By the time I make it to Sunday afternoons, I’m quite spent. Most of the morning and early afternoon is spent tutoring. To top off the day, I tutor yet another girl in the early evening. What was in store for me last week I would have never expected.

As we only have 30 minutes to practice our oral English, the sessions go quite quickly. If I had it my way, I would extend our time by another thirty minutes as the ball doesn’t really get rolling until it’s time to go.

This girl, who I’ve had the honor of helping name ‘Elaine’ is the typical teenager. She is slightly rebellious towards the views of her parents, but seems to be harmless in comparison with her Western counterpart. She craves to be modern and is into the latest trends. In fact, we spent one session reenacting something that could have been taken from Disney’s High School Musical.

My friend and pupil is quite animated when she speaks. She has a bit of a stutter it seems, only when she is thinking of a word that she is diigging up from the depths of rote memorization. Between our electronic dictionaries embedded in our cell phones and equally our patience, we make a slow and steady progress towards free flowing conversation.
(I must add that the classroom is a shared room and, as we converse, another teacher, whose acquaintance I have yet formally made, listens in and occasionally chimes in some help, though I’m not sure her vocabulary is all the much greater.)

On this particular day though, see seemed a bit more distraught than usual. Perhaps the word distraught doesn’t quite fit the situation I’m describing but it’s the best word coming to mind at the moment. She recounted to me how she either read in the paper or seen in the news how a foreigner had come to China, had moved to a remote part of the country, worked for pennies on the dollar, and had done this all from the kindness in his/her heart. She seemed amazed at this and asked why a person would do such a thing. Why would they give up a comfortable living? Why would they go to another country and help out the poor people? She commented on how she didn’t believe a Chinese person would ever do a similar thing. This made her a bit uncomfortable, uneasy, and really question the whole scheme of things.

Call me a softy but I was a millimeter from tears. I could feel them welling up inside. These are the moments that make me have hope in this sick world. Her feelings were genuine and she was truly thinking about life. With the utmost humility I opined that indeed most foreigners were not as selfless as this one appeared to be. I asked her to tell me for what other reasons the foreigner might want to help out the poor people in her country. I also ensured her there were Chinese, just like this foreigner, with good hearts and a selfless attitude. Without getting too philosophical, we also talked about why people fight and go to war, and in the end I tried to get at the difference between sympathy and empathy, and what it meant to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes“. It came down to the trusty cell phone dictionary- sympathy came up and she understood it, but empathy was a completely new idea to her. She didn’t recognize the character and/or concept in Chinese, so I asked her to look it up later in her dictionary at home.

The end came quick as usual and I told her that I thought it spectacular that she was depressed and in such a mood. I clarified that I wasn’t glad she was unhappy- quite the contrary. But I was glad that she had been thinking and that it was quite rare for people her age to have such thoughts (as far as I am judge).

These thoughts and feelings I might almost say that I wouldn’t wish them on anyone, except that I believe them important in this day and age to contemplate. It gave me hope that all is not lost and that all are not caught up in the glitz and glamor of pop culture and the daily routine.

The student left. Meanwhile, the teacher who shares our room offered that I should prepare a topic and in doing so we wouldn’t talk about ‘nothing’. I wasn’t sure how to take this, but I just ‘uh huh’ -ed my way out the door and until now haven’t given it a second thought. Quite frankly, life is more unprepared than prepared and it does her well to talk as one might talk with a friend, a stranger or acquaitance. Sometimes less structure and more meandering thoughts are the best tools when learning.

Not always, of course. But thirty minutes once a week isn’t too much to ask…



  1. Awesome! Exchanges and connections like this bring such meaning and hope into our lives. I’m with ya on the tear potential. Thx for the sharing 🙂


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