The Teacher

What do you do here?

I work at the Daily Grind for about ten hours a week, and then for another thirty or so, I teach at Literacy For Life, which is a non-profit located in the School of Education. It was started in the 1970s to help illiterate staffers that the College employed. Now it’s still adult basic education, at least in part, but I’m mostly an English as a second language teacher.

How did you get interested in teaching English as a second language (ESL)?

I think a lot of people, really rightfully, perceive it as a noble profession, because it is empowering for so many people and having a great grasp of English is helpful in many places and situations. It has obvious utility when you live in America. But for me it’s largely historically been financially helpful and I’ve used it mostly as a tool to achieve other goals. I taught ESL in community college just because I needed a part-time job to help get me through, and that was my initial experience with it. I found a lot of joy in interacting with students and seeing people’s faces light up when they really comprehend something for the first time. The two of you share this really special moment with each other, and that can be really beautiful. I would say I fell in love with it, although don’t have that kind of deep, fiery passion, which a lot of long-term teachers ultimately do. However, I will say it’s just been such a good economical choice for me, not because it’s terribly lucrative but because there’s a wealth of jobs, and so it’s something you can pick up relatively quickly if you need to. I was going to move back to Williamsburg again and it was an option for me relatively quickly without a big search. I used it as leverage to go to China and to live abroad for a year, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that unless I had some experience or at least interest in teaching English as a second language. So some passion, a lot of joy, but also there’s just been so much utility for it in my life and I found that it benefits me as much as—sometimes even more than—my students.

What about some of the higher goals you want to use ESL as a stepping stone towards?

Living abroad. I’ve always had an interest in getting outside the country and exploring new places and meeting new people. I think that we all really romanticize the prospect of travel. So do I, certainly. Teaching English as a second language turns out to be so ubiquitous worldwide that there’s not an easier way to travelling without really deep pockets, which I just don’t have.

What is it about living abroad that really grasps you?

Before I had done it, there was the incredible romanticism about it. But the reason I desire to do it again is…I don’t know…largely for the same reasons. I guess in one sense we all romanticize it, but in the other sense, there is a lot of fire behind the smoke. It really does seem to give you all the experiences that you might expect. Living in a new place grows you as a person in innumerable ways. It gives you a totally different, unreplicable [SS2] experience; living in one place will be endlessly different than in another place. Having the opportunity to experience that has been very important to me. I try to make it a habit to get out of my comfort zone, and going abroad is the ultimate form of that—just setting up shop in a different country, especially in a place you don’t know the language or really just starting to learn about this new place. That’s way outside of most people’s comfort zones, and mine too. I find that not just temporarily exhilarating but deeply satisfying in a way that affects me in the long run.

What is it that makes the experience enjoyable? Is it the learning?

A good question. It’s really penetrating actually. There’s this wonderful book, Zen Mind, Beginning’s Mind. I don’t know how familiar you are with Zen. I’m actually not very.

By Suzuki?

Yes. I really like the idea of living in the moment when you are doing something new. If you are trying something for the first time, it’s so difficult not to be completely focused on what you are doing. So when you are learning a new language and you speak it as utility for your survival, not in a classroom but when you need to buy groceries or rent an apartment, you are really, really living. You can’t be imagining yourself out somewhere else. You are not daydreaming—that has to be fundamental to living and existing. I am such a space cadet. Really young I was diagnosed with ADD and ADHD, and I find myself drifting and wandering. I get caught up in my mind a lot of the time, and that has been frustrating and difficult to live with. But living abroad forces you to habitually be in the moment, to pay attention to what you are doing, because you don’t know anything. You have to learn everything all over again. Doing something for the first time, or even doing it for the first time in a new way or in a new language, really compels you to live. I find it really exhilarating to live like that—you feel like you are living, whereas in your home country, it’s so easy to get stuck in a routine and feel like everything is passing you by really quickly, not in a FOMO sort of way, but in the sense that your life is happening without you being in it and you are just a bystander.

You feel the reality of your existence because you sense your effort in living in a different place.

I won’t speak to the precise mechanism for it—I couldn’t say. But certainly it does seem true that, when we are doing something new, we really have to pay attention. Suzuki uses the example of chopping wood differently. If you are doing something dangerous or totally new to you, you have to think about how to pick up the axe, how you are going to swing it, and how you are not going to chop off your hand. It really plugs you into the moment, and I find that satisfying.

