“Salve, Magistra Knight!” My 7th grade Latin class greeted our teacher, Mrs. Knight, as we started class. Around me were about 20 other friends and classmates who decided that a headstart on language could be useful and fun before we went to high school. For me, this was the beginning of a journey of learning languages and finding a knack for it. My classmates were a majority Eastern Asian, with the majority of those Korean-Americans like myself. We also had a few white and South Asian students in that class, but no Hispanic or African American students. This was the academic program that educated me at Rocky Run Middle School in the heart of Fairfax County, one of the most well-resourced and respected public school systems in the country. We were also pretty diverse, but at the same time, representative of how the system of socioeconomic status allows the privileged to continue advancing while leaving others behind. Simply put, I always grew up with a strong Asian community in a culture that glorified academic excellence, intelligence, and reputation. At the same time, my 7th-grade experience was also full of access to opportunities such as intramural sports like flag football and indoor soccer and enrichment after-school clubs like Model UN. I got to take advantage of an abundance of diverse activities and hobbies.
My 7th-grade students in Zhuhai tell me they share some of my favorite hobbies like playing the piano and activities like playing tennis. However, our 7th-grade experiences are quite different. First, all my students hop on the Zoom call wearing the same thing—they have a school uniform. Also, from what I’ve learned about Chinese culture, academics is not only emphasized, but it becomes the purpose of students’ lives as they prepare for the middle school exam that gets them into a good high school, and then the high school exam that gets them into any college at all or the best ones if they succeed. I would have to walk down their school hallways, sit in on their afterschool activities, and join their family for dinner to even have a glimpse of what their lives are like, which is impossible now and a bit intrusive if it were possible. Even then, I would not be able to fully understand them as I do myself. Seeking to understand my Zhuhai students is the same as seeking to understand anyone different from me, whether it is the African American community as they struggle against and overcome racial strife, or Muslim communities on the other side of the world who don’t share my faith, language, or culture.
However, we jump on our shared experiences and interests, which are always more than one imagines. My students give a hushed, “Wow,” whenever I tell them Kyrie Irving was a Duke basketball player. One time, one of my students stayed back one class and asked me if I knew Alan Walker. If you don’t know him, he’s a musical artist who has recorded songs like Faded—she introduced me to some boppin’ music. In turn, I introduced my students to the board game Connect Four this past week. Besides my fun in beating them most of the time, we went back and forth strategizing for our own team. Sports, music, and games are a few of the things that bring people together. As I reflect on my middle school years, I can’t compare them to my students, but I rest in the assurance that there are always ways to connect with people.