Everyone is born with talents, and every person holds within their hearts special dreams. As children, we are all born with unique individual curiosity for particular things—and this was the case with me. As early as I can remember, I have had a deep love for singing, dancing, being around people, and had an insatiable curiosity for foreign languages. I am the daughter of an Italian immigrant that married an American. Therefore, from as early as I could remember, I was always surrounded by Italian speakers and I was a frustrated little girl because being raised speaking English, I could not understand Italian.
To try to learn this language, I would rummage through dictionaries and try to translate as much as I could, as quickly as I could. I convinced my parents to purchase me a program designed to teach English-speaking children Italian; once I got my hands on this resource, I loved listening and learning, and the Italian that was taught to me was quickly absorbed. Armed preliminary knowledge of this foreign language going into intermediate school, I excelled in my Italian studies in the 6thand 7thgrade. Not soon after completing my 7thyear of school, my family announced that they would be moving from my home state of New York to Arizona. In Arizona, Italian was not offered as a foreign language in the schools and so I chose the closest subject that was available, which was Spanish.
Although I initially resisted Spanish because of my love for Italian, I soon became fascinated with it as well and learned it quickly. I continued studying Spanish when I went to college, and even spent a couple of summers studying abroad in Mexico to sharpen my language skills. I also briefly returned to study Italian during my college years and took a semester of French as well. It was deep within my heart to become a Spanish teacher someday, but as my college years progressed, I was unsure if it was what I really wanted. I started to second-guess my career choice and after much deliberation, I decided to study business and accounting instead.
After my last year of college was completed, I went on a long back-packing trip across Europe with my best friend. It was a wonderful experience and we enjoyed meeting people on our adventure, trying new foods, appreciating history and practicing foreign languages with the locals. After the trip was over, real life began and I can’t even begin to tell you how quickly ten years passed.
During my years as an accountant, I had a dream. I always wondered what my life would have been like if I ever lived in a foreign country and what it would have been like to be a teacher. I never truly loved accounting, although I worked very, very hard. I began seriously considering if I should take a chance, be adventurous, and take some risks. It wasn’t soon after that a dear friend of mine who is currently living in Shanghai, China, invited me for a visit. I thought to myself: “China?! I’ve never been to China before, let alone Asia. What could possibly be waiting for me in China?” He convinced me that there was a whole other world out there to see and explained how China had some of the most amazing cities in the world. I presented this idea to my manager at work at the time. My manager, having been both to India and China and having wonderful experiences, encouraged me to go. I wasn’t sure… but, one evening, when I was home alone, I started to look up airline tickets and made arrangements to secure a travel visa. I called my friend living in Shanghai and we arranged dates for me to visit. I pulled out my credit card, made my purchase, and was ready to go.
I visited both Shanghai and Beijing in September and October of 2012. China was NOT what I expected it to be. I walked into China with open arms, and to my surprise, with open arms, the Chinese likewise received me. Everywhere I went in Shanghai, there was delicious food to eat. I was also amazed as I walked through the public parks just to see how many of the Chinese people were out and about, just enjoying life—smiling, exercising, playing games, being friendly. I will never forget, one day while I was playing cards in the park with my friends in Shanghai, and elderly Chinese man approached us. He patiently rested his hands behind his back, glanced over our table where we were playing, and smiled upon us, in complete curiosity. Yes, we were a table of complete外国人，with one lady among them, playing cards as if she were “one of the boys.” I loved this moment, and I relished this man’s sincere interest in just watching what we were doing. I was equally as curious and interested in the Chinese – especially when I saw women in public places, dancing in groups in the evenings for exercise or groups of couples doing ballroom dancing in the beautiful parks during the day. It was lovely.
Soon after Shanghai, I ventured to Beijing, where I met with some Chinese locals introduced to me by some mutual friends in Arizona. These kind people, who I now considered my personal friends, treated me like I was a member of their family. This reminded me very much of the Italian values that I grew up with and I connected very much to the hospitality and warmth of the Chinese culture. In Beijing, there were very few signs in English or Pinyin. Therefore, I was forced to learn a few phrases and words in Chinese. Prior to this trip, I never had an interest in Chinese before, but I found certain aspects of the language so very fascinating that I became interested in learning it. I bought myself a book when I returned home to study the language, but I did not look at it when I got home – perhaps I wasn’t ready… yet.
It wasn’t soon after my travels to China that I was sent away on business to London for work. Again, I was in my “element” because I was away from home, experiencing something new. Something about going to London finally changed something in me. While I was there, something inside my soul told me that it was time to leave美国. I knew I was time to take a risk, try something new, follow the dreams that never silenced themselves, and embrace a challenge that I never imagined before. When I came home, I started to explore. I was obsessed with the idea of two things: teaching like I had always wanted to, living in a foreign country again, but this time, as an adult, and taking on the challenge of learning a new language. I became obsessed with the idea of completely changing my life.
