“This is not ‘goodbye,’ but ‘see you later.’ I promise I WILL come back to Zhuhai.”
This is how I ended my last Duke Engage blog post. Over the past two years, our group frequently talked about the possibility of returning. However, our plans didn’t truly solidify until we began planning a post-graduation trip across Asia in our senior spring. Now we hadn’t really picked out a particular date for our visit. In fact, the only thing we kept in consideration was that we wanted to arrive sometime after the 中考. As things turned out, our short stay in Zhuhai coincided perfectly with the 3rd year graduation for No. 9 Middle School. We had been communicating sporadically with Joan and Frances but we still didn’t have a great idea of what to expect at the ceremony.
We went over to No. 9 around 3:00 in the afternoon and immediately realized that we hadn’t thought through our arrival very well. As we approached the front gate, we were stopped by the security guard who wanted to know who we were. When we told him we were Duke students coming to visit, he became suspicious because the current Duke Engage group had actually left for Yunnan in the morning. We eventually needed to call for Joan to confirm our identities. Joan took us up to our office, although I think we all still remembered the way there. Our old headquarters hadn’t really changed too much with the lifesaving AC unit in the corner and the irredeemably messy tabletop. Right before the graduation started, we headed down to the stage. To our surprise, Joan indicated that we should sit in the very front of the crowd alongside teachers and school administrators giving us a front and central vantage point for the proceedings to come.
We settled in to watch a lengthy ceremony featuring student speakers, class performances, and an emotional speech by Frances. One thing that stood out to me in particular was the atmosphere of the proceedings. In an academic culture that weighs class performance and testing so heavily, this ceremony felt like a celebration of each and every student academic success notwithstanding. The 中考had just finished and there were certainly students that aced it as well as others who didn’t perform as well. No matter their score, they had all experienced success and failure, all grown up over the course of the last three years. I couldn’t have felt prouder of how far my students had come, and I was thrilled that this graduation ceremony tried to celebrate their journeys.
It was great to see how much my students had grown, both physically and academically. I can’t believe how tall some of these kids have gotten! Even Summer, the little girl from Felix’s yoyo class, is taller than me now (though that may speak more to my height than to hers). We honestly were only a small part of their middle school experience with our month and a half of English classes plus WeChat conversations on the side. With this in mind, I felt a little uncomfortable with how much they focused on us during the graduation, seating us in the very front with the administrators, giving us flowers, and even dragging us onstage to pose for a picture with the students. This day was completely for my kids and I didn’t want them to leave the spotlight. Nevertheless, I loved having the opportunity to be present for this celebration of my students even if I was only present for a small part of their middle school journey. This graduation let me get a glimpse of how far each of my students had come before they move on to bigger and better things. Who knows what will happen over the next couple of years? Maybe I’ll have another chance to return to Zhuhai and find my students at their high school graduation or in college or wherever they might be.
PS. I think it’s pretty fitting that one of the songs of the summer in 2015 went like this: “We’ve come a long way from where we began. Oh, I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again” (there’s no way See You Again is still in fashion right?). A song about goodbyes and reunions goes right along with a city that I can’t seem to stay away from for too long. To all of my students, my host family, Joan and Frances, 再见, see you later!