One of the greatest treasures in my life is the kindergarten that sits between the gate to my apartment complex and the gate to the university where I teach. Each morning, as I make the short journey to class, hundreds of kindergarteners are maneuvering into the courtyard outside the school for a morning song together. When I make my way through the crowd, my eyes meet a few tiny pairs of eyes beginning to balloon with joy and confusion. Those eyes belong to children with world views that are exploding as they see a foreigner for the first time. I’ll never forget the adorable, honest question posed to a fellow foreign teacher by one of these kindergarteners:
“Are you from this planet?”
The word for foreigner, 外国人 (“waiguo ren”), was one of the first words I learned and it has since become the wallpaper to my life in China. As a resident in an area mostly lacking foreigners, my experience as an American teaching in China has been defined by being seen as a spectacle and also by having simple conversations to satisfy random curiosities. In my role as a teacher, creating cross-cultural relationships feels more like a gift.
The first day of class is often similar to those experiences with the kindergarteners on the way to school. After we move past that stage, real relationships begin to build over weeks and months. We start by speaking to common curiosities; many questions that represent honest attempts to get to know me and allow the precious opportunity to learn more about my students too. Other conversations are curiosities that students and I share about each other’s culture. These conversations help us both to understand how we come from large cities with millions of people whom also have different ideas and experiences.
I believe these relationships are even sweeter as you begin to explore the series between being a teacher, mentor, and friend. While “foreigner” is the word that’s forms the wallpaper to my life in China, over that wallpaper you would find words like “big brother” and “friend” that represent framed pictures of who I am to some students and the sweeter parts of my life here.
Each morning as I march through the herds of kindergarteners filing in to sing their hearts out, I’m reminded of the simple joy that a smiling, waving foreigner can gift young students. Then, even on hard days defined by one-off conversations filled with language difficulties, the relationships I have with my students turn it all around and I find I’m the one receiving the joy that’s found in creating and cultivating cross-cultural friendships. For me, being an American teaching in China is about enjoying the spectacle you sometimes become and leaning into the conversations and relationships that make it all worth it.