On I went, website after website gathering information. I also became focused on simplifying my life – I got rid of most of my worldly possessions, save my car. I made a silent decision in my heart without family and friends knowing, as I knew they would oppose and become fearful. I remember every two weeks or so selling another piece of furniture in my apartment until it was almost empty… because then, and only then, would I know I would have no excuse to “have things too many things to take care of” at home that would prevent me from leaving. I took three months to be very selfish, spending a lot of time alone, and studying to obtain my certification in teaching English as a foreign language. I knew I would want to work with adults, but I wasn’t sure where to begin. I spoke with people that I knew who had personally lived abroad and have taught abroad, and a very good friend of mine told me about his experience in Zhaoqing, and soon after, put me in touch with the university. I spoke with the officials at the university and it was determined that I had the experience and the personality that they were looking for, and to my great surprise and pleasure, extended me an invitation to work and teach at their university.
The experience since then has been life-changing. To be given the gift to teach and to influence young minds has been simply incredible. Also, for me, the students have taught me the great importance of “slowing down.” I will never forget one day when my students took me on a visit to Dinghu Mountain. We spent the afternoon together—talking, singing, and hiking. We westerners are always concerned with the future, and getting things done as quickly as possible. Not my Chinese students, and certainly not the Chinese. It seems to me that Chinese people have mastered the art of living in the moment and appreciating beauty for what it is. I remember when we hiked up the mountain that they had no problem taking frequent rests to replenish their bodies, to laugh, and to talk. A typical westerner may have rushed to the top, concerned to arrive on time for the next appointment for the day. This completely takes away any opportunity to enjoy the present moment for what it is. On this same day, these students taught me another very important lesson: enjoying life’s simple pleasures. One does not need to travel to the far lengths of the world or obtain a doctorate degree to look at everything as something that can be smiled at, and this is wonderful. When we arrived at a river in the middle of Dinghu Mountain, the students insisted that I take off my shoes and relax my feet in the water. It was so amazing to me just how much this simple activity could bring them so much happiness. If I were in the United States on a similar hike, I might have worried about the time, or even considered the idea boring. However, once I put my feet into the water---they were so excited that I actually did it, that they started laughing and smiling and also joining me in the fun. They showed me how the simple attitude of taking something so small and simple can make everything in life so much sweeter and so much more enjoyable. This can be applied to every experience.
Also, the Chinese sincerity when it comes to appreciating natural beauty is remarkable. We have completely forgotten how to appreciate true beauty the west. For example, as I am new to Zhaoqing, one of the first questions of all of the Chinese residents there are, “have you been to see Dinghu Mountain?” or “have you visited the Seven Star Crags?” To the local residents, it doesn’t matter how many times they have visited these places. They still maintain the same level of excitement and appreciation for the marvels of nature that have been given to us, no matter how many times they have gone. This renewed several principles within me as an adult that not only to I feel I have been deficient in, but also the west has been deficient in: curiosity, wonder, and the ability to just sit… sit, and pay attention to the simplicity and beauty of everything that surrounds us.
This goes a long way, especially with how my students treat time. I’ll never forget that for my first few weeks of classes, I noticed my students would arrive late. At first, I was very irritated, until a student explained to me that people aren’t so concerned with punctuality in China and that it’s not considered disrespectful. So, I adjusted by starting my classes about five minutes later and by being more flexible with my students. In the end, it has only helped me to become not just more flexible with my students, but a more flexible, patient person in general.
What’s more? The students have a way of making me, their老师feel incredibly special. I know that many of them haven’t had much contact with people from other cultures and so that sparks their interest in me. But for me, I feel that I am just a simple woman trying to learn about life and yet, with their small gestures and remarks, they give me immense amounts of love that I will not soon forget. Clearly, I love teaching and know that I will somehow always want to help people as a teacher in the future.
Also, my new friends, students, and teaching colleagues have been incredibly supportive of my Chinese studies. I came to Zhaoqing after having studied Chinese for a few months and when I first arrived, I lost my motivation for a short period of time because I became completely intimidated by the language. I soon met colleagues with such incredible English speaking abilities and also a similar passion and drive for foreign languages that they inspired me to keep working hard and to keep learning. After having some days of serious self-doubt, I committed to studying Chinese for 1-2 hours every day, including learning to read and write Chinese characters. I am making progress, and it feels incredible! Learning this language is like being given a golden key – a golden key to access the beautiful minds of the Chinese people that I am surrounded with. My conversational skills have earned me the opportunity to communicate with more individuals and to also honor the Eastern side of the world. I want to honor the Chinese people by showing them that there are other people in the world who respect their language, respect their traditions, and that wish to integrate aspects of the Chinese culture into their own – and this is what I intend to do.
What’s next? Each day that I am here, it is confirmed that this was the right decision for me – to teach, to spend time in China and to learn this complex language. All I can do is hope that I am influencing these people equally in a positive way. I hope to remind the Chinese of their remarkable contribution to this world and hopefully, to teach them values from the west that will only help improve the quality of their lives. Until then, I look forward to what amazing experiences that I know that both Zhaoqing and China will bring.
Me and my friend, Lin Qi.
Flying a kite at Star Lake with the help of a little girl.
Me and my students at Dinghu Mountain.
A day trip with my students to see the Seven Star Crags.
Two wonderful students that helped me get settled upon my arrival: Kiran and Vence (I’m in the middle).
ZQU foreign teacher at School of Chinese Culture and Language