More than just a teacher

Daphne Lee

There are mornings I wake up in confusion to remember Oh right, I’m in China.

Often times this is followed by a resounding yes, while other times I ponder on this thought in the dead silence of my surroundings.

I get up, wash up, eat breakfast, teach or go to Chinese class, and do it again the next day. Weekends and holidays are a little trickier. I have the independence to freely make my own decisions without the influence of friends or family; without the distractions of noise. So I ponder a little longer.  The solitude and tranquility of the countryside allows that, until I step outside.

“Looks like heaven”– Li Jing, Senior 2 student

“Looks like heaven”– Li Jing, Senior 2 student

“Hello teacher!” “外教!” “I love you!” *giggles. I smile then wave, and do that 900 more times daily while walking around campus. Once I leave school premises however, I blend right back in. That is, only if I stay silent.


       Could I trouble you for a moment, are you interested in learning English?

       Awkwardness ensues.

                                                    As fast as I walk, someone in this crowd is bound to strike a conversation or amusingly ask me for directions

                                                As fast as I walk, someone in this crowd is bound to strike a conversation or amusingly ask me for directions

Undoubtedly, Chinese locals never believe me when I say I’m from America: “真的吗?你不像美国人 (Really? You don’t look American).” For that reason, I have to follow up with my life story every single time.  Friends suggest I save the hassle by identifying with another Asian ethnicity, which would explain my elementary Mandarin. But as a cultural ambassador, I am here to spread awareness and broaden the views on what constitutes as American. Remarkably, natives are able to gain a wider perspective by simply meeting me.

On the flip side, I learn something new every day as a guest of China and cannot help but make cultural comparisons. One aspect of the Chinese culture I greatly admire is the blurred distinction between professional and personal lives.

Students look forward to getting to know me, they call me their big sister, and consult in me on their endless high school drama. “I will never love again,” claims John, a Class 207 student, after a moderate two-week long relationship. “There, there now,” I reply, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…” and that’s as good as I can do. Thanks Kelly Clarkson.

I am invited to movies, outings, and even homes to meet relatives. They are my students, and also my friends—a bond less easily feasible within the U.S. because of our cautious tendencies. Yet when we enter the classroom, all formalities hold firm. I am addressed as “teacher” once more, as a form of respect, rather than “Da-fi-ni.”

Sports Day

Sports Day

Similarly, I consider my Chinese language teacher, Eva, my best China friend.

Besides studying textbook material during our 2-hour sessions, we have 1 hour of free-talk for conversational practice. Immensely valuable to my cultural understanding of China, the free-talk time frame is where I ask Eva all the little curiosities that cross my mind on a daily basis.

Eva and I making dumplings on the left, and spending QingMing Festival together on the right

Eva and I making dumplings on the left, and spending QingMing Festival together on the right

For example, a student once asked during lunch:

       “Will you get married soon?” 

       “I am only 22” I replied.

       The boy looked confused.

      “In China, girls marry before 25 years old,” he said.

I recounted the situation to Eva. Chinese women face enormous pressure to marry and give birth at an early age due to societal values on family. Pressure Eva herself is familiar with as a single, 28 year old. To make matters worse, she comes from a small village where everyone chimes into each other’s business. Besides nagging parents, neighbors pitch in too. When will your daughter marry?

Recent, college graduates maybe?

Recent, college graduates maybe?

Whether it regards daily encounters such as the one described above or more personal matters, such as my parents’ traditional ways, I can rely on Eva for both answers and comfort. Likewise, I hope I built the same trusts amongst my students to confide in me.

I am more than just a teacher.

In fact, a student once called me a therapist…

In addition to my English teaching position, I am still a student of Mandarin studies.

Students also regard me as their friend, a mentor, a big sister, as mentioned, and I feel the same way about Eva 姐姐.

In 3 months time, I will wake up another morning to look around and ponder once more in the silence of my dorm room. This time, it won’t be for long.

Today I leave China.

                                                                                                                  : (

                                                                                                                  : (

It has been an incredible year indeed, of exploration and discovery, and leaving my students and Eva will sadden me. This became more than just a year in China.

I became more than just a teacher.