Letter From an Alien

It finally hit me two days ago. I moved to China. Like, I am here and don’t have a ticket back to America. I live here and work here and have a residents permit. These are my people. This is my neighborhood, and I am here for the long haul. I have house keys and a bike and a bank account (that I can’t read) and this is my life. I just realized this three weeks into my life in Hangzhou.

And you know what? After it hit me, I thought…”cool.”

Life here is settling into a routine and I really enjoy it. I spend Monday, Wednesday and Friday as a graduate school professor of spoken English and spend Tuesdays and Thursdays as a graduate student of International Studies and Chinese. The weekends are for exploring, getting lost, and finding my way home. Life now has a rhythm, a Chinese rhythm, so sometimes it is incomprehensible to me, but life is settling in none-the-less.

A week ago, the foreign affairs office had a meeting to welcome the foreign teachers. It was a formal affair and was really just an act of protocol, but it was highly amusing for us teachers from distant lands. A member of the local police station was invited to share with us the rules and regulations that we must abide by in order to remain in China, while he was giving his well-constructed speech he kept referring to us as “aliens.” I understand that we are alien, foreign, different, etc., but it was so humorous to have a Chinese police officer repeatedly point to me and say, “you alien…” It has become a joke amongst the teachers that we are just a bunch of aliens (think, ET phone home) wandering around the streets of China. I forget sometimes that I look different until I catch someone eying me on the street or one of my students sneaks taking a picture of me in class.

The most rewarding part of life here is the relationships that I am building with my students. They don’t know it, but they give me life. I need their positive reinforcement that my lessons are fun, meaningful and a welcome break from their rigid routines of computer science and automation. When they laugh with me, at me — which is very frequent — or around me, I am reminded that joy can be found anywhere and felt across cultures.

Yesterday in one of my classes I read “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein and then asked a series of questions about the meaning of the story. This story of selflessness and the roots of love is one of my favorites and I wanted their perspective. Because of our cultural differences and the difference in the way they were raised versus how I was raised, I was expecting them to find things in the story that I had never seen. They did. Their views of parent/child relationships and depth of friendship were very profound for people who are not incredibly versed in oral English skills. I was very proud to be their teacher as we discussed the necessity of giving, the quality of greediness and the need for understanding in reciprocal relationships.

When I am with my students I do not feel “alien.” I think we are more alike than we realize. As I looked at them, all 200 of them, and thought of their lives, how different from me, I felt connected to them.

I have students who have survived the Sichuan earthquake, who have been accepted into Cambridge for a Ph.D., who are the “chosen child” of several siblings to go to college because they family can only afford to send one, who come from generations of farmers and are the first children to go to school, who are the first child in their family to learn another language, who are married and came to graduate school so that they can get a better job and afford to pay the fines for another child….the list goes on…

The day I realized that I now live in China, I was comforted by the fact that my students are in the same situation I am: uncertain of the future, believing that each day will bring something good, and learning to live life as you go, even when it is confusing or hard. Maybe we are all aliens here.

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