I am completely charmed by China. That’s not to say this adventure hasn’t had its fair share of frustrations, or that I’m not looking forward to winding down and heading home when it’s time. It’s just that the darker moments provide a backdrop that highlights the moments I’ll forever remember as magic.
First, let’s talk about some of the challenges. Beyond not speaking a word of the local language and getting used to squat toilets (which honestly aren’t that bad), eating is tricky because there are bones in absolutely anything with meat in it, and there’s meat in everything. Also, there’s really no part of any animal, vegetable or mineral that doesn’t count as edible, so there are things I would have considered unacceptable back home that have become a regular part of my diet. Duck’s blood, anyone?
Walking anywhere is a bit of a risk. My daily 2.3 mile walk to work, for example, almost always includes some obstacle that could prove deadly to the unwary passerby, and that’s in addition to traffic rules that are treated as friendly suggestions. By “obstacle,” I mean things like meters-deep, unmarked holes in the middle of a sidewalk that weren’t there the day before, rusty razor wire lurking at face level and camouflaged by vegetation, and huge chunks of asphalt falling over the side of the overpass above the sidewalk that explode into flying bullets of rock when they hit the ground inches in front of your feet after narrowly missing your oh-so-vulnerable head.
Work life is also challenging. I knew I’d be teaching English when I came to China. I didn’t know I’d be teaching an academic skills course, a cultural awareness course, or writing and directing a high school stage production of “Cinderella.” I also didn’t know I’d be developing the curriculum and creating the materials for all of the above. My English courses are a breeze by comparison; teaching five different classes of 45-50 seventh graders and assorted 10th and 11th graders feels like a vacation from the grind of lesson planning.
The actual teaching is also the source of most of the above-mentioned magic moments. I have loved almost every minute of in-class and one-on-one time with “my” kids, and I will miss them dearly when this chapter comes to a close. They are a constant surprise, inspiration and delight. Watching them work harder to master a new language than I’ve ever worked at anything in my life, and sharing their traumas and triumphs along the way has made every bump (or hole) in my road through China worth navigating.
Last Saturday, I spent an hour with the 15-year-old boy I’ve been tutoring. I have trouble pronouncing his true name, but his English name is Harry. He’s a sweetheart and a dreamer, and we’ve had some pretty fantastic conversations. We were talking about daily life in China, and I told him that morning I’d seen a tiny kitten wearing a pearl necklace, riding on the floorboard of a rusty electric scooter driven by a lady wearing a hot-pink business suit and sneakers.
Hearing about the kitten led Harry to tell me about his cat, which he adores. The cat’s name, he told me, means Three Good Things. Harry’s name means A Gift from the Sky. I struggle to capture the charm that China holds for me in words, but “Three Good Things” and “A Gift from the Sky” seem like a pretty good start.