A Day of Preparations

Thought for the day: “One who knows his destiny does not resent Heaven; one who knows himself does not resent others.” Xunzi


Yesterday morning Janet and I met for the first time the group with whom we will be working for the next two weeks. They are 22 teachers in junior and senior middle schools in Kunming and surrounds, but I think none come from so far way that they are staying here rather than going home at night. I must find out. Most are married; the one young woman who admitted to being single did so with some degree of embarrassment, I thought, and she did mention having a dog. Most are married with a child, though one woman said her family had five members: her husband, herself, a dog, and two fish. One young woman had lived in Cincinnati for six months on some sort of exchange program. She wants to return. Not surprisingly her English is pretty good, but somewhat rusty, I think. In the group is a math teacher who occasionally teaches English. She seems quite shy, which no doubt is due to insecurity. Another young woman, when introducing her partner, Daisy, ran to the front of the class and led us in cheers—“Daisy, Daisy, DAISY!” She speaks Chinese, English, and Thai.


And then there is Helen, whose family name is Yang. Yesterday she gave as one of her goals for our class “Love stories.” Today she told us that she is a little bit plump and a little bit beautiful, so her students call her Teacher Gui Fei. Yang Gui Fei was the beautiful consort of Tang emperor Xuanzong who so distracted him that he lost control of the empire. Now there is a love story. And after Lester finished his lecture this afternoon she asked him, “How did you meet your wife?” She can smell a love story from a mile away.


Finally, even though I know I am notoriously bad at judging the ages of Chinese, I was still very surprised when I learned one teacher had been teaching for 28 years and another for 31 years. Reflecting on them after class at first I felt quite presumptuous to be talking about teaching methods, demonstrating teaching methods, holding forth on teaching methods in the presence of these two who had clearly survived what are to me the difficult conditions of Chinese classrooms. But further reflection led me to a couple of ameliorating thoughts. First, we can have a conversation about teaching. Second, that conversation can go on in English. As long as I don’t pretend to know more than they, for surely I don’t, we’ll be okay. I remember Chaucer’s line about the clerk of Oxford: “And gladly would he teach, and gladly learn.” No doubt I will learn a lot from them.


Chaucer’s line led me further, led me to a possible answer to the questions, “Why do you people return to China to teach over and over again? And to the same city, over and over again? And pay for the privilege, over and over again?” Well, teaching is fun, sure enough—cheering for Daisy was a kick— but of course it’s also hard work. So perhaps it’s the other half of the line—“gladly learn”—that might prove fruitful. Do we learn from what we do here? When I say something really stupid in front of my grandchildren they respond with a mournfully derisive, “Oh, Bapa.” I can hear them now as I repeat, “Do we learn from what we do here?” “Oh, Bapa.” Stupid question.


So it’s not do we learn but what do we learn? There’s a Chinese word – guanxi -which means connection or relationship. It’s a very important word in Chinese culture, since relationships of all sorts are very important. For example, the Chinese system of kinship terms is much more elaborate than the English-language system. That is to say, familial relationships are spelled out in much finer detail. I suspect that what we learn here, or what we form here, are relationships—with fellow volunteers, with Global Volunteer staff, with the hotel staff, with the locality, with the country and its culture, and especially with our students. These relationships, I suggest, are what draw us back over and over again. Or, to put it in Teacher Gui Fei’s terms, it’s a love story between China and us.

– Michael

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