After the post-finals buzz and packing mania, I only had less than 24 hours at my home in Bridgewater, NJ before I had to leave for my two-day journey to China. I didn’t have the time to be able to unwind and process my first year of college, which added on to my anxiety about coming to Zhuhai. While sitting on that 9-hour flight to Athens, my mind was violently stirring, thinking how in the world I had survived freshman year, reflecting upon my academic and social performance in school, and wondering what contributions I would make to the Zhuhai program this summer. This was also the first time I was flying internationally by myself, and I was plagued with paranoia that someone would see my confused and scared demeanor and try to take my belongings or trick me. While waiting in Athens for a 2-hour layover, I tried my best to not appear vulnerable as the only Asian girl amongst a sea of European men speaking in a language I could not understand. After I arrived in Dubai about 4 hours later, around midnight, I remember trying to find the exit to the huge airport for 30 minutes, and asking about ten different airport staff members for the hotel shuttle bus. After maneuvering around the airport and finally finding the spot where the big shuttles came to pick up arrivals, I waited for my hotel shuttle bus for more than an hour to arrive at the airport. I had never been more terrified in my life: I was completely alone, it was almost two in the morning, I didn’t understand any Arabic, and the people manning the shuttle bus arrivals would only slightly nod to my English without seeming to understand what I had asked.
Thankfully, I found my way to the hotel that night and flew to Guangzhou the next morning with my Duke Engage group. When we arrived in Guangzhou, I had to take a taxi all by myself to the hotel we were staying at. My taxi ride was rather interesting since the driver kept on asking me how much money my parents made back in America. We went to Zhixin High School, the best high school in Guangzhou, and interacted with the students there, who had some incredible English speaking skills.
I had many worries about coming to China and teaching middle schoolers English and singing. Will I be able to engage angsty adolescents in an educational environment? I had only ever taught small children from kindergarten to 4th grade, and they had all been able to speak English. Will I be a competent English teacher? All of the teaching experiences I had were related to teaching music. And most of all, will my Asian ethnicity disappoint the kids I came to teach and thus fail to peak their interest? Coming from a Chinese background, I knew that being foreign or looking foreign was more desirable, and I, a Taiwanese-Cantonese-American was not considered foreign despite the fact that English was my first language. When students imagine college students from America, they probably would expect someone Caucasian to come over and teach them English, not someone that looks just like them. Though objectively, being able to speak Chinese would be advantageous in getting around Zhuhai, I couldn’t help but worry that this strength would be disadvantageous in engaging the students that I taught.
When I got to Zhuhai, I pretended not to understand Chinese very well to encourage students to speak to me only in English in class. The most asked question I got during class was, “Do you speak Chinese?” With warnings from previous year members about revealing Chinese speaking capabilities, I would say, “Only a little bit.” The hardest part was that though I pretended not to understand very well, I could actually understand almost everything they said. At times, this had me and a few other Chinese speakers on the team in awkward situations with students who would converse in Chinese thinking that we could not understand. I wanted to utilize this tactic to improve their English, but my ability to understand their conversations hurt me as well.
I remember Hsiao-Mei saying in our first group meeting about how our strengths can be our weaknesses and that our weaknesses can be our strengths. I recognize that my strength in understanding and speaking Chinese has given me a bit of a weakness in teaching my English classes as I can actively understand them while being unable to respond to them in Chinese. However, I realize that as time passes, students will mature as they get to know more about us besides our appearances and English teaching abilities and I am curious to find out how my weakness will become my strength in the coming 8 weeks at Zhuhai.