Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Welcome to My Tutoring Family

One of the luckiest things that happened to me here in Shanghai was the result of responding to a flyer advertising a position as a private tutor for a young Chinese girl. A man named Peng had a daughter named Julie and they were searching for a young lady whose native language was English. In the time it took for me to say
                            – ‘Hey, that’s me!’  
                                                              they had enveloped me into their family and their routine, and now I find I have a lovely place in their hearts. Of course, and they in mine.

Each week, once or twice, I cycle to their family home around the corner from my university, just after dinner time. I teach Julie English for an hour or so, and then Peng teaches me English until we tire. Without fail, each time I arrive and kick my boots off at the door, Julie greets me with a new compliment she has learned.
     ‘Hello, Brianna. My, you look so beautiful today.’
     ‘Good evening, Brianna. Oh my, you look so fit today.’
     ‘Hi, Brianna. Gee you look so pretty today.’
I slip into my special slippers, am offered a cup of tea or coffee or warm homemade vegetable juice, and we sit on the couch together to begin practice.

I can still remember the first time I met Peng and Julie, when it was still freezing cold and raining almost every night. They met me at the gate of the university and we walked together to their home. Julie hardly spoke a word of English to me, and was incredibly shy. Her father fought against this introverted nature with a mix of firmness and encouragement, and by the end of that evening she spoke one full sentence to me. I was worried that I would have to spend a lot of time teaching Julie to feel confident enough to speak, before we could even begin to work on grammar or pronunciation. By the end of an hour or so I was exhausted from encouraging her so much – constantly reassuring this young girl took a lot of effort – I’m honestly usually not very good with children.

Julie. Delightful.

I also remember on this first evening, that on our walk back to the university (they insisted on walking me back home through the wind and rain) Peng encouraged me to try and talk to them in Chinese. I was reluctant and self-depreciating. I had only been in China a couple of weeks at this stage, and my tongue felt like sand in my mouth, trying to wrap it’s way around the tones and unique vowel sounds. I was so embarrassed by my poor skills that I reverted to asking them questions about themselves to avoid having to speak. Of course I didn’t realise it at the time, but July was probably wondering how long it would take me to stop acting like a buffoon and just speak. Hindsight never ceases to render me humbled.

After just a few short weeks, we were all much more relaxed around each other, and we were quick to realise that we all simply enjoyed each other’s company. Their house had a wonderful feeling of home-ness that I yearned for, and missed horribly. It is the feeling that comes from peacefulness and love filling a place. Sitting on a comfortable couch, in the warm yellow dusk light, smelling a recently eaten dinner, hearing the reassuring bustle noises from parents as you continue with your books. Each second you exist within this space, you are loved. I am drawn back to this house each week now, not only for its occupants, but for the gentle reminder it gives me of my life back home. The reassurance that I will always be my mother’s daughter and my father’s child. The sentimentality hits me every time I am on that couch. Without fail.

Julie is a very focused, studious young girl. She has classes every day of the week, and mathematics is her favourite because it is 'so interesting'. She does not remind me of myself at all. On paper, Julie may perhaps appear to me the stereotypical perfect Asian student, tunnel-visioned and lacking balance in life, but I have come to know her well, and she has passions and amusements like all children do. I quietly encourage her to play more, ask her if she would like to learn an instrument, join a sport team or go somewhere on the weekend instead of class again. She considers my suggestions and earnestly replies with a contented inclination to continue with life the way it is now. It appears my guerilla tactics of moulding a mini-me are not only useless, but unnecessary. Another reminder of my unsuitability to parenthood, hahaha...

The view from their window, and their lovely couch, and them.

Julie and I make jokes and laugh with each other now. I tease her and she laughs at me. It is comfortable. Peng and I have found a place of mutual respect, and we treat each other as equals. We both realise that we have a lot to learn from each other. I am still at an age where I feel flattered and truly appreciate adults treating me as an equal.

