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A Westminster graduate in China

The First Day

A first day for an English teacher in Urumqi, China

By Jodi Bennett Jarvis

My wool hat fit snugly around my ears and I pulled my scarf to my throat as a gust of wind sent the snow flying. I thought of the new gray wool leggings that remained folded in my drawer. Why didn't I wear them? I hurried through the stream of curious onlookers to breakfast and headed up the flight of forty-seven steps to the eating area. There was a deep silence in the room as our cook (we named Louie) laid steaming plates of food on the orange plastic tablecloth. We surveyed the morning meal: sticky rice, spicy spinach with vegetables, steamed buns stuffed with a sweet bean paste, and a hot, runny, tasteless cereal drink. I looked around and wondered if the other teachers felt my anxiety. The reason we came started today.

I thought back to the year before when I encountered the International Language Program (ILP) booth at Westminster College. After asking the ILP representative questions and reading the brochure, I knew I wanted, almost needed, to experience life in China. After filling out the application and attending an interview, I awaited my acceptance letter. When it came, I was thrilled to read I was accepted to teach English in the northwestern city of Ürümqi (Oo-ru-moo-chee) for six months. At a mandatory meeting before leaving, I learned about the culture, what to expect, and ILP teaching methods. I looked down at my breakfast of Chinese food and sighed. I anticipated this for months, but how would the students react? What if they don't understand what I say? I laughed at the thought of using elaborate gestures or breaking into a mime routine to get a point across. One more bite of spicy spinach and I was off.

The sky was cloudy, and there was a damp chill in the air as I strolled down the cracked concrete walkway. The large three-story building loomed ahead like a giant rectangular peach. I waved hello to a young student and watched in amusement as he nearly dropped his books while racing to class. I glanced up and saw clusters of students watching my arrival through the tall, dusty windows. A rush of adrenaline entered my body and I felt as though an army of ants had invaded my stomach, each marching to its own rhythm. The old, brown door closed with a loud squeak, and I walked down the deserted, cool hallway until I found classroom 104.

The door magically opened as a petite woman with crinkly eyes rushed out and began patting my back. "Please come in, we are waiting for you. My English name is Anne," she said. I walked into the classroom where twenty-eight pairs of attentive, curious, and eager eyes met mine. The room filled with applause. I took off my black down-filled jacket and wrote my name on the blackboard. When the children finally made out the letters, with laughter in their voices they called out "Jodi!" The Chinese teacher held up her hand and silenced them. "This is your foreign teacher. She is from Canada." The noise level rose again as the students nodded their black, glossy heads, indicating they understood that this strange, blue-eyed girl was from"Jianada" (Jya-na-da).

The hour went by in a blur. Anne explained I was to go over a chapter in their grammar books about past and present verbs, and remained in the classroom sitting with the children. With fifteen minutes left of class, Anne stood and asked if anyone had questions. Slowly their hands went up. A chubby boy with a large head asked if I liked Chinese food, a girl with pink rosy cheeks wanted to know if I missed my family, and a girl with large red glasses asked if I liked Chinese music. I said I did and was surprised when she and her friends broke into a song and dance. The class and I applauded the girls. "Any more questions?" I asked with a grin. A boy asked if I liked to sing. "Yes I do, very much," I said. There was Chinese banter between the boy and his friend, and the rest of the class cheered and agreed with what they were saying. Anne, her eyes crinkling as she smiled, walked over and took my hands in hers. "The class would like you to sing an English song. Please sing for us," she said.

I looked at her, at the class, and back at her. "Sing?" I asked. "You want me to sing?"

"Yes, please," she said. "They would like you to sing the very famous Titanic song." It didn't take long for me to realize that she meant "My Heart Will Go On." The song, very popular at the school, could be heard during afternoon recess, dinner break, and several times on Sundays. I looked at the teacher and the students and knew if I refused to sing, it would bring disappointment to all. "Okay, I will sing a little bit of the song, but only if you will sing with me." The students grinned like The Cheshire Cat, and on the count of three we belted out the chorus of the ballad, Celine Dion style. We finished and cheered at our success.

 

 

A short girl, prompted by her teacher, approached with a brightly covered package. "Thank you for coming to our class today," she said. "Please come again soon." I accepted the gift and unwrapped a dark red statue of Buddha. Touched, I thanked the class and promised I would return. The teacher held my hand and said, "Class, it is time for our foreign teacher to go. Please thank her." A chorus of "thank you very much" filled the air as I picked up my jacket and left the classroom. I had a good time. Later I learned the rest of the words to "My Heart Will Go On." I lost count of how many times I had to sing the song. Celine owes me big time.

 

Jodi Bennett Jarvis is a 2003 Westminster graduate. She has a degree in communication and a minor in theater.