About a week ago, I hopped onto an international flight for the first time, eager to begin my role in helping to teach students English at the Dandelion Middle School. My goal, I believed, was to help my students learn English so that they could ultimately pass the high school entrance exam before graduation.
I was prepared, I thought, for the difficulties that I would encounter as someone who can’t communicate well in Chinese and as a teacher and mentor for middle school students. Something that I don’t think I was anticipating was the way that some people I have encountered assume that I can speak fluent Chinese. Both of my parents are from China, so I look Asian. On the flight to Beijing, I could hear the flight attendants speaking English to the passengers who were clearly American, but when they turned to me, they would speak fast, fluent Chinese, and I would stare at them blankly. They did not realize I was American until I spoke broken Chinese and eventually switched over to English.
Because of this language barrier, I have been frustrated with myself countless times already. I do know a few phrases and can sometimes carry a conversation in Chinese if the other person knows some English. Sometimes, I feel comfortable enough to start up a conversation with a teacher or student who speaks only Chinese. But the conversation frequently takes a difficult turn when there is one crucial word to a statement I am trying to make, and my vocabulary is so limited that I cannot explain the term in Chinese, and so the conversation takes a somewhat awkward turn. In these times, I think back to when I was younger, and I was almost embarrassed by the names that I carried as a first-generation Asian-American. I wanted to be a “normal” American kid and resisted my parents’ attempts to get me to speak Chinese with them in public and otherwise. Looking back, I wished that I had embraced Chinese language and culture more openly. Especially now that I am in China and am able to experience the country where my parents were born and grew up, my hunger to be more connected to Chinese culture has progressively grown greater, and my lack of language skills has definitely been a barrier for me discovering new things.
Surprisingly, I have had an easier time communicating with my students than I had anticipated. Conversation has not been easy by any means, but I have found that I can connect with my students without using words. Right from the start, there were several students who welcomed me with open arms, and I am touched beyond words by the way that they will offer me a seat next to them at lunchtime or patiently explain Chinese words or terms that I don’t understand or give me little gifts like a dandelion. Even if we can’t have full conversations, we can still play games and run around together, and after just a handful of days together, I already feel like I am a part of the class.
The more I get to know my students, the more I feel as if I came in with the wrong goal in mind. My students are not just students. They are hard-working, disciplined children who run laps in proper formation at 6:20 AM, they are concentrated students who sit attentive in class and peruse their work, and they are playful children who grace the playground with their musical laughs and fiercely competitive basketball matches. My main goal is no longer just to try and teach these kids English. It has gained dimension. I want to connect with the kids, to inspire them, to help them through that awkward middle school stage in life.
Teaching English is still important to me, but I think that I now realize that it is not the objective improvement in scores or the gain of scholastic knowledge that is the most important. It’s the people themselves who matter the most.