Creative non-fiction piece on my experience living with a foreign exchange student and then spending the summer with her family in China.
Hello Wonderful People,
I admit that I have been a bit distant recently, and I mean that both theoretically and literally. As I sit here, writing what will likely be another impossibly long email, you are probably deeply asleep in a time zone that is anywhere between 12 and 14 hours behind mine (well, China’s). On that note, most of you are probably as far away from me as you could possibly be without digging a whole through the center of our planet, which, as it turns out, would probably take quite a bit longer that your standard 11-14 hour long flight. I’m not judging though, have fun drilling. :)
Anyway, before another tangent overpowers my current of thought, let me give you a brief (brevity being relative) overview of my recent summer ventures. Five weeks ago, after finishing all of the training materials for my position as Assistant Resident Director for the National Security Language Initiative for Youth Hangzhou Summer Chinese Intensive, I was busily searching Minneapolis for business casual attire. Attire is not something that I had ever really thought about before. Yes, I have always prided myself in looking appropriate and “fashion forward” (when you are three, tutus and mix-matched socks are practically haut couture, so no need for comments from the peanut gallery), but looking “grown-up” was definitely new for me. I must admit I felt strangely older as I bravely outfitted myself with capris, blouses, button downs, below-the-knee dresses and cardigans.
The mental preparation was a bit of a different story as I had little idea of what to expect. How was I going to maintain my authority over students only a couple years, or in one case, one month younger than me? Would the students follow guidelines? What would the main resident director be like? What about my housing situation? How would we divide up the work? All these questions bubbled over the pressure of being the first assistant resident director in program history. My actions would directly impact a new position of NSLI-Y employment. A brand new vest could not solve the obstacles I would have to maneuver while in Hangzhou, China, but the right attitude could certainly do the trick.
Life has taught me that most fears are self-inflicted. Humor me for a bit: Imagine someone slapping himself or herself in the face repeatedly. Now, imagine that person is you and your hand is your fear. (Okay, now you can stop humoring me). I took my theoretical hand away from my face and relaxed, ready to solve issues as they arose. On June 24th I flew to Washington D.C. and checked into the Embassy Suites hotel. That night my work began. I helped check in students for two other China programs until late in the night and then spent the next day preparing folders and paperwork for my group that was due arrive on the 26th. On the day of my students’ arrival, I made airport runs from 10am to 12am, picking up the majority of the Hangzhou group.
On the 27th, the students had a daylong orientation, and I basically flitted around, completing an array of tasks to help prepare for departure. That night, sleep was scarce; our group checked out of the Embassy Suites at 3am on Saturday only to arrive in Shanghai at 2pm on Sunday. We then boarded a bus to Hangzhou, where D (my boss and main RD) and I ran a host family and student orientation and then made our to the Zhejiang University International Dorms. Part of me feels bad calling them dorms, as they are actually more like hotel rooms. My “dorm” has two twin beds, a closet, a bathroom, a desk, green tea that is replaced daily, towels that are similarly replaced, a lovely window, and two somewhat comfy chairs…it is wonderful!
At this point you are probably wondering what I do exactly. Well, Monday through Friday I wake up at 6:30am to walk a mile to the high school where the NSLI-Y students are taking class. In the morning, I take attendance, sit in on classes and write notes. Then at noon, I help distribute lunch and talk with the students to help alleviate difficult situations. In the afternoon, I help facilitate and document teacher led cultural activities. At the end of the day, I stay and tutor students if anyone has requested additional help. Then I get dinner and walk home.
Every week, I create a schedule for the group meeting that D and I facilitate each Thursday. During the weekly group meeting, I give language-learning tips to the students and teach them a Chengyu (Chinese proverb). Every ten days, I write a Newsletter for the student’s parents and NSLI-Y that includes all of the activities the students have done and pictures of their accomplishments. Every weekend, I call nine of the nineteen host families and talk with them in Chinese to check and make sure everything is fine with the students. I am also on call 24-7 and have been summoned to other areas in China to help out.
I am only/already (I cannot decide which term feels more fitting) halfway done with my job in Hangzhou. Some of the highlights have included really getting to know the students, traveling to Suzhou with the group, being told that I gave the best tutoring job someone had ever received, seeing West Lake, re-learning Chinese Chess, visiting all of the host families this past week as part of host family consultations, and the look on all of the students faces when the cat finally popped out of the bag that I am only eighteen. “But-but…you could be one of us,” one of the students stated in a confused manner when I calmly explained my case. Now, there is an ongoing joke that I am actually a thirty-year-old graduate student with a bilingual daughter that speaks Mandarin and English. Thankfully, the students do not really seem to care about my age. I kind of feel like a big sister to the students: I do not hang out with them unless we are all together, but they still look up to me and seek my advice; plus, I would be there for them at the drop of a hat.
Speaking of “being there for people,” I would like to thank you all for caring enough to read down to this final paragraph. I really appreciate all that you have contributed to making me the person I am today. I’ll be sure to let you know how the final chapter of my summer goes as well as my first quarter at Stanford. In the meantime, I wish you all the very best.