I have learned a lot from Peng. He answers my questions with patience and interest, and from knowing him I have gained a keen insight into Chinese life that I would otherwise not have a window to. Each week I know more about a Chinese individual’s relationship to their government, the popular opinion of the state of their country, a Chinese person’s ideas about the Western world, and how all of these factors interact with each other. I know the workings of the Chinese educational system, the traffic, the censorship, the farming, the one-child policy and the history. I do my best to respond with a face of earnest learning – I can now effectively contain my disdain at conversational content which breaches the morally questionable aspects of life here. I will always think long and hard, by myself, after these evenings, filtering his opinions through my own mental sieve. I will never cease to be amazed at how the government here can infiltrate the foundational beliefs and concepts of each individual’s mind. Peng is certainly not oblivious, and we talk earnestly, but our conversation always reaches a point where I begin to understand the workings of a Chinese mind compared to that of my own. These evenings have informed my attitude to this country almost as much as my own travelling has. I cannot overemphasise these lessons. The inform every part of my life here. Each new interaction.

Sometimes they give me lovely presents as I leave. I have received three pawpaws, two tubs of yoghurt, one box of sesame seed biscuits and three litres of milk altogether. These are all things I appreciate to an incredible degree. They get such delight from seeing how much milk makes me happy. When I arrive for a meal with them I take a gift. Flowers or some pyjamas for Julie. They appear almost embarrassed. I feel that perhaps I am insulting them in some way, but I am yet to understand these super-intricate parts of guest/host culture. Needless to say, Julie loves her pyjamas. I explained that in Australia dinner guests will often bring the host a small gift (wine, flowers and the like) as thanks for the meal, and this puts them at ease.

Peng in his apron with his juice.

The dinners they cook are wonderful! I am a vegetarian and so they prepare several kinds of vegetable dishes and learn all the English names of the ingredients to talk to me about them at the table. Peng cooks, as they assure me that he is better than his wife at preparing vegetable dishes. She specialises in the meat ones. Peng has a great apron, too. At certain times in Chinese culture, gender roles are very specific and present. At other times, men can wear frilly pink aprons when they cook. I am yet to learn the specifics of these definitions...

They make their own vegetable juices which might sound gross, but are incredible. Don’t mock hot, fresh, homemade pumpkin juice until you’ve tried it. They don’t like the ‘supermarket drinks’ as they call them (soft drinks or sugary juices or flavoured milks) and so have become totally pro at an amazing repertoire of homemade beverages including carrot juice, pumpkin juice, sweet potato juice, pawapaw juice and (my personal favourite) sweetcorn juice. They have a great machine that heats it as well. The glasses of this magical elixir are completely natural and somewhat akin to soup. I wish I could make it at home. At each meal they remark at my native-level chopstick abilities, of which I am certainly proud. They are incredulous at anything I can do that is remotely Chinese. Receiving this encouragement is enough to bring me back each week – it makes me realise how much I have always relied on my parents for reassurance.

Dinner this Sunday just passed - and the juices!

 The catalyst for me finally telling you about my great adopted family is the particular meal I shared with them on Sunday. The invitation was extended to my awesome Finnish friend Hanna, and we went together to their house for a lovely dinner. After eating way too much we found ourselves somehow playing with stuffed toys on their couch. We gave the toys names and voices and silly hand actions. Julie was in fits of laughter! She was encouraging us to continue and giving us new, bigger toys to play with her with, clearly in sheer delight at this situation and the three of us carried on enjoyably for at least an hour. It felt incredible to revert to such childlike behavior, and to have that behavior appreciated. It is a sad reminder of what it lost (despite the overwhelming benefits) of the one-child policy. Julie has never had siblings to play with. I was more than happy to oblige. Hahaha!

Julie’s English has also improved greatly. As well as speed and vocabulary and pronunciation, she has gained incredible confidence and a willingness to try and speak what she wants to say, instead of what she has already learnt. They also watch a show called "Crazy English" where they learn American slang. The best to-date is 'Damn, the computer crashed again!' - which is yelled out toward the cieling melodramatically, as are all 'Crazy English' classes. It's brilliant. I am so proud of how far she has come. Likewise, on good evenings, I can now almost successfully communicate entirely in Chinese with Peng. I learn ‘real’ Chinese from them.

Our weekly interactions are the very definition of ‘exchange’. They make me more positive about all the bigger things in life.

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