Saturday, October 18, 2008

Signs That You're A Stranger in Your Own Country

I've heard that American-born Chinese call themselves “bananas” or “Twinkies” - yellow on the outside, white on the inside. So what do you call a white girl who's been living in China and thinks she's Chinese? What's white on the outside and yellow on the inside – an egg? That's kind of what I feel like right now as I'm trying to get used to American life again. I may look like I belong here, but I feel like a foreigner. If you've ever lived outside of your home country for an extended period of time, you may understand.

Here are a few signs that you may be a stranger in your own country:

1. You try to pay the exact price marked on products in the store, forgetting that this is the country of sales tax.

2. You forget to leave a tip in restaurants, because in the country where you've been living there is no tipping.

3. You haven't driven in so long, your drivers' license is expired.

4. Your driver's license has been expired so long that you have to re-take the test at the DMV.

5. You drive 35 mph on a 55 mph interstate and it seems really fast.

6. You have to think for a few seconds about what language to answer the phone in.

7. Little words like “thank you,” “excuse me,” and “you're welcome” keep coming out in the wrong language.

8. A trip to the supermarket is overwhelming, and simple things like choosing a bottle of shampoo from the myriad of options takes about 10 minutes!

9. You find yourself staring at all the “foreigners” everywhere (people who look like you!).

10. You eavesdrop on people's conversations in public places, because everyone is speaking ENGLISH!

11. You have the wrong currency in your wallet, and the cashier is not amused.

12. Explaining where you live and why and what you're doing here takes way too long, so you start avoiding the questions.

13. Filling people in on where your family is and what they're doing creates a lot of blank, incredulous stares. (“Well, my parents moved back to the US from Costa Rica, my brother Daniel is here from Argentina, my brother Michael is currently in Korea and China, but he's living in LA, Steve lives in DC but just got back from the Middle East...”)

14. You stare at the “home address” and “home phone” lines on application forms and registration forms, not knowing what address to put, and knowing that if you tried to put your real home address (in China), it would probably not be accepted (it would have to be in Chinese characters, which is especially complicated if you're filling things out online), and whatever was being mailed to you would probably never arrive. So you try to remember which address you used last time, to try to keep it a little consistent: “Was it Dad's work address? Was it my cousin's address? Was it Steve's address in DC? Or Grandma's address in Texas? Or was it our old home address in Va Bch, where my family doesn't live anymore...???”

15. You insist on walking to the nearest supermarket, because you don't have a car of your own yet and that's what you always do in China... Then you're frustrated by the lack of good sidewalks, the stares from people zipping by in their cars, and the distance that doesn't seem very far when you're driving but takes MUCH longer than expected when walking – because NOBODY walks to the store here!

16. You get all excited seeing Asian faces in the local Chinese take-out place and can't wait to try out your Mandarin, only to be received by blank stares and “We're from Vietnam.”

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Suitcases in my Closet

They've been waiting.

Silently. Patiently. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. Collecting dust. Sitting motionless. They're waiting - the suitcases in my closet.

There's the small black and gray rolling carry-on. The one that I got as a going-away present from Norfolk Chrstn Lower School the year I left. That was the last year I was "Senorita Jeter," the Spanish teacher. The year before I went to China.

One of my little pig-tailed students in her navy blue school uniform lugged it down the aisle that chapel service when the teachers surprised me with gifts for my trip. With all the teachers and students from kindergarten to fifth grade watching, the tiny blond girl solemnly pulled the suitcase all the way up to the front where I stood, teary-eyed and overwhelmed. The teachers said it was to get me started on my travels around the world. They made me open it, right there in front of everyone, and pull out the goodies they'd crammed into the pockets and compartments. Stickers, stamps, construction paper, flashcards, children's picture books, travel-size toiletries, and bags of chocolate and candy for the road!

That little carry-on bag has been around the world with me. I've taken it to China, Costa Rica, Germany, Korea and Japan. I've used it in L.A., Texas, Chicago, New York, Kansas, Minnesota and Miami. It's bumped and rolled its way through airports, trains, buses, boats, and planes. Five years of travel has taken its toll on my faithful little bag. There are places now where the seams are coming apart, and the handle comes out if you pull it up too far, and the wheels don't roll as smoothly as they once did. But it's still the perfect size for an overnight, a weekend trip, or an emergency bag for the plane with changes of clothes and toiletries in case my checked bag gets lost. The bright green duct tape "M" on the back makes it easy to identify, leaving no doubt as to its owner!

Beside my black and gray carry-on is my rolling backpack with the matching green "M" on the front of it. It's a newer addition to my suitcase collection. I inherited it a year ago from a friend in Wichita, Kansas, when I needed an extra little bag for a trip. It's since been all over my city in China, carting books and supplies to and from school, or lugging home fresh vegetables, eggs, meat, and fruit from the street market. I've used it for day trips to nearby cities - carrying it on my back with a map and a bottle of water at the beginning of the day and rolling it back to the train station with purchases I've acquired by the end of the day.

