Re’ai (with love) from Suzhou, China--
When I first came to China I was somewhat taken aback by all the personal questions thrown my way. Especially, by my students who ask questions with blunt force precision. I try not to mix words when answering their questions either. I found that being straightforward and honest in class gains their respect but most importantly their trust. When I first arrived here I answered each question in stride. I would tell myself that it’s a different culture and a learning experience for both my students and myself.
I discovered within a matter of a few months that my students were not trying to be insulting with the questions they ask. If you spend enough time in China you will learn that the Chinese language has very few pronouns. One word in the Chinese language can have four different meanings by the tone of the voice. That is why it is very difficult for a westerner to master the Chinese language. On the other hand the Chinese find grammar and the proper use of pronouns difficult to master.
People born in English speaking countries can ask direct and personal questions in a way that softens the blow. For the Chinese its all in the tone of the voice which doesn’t always translate well into the English language.
One day in class for example a female student raised her hand and asked, “Are all American’s fat, Teacher?”
“Yes,” I replied, “but not as fat as me.”
I then explained, “some Americans are thin. Some are thinner than others. You also have the thinnest of people in America,” I said while holding the palm of my hands close together. I then went on to say, “some Americans are fat some are even fatter than me. You also have the fattest of people in America,” I told them with outstretched arms and the class broke out with laughter.
I told them the story of the man who was so fat that when he died, they had to remove the roof of his house and hoist his body up from inside his home with a large Crane. This very large person had to be buried in a piano crate because he weighed over a thousand pounds.
“That is very fat, Teacher,” a well shaped female student said with an astonished look on her face.
I told them that I am somewhere in the middle of fat and the fattest of people in America. But hopefully the fruit juices, the rice, and the vegetables will kick in and I will lose some weight.
“Do you eat a lot of hamburgers and hotdogs in America?” a male student asked and the class listened for my answer with great curiosity.
“That and everything else” I said, “I like all foods, food is my greatest weakness.”
“So unhealthy, teacher,” a female student said with a concerned look on her face, “stay away from the noodles, too, no good for you.”
I realize now that it's just their way of caring for their foreign teacher. I also found that what I am offering my students is part of myself. Our life experiences are part of the lessons of life. We can never lose who we are in the world and who we are can become the greatest gift to others. My classes are not designed to fill young minds with mundane facts but rather to open their minds to new ideas. My classes can also help them gain new perspectives not just on life but on what they can offer the world. I try to get my students to draw inward to help them write about the things that shaped their lives. Those experiences may be positive or negative but in the end they influence how we relate to others. Students learn a great deal from what they read in books but they can also learn a great deal more about themselves from what they write. I suppose that is one of the reasons why I became a writer as it’s also a way of reaching out and connecting with others.
My students always ask me why I came to China.
I always find myself pausing for a second trying to locate the perfect words or phrase that they can easily understand. “I fell flat on my face before coming to China,” I told them with blunt honesty. “But the failures in life are not the ones who fall flat on their face. They are the ones who remain flat on their face. The moment I stood up and brushed myself off was the moment I took a fresh start in life. I discovered that moment not just within myself but here in your classroom……”
“You’re a good teacher,” a student said without raising her hand.
“China,” I replied, “was another opportunity for me to learn and grow.”
“We glad you’re here, Teacher” someone else said sitting in the back of the room.
“People are always crossing my path in life,” I told them. “I am very grateful to be here. I hope people like you will continue to cross my path and touch my heart. I also hope that what you get out of this class is greater insights that life is what you make of it. The greatest opportunities in life are within you.”
“We enjoy your class, Teacher,” a female student replied with some difficulty in finding the words to express herself.
“All of you are making your living in life,” I told them, “and what you give to others makes your life worth living.” At that moment the bell sounded and the student voices broke out in Chinese chatter.
That was my last class of the day. I spent the rest of the afternoon answering emails and text messages. I realized than that when you truly care about others, others will truly care about you.
Always with love, Thomas F. O’Neill
Other articles, short stories, and commentaries by Thomas F. O'Neill can be found at the links below.