Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Mini Me

Last week, I got a new student in my Kindergarten class. He of course can't speak any English, and he's the only kid in the class without a Western name. Yilun (I know this is how it's spelled because I was charged with the task of transliterating his name-- like I'm supposed to know) is a head taller than all of the other kids and is happy to sit there and chatter off in Chinese because he doesn't know what the rest of us are talking about. He cried for about five minutes on the first day, mostly due to the fact that he was starting school in a strange place, with strange kids (some of them are very strange) and a big hairy scary Westerner teaching him. He got over it remarkably quickly, though and is now very content in class.

The thing about Yilun is that he's actually a pretty bright kid. He speaks almost no English, but the phrases he knows ("thank you", "no", "may I go to the bathroom?") he uses willingly, in a loud voice, and with surprisingly fluent pronunciation. He sometimes gets lost in class procedure and protocol, but to his credit, it is a bit complicated and not at all standardized.

At first I thought of him as just kind of an odd amusement. The one that stands out. I've realized recently, after comparing his English skills with my Chinese, that his experience in Hess Kindergarten is actually a microcosm of my experience in Taiwan.

I speak only a few key phrases of Mandarin (almost the same ones as Yilun, plus "one beer please") and like Yilun, I'm about a head taller than almost everyone else. I was a little unhappy at first too. It's a big adjustment, and it's not always easy being