God.” And then, the way Luke tells it, Jesus kind of abruptly shuts them up, not wanting this truth to be known, at least not yet.

I wrapped up my summary of Christmas with something like “some believe Jesus was an incredible example and teacher, and others believe he was sent from God and, in some mysterious way, God Himself come to live among us.” The room was quiet for a moment. Then Catherine broke the silence with her question: “What do YOU believe?” I wonder if Peter felt something similar to what I felt right then. Catherine, and I imagine several others, were less interested in what “others" say than what I say.

Catherine made it personal, and I can’t really describe for you the poignancy of her question, of the moment. I stumbled over my words for a moment, trying to figure out how to not say too much but not say too little. My response was something like: “I believe Jesus was who he said he was; I believe the Bible depicts him accurately; I believe he was indeed significant, even that he was God with us; and if you want to talk about it more ask me later.” I felt the parallel to that scene in Luke—both the on-the-spot impersonal-turned-personal moment of confession as well as the abrupt “let’s not-talk-about-this-anymore” ending as we carried on with our lesson. I trust that I did not in fact say too much nor too little.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

December Recap, Part 3: On Site-Seeing in Beijing

What an unforgettable weekend in Beijing. I was able to shift some classes around, enabling Joann and I to leave Thursday night (17th) and return Monday morning (21st). We rode overnight trains, sleeping on a surprisingly comfy bed and sharing a room with four strangers. It was a 9 ½ hour train ride, which felt short since we slept through nearly all of it.

There is so much to see in Beijing. To ensure we saw all the biggies, we went through a travel agent, one referred to me by one of my students. So we paid a bit more, but also got to see more and enjoyed luxuries such as a private tour guide, a private driver, some high-end meals, a nice hotel with access to good food and drink, and the peace of mind knowing we were taken care of and didn’t have to worry about coordinating it all.

As for pictures, I’ll defer to Joann’s facebook page until I post some: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?page=4&aid=132227&id=755290097. (hopefully the link works). She’s got loads of great shots of our trip to Beijing, plus assorted pics of the Christmas season. So many great scenes, such as…

TIANANMEN SQUARE. It’s huge—the largest city square in the world, in fact. Visually stunning, and made more so by what felt like perfect lighting during our morning visit (the weather was actually clear blue throughout the weekend—just bitterly cold). Great picture of Chairman Mao draped over a wall on one side of the square. I don’t believe America has a figure in its history so venerated today as Mao is in China; none of the Rushmore presidents compare. Spectacular buildings all around the Square built in the classical Chinese style—a style more and more rare in China in light of the country's increasing modernization. And it’s fascinating to consider not only the number of meetings but the attendance at such meetings in this square (been around for nearly 700 years). It’s also a reminder of the we-don’t-talk-about-it-here event of 1989, so famous around the world but so hush-hush among the Chinese.

THE FORBIDDEN CITY. Former palace of the emperor from around 1400 (Ming dynasty) until the early 1900s when China when through a lot of turmoil leading up to the establishment of modern China in 1949. Interestingly, if I understand this correctly, Chairman Mao and others early on in the Cultural Revolution wanted to destroy the palace, I assume as means of distancing themselves from all things ancient and welcoming in a new era. I’m glad they didn’t; the country has preserved the site well. It’s probably the quintessential display of traditional Chinese architecture, and it’s massive—7,800,000 sq ft—with an array of palaces, temples, halls, rooms, gardens, and courtyards with statues.

HUTONG. This was a neighborhood not far from the Forbidden City we observed via a rickshaw ride. It’s a preserved ancient neighborhood, special not because of its grandness but because of its simple, quaint style of small homes and windy alley-like roads. I think its impact was made more potent by seeing it immediately after The Forbidden City.

THE GREAT WALL. Without a doubt the crown jewel of our weekend in Beijing. I hate to dismiss the glory and beauty of the palaces and temples we saw, but the Wall just wins. You’ve likely all seen pictures, so you get the idea—it’s a really big wall. It stretches 5,500 miles along what was once China’s northern border, and was built and rebuilt between the 5th century BC and the 16th century. I walked along the wall (even jogged and ran stairs at one point—I had to) in awe. In awe of the beauty of the surrounding mountains and segments of the wall that could be seen on peaks miles away. In awe of the amount of human effort that went into creating the wall again and again (and the lives lost in process—supposedly there are workers buried in the wall). In awe of the scope of history that is experienced when encountering something so ancient, something that sweeps one back in time far before iPods, TVs, cars, before America was even a dream in any young explorer’s heart, even before God had done the unthinkable and made Himself known in the midst of human history in a way God had done not before and has not done since. It is old. I guess I’m fascinated by old things. As I walked along this massive structure, with its stories of wars and kings and commoners and with all its grandeur and beauty, I hardly said a word. Ask Joann.

