I open the door to see them standing there, nervous and curious. I hand them house slippers and they take off their shoes in the hallway, then step over the threshold into my small living room.
“Miss Sarah, we brought some fruit for you.” They hand me a plastic bag bulging with apples.
“Thank you so much!” I reach out and accept the gift.
They remain standing, unsure of protocol. When I ask them to sit down, they perch on the edge of the couch. I offer them something to drink. Sometimes they decline with Asian politeness; sometimes they say thank you. No matter their response, I go into the kitchen to pour boiling water over bits of dried tea leaves, leaving the nervous students to converse in Chinese in hushed tones. They furtively glance around the decorated room. What is the meaning of so many candles? Why does their teacher decorate with pictures of sleeping babies? Why does she have so many books? They accept the steaming mugs of tea, carefully setting each mug on the coffee table in front of them. Hearts beating unsteadily, they turn to me as orchestra musicians look to their maestro. What comes next?
Unbeknownst to them, I am also less than comfortable. Their tense postures and nervous responses trigger an apprehensive feeling in my stomach. The first visit is always painful.
I sit down with my students and ask them to tell me their English names. I give myself a pop-quiz of sorts, attempting to repeat all the names without a mistake. I ask them about their recent weekend, their classes that day, or the name of their hometowns. They answer nervously, afraid that when it is time for an answer they won’t have the right English words. I sense they have suffered enough.
“We’re going to play a game,“ I announce.
“This game is a bit crazy. In America we call it Spoons, but in China we will use kuai zi [chopsticks].”
I reach under the coffee table and break out my huge stack of scuffed playing cards.
“Can one of you xi pai [shuffle]?”
Having never mastered this trick myself, I am always forced to ask this question. A student reaches for the deck. The shuffler bends and moves the cards with an expert hand and there is a moment of relief as everyone is looking down at the shuffler’s hands instead of the teacher’s face.
“OK, I am going to explain how to play the game,” I announce.
Picking up four cards, I slowly explain each part of the game. The students listen intently, fearful that they might miss something.
“Every person will have four cards, and you will try to collect four cards which are the same. You will look at the cards passed your way and decide if you want to exchange one card for another. Once you have four identical cards, you will quietly grab a chopstick.”
I demonstrate by stealthily pulling a chopstick off of the coffee table.
“If you see someone reaching for a chopstick, you must grab one too! Because kuai zi bu gou [there’s not enough chopsticks]!”
Laughter breaks up the tension as the students realize they must fight to stay in the game. I reach under the TV and pull out three different headpieces: a pair of pink bunny ears, some stuffed reindeer antlers, and a Santa hat with attached white braids.
“The loser must wear one of these,” I announce.
The students laugh again. They pick up their cards with nervous determination.
As the game begins, they are flustered by the swiftness of the card exchanges. “Tai kuai le!” [Too fast!] They exclaim to no one in particular, grabbing at the cards and shoving them toward the next player. Someone reaches for a chopstick and I screech and grab one as well. Some students pounce on the remaining chopsticks while others still hold onto their cards, attempting to register what is going on. At last, everyone is laughing and the loser good-naturedly dons the headpiece of humiliation, sometimes posing for the photos his classmates snap using their cell phones.
As the next round begins, the tension in the room has a different vibe. The students are no longer conscious of their unfamiliar surroundings or their foreign teacher’s presence; they are calculating how far they must reach to grab the nearest chopstick. Their faces are set.
The game begins in earnest and cards are scuffled together and flung at the next player, ejaculations and moans are heard, and suddenly everyone is grabbing for chopsticks, arms flailing, voices shrieking, hands pulling! We collapse into choruses of fully belly-laughter.
“You pulled it from me!”
“I had three cards the same!”
“Where was number 5?”
Cards are flung down on the table and the winner and loser are announced. We play again and again, telling the three-time loser that his feng shui is probably bad, and then we increase everyone’s chances of losing by reducing the original ratio of chopsticks. No one is shy anymore, and I am sure my neighbor downstairs is wishing we would stop.
Finally, I call the last round. The students help me gather up the cards and I tell them there is one more game to play.
This time, the students watch me lay dozens of photo cards in rows on the coffee table. Their silence is no longer tense; they are mostly curious. They smile at the picture of baozi [steamed stuffed buns], oooohhh at the picture of wads of 100 yuan bills, and sometimes nudge a classmate at the picture of a boy playing computer games.
“This game helps us to get to know each other. Each person should choose three pictures that represent your life in some way. A picture can mean whatever you want it to mean. Choose the photos you want, and then we will all share about the pictures we’ve chosen.”
