I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter series. I’ve read all the books and seen all the movies countless times. Whenever someone tells me that they like Harry Potter, I immediately start talking about my favorite characters and scenes. But what does Harry Potter have to do with teaching in Zhuhai? For our acting class, Daniel and I let the students choose what they wanted to do for their final performance, and they chose Harry Potter, a story that I well know and love. I should have been excited they chose that, right?
Instead of happiness, my initial reaction to their choice was worry, fear, and anxiety. Harry Potter would be a very fun performance to do, I thought, but how could we possibly make it feasible? How could we take a 7 book series and turn it into a 10 minute play? The students were all very excited to do Harry Potter, but I was concerned from the beginning because I knew it would be difficult to pull off. Luckily, though, Daniel and I did not have to make a script and play from scratch on our own. The students eagerly rose to the occasion, writing their own scripts and finding their own costumes. I was impressed with the amount of work they put into it outside of class, and one student even took on the role of a director. However, Daniel and I soon realized that the students were maybe a little too excited about Harry Potter. Their script was way longer than the 10 minutes we would be allotted to perform, they wanted to get fancy costumes, and they would need various microphone types and special effects that would not be available. Daniel and I wanted to let the students do what they wanted so they would enjoy it, but they were trying to do too much; so, we told them to simplify things and shorten the script, but the next class they arrived with an even longer script than before. As a result, Daniel and I have even more work to do with the students to make things feasible, and finding a way to make Harry Potter manageable continues to pose challenges.
Another challenge for me is that in the script, all of the lines are in Chinese and most of the instructions in class are given in Chinese because the students do not understand what I’m trying to say in English, so I often do not know how to help them. There is so much I want to tell them each time they rehearse, but I feel like most of what I say doesn’t get across to them. I yell and wave my arms, using a lot of hand motions, but I’m met with blank, confused stares. I have to rely on Daniel a lot for translation, and I often feel powerless because I am not able to have as much control over how the class is run as I would like. Whenever I work on group projects at school, I’m used to always knowing exactly what is going on or organizing every detail; perhaps I am somewhat of a micromanager (sorry to everyone who has to work on a group project with me) but I am always worried about making sure that the product turns out to be the best it possibly can, partly because I don’t want to let the others in my group down and partly because I couldn’t forgive myself for not trying to do everything I could to achieve success. With the acting class here, I also want to do everything I can for the students because I know how excited they are about the performance, and I don’t want them to be disappointed in their result because I didn’t do enough to help them along the way. However, I am not able to have as much control as I’m used to having in projects at Duke because of the language barrier, and I’m often frustrated because I try to help or guide the students, but the true meaning of what I’m trying to say doesn’t reach them. Or, if some of it does reach them, I can’t tell by their responses. Sure, they are able to copy me well when I show them a more dramatic gesture to do for any scene and they figure out what I mean when I keep turning them towards the audience when they’re speaking rather than having their back to the audience, but when it comes to more nuanced things, I don’t know how to convey them. I have to work with way more ambiguity than I’m accustomed to, and it’s hard for me to step back and let others take control because I’m constantly afraid that I’m not doing enough. What can I do for the students if they can’t understand me and they listen more to Daniel because they know he speaks Chinese? How can I help them when I feel powerless and ignored? The honest answer is that I don’t really know. I don’t know what my role is, but I am doing as much as I can to try to give the students what they want. I’m learning to have more trust in others rather than attempting to control everything myself. Although the working styles of Daniel and the students are not in my comfort zone, I can still support them and have faith in them rather than worrying excessively about every little detail that I can’t control.
Despite these difficulties, I still have fun working with the students, and I’m seeing how the arts can break down barriers. The students and I don’t speak the same native language, but we both know the story of Harry Potter, and I am able to tell what scenes they are working on without understanding a single word they are saying. I am able to connect with them by talking about Harry Potter, and we show each other what we think of different scenes through movements even though I can not talk to them well about other aspects of their lives or have conversations like I would with friends back home. Coincidentally, another example of acting transcending language barriers occurred this past Sunday as well when I saw Dangal, an Indian movie with my host movie. The dialog was in Hindi and the captions were in Chinese, and since I knew neither language, I did not know what people were saying for the entire movie. However, through the images and actions, I was able to figure out what was happening and I could still enjoy the movie a lot. My host family was worried that I did not like it because I could not understand it but, in reality, I did like it a lot because I didn’t need words to see the story. Afterwards, my host sister and I had the longest conversation we’ve had in a while in English about the movie. I’m always touched by how she tries to translate as much as she possibly can for me, and she makes an effort to ensure I’m enjoying myself. Even with a limited English vocabulary, we are gradually getting to know each other better.
This week was also our last full week teaching English. I can’t believe most of my classes are already over when it feels like I just started getting used to teaching. With many of my students, I wonder how much they’ve actually learned from me. I feel as if they will soon forget me and most of my teaching will ultimately have no significance. They’ll go right back to their normal routines at school as if us Duke students never came to Zhuhai. There are some students, though, that were very sad when I told them we had finished our last English class together; they hugged me, told me they would miss me, and made sure to obtain my WeChat username. One girl almost cried as she left, and it made me feel so sad that I almost cried too. I’ll especially miss Jojo, one of my students who told me she wants to become an English translator when she grows up. I first met her when we went on a field trip to an airplane factory and she translated everything for me during the tour. After that trip, we talked frequently before our classes together. She even gave me a bracelet containing a charm of an American flag in a heart. I’ll remember her through that bracelet, and even now, every time I look at it, I think of how she told me of her goal to become a translator. The future is a mystery, but I can hope that meeting us Duke students has inspired some of the middle schoolers to study more English; we can keep in contact through WeChat to continue the magic of forming friendships through language barriers.