A Second Glance

In 1997 my sister and her family traveled to China to spend Christmas with me in Changchun. While they were in town, we visited a miiddle school.  This was of particular interest to my three nieces, who were all still in middle school and high school at the time.  The following essay about that visit was written by one of my nieces  3 years later for an assignment in her Freshman Composition class in college. She has graciously given me permission to post it here:

As my family and I made our first steps through the classroom door, about thirty pairs of dark, glistening eyes followed our movement as we walked to the front of the room. I had never felt so out of place and awkward, so blaringly white. I was far from home in the unfamiliar city of Changchun, China, on a family vacation visiting my aunt who works as a teacher. She had arranged for us to visit a junior high school to talk to the students and answer their questions. I don’t remember what I expected when I walked into that classroom–probably nothing. But I didn’t leave the classroom that day without learning something that would stay with me forever.

My platinum ponytail and red Polo jacket stood out against the dozens of navy and white uniforms and heads of jet-black hair. The students’ faces came to life as they saw us enter. A surge of nervous giggles and hushed exclamations rippled throughout the room, stirring and awakening the calm that had been present moments earlier.

“It’s cold in here,” my sister whispered, cupping her hand so that her words wouldn’t get lost in the space around us. “And a little drab,” she added. I scanned the room, drinking in the surroundings. I was enclosed by monotone grayness: the walls, the floor, the desks were all gray. Cracks and crinkles that plagued the bare walls looked like the aging skin of an old man.

I thought back to the rooms at my middle school in Miinnesota where barely a fraction of the wall peeked out behind brightly colored posters and decorations. Glossy, laminated clippings of “Peanuts” cartoons loosely related to fractions were proudly displayed on the walls of the math room. Gigantic posters hung from the walls, printed with words such as “Attitude is Everything!” in loud, rainbow-colored bubble letters. Maps of the world peppered the walls of classrooms and paintings of Monet and Picasso covered the halls. Videos narrated by grinning teens in braces taught us to respect our peers. A step into the classroom was like walking into a mental playground; we were bombarded with stimuli to strech and challeng our budding minds.

The atmosphere of the classroom in Changchun, China, paled in comparison to the place I was used to. I almost pitied them. However, when I walked into that classroom, I was unaware of how much I would discover that looks can be deceiving.

The room quited to a hush as my dad, mom, and two sisters tiptoed to the five rigid wooden chairs that were set poised and elevated at the front of the room. The squeaks of our chairs broke the silence, which was so thick it seemed like a substance. I was now facing the class, looking straight into those thirty pairs of shining eyes, attached to thirty little bodies, which were straining to keep an explosive amount of curious energy from escaping. I was just as curioius as they were. I wondered what they were itching to ask; I wondered what I was going to say.

As soon as my aunt said a few brief words to them in their own language, thirty arms shot up in the air and started wiggling. It was question-and-answer time. I could hardly contain my grin as the students’ enthusiasm filled every corner of the room. My aunt called on a tiny girl with shy eyes. When she asked the girl if she wanted to practice her English she blushed and nodded.

“W-what…music…do…you…listen?” she asked, painstakingly crafting the words through a thick accent. She put everything she had into forming that sentence, and she beamed when we understood and responded.

Next, my aunt called on a boy wearing a starch-pressed shirt towards the back of the room who wanted to know about Wall Street. The question marks written all over the faces of my mom and sisters matched my own. Luckily my dad scraped up an answer while my aunt translated for the students.

I lost track of the minutes as time rolled by. My aunt told the students my sisters and I sing together, so they begged us to sing something in front of the class. We were apprehensive at first, but we worked up the nerve to sing our old stand-bys, “‘Amazing Grace” and “My Girl.” As layers of harmonies and melodies filled the room, the students’ faces shone like bright stars. I was startled by their thunderous applause. We asked them if they had anything to share — a song or poem to recite. I was sure no one would volunteer. I thought again of my school back home and imagined the reaction of myself and my peers if given a chance to share a song or poem with the class. There would be scoffing, shoulders hunching, and eyes heavy with apathy.

“Yeah, right! Get up in front of everybody and look stupid?” we would say. We have learned from an early age how painful it is to be slapped in the face by the harsh snickering of peers. Risks are not to be taken, and no one wants to be singled out. Despite everything we have been fed, even after all the sayings, the posters, and the videos, we simply do not care. But far away, in this junior high classroom in China, I stood face to face with a passion I had never witnessed before.

I had thought no one would volunteer to share with the class.  I was wrong. Two volunteers. Five. Eight. Fifteen! Arms from all over the room began to rise. Some shot up boldly, while others inched out from their comfortable homes beneath the desks.

One boy’s performance left an impression on me I will never forget. His plump cheeks seemed to swallow his eyes, which were barely visible behind his thick, smudged glasses. A few sprayed sprouts of hair floated away from the rest of his head. But as he rose to speak, he seemed to grab ahold of all the space in the room. His words came out as forceful bullets, his full, booming voice resonating off the blank walls. He spoke with such passionate fervor that every person in the room was frozen in his spell, unable to look away. I didn’t understand the language, and it wasn’t until later that I found out he was reciting a political poem about Hong Kong’s recent return to Chinese sovereignty.

When he was finished, he slowly and silently eased his way back into his chair. I peeked at the other students, bracing myself for the giggling and pointing I was sure I would find. I dreaded the humiliation he would have to face. However, to my shock, there was none. Instead I saw nods of approval, supporting smiles, and words of praise for the young boy.

As I peered out into the faces of the students, I saw something foreign to me. It wasn’t in their complexion. It wasn’t in the almond shape of their eyes or the black color of their hair. These students were filled with more curiousity, life, and encouragement for one another than I have ever seen before. I was ashamed of the lifelessness and disrespect that I took part in. The surroundings of this Chinese classroom may have been gray, but it was the spirit of the students that splashed the room with a prism of color. They didn’t need pretty pictures, sings, or sayings. The light that gleamed in their eyes and the passion they carried with them did not come from a poster on the wall.  It came from within.

I don’t think you’ll be suprised that my niece got an A for that essay.  She went on to major in ESL in college, and has since taught in Mexico, Guatemala and South Korea, and is currently working on an MA in TESOL. Who knows….maybe she’ll teach students like this in China someday.



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One thought on “A Second Glance

  1. I read the essay and agree that it was an interesting look at Chinese students and very well written.
    On a related but different note: Joy and Richard Du pointed me to you. I’m in Vienna, Virginia and Joy has been tutoring my son (6 years old) in Chinese. We plan to send him to Shanghai next summer to learn Chinese “from the source”. He’s been to Beijing with me for 3 weeks and Shanghai with my wife for 3 weeks already. Can you reach out to me (think you have my email address with my subscription) so that I might ask you some questions about camp opportunities for my son? I’m hoping to enroll him in a chinese sports camp of some sort while he’s in Shanghai next summer.