The students begin scanning the images before them, sometimes shoving a certain picture towards a roommate with a knowing chuckle. After pictures have been chosen, I ask a student to begin. She holds up a picture of a low, handmade, simple bamboo chair. “This picture reminds me of my grandmother. I would sit on this kind of chair in her home and she would tell me stories. I miss my grandmother, because she passed away last year.”
The next picture shows an old man and woman taking a stroll beside a stone wall in the countryside.
“I hope that someday I can live a peaceful life and take a walk with my husband after dinner.”
She holds up a picture of a girl listening to music. “I like listening to music very much.”
The next student has been thinking of the English words he needs in order to explain the pictures he has chosen. He begins to introduce his first photo but he has the photo card turned toward himself. We ask him to show it to the rest of us. He turns it around, revealing a picture of two men sitting on the side of a mountain. “I want to travel. I like to go to see beautiful places.”
He switches cards and reveals an image of a man staring out the window of a moving train. “I think that this man is thinking about his life. I am often thinking, especially when I ride the train.”
The next picture shows two ducks splashing in a lake together. “This picture reminds me of my childhood in the countryside. It also reminds me of friendship. I hope I can have a happy life with my friends.”
The next student holds up a picture of a man with his head in his hands, the Chinese words for ‘pressure’ and ‘exam’ written on his head. “Sometimes I feel this way. I really hate exams. I feel like I had a lot of pressure in high school, but now I have pressure when I think about my future.”
The next picture shows the Chinese character for ‘love’. “This picture reminds me of my roommates and I. We have this word hanging in our dorm room. We have a very good relationship. We often play basketball together after class.”
His final picture shows a group of old men crowding around a table under a tree, playing Chinese chess. “When I am old, I hope I can live a peaceful life and play chess like this.”
The next student reveals a picture of a girl standing on a scale, obviously distressed. “This picture makes me think of our room. We have a—how to say? [pointing to the scale] in our room and we stand on it every night. My roommates and I go running around the lake in the evening. But I like snacks very much.”
She picks up the picture of baozi as the others laugh. “I love to eat. This is why I am a little fat.”
She smiles and reveals her third picture of a bed with fluffy pillows, clean white sheets, and two coffee cups set on a tray. “I hope I can have a small apartment someday with a nice bed; a comfortable, quiet place.”
It’s my turn and I show a picture of a girl reading beside a lake. “I love to read. When I was very young, my mother threw out our TV and told us to read and play outside.”
My students gasp a bit. TV was a prized form of entertainment when they were young. “My brother and I would read as we washed the dishes. We would wash a dish, wipe our hands, and turn the page. Then we would wash another dish.” The students are astonished. Reading for pleasure is not a common pastime in most of their homes; the books of their childhood and adolescence were primarily schoolbooks. Also, many of them were shielded from household chores in their youth as their parents wanted them to use their time to study.
I hold up the next card. A bird is nestled in a pair of gentle hands. “This picture reminds me of my life when I was a teenager. My father was a bad man and our family went through many hard times. I wanted to go to college but there was no money. Sometimes I cried about my future. However, I discovered that I was being taken care of by someone who cared.” I tell them the story of the anonymous donor who paid for the rest of my freshmen spring semester. They always try to help me guess who this person might be, astounded that I still do not know his/her identity.
I show them the next card, a map with a compass. “I always wanted to travel when I was young, but now I feel like I am always travelling. Sometimes I would like to settle in one place. But I do love seeing new places around the world.” Sometimes I tell my students that I have my heart in two places: America and China.
We have come full circle. From nervous, unsure visitors and a foreign teacher-host, we are now crowded around a coffee table littered with pictures that reveal something personal about each one of us. We take a photograph together, holding on to the gladness we have discovered in each other’s presence.
I open my door and pick up the pairs of shoes in the corridor, setting them in front of the threshold so the students can easily switch from their house slippers. After shoes are tied, I accompany them down the four flights of stairs to the entrance of the foreign teachers’ building. The Chinese housekeeper/receptionist smiles at us from her post behind the glass window, and I open the glass door into the outside air. The students file past me.
“Thank you, Miss Sarah,” someone says.
They wave at me as they head down the outside steps, and I turn and run up the stairs to pick up the pile of house slippers, wash the tea cups, sweep the floor, and put away the cards.
Throughout my years in China, hundreds of students have come through my little apartment. When I think of the ones who have since become close, firm friends, I marvel that once upon a time, they too, came over for a “first visit”. I can remember some of those first visits, while others are lost to memory. Sometimes it seems that we have always been close. But that feeling is an illusion; at some point in time, there was a “first.” A “first” filled with awkwardness, both of us unsure of how to proceed until we remembered that one great unifier: we are both persons. We discovered that during a first meal of noodles together, a first trip to KTV, a first bus ride, a first English Corner, a first mountain climb, and often after that first knock, knock.