I really do empathize with that! For me, living in America is like that. It’s almost like spicing up the food that used to taste very bland—food as a metaphor for life. When I’m eating my normal meals, if it just doesn’t taste like much, you of course know that it’s sustenance and you have to do it, but then there’s not much joy in the process of making food and eating food, and the innovative power you put into it and the humanity you feel from doing that activity. Making life or living more interesting—that I can totally empathize.

I think that’s such a human trait. I really like the word you used, “joy.” That really stabs at the heart of what being in the moment is all about. If you can feel some real joy in yourself, in what you are doing, you know you are plugged into the moment and going to create a memory or at least an ongoing feeling, which is so compelling. What a wonderful way to live if you could only live every second full of joy or full of presentness, mindfulness!

You talked about being in China. Where were you in China and what specific experience did you have?

I graduated from William & Mary in 2013. At the time, I did not know what sort of career I wanted to go into. I really didn’t know what the next step was going to be. But in the fall of 2012, I considered and then ultimately decided that what I really wanted to do is go abroad. I was not a stellar student, so I wasn’t considering a Rhodes Scholarship or anything academic. I didn’t have the wealth of work experience and connections. I knew I probably wasn’t going to end up with a great international corporate job that would ship me to Shanghai or something like that and figure it all out for me. I was looking into the Peace Corps, and in the middle of my Peace Corps application, at a William & Mary job fair, I found out about a group called Teach For China, which is loosely affiliated with Teach For America under the Teach For All network. I interviewed and was accepted to Teach For China. Without knowing any Chinese and graduating in May of 2013, I took a William & Mary business course in D.C.—my family lives in Northern Virginia. I think I audited Chinese 101 for six weeks, not even the full course, and then went to China.

I stayed with some friends in Korea for a week, and that got me settled into the idea of not being in America for a long time. It was a safe way to enter a new continent. Then I showed up in Beijing and met up with some other Teach For China fellows for what they called the BLAST program, basic language acquisition and learning. It was great, but it was hard! We were in Beijing for a few days and then we went to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in the Southwest, and we were there for four weeks. It was five to eight hours of Chinese class every day, five or six days a week. Then the rest of the days were field trips, and we had some free time, but mostly it was just trying to survive and learn about this new world that I catapulted myself into. We were living at a wonderful hostel in Kunming. I had never done anything like it. I found it so exhilarating. I woke up every day with so much joy and passion. It was really exciting. After that we had a one-month pedagogy instruction and we started practicum right away, so I started teaching classes four days after they started teaching us how to teach. It was incredibly scary at first, but it’s easy to get into when you are observed every single day. If you have no idea what’s going on, you can look over at who’s observing you and try to read their face—that tells you how you are doing. We did that for another month, and then not even two or three months after I moved to China, I was living in Wuliangshan, a 7000-person town in an ethnic minority Yi county in Yunnan province, and I was teaching third- and fourth-grade Chinese students English at a Chinese public school. It was a crazy rocket of an entry into China, but a wonderful experience. Looking back on it, it was really fun.

Do you remember the first moment you realized, “Holy crap, there’s no one who speaks English here”?

I was fortunate in that Teach For China—it’s changed a lot so I don’t know what it’s like now organizationally—at the time was really good about treatment of the BLAST fellows, those with no Chinese skills. The program at the time was three-fourths Chinese fellows, and one-fourth Americans. In the town I was placed in, there were two schools that Teach For China worked with; one was an elementary school, the other a middle school. I was placed with four Chinese fellows, and at least two were fluent in English. One of them had a master’s at the University of Vancouver. They taught at the middle school and lived one floor down from me. Myself and my American co-fellow lived next door to each other or maybe one floor away. I was never completely alone but our relationship with each other was quasi-personal, quasi-professional. There’s another book called River Town. I forgot the writer…

Peter Hessler.

Someone called him the patron saint of Americans in China, and there’s probably something to that. He literally wrote the book on that sort of experience. One thing he talks about in his book with his American co-Peace-Corps-member was that the relationship was close enough for them to support each other but far enough away but they largely have the opportunity to grow independently of each other, to develop their own skill sets and experience, and to ultimately get their individual goals out of living in that new place. For me, it was largely the same. I felt totally supported by and yet not tied down by any of my co-fellows.

