Living in China as a foreigner, particularly in a small town, was special in many ways but one that stands out is my students. I was teaching grades 7 and 8 in the only middle school in town and instead of having to deal with burgeoning rowdy teenagers I had the sweetest and most caring students ever. Admittedly, being the only foreigner living in China they knew and consequentially my celebrity status in town motivated them to want to pay attention to me in class. Yet, not only were they always happy to see me when I stepped into their classroom but also some of them went the extra length of wanting to meet me outside class.
The first time one of them said she wanted to visit me after class I was a bit taken aback. Surely this 13 year old girl had better things to do than spend her free time with me? Plus was it even legal? I asked the other teachers at school and they all said it was ok, that I wouldn’t be breaking any rules or laws by it. So after great consideration from my side and much insistence from the girl I agreed to meet her by the school gate when the school day was over the following Friday.
I thought we might go out for tea or just a stroll through town but she insisted on going to my house. I knew she was curious to see how foreigners lived so I relented. I don’t really remember what we did but what I do remember is that after a while I started worrying about it getting late and her having to go home but she kept insisting it was still early. I didn’t want to be rude and couldn’t really communicate properly with her so I stopped asking her if she had to leave and she stayed on until sometime past 8pm.
Now I have to explain something before continuing. The school I worked at was the only middle school in the county and as such it was also a boarding school from Monday to Friday. As in, students that lived in the surrounding villages would only go home for the weekend. This is quite common in China, what with such a large population and it (the population) being so spread out in the rural areas this in the only way some kids can attend school. This also means the children are very independent. Taking the train to and from school alone, cooking from a very young age. etc.
Back to the story of my student staying until late at my house on Friday, the next Monday at school I met the one member of staff who spoke english fluently at the school and told her what had happened. She was very relaxed about it but when I insisted she called the student in question and spoke to her. Turns out that specific student lived quite far and the train to where she lived only run a few times a day so, on Friday, if she had left my house earlier she would have had nothing to do but wait alone at the train station for the next one. In fact most Fridays if she missed the 3:40pm train (and as school closed at 3:15pm this happened more often than not) she just hang around town waiting for the evening one. Once this was explained to me I relaxed and soon she was coming with me to my house nearly every Friday afternoon. Sometimes she brought a friend but mainly she came alone. Whenever she came over we would watch movies together or I’d bake something or sometimes we would just both do our own thing. I know I’m not supposed to admitting to having a teacher’s pet but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t favor her.
Sometimes it wasn’t just the Friday evenings, for example during the Dragon Boat Festival she called me on the Sunday morning saying her mom had made special Zongsi for me so she was coming in early to visit me. On another occasion she and two of her friends said they wanted to cook for me. Yeah, these were 13 year old girls who not only knew how to cook properly but also wanted to spend Sunday with their teacher!
She and her group of friends weren’t the only ones though, soon other students also wanted to spend time outside school with me. Sometimes they would invite me for a walk around town, up the hill, or even on elaborate picnics out in the mountains.
Thanks to my students, living in China as a foreigner was an incredibly gratifying and rewarding experience.