Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Fond Farewell

Monday morning, 8AM. Well, 8:10AM. The school changed our class start time because so many were having trouble getting to class on time. Would that be teachers or students? No clue, really. Sam just told me that this will be our schedule from here on out. Again, ambiguity: for the rest of the time this college operates or just for the rest of this semester?

I don’t have time to think of those things right now. Bad enough I have to wake up early, but I have 3 classes to teach today and a tutoring session this evening. Luckily I have my activities down cold. The classes should flow well today.

And they do. My first group, freshmen, love what I had planned for them: Help your Foreigner Friend. Matter of fact, all my classes, freshmen and sophomore are going to do the same thing. In groups of 3, they will be assigned some situation their foreigner friend needs help with. Visiting another country, planning a meal, planning a wedding, planning for their parents’ visit… all my students love role play. By giving only minimal instructions, they have free reign to dream their own scenario. Some take to it like ducks to water and plan elaborate scenes and others, shy, just have a conversation on the subject of helping their foreigner friend.

First class done. Now a twenty minute break, and then come the sophomores. Just time enough for me to run to Snack Street and get some breakfast. My stomach can’t stand food early in the morning, but come 10 o’clock I’m ready to eat. I think I’ll have a battercake today.

Now sophomore roll call. Hmmm. Green is not in class again today. He’s missed the last 3 weeks. He is my brightest student and my best speaker. Very unlike him to not attend. He loves my class! I’ll bet he would really like what we’re doing today. Wonder what is up with him? His roommate, Owen explains that he is having trouble at home. He doesn’t say what kind of trouble.

Class dismissed. This group is getting hard to manage. They’re skating. They’ve taken all of their major exams and the end of year is only 3 weeks away. Some might never speak English again. Such a shame they are being loud and distracting to those who want to participate in our activity. I’m a bit lenient come this far into the semester. Restraining them is as hard as restraining wild horses when those beasts get the wind in their noses. At best I can hope for participation. Engaging in role play with a whole heart is more difficult. I think I’m skating too. I don’t get after the talkers. I only want them to be quiet enough so that the group presenting can be heard.

Lunchtime. I have to drop the multimedia unit access card off at security in Building 2 on my way home. Just having eaten a battercake I’m not necessarily hungry, but I should probably eat something when I get home. With no company to walk with I mentally review my morning. This went well and that went only OK. Next week we’re going to…

“Hello, Sophia” Green hails me from behind. He is on a bicycle, wearing kicky looking slippers, cuffed khakis, a striped, short-sleeved shirt and his trademark black and white glasses. Same student, different kid. Green has got a new weight on his shoulders. It seems I’m going to find out what it is.

“I’m sorry to say I have troubles at home.” He starts. “That is why I have not been back at school these few weeks.”

“Would you like to talk about it?” Maybe Green doesn’t know, but I keep all kinds of secrets. Many students have found comfort in talking with me. Maybe all he needs is an invitation.

Instead: “I will have to leave the school.”


Education, the job market and the economy are very competitive in China. With more students than ever flocking to college campuses, and more young men and women vying for position at any university, instances when a student would voluntarily withdraw are practically non-existent. Especially seeing as a college education is vital for finding a suitable work situation, thus securing the family’s and his/her future. For many families in China, the children attending college now are the first generation to do so. Parents and grandparents, denied higher education, have scrimped and saved since their tot was born, or at least since tot-hood in order to finance the family’s one child, and his/her one shot at university.

And now Green, one of the finest minds and best English speakers I’ve had the privilege to work with, is voluntarily withdrawing.

“Is there anything I can do to help you?” I ask, desperate. He thinks for a moment, and then responds to the negative.

In China, any student’s one shot for a college degree is immediately after high school. It is not like in America, where anyone of any age can matriculate to just about any school, and study anything he/she takes fancy to. The possibility of a student in China resuming his/her education after withdrawing is slim to none. I’m not sure he would even be allowed to enroll again. By withdrawing, Green has given up any edge he might have in the competitive job market.

And here he is, pedaling his bicycle to the rhythm of my steps, with 2 years of study under his belt, and 2 more to go. “I will leave the school today.” He says. The wheels in my head turn like the wheels on his bike in an attempt to find some way for him to not have to take this drastic step.

As I’ve said: Green is a fine, intelligent young man, a fantastic scholar and an honorable human being. I’m sure that, had there been one, he would have thought of a way to avoid losing his university position. I give him ‘face’ (respect). I do not pry, even though I am sure there must be something I ca…

“What will you do?” I ask.

“Help my parents.” I am not sure what business his parents are in, or even if they have their own business. Again sensing that prying would be rude, I resist asking if he will help them with their concern or just stay home and help around the house. Maybe he means getting a job close to home to help his parents financially.

The worry etched on his face, the gravity of his tone, the burden stooping his shoulders. I have to find a way to lighten these in the last few minutes he and I have to converse.

All of the students that have danced through my classes. All of those kids who looked up at me, intoned after me, sought me out. Some so indolent they only came to class for their mid-term and final exams. Some so negligent that they talked, played games, or otherwise failed to participate. Some who are just wasting their parents’ money, attending college because their family has directed them to, or because it is what they are supposed to do. Those who really don’t care about their higher education or their future. Those little emperors or empresses. None of those is Green. Why is it that he has to leave when any of these others who took up space in my class got to stay?  

“I have to stop at the print shop” he says, curtailing our talk. I turn to face him.

He is now my equal. Not in age or experience, but in the fact that he is ‘a civilian’, making choices that he alone will suffer the consequences of. He is a man of the world now, not a student.

I hold my hand out to him. He takes it. We shake, heartfelt. Physical contact is meant to be minimal in China; that is a part of the culture. Maybe in deference to my culture, maybe because he wishes to linger. He does not let go.

“Attending your class has been the best. I’ve had so much fun and gained a good understanding from you” he says, solemn.

I try to hold back my tears. “It has been a genuine pleasure working and playing with you my friend. I wish the best for you and your family. If there is anything I can do for you… please… PLEASE contact me.”

He returns: “Please let me know if you change your phone number. I will let you know if I have to change mine.”

With that he releases my hand, turns his bike around and goes back a few meters, to where the campus print shop recently relocated.

Food has no place in my mind now. I rush home to commit this exchange to paper before I’m due to lead my next class.   

Green, I wish and hope for the best, for you and your family. I am always with you, and always here if you need me.       

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