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Unexpected triumphs from a teaching job in China

Jiang Ning (Janine), a university student in China, was one of the students who submitted writing to the class literary magazine.

She wrote, "I live in a farm.... In the daytime we fish lobsters. The lobsters are in rivers and not in the sea. We use small bamboo to make fishing rods and bend metal wire as fishing hook.... The water absorbs heat of sun and becomes a little warm. When I go up the bank, wind blows and I feel cold and shiver."

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This literary magazine is something very special. It is a collection of writing from a class of 36 young women to whom I taught English from 1996 to 1998 in Nanjing, China. In September 1996, I went to China on a Wellesley College fellowship to teach English at Ginling College full of fear and very little idea of what to expect. As a recent college grad, I traveled to a continent where I had never been and crossed the very thin line from student to teacher - but two years later realized that line is just a relative demarcation.

Though the first-year students had already been learning English for six to eight years starting in middle school, many of them were so shy that we could barely have a conversation. For some, I was the first foreigner to whom they had ever spoken. As for me, I at first refused to admit how old I was because my students were only a few years younger than I am. And although I could see they were nervous, I thought I should hide my anxious feelings. My experience had been with tutoring and assisting in classes, but I had never handled a classroom on my own. So having 36 pairs of eyes fixed on me expecting me to know what I was doing made me incredibly uneasy. I didn't know whether to be dismayed by their blank looks as I spoke to them in class, or to be heartened by the fact that there was so much to teach them.

Trained only to write formulaic sentences and rigid essays in middle school, many of my students were at a loss when they were encouraged to express themselves as individuals and when I was interested in what they really thought. I would never have predicted that two years and countless exercises later, we would put together a magazine composed of essays, stories, poems, diary entries, letters and anecdotes. Writing subjects covered everything: a poem about a grandmother's dog to fashion trends in China, a debate on euthanasia to the death of a cousin, and a student's first sighting of the ocean to a musing on loneliness.

The literary magazine was an ambitious project to undertake, but I felt that it was the most compelling way to illustrate how far the students had come. Overwhelming logistical obstacles made putting together a magazine in China an ordeal, yet it was all the more worthwhile in the end. Imagine this college in China where the only computer room is kept locked except by appointment; where college sophomores do not necessarily know how to save a document onto a disk; where one laser printer is located in the president's office and my furtive printing of 50 or so sheets brought frowns to the face of the office manager.

When the last entry was printed and a table of contents hastily tapped out, I tramped through the rain to the chemistry department, cursing my decision to undertake the project and the problems it was causing me. I recall being anxious because I had only one day before the students departed for the summer, and then jamming the bundles of paper underneath my raincoat so as to avoid getting splattered by rain as I scurried to get the sheaves bound.

Stepping inside the university's press was like walking into something out of a Charles Dickens novel: a dimly-lit room filled with enormous, ancient-looking machinery smelling of ink and engine grease; printing presses with movable type that had to be arranged and removed lined the walls; and women at work tables folding sheets of paper and cutting the quartos into pages with wooden knives. I shook my head and wondered what was going to happen as I surrendered the manuscripts to be bound.

I felt driven to see this one last project through to the finish. It was especially through the writing of my students that I realized how rich and diverse are their thoughts, worries, hopes, and joys -which ultimately show how our sentiments are universal. I hoped to cultivate a sense that honest writing was a way to connect hearts and to open minds.

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As an American who lived in China, I am fortunate to have had a unique look at this complex country through the lens of young people. "Foreign friends" perusing the journal are afforded a unique chance to glimpse China through the eyes of the generation that will lead the country into the next millennium. And I came to realize time and again that though my role was that of a teacher, I was always a student of my own students, constantly learning about China and its people, as well as about myself.

In the end, the project was completed within our budget. Even the funds for producing the magazine had been raised through a class T-shirt-making project - the students' first taste of entrepreneurship. T-shirt sales brought in about 800 yuan, or $100 (roughly my monthly salary as a university teacher in China), which covered the costs of producing the magazine.

When I unpacked my suitcase upon my recent return to Boston, I pulled out the thin volume whose flimsy pages are already warping as they jut out unevenly from the flimsy plastic cover.

Though the journal looks modest and the entries are filled with plenty of typos and errors, I know it is a powerful symbol representing the remarkable growth of my students and also of the determination that challenging conditions instilled in me.

Indeed, the two-year memory of my extraordinary China experience has been brought home with this literary magazine.

*Amy Yee is a research associate at Harvard Business School. She is a 1996 graduate of Wellesley (Mass.) College with a degree in English and history.

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