SILK AND JADE FACTORIES. A bit anti-climactic for me, but interesting nonetheless. We were guided step-by-step through the process of making silk blankets from cocoon to final product. Interesting, I suppose, considering silk was first developed in China, centuries before even the Great Wall was built. And jade...well…similar thoughts here to my feelings about silk. Jade is a gorgeous stone, and it was neat to observe some very elaborate jade artwork in the stone’s land of origin.

MING TOMBS. Another profound stop on our journey through ancient China. Another palace-like setting with gardens and grand pathways and statues and ancient halls—but for the dead, not the living. On Saturday, when we visited both the Wall and these tombs, we toured with a group—an Irish guy with his Mongolian girlfriend, a South African, and a Chinese guy who grew up in South Africa. They all had a good sense of humor, which made the day even more enjoyable.

KUNG FU SHOW. Joann and I watched a fascinating performance, a blend of theater and martial arts. The plot followed a young boy’s journey of becoming and mastering Kung Fu and finding peace and gaining wisdom, told in dramatic fashion with what were clearly very talented actors. Or, more accurately, kung fu masters. You can’t “act” like you know kung fu and pull of their stunts and level of choreography. They were genuinely gifted individuals who’ve probably been training their whole lives.

TEMPLE OF HEAVEN. The Temple of Heaven is an ancient series of Taoist temples, frequented by past emperors of China. Something about the layout and structures within the temple grounds felt different than that of the Forbidden City, despite looking similar in its “Chinese-ness.” It was constructed to be a holy place, and that’s what it felt like—holy. It was interesting to walk through the surrounding park and watch people engaged in their morning exercises and games and lively conversations, then move to the quiet, open courtyard areas and see the spectacular structures inside designed less to honor the emperor and more to move to prayer.

SUMMER PALACE. I visited so many wonderful places in Beijing that I could have easily gotten used to what I was seeing and grown bored or indifferent. But it didn’t get old. The Summer Palace was yet another fascinating sight, a massive summer retreat center for royalty in ancient times, with far-reaching and beautiful gardens, a lake (frozen, allowing Joann and I to walk around on it), numerous pagodas and corridors and palaces all obviously crafted with a level of artistry and craftsmanship and time and effort not often seen in the modern world. It was essentially our last stop of the weekend, and a fitting finale. I’d love to spend a month there, walking, reflecting, reading, writing…watching. Maybe if I’m king someday I’ll have such a privilege.

We also enjoyed a visit to a large pearl market where we did some buying and bargaining, a drive by the "Bird's Nest" (site of the '08 Olympics), a tea-tasting at a tea shop (liking tea more and more as time goes by), and a new friendship with Lucy, our tour guide for two of the three days. Lucy is our age and gives such tours frequently. The three of us shared some good meals and conversations and laughed a lot together. And we told her (at her request) we’d try to find an American young man for her to marry. She also, upon discovering my degree, asked me a lot about who Jesus was/is, to which I gave my opinion...which is always fun for me (giving my opinion about Jesus’ significance, not giving my opinions in general…well probably both, to be fair…bloggers tend to like to be heard).

An epic weekend, not only a China highlight but a life highlight.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

December Recap, Part 2: On Being a Proud Papa

I am grateful for the way my class schedule played out this term. I have the same amount of hours as the other foreign teachers, but far less students. Some of the others teach up to 5-6 different cohorts and between 200-300 students. But I only have two cohorts—a group of 17 sophomores (Keyboarding/Word Processing) and a group of 25 freshmen (Oral English). Since there are so many means of connecting with students outside of class, the potential downside of a “smaller sphere of influence” or limited opportunities for connection is lessened, especially considering the upside—being able to invest more deeply in these students, both relationally and educationally. I believe our sense of community has allowed me to better meet their needs as a teacher and friend.

I cherish my sophomore class, but they are a divided people—clashing personalities and petty conflicts that make them a more difficult bunch to teach. Fortunately I do have some strong relationships with several individuals in that class. But my freshmen just gel together, and I’m not completely sure what to attribute this to. Maybe luck, maybe Providence, maybe the school, maybe me. But several things happened recently with these freshman students that will make leaving after this year very difficult.

