More than 20 years ago, I read a wonderful book about China –Wild Swans by Jung Chang. Her family memoir tells the story of three generations of women – her grandmother, her mother, and herself - and the experiences she relates bridge ancient and modern Chinese history. Since reading this book, I have dreamed of visiting China myself. Now, I am here, bridging cultures and forming impressions and understandings of this foreign and mysterious world.
As I write this, I have just completed my first day of classes with SABEH. To break the ice with my students, I asked them to choose three words to describe themselves. Among the more than 60 students whom I met today, several words kept recurring – optimistic, kind, active, warm-hearted, friendly, and hard-working. It was the rare student who chose an adjective that was not upbeat or positive in some way; but many students did not merely relay their words to the class and quickly sit down. Rather, they explained their choices in philosophical terms and told me and each other about how these words and ideas encompassed their lives and informed their daily choices and activities and outlooks. These students spoke not only of how they are but of how they hoped to be in the future, and it struck me that these students embody a spirit of community that is not always so easily and apparently found in the United States. As the students talked, I quickly realized that when I have used this same activity with my American students, they typically choose an entirely different array of words to describe themselves; they focus on their own individuality and often choose words that speak of who they are rather than how they are and how they might fit into the community around them. No one set of student-chosen words is better than the other; they are merely different – at least on the surface.
As an American teacher, I wondered how I could successfully bridge these two very different approaches to the world and provide a valuable learning experience for my Chinese students here in Fuzhou. As I continued to listen to these Chinese students talk and watched them interact with one another and with me, however, I quickly realized that fundamentally, all of my students – those whom I have taught in America and those whom I am teaching right now here in China – do share something; they share a sense of the future, a sense that what they are learning today will continue to matter tomorrow. So in this manner, the mysterious world of China is becoming more familiar to me.