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:
“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.