When I first walked down the small dirt alley, between the green and white striped columns shaped to look like oversized pencils, I knew this school was going to be a bit different from the others.
For my first year teaching, I had requested that my company place me with a local Chinese kindergarten rather than with an international or bilingual school. I had interviewed with a few international schools, all with impressively clean, white hallways and a myriad of Chinese teachers and students whose English speaking skills were comfortably established somewhere between beginner and intermediate. However, it just wasn't what I wanted. This - walls cluttered with laminated children's drawings, colorful paint used liberally, and barely a single word of English heard or spoken - is what I was in China for.
Of course, things didn't start out as ideally as I had hoped. Twenty-six 3-year-olds stared at me with widening ebony eyes that began to take on the wetness of stones in a river. Before I knew it, two were crying and grabbing hold of their Chinese teachers' wrists, hiding their heads from my view, or more likely hiding my head from their views. One of the teachers whose English was about as good as my basic Chinese, apologized profusely, explaining that: "They no see a lot of foreigners."
I smiled and assured her it was no problem, but the first few weeks continued handing unexpected lessons.
I found the organized dance routines during outdoor playtime to be eerily synchronized and would often find myself tripping over the moves as my kids mechanically performed them with a familiarity that I envied. The teachers spoke to me in Mandarin that sounded like a garbled, fast-forwarded version of what I had practiced for months on my integrated Chinese listening CD. To say the least, things were overwhelming.
But eventually, and I don't really know when, something began to shift. I memorized all my kids' Chinese names and finally stopped mistaking Ding Dang for Ding Dong. I became the resident hair stylist, refastening hair ties, replacing barrettes, and rebraiding braids after nap time.
I started to wish that schools in America could function a bit more like my school did - making kids responsible for dressing themselves after their naps, giving them breakfast, lunch and dinner, and letting them have snowball fights, learn how to use scissors, and hug their teachers without anyone fearing an impending lawsuit.
When I would retell stories to my friends, "the kids" became "my kids" and every success and failure of theirs was something I experienced as an extension of myself.
One day, I was making a parking lot out of building blocks with one of the kids, Hao Kai.
Hao Kai was pointing at all the blocks, switching back and forth between Chinese and English words, when he stopped and told me: "Amy, I love you." Touched, I responded: "Well, I love you too!"
In a moment of simple misunderstanding, he looked at me a bit perplexed, thought a moment, and replied confidently: "Yes. I love you three."
At first, it was the cuteness of the statement that made me repeat the story to friends and family. But gradually, it became also a source of pride. I had taught Hao Kai numbers, and he was applying the rules to what he had heard as "I love you two!"
The mistake itself was entirely logical. Being fluent in English, I take these things for granted, but teaching English to Chinese children, is almost like re-appreciating the gift of language itself and understanding new ways to interpret the culture you're teaching it in.
On my final day at the school, things were fittingly similar to how I had started there.
Twenty-six pairs of ebony eyes stared at me, increasing in wetness. However, little hands now grabbed at my wrists, little faces kissed my face and hands, and proudly spurted phrases of English.
We went back and forth up to, "I love you 20," before it was time to go. I didn't bother correcting them, though. After all, appreciating the gift of language goes both ways, and I couldn't help but enjoy the English I was learning that day.
For China Daily
(China Daily 01/24/2011)