But I haven't needed my rolling backpack recently. Now when I go shopping I drive the car to the supermarket and fill the trunk with plastic bags of neatly pre-packaged food products. I don't have to lug my groceries home on foot. And I don't travel much these days. My biggest trips now are to the bank or the post office. I haven't needed a carry-on for a plane trip in quite a while.

So my little suitcases sit forlornly at the back of my closet, behind the tennis shoes and sandals, still and empty. Silent reminders of places I've been, yet with the hope of adventures still to come. Someday I'll pull them out again, dust them off, and hit the road again. And they'll roll on to new destinations, bulging with clothes and snacks and books and possibilities. But until then, they're waiting - the suitcases in my closet.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Little Emperor

This was written April 11th, 2007 about one of my most challenging students in China - who was only 4 years old! I just found it in a file and decided to share it.

An authoritative little voice echoing through the halls announces Tommy's* arrival. Floating up the stairs behind him is the patient, indulging voice of his mother, coaxing, pleading, and occasionally giving gentle reprimands which go unheeded by this 4-year-old "little emperor." Tommy's in charge of his little kingdom, and he knows it. As soon as he steps into a room, he surveys his new territory, like a general scoping out the area under his command.

But when Tommy enters my classroom for his evening English lesson, the battle of wills begins in earnest. Because in my classroom, I'm in charge. It's not a democracy. It's a monarchy. And the teacher is the ruling monarch. This little emperor has to learn that he can't rule my classroom as if it's his kingdom. So as soon as I hear his determined footsteps approaching, I take a deep breath and paste on a smile to greet him cheerfully as he marches in the door.

Tommy's always the first to arrive. I could set the clock by his dramatic entrance. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 4:40 p.m. he shows up for his English class - a full 20 minutes before class begins. If I'm not in the classroom on the 2nd floor, he'll come marching up to the 3rd floor office or computer room to search for me, with his weary mother always a few steps behind.

The very first time Tommy came to class, it was only the Father's grace that kept me composed and firm as he challenged every instruction, defying me to my face. He refused to participate in the songs and activities, he made faces at me, and he said very rude and disrespectful things to me (I could only understand some of it because it was all in Chinese, but the intention was very clear).

An hour had never seemed so long. As soon as the last student left, I locked the door of the classroom, turned on some music on my CD player, put my head down on my desk, and cried. For a good 5 minutes. Then I had to compose myself and prepare for my next class - which began in another 5 minutes. And I must confess, that night I pr-ed that Tommy would never come back.

At first I thought my pr was being answered. Tommy didn't come back. For 2 weeks. Then he suddenly showed up again, with as much attitude as ever. And the battles began again.

For all his stubbornness and defiance, Tommy is a very smart little boy. His English ability is more on a level with the 6 and 7 year olds than the 4 and 5 year olds. And if he wants to he can work quite diligently on the phonics worksheets or writing activities in class. But if he decides he doesn't want to something, woe to the person who tries to persuade him otherwise.

I insist that the kindergarten students ask for things politely in class, in simple English, saying "Eraser, please," instead of yelling the demand across the room, and saying "Thank you, Teacher," when I give them something. Tommy needs to be reminded of this every time.

Recently, when my Chinese assistant gave him a pencil for the worksheet, I gently prompted Tommy, "Say, 'Thank you, Teacher'." He immediately turned on me with flashing eyes and retorted in Chinese, "I WON'T say thank you! She hasn't given me an ERASER yet!!!"

Other times I repeatedly tell him to apologize to me or to another student for grabbing something or hitting and he stubbornly refuses to apologize, or yells "SORRY!" in my face like a verbal attack.

I've never seen such complete disrespect for authority in such a small package. He's yelled at me, slapped me, and even spit in my face! And the most maddening part of it is seeing his mother (who is always hovering nervously in the background) do nothing about it.

But I rejoice in the small victories. One night I was thrilled to see Tommy working steadily and quietly on his worksheets. He only had to be reprimanded a few times that night during "The Wheels on the Bus" song. And I almost hugged him when he said, unprompted, "Thank you, Teacher," as I handed him a pencil! I was careful to praise him often for his good behavior and I gave his mother a glowing report at the end of class. I was rewarded by a genuinely cheerful, "Goodbye, Teacher!" and a mischievous grin as he left. He can be pretty cute sometimes. I'm actually starting to like the little rascal.

I wonder how often the Father is tempted to give up on us completely. We can be pretty unlovable sometimes. We stubbornly insist on doing things our way, ignoring His instructions, thinking we're running the show. We laugh when He corrects us, we mock His words, and we've even been known to slap Him and spit in His face.

"While we were still sinners, (much worse than little Tommy), Chrst died for us." Did He wonder if we were worth it? Did He lock the door at night, put His head in His arms, and cry over our stubbornness?

My struggles with a willful 4-year-old in an English class in China seem very small comparatively. If the Father could love ME and even die for me when I'm such a sinful mess, I know He can give me the grace to love even little Tommy.

*Not his real name.