I was all set today to blog about my two days in Hong Kong, but I'm experiencing a recurrence of the problem uploading photos that I experienced earlier in my stay here. So while I'm waiting for that to resolve itself (as it always eventually does), I'm going to write a little bit about my students — who are, after all, the reason I came here.
Most of my postings have been about a selective group of topics — traveling, hiking, restaurants — that must make it seem like I'm on an extended vacation here. But I've been devoting a good portion of my time to my teaching activities — not just conducting the classes, but also preparing lessons (made more difficult by my unfamiliarity not just with the textbook but with teaching methods) and writing my weekly lectures on American culture.
Although I initially approached my duties with some trepidation, I have to say that the experience has been an unalloyed delight. When I arrived, several Foreign Language faculty members warned me that the students here were a disappointment compared to the harder-working, more intellectually gifted ones that you'll find at more-prestigious schools, including Jilin University's main campus. While that may be true — they certainly don't share the single-minded dedication to their studies that I've seen among the young scholars in Ling's family — I've found most of the youngsters here to be dedicated to their studies and ambitious about their futures, especially in comparison to their American counterparts.
The students in my classes — they're all freshmen, since this is the Foreign Language department's first year — seem so much younger than the ones back home: less worldly and more enthusiastic. Unlike in the States, where attending college seems to be a given after graduating from high school, they view higher education as a treasured opportunity that, if they do well, can open the door to a good job, the chance to experience other cultures (that's a big reason most of them selected this major), and the ability to provide for their parents later on (filial piety, one of the Confucian virtues, remains huge here).
Their childishness — they strike me as more like high-schoolers than college students — and lack of guile — it would never occur to them to try to act like sophisticated adults now that they've left home — brings out a paternal affection on my part. That feeling seems to be mutual: I find many of them confiding in me in a way that I'm certain they don't with the other teachers. One girl (and as I've said before, I use that word consciously: It's nigh impossible to think of them as grown women) confided in me over lunch about her frustration over her parents' orders not to have a boyfriend until she graduates. And several students who aren't even in my classes have struck up conversations with me to express regrets over their choice of a major (a common complaint, since students have to pick their field of study at age 17, at the time they enroll in college); none of the upperclassmen are able to be Foreign Language majors, since the department didn't exist when they entered the school.
I enjoy all my students, but my Thursday class is probably my favorite; their overall level of English fluency is a bit higher, which makes it easier to engage them. Last week as I walked in, they called out in unison “Happy Thanksgiving Day.”
During the mid-period break they presented me with this oversized card they'd made; everyone in the class signed it with such messages as "Wherever you go, we will keep you in mind forever," "Thank you for giving such an unforgettable experience to me," and "You're our 'family member' forever."
A student in another of my classes gave me this album with two photos she'd taken with her cell phone camera (the rest of the book was filled with "Love Is..." cartoons).
Now that I'm starting my last week of classes, I'm feeling strong pangs at the prospect of abandoning my young charges (and a bit of guilt at taking off before the semester's over, which makes the separation harder for the students). I assume that "real" teachers develop a sense of detachment that makes it easier to leave their students behind each year. If I ever do this again — and I hope to — I'm going to have to master their catch-and-release approach.