Thursday, November 26, 2009

innocence makes the heart grow fonder

Despite what you might think, I’m not that well-traveled. Even so, I’m confident that there is no place like China in the whole wide world. Here’s one reason. The other day I was waiting for my Great Gatsby quizzes to finish their copying in the copy store on campus and I ran into one of my old students named Alice, who’s incredibly short and whose English is more than a few rungs below ‘intermediate’. I didn’t remember that her name was Alice at the time; so I asked for her Chinese name: Zhang Yuan Yuan. She heard me speak Chinese with the copy store worker and was impressed. She told me I had “made a great progress.” I then told her that my Chinese was not that great and she should test my skills by asking me some questions in Chinese. She agreed with glee. Suddenly, the seemingly slow-witted little girl began to spit out sentences at light speed. I told her to slow down and answered her questions the best I could. As she was speaking I noticed that her pronunciation wasn’t like that of someone from our city, Baoding, which is located in the north of China, in the Hebei province. She sounded like someone from the south. So, I asked her where she was from. Jiangxi, she said, which is in the south. I was right.

“You speak southern Chinese,” I told her in broken Chinese, “People from Baoding say bu sher, but you say bu suh.” (bu shi = no, it’s not)

Just then I realized that the entire score of people in the copy store had been riveted with our Chinese conversation because they suddenly began clapping. They couldn’t believe that an American could hear the difference in Chinese dialects. I can’t imagine Americans or Canadians or Englishmen or Belgians celebrating for a foreigner like that (those are the only other places I’ve been). This isn’t the first time this has happened. About a month ago I struck up a Chinese conversation with a girl on the bus and even though I could have sworn the mass of bodies on the bus had been minding their own business, it wasn’t so. The girl told me she worked at McDonald’s and she eventually told me that I should come visit her there, an obvious flirtation. For some reason, at that moment I picked up my head and looked around. Everyone was facing me, each set of eyes were fixed on me and their mouths were gaping. What is he going to say?? they seemed to beg.

Another example. The same night after I left my conversation with Alice, I went to Hebei University to meet up with the other teachers on our team and we put on an English Night. It was a little lackluster, to be frank. Not only were we subdued to a smaller room with less students because of H1N1, but some of us teachers were a little tired and not quite in the mood to lead songs and games in front of 100 Chinese students (yes, that is less than normal). But despite ourselves, it was a success. The six of us, plus 2 other teachers who we have become close with, formed a panel on stage to discuss our families. Each of us tackled a question that we had chosen and prepared for before-hand. My question was, “What is the most difficult thing about your relationship with your family?” I chose this question because I wanted to talk about our family’s struggles through divorce, and how painful it has been. I wanted to stress the importance in mourning that loss (and how it took me nearly a decade to do so), and that when someone wrongs you, it’s an opportunity for forgiveness. My family’s story isn’t over, I told them, we are still growing. After we answered our prepared questions, we opened the floor for the students to ask questions. Two students wanted Amelia’s attention, but each went about their approach in different ways. During one of the students’ questions, I saw a girl a few seats away from me writing frantically on a small piece of paper. After a couple drafts which she discarded, she settled on one and then folded it several times, and asked the students in front of her to pass it to Amelia, who was standing next to me. I couldn’t help but peak: “You’ve made a great impression on me with your story and I want to make friends with you.” Amelia looked up at the girl and the student pecked her head down a little and waved a cute, embarrassed wave. Another student raised his hand to ask a question. It was a boy with dark skin and he bravely stood up and said he had three questions “for the beautiful girl standing next to Jon.” Summary: One, is she single? Two, would she date a Chinese boy? Three, would she consider anyone in this room? We all laughed and I covered my face with my hands like one of the embarrassed Chinese girls would. Amelia’s answers: Yes. Yes. No. “I’m a teacher and you are students!” she reminded them. Everyone laughed.

During my short talk on the panel, I got choked up and my voice broke a little. I didn’t think that would happen when I had prepared what I had to say, but that moment I felt close to the situation, despite the thousands of miles and days that separate me from its clutches. Personally, the distance of China has an estranging effect on my relationships at home. My heart has a hard time extending beyond my current surroundings. But that moment it did, and I hope for more moments like that, that will remind me what the Father is doing my heart and wants to do in the lives of those I love. As the great philosopher once said, “Distance means nothing to me. It only makes me want to see you longer.” And that was even before he wrote My Friends Over You.