WHENEVER I face a challenge and must persevere to achieve some feat, I remember lessons learned while an exchange student in Taiwan. I arrived at the end of the rainy season. It was 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday. As the taxi driver at the airport turned to ask my destination, I proudly spoke in Mandarin: ``Yong Kang Jie. Number 53.''
The big red door was answered by an Asian woman who had a serene and warm look of expectation on her face. It was Mrs. Chen, from whom I would be renting for the summer. Being a shrewd businesswoman, Mrs. Chen immediately got down to business. She had invited an American friend to act as interpreter. The friend explained house rules and collected the first month's rent. The American friend, Peggy, offered to stop by the next morning to show me how to get to school.
With pride I can say I was the first black American from UMass-Amherst to participate in the exchange program. That summer I met four black Americans studying at Shi Da Normal University. I met no more than 11 others, however, during my entire year's stay in Taiwan.
Within four weeks my Mandarin was conversationally fluent. This was because, while I was at home with Mrs. Chen or participating in activities like rowing on the dragon boat team, the only common language spoken was Mandarin. I spent many long nights looking up new words and memorizing phrases jotted on scrap paper during the day. There was homework to do, too. One had to do his homework, since classmates learning Mandarin were extremely competitive.
People in Taiwan are eager to learn ``American English.'' Students learn to read English during elementary school. Their ambitious parents send them off to ``bu xi bans'' (learning centers) during the summer to learn conversational English. So you can find a ``bu xi ban'' on the corner of every major street or avenue.
One day a group of students of different races were discussing attitudes toward foreigners encountered in Taiwan. One of the students said he'd had trouble finding employment teaching English, because the common perception was that only white Americans spoke English well. I did not know if this was true, I had not sought employment.
Later that week Allison, a friend from the dragon boat team, asked me if I was interested in teaching English. She was returning home and wanted me to take over her class.
Allison taught at Mei Hao Language Education Center. Out of curiosity I stopped in and met Mr. and Mrs. Yally, the owners of Mei Hao. Mr. Yally explained to me that he was a Christian and believed that all people were God's children. He even showed me an alphabet book used in teaching the children their ABCs which was illustrated with drawings of black children. I felt I had found the right place to work, even though Mrs. Yally was reluctant to hire me because I would only be in Taipei for another six weeks. Sure enough, later that week Mrs. Yally stopped by Mrs. Chen's to tell me that she would be contacting me to begin working at Mei Hao.
At Mei Hao I taught two classes. The first class of 20 students ranged from ages six to ten and the second class from ages ten to fourteen. I gave all the children American names and still remember them today by those names.
At the school I team-taught with Sally, another American. After the first class ended, Sally and I would switch rooms. She would teach the younger students while I taught the older ones. Sally was an ethnic Chinese from California and a recent graduate of UCLA. She assisted me whenever I needed help finding a Chinese equivalent of an English word.
One day upon entering the class, I heard one of the little ones mumble: ``Hei Ren Lai Le,'' which means, ``The black American is coming.'' This did not leave a charming ring in my ear, and that day the students encountered their first lesson in race relations. Mrs. Yally told the students that calling a person by color was not polite. She asked: ``How would you like it if Ms. Ni (their name for me) called you `yellow people'?'' After her lecture that day I resumed teaching and never experienced anything like that again.
Despite this incident, teaching English to children - native Chinese-speakers - taught me deep lessons in humanity.
On days when living in Taiwan became stressful and the notoriety of being a young black woman made me feel like a movie star with no privacy, I would run into some of my students from Mei Hao. They would exclaim, ``Lao Shi Ni Hao,'' meaning, ``Hello, Teacher.'' My heart would melt and the world would seem livable again.
In Chinese culture, ``Lao Shi'' has a meaning greater than ``instructor.'' Since Confucius' time, teachers have been treated with the utmost regard. And getting high esteem from these young people lifted me above the chaos of Taipei.
One day shortly before I left, I found Sally in the office with a teary-eyed student. I asked why the student was crying and Sally said it was because I had announced that day that I was leaving. I was so touched that I had trouble holding back my own tears.
Remembering the fun I had naming these 40 students, teaching them the alphabet and the ``Head-Shoulders-Knees-and-Toes'' songs made me feel that I became a part of them. This must be what a parent feels when a child is learning to walk - and then runs.
My last day at Mei Hao came too soon. Eve, one of the shyest students, presented me with a long, slender black box. Inside on red velvet paper was a white porcelain writing pen that was painted with lovely pink flowers.
Again, I was moved to tears. No matter how I tried to encourage Eve to have confidence in her ability to speak English, she would shy away from participating. So her presenting me with a writing pen made me feel a great sense of accomplishment.