I had been teaching for not even a month there and I sprained my ankle, and then I walked on it. We lived on the top of a mountain so I walked a little over a mile all the way to the top. I knew nothing about sprains, so at the time I thought it would be fine. I don’t think it’s broke, and I can move around and stuff, so I’ll just hobble up this mountain. That turned out to be the worst thing I could do. It was another three weeks or so before I could walk again. It was swollen and messed up. I had co-fellows bringing me 100% of the food I ate because at the top of the mountain you are not near anything else. People communicated with my principal, who only spoke Chinese, about what was happening. I was very supported and never totally alone. I could have probably done it completely alone without any help, but I don’t think it would have been better. It would have been much worse. I had just the right amount of support to make a really rewarding experience.

Whenever I hear stories where all the right elements were in the right place to make an experience beautiful, I sometimes shift the perspective and say it’s probably because you were viewing it that way. It’s because you were receptive to the things around you and you were spinning it in your head as a good environment. Sometimes people create obstacles for themselves. In the story you told, regardless the situation you were in, more or less American fellows, you could have figured about a way to make it a good experience.

I don’t want to take credit at all for overcoming any obstacles and now smiling back on it. It wasn’t something like that at all. It was difficult. I had serious problems, and a great deal of help along the way. The one thing that helped the most, though, that I had any real control over, was something I read from the handbook before I left. They had this really good introduction to what we were all going to do in the next year or two—a pre-departure handbook for incoming fellows. The best piece of advice it had was about adaptability. I can’t remember how they phrased it exactly, but the basic idea is that, if you are 100% willing to adapt, you’ll be 100% successful. If you are completely tolerant of everything that comes at you, of course you will be fine, and so the more tolerance for completely novel stuff you can possibly swallow, the better off you will be. I really took that to heart.

I went with a very, very open mind and open heart, and for the most part was very warmly received. Even when I ran into a lot of trouble, going without many preconceived notions about what it was going to be like—and what I was going to be like while I was there—was incredibly helpful and made it a much easier ride than it would’ve been if I had any expectations at all. A week before I went, it was a very scary experience because I had worked very hard to get myself into a place where I had as few expectations as possible. I habitually tried not to imagine it. I tried not to create a visual or to make up pretend interactions in my mind or even to think about what kind of feelings I wanted from the experience. I knew it was something I wanted to do, and as much as possible, I let that feeling be as pure as it could be, with the hope that I could adapt to whatever the situation ultimately was on the other side. I think for the most part that is the basic story—maybe not completely, but largely adapted.

So many people need to hear what you said. 100% adaptability is 100% success. That almost alters the definition of success. You are not meeting your expectations, but withdrawing them in the first place and living in the moment. There’s a saying in Chinese: “The greater the hope, the greater the disappointment.”

Is that a chengyu?

Are you scared of chengyu?

No, I mean, not any more than the rest of Chinese. You are asking the wrong person. I chose to be not scared of the language, and that’s not necessarily to my credit or detriment. It made me completely crippled as a reader and writer. I [SS3] decided I just wasn’t going to do anything hard. I thought about the opportunity cost of everything. There’s so much more utility from practicing speaking than from reading and writing. In Chinese, I found that speaking and listening are easier by orders of magnitude than reading and writing. it was endlessly more helpful than being able to read and write. You can always just grab somebody and ask them, “Zenme du? (How do you read this?)”

That’s a good way to characterize Chinese as a second language.

Of course, then you could run into a problem like I did, where your growth in a language will always be stunted because your spoken understanding the language is fundamentally disconnected from the character system. If you grow up with Chinese as your native language, you understand that these two are totally inseparable. The characters are the soul of the language, and the sounds that they make are totally secondary to the character meaning, the ideogram. For me, when I speak, I don’t think or see the characters at all, and that is a very precarious position for a Chinese speaker. You’ll never be great. You might even be kind of good, but you can’t just get that great. It was exclusively a utility for me. I found some beauty in the language but the real joy in learning Chinese, the real cause, was that I wanted to interact with my environment and feel like I could be part of a community—which turned out to be a misplaced goal I had early on in my time there. But at the very least, I was empowered enough to interact with my environment in a way that lets me feel like I legitimately live here instead of like I’m faking it.

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