Dec 25, 2012

Eating at the cool table

The Chinese kids take us in

Helen and Tina with Peter
From left: Helen (who is NOT a turkey, she’ll have you know), Peter, Tina

Our plan to connect with the students by sitting in their dining hall bore fruit pretty much right away.

Tina, one of Peter’s students, was the first to ask to sit with us. Now, we don’t feel scary, but the kids tend to consider talking with us a terrifying prospect. There’s always a lot of apologizing for mistakes and embarrassed giggling as they try to find the words they need. Some of our students can do no more than yell out hello and run away when they see us outside of class. And, seriously, no other teachers eat with the students. So for Tina to slide her tray over to us was an incredibly bold move, and we admired her right away for it.

The next day, she brought some of her friends with her — partially to prove to them that she had had the guts to eat with us in the first place. They were suitably impressed. After lunch, we all walked back to the dorms together, and Tina bashfully asked for a hug. Once the first hug was given out, Helen — one of the new girls — wanted one too. But again, Tina blazed the trail.

As time went on, our group of admirers grew. More students attracted more students. Even from ones who don’t stay, we get a surprised and friendly greeting as they pass. One afternoon, a student who was too shy to sit even gave us a drive-by taste of this delicious spicy, fermented bean paste before running off in a fit of giggles. (We’ve since gone through two bottles of the stuff on our own. It’s really quite tasty.)

In addition to getting to better know our current students, we’ve also been able to reconnect with some of last year’s kids. It’s been such a pleasure to get in touch with them again, and it’s been interesting to see kids mix it up with others with whom they might not usually interact; for example, Senior 1s and Senior 2s. At busy meals, we see multiple shifts of students as kids join and leave the party. “You have many fans,” observed one of the boys at one such dinner.

Not surprisingly, food is a big topic of conversation. Do we like Chinese food? What is American food like? Can you cook? Other big topics include our life in America and traveling abroad.

One night XiuLing, one of my former students and such a sweet girl, told Peter, “I hope you stay in China forever!” That was immediately responded to by another student: “That’s terrible.”

Our meals with the kids are always lively and fun, more than what we hoped for when we started the experiment. Tina and her friends are the most regular attendees, and recently she revealed that they brainstorm discussion topics for when they are going to eat with us. November 28th’s agenda: the upcoming Parent’s Day, American pen pals, and “Do you feel uncomfortable when we talk a lot in Chinese to each other?”

Not in the least, I told them. We’re happy they’re there.

All the girls, eating dinner
Clockwise from top: Sky, Emily, I’m-so-sorry-I-forget-her-name!, Elaine, Tina and Jane. You can see our jar of delicious bean paste in the center of the table.