By: Jenni Taylor
I in no way have a gift for learning languages. Heck, I minored in Spanish in college, lived in Peru for two years, and was still being corrected on my grammar the day of my flight home.
After my time in South America, I was suddenly given the opportunity to live and work in Shanghai last April.The decision was quick, and the extent of my research was looking China up on Wikipedia. My Mandarin? I learned “ni hao” in the airport.
The first three months flew by, in a flurry of re-learning the basics that come with moving to a new country: how to buy groceries, how to take taxis, how to say “wrong number” to a misplaced telephone call. My Chinese classes were limited to once a week due to my work situation, and I spent much of my time hiding behind the other foreigners when I couldn’t communicate. Soon, I found myself faced with summer break, no job, and no Chinese. I made the leap to take a job at a two week long summer camp in a nearby city called Yangzhou. Not the best gig, to be sure, but it was money, experience and a free tan, right? My job was to teach young students English-speaking skills they would use in the fall when they returned to school.
The kids LOVED when I tried to learn Chinese. One particular day, I spent about two hours going over the same two lines of a song. Couldn’t get it if my life depended on it. But just as I was about to bang my head against the wall, the third graders I worked with surrounded my teacher’s desk and started to help me. First they laughed, of course. But then they said the words slowly and carefully, with the patience of saints.
My Chinese is never going to be perfect. I will be happy if it is even close to conversationally functional one day. But the connection between my students and me that day was totally worth all the pain and flashcards. Their eyes lit up when they heard me trying. They were only ten years old or so, struggling over their own English workbooks, and there was some sort of recognition when they saw me struggling just as hard at my own desk. It’s about seven months later now, and while I still struggle, their help that day helped me to keep going. I even have the whole song memorized now, and catch myself singing it when no one is looking.
There is beauty in learning a language, in being able to communicate with others. But there’s something even better, when you can share a smile, a laugh, a hug- -even pain. It goes beyond where words can reach. My kids reached me that day when the frustration was driving me crazy. I just hope I was able to reach back, just a bit, and let them know how truly fantastic they are.