We had a dinner party at my place last weekend, attended by nearly the entire class. I gave them some money to shop for all the food they would need. They came over around 4pm and cooked for about three hours. They had a great system going, and were a blast to watch. Some were chopping vegetables, some cooking, while others were hanging in the main room with Joann and I, chatting and listening to music. Those who didn’t cook had clean-up duty. They prepared about 18-20 dishes for all of us to share—a massive meal. And they were all so delighted; you could tell many of them loved to cook, but don’t have the facilities to do so in their dorms. I gave them the gift of a kitchen; they gave me the gift of a delicious meal.

But they came bearing gifts as well. I had given them all apples in class the previous week (true to the previously mentioned local Christmas tradition), but they far exceeded my gift-giving. They brought several items: a very nice framed cross-stitch picture of a tree, and a sort-of red, decorative wall ornament that looks like a giant, fancy pot-holder. They also gave me package which I was not allowed to open until the end of the night.

So after a great meal and good conversation and plenty of silliness, when it was time to say farewell for the evening, we went up through the attic of my apartment building and climbed out on the balcony, where we opened the present. It was essentially a miniature, heart-shaped hot air balloon. A student lit the wick, and after about a minute the balloon (made of paper) had enough air pressure that it lifted off the ground.

As we watched this bright red heart float away, my students were screaming with cheer and excitement, telling Joann and I the heart was both a symbol of the love between her and I, and a symbol of my students’ love for me. I think that night was the first time they’d actually used the word love this term. We cheered and watched for about two minutes until the light started to flicker and fade out.

But the most touching gift of the evening was a card, signed by all the students, with a lengthy message that made me stop a couple times, nearly producing tears but stopping short at watery eyes. I share the note here in its unedited form:

“Dear Matt,

“Happy New Year, and best wish to you! We are really so lucky to have such a good teacher. And we don’t know how to use those simple words to express our gratitude. Maybe a word “good” is far away to express how we love you. It’s really thoughtable. In a word, you are the number one in our heart.

“We love you, because you always do your best to make the boring classes more interesting; we love you, because you always keep smile and have patience with us even if we are absence of our mind; we love you, because you always stand by our side and think what we think; we love you, because you are willing to share your happiness time with us; we love you, because you are always concerned with our feeling, and you are like a sun, driving away all of the cloud in our mind; we love you, because you love us…

“We are thankful for your love not required to be earned, and thankful for you’ve done for us.

“It’s really a honor for us having this chance to meet your girlfriend—Jonna (Joann). She’s really beautiful and kind girl, and her voice is as sweet as herself. We wish the nicest things always for you, not only today, but all the year through, because we want you two happy and satisfactory!

“Finally, may warmest wishes, happy thoughts and friendly greeting come and stay with you two. May wherever you go, good luck be always with you. And we wish you two increasing happiness as the times goes by!”

It’s sometimes hard to get a read on the depth of 18-20 year-olds here. In some ways, they are very young for their age, at least compared to the kind of maturity we’d expect in the U.S. from this age group. They really are just sheltered a lot more than children in the U.S., are not as naturally prone to free-thinking and are a bit less self-aware. But they occasionally surprise, as they did here. It may be that they are deeper and more thoughtful than I give them credit for, but often just can’t express themselves through the language barrier.

That’s why I think this letter, clearly well-thought-out, was so touching—it was a sort of releasing of their bound-up emotions, and really did feel like an overwhelming flood of feelings and thoughts I didn’t realize were there to so great an extent. Reading that letter in front of them all was one of the most memorable moments of my time here in China.

To cap it all off, the next night was a big school Christmas performance before hundreds of students, consisting of 14 acts of a variety of singing, dancing, and acting. My freshman and I were the only act that was an entire class of students. I played guitar as we sang “our” song—“Let My Love Open the Door," a folksy remake of an 80’s song and one I taught my class early on in the semester as a language-learning tool. After extensive memorizing, singing, and doing some simple choreography, we (along with Joann) performed. It was a hit among the audience, and a “proud papa” moment for me (as Joann would put it) as I observed their extensive preparation, enthusiasm, and ability to cherish every minute of it...not to mention the deep joy in seeing the camaraderie that has been formed among all of us from September to now.