The Lost Laowai blog has a great project in the works. Ryan is asking that expats blog about “If I knew then what I know now…” concerning life in China.
This week was an especially emotional one for me. I visited the first University for which I taught. I even visited one of the classes I taught that is about to graduate. I received a visual hug and a room full of warm smiles. Ah, it is good to be a teacher. It had been a rare gift to be able share in the pleasures of education in concert with these students most of whom were the first in their families to ever attend college.
I went there to advocate for a job for a new teacher wanting to move from Macau to “real” China and a more heart-filling experience. He will get it there in classrooms that reach 104 degrees after climbing stairs to the classrooms on the 9th floor. He’ll get the experience he wants teaching rural students hungry for an education and a better life.
They had a few concerns about his age (he is 23) as they had suffered through a culture-shocked man about the same age a few years ago and did not want to have to nurse a newcomer through homesickness, depression and language difficulties again.
My second and most important reason for visiting was to mend a few fences. You see, I came to China thinking that my 17 years in other Asian countries gave me a leg-up on China, that my twenty-plus years of teaching gave me an edge in the classroom and that acculturation would be easy. In reality: I was hit as hard, if not harder, than the expat above that they had endured a year earlier, but I hid it better–kind of.
I was always questioning the system and constantly hounding the administration for its lack of care and feeding of the foreign staff. I rebuked a few teachers and office personnel for what I saw were violations of common rules of educational etiquette. I treated my station as one of privilege when in reality I was an ungrateful guest in a home that was still trying to understand how to balance duty and rules with a need to please….
I took the opportunity last week to sincerely apologize for my cultural insensitivity. I assured them that I had grown as a person, a teacher and visitor in their country because of them; in retrospect I now know they were doing the best they could under difficult financial and political constraints. I let them know that the teacher I was recommending was already more mature than I might ever be….
They then informed me that hey had always viewed me as a friend of the school and of China. They went on to say that the cultural divide that I so often spoke of was a gap we viewed from the very same rim. It was NOT the normal minimizing of conflict that is common here. It was a sincere affirmation of a connection that I had felt shame over dishonoring with my repeated petulance. It has made my eyes well with happiness many times this week.
If I had it all to do again– I would study Chinese from day one, shut up and listen more, and most of all, look very closely for the small acts of kindness that I as a westerner had come to expect as routine and I would express my thanks for them often.
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