Written by a couple in their first year teaching English in China
During final exams and Christmas parties, I found myself trudging up the hill saying, “God I’ve started something I can’t finish.” That start had initially wobbled when my students could not understand 95% of my lessons, so I began a weekly scramble for “something to teach this week.”
Success in little pieces
When my students learned to sing “Bill Grogan’s Goat,” they started to smile. When they held onto their tongues and hollered out, “There were three thousand thistles weighing 33 tons in 1333,” they laughed. And as they learned to tell what their hometown is famous for, they swelled with pride.
A soft influence
In mid-semester, Sasha* noticed a change in the Chinese preschool teachers who came to her English class with their students to help translate. They had been lecturing the tots for coloring outside the lines—yelling and even hitting them. It was very difficult for Sasha to watch. But she kept on hugging the children and praising their work. The little ones began latching onto her knees and blowing her kisses at the door. Eventually, the teachers started speaking more kindly, even hugging children now and then.
Let’s do lunch
Two groups of students asked me to eat with them. Over noodles, we told jokes and talked about why they are studying and what they hope to do.
In class, we began working some of the pronunciation kinks out of “The Tortoise and the Hare.” For three weeks before Christmas, they learned to sing “Silent Night” and listened as I explained the antique phrases in that old song and those in the even older history by Dr. Luke. Sasha graded quizzes and chuckled when many thought Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem “to register to get married.” On the other hand, when many wrote that Jesus was different because, “He was the Son of God,” Sasha glowed.
Next year? Students met me at the door of one party with a 15-voice choir singing “Silent Night” with background music from a CD. After that party, Linda ran out the door and stopped me on the steps: “Mr. White*, will you be our teacher next year?” I sure hoped so. Some other comments: “Can we continue our weekly English corners?” “This class should last nine months.” “No, a year!”
Corn shock clusters
Every 30 seconds during a party, a student aimed a camera or phone at me. Several others sneak into the picture, guys laughing, girls squealing. As they leaned into me, I felt like the center of a shock of corn standing in a Michigan field waiting for my grandfather’s thrashing machine. At Sasha’s party, her students gathered around her in the same way.
One last time
John said, “We can’t close out this year without …” And while I beamed, 50 students stood and performed the Hokey Pokey one last time. Henry and Paul walked me partway home the last day of the semester, Henry leaning his arm on my shoulder chatting about home for the holidays.
Who starts, Who finishes
Telling God I had started something was not accurate. I, myself, started nothing. I was also forgetting that any significance we have is only because of what we are a part of. (1Cor. 12:19) The last half of that light-headed, happy-but-exhausted prayer, however, is right on. The task is really something we can’t finish. The focus needs to turn away from us and onto Somebody more important.
Turning the focus
To turn it, we need to give students more of our time, so they can feel free to ask about basic, all-important issues.
And we need more of their language. Currently, only those with good enough English can talk with us. Even after 32 hours of learning with us, many still answer, “How are you?” with “How are you?” This is probably because they are in groups of 50, but we can’t change that. To get next to those who don’t speak English, we need better Mandarin.
Our time and effort are not enough. There’s only One who can prompt the right questions and set the right mood. Since heis with us, we’re depending on him to finish the work.
*Names have been changed.
With 1.3 billion people, China is the world’s most populous nation. Sadly, more than 1.2 billion of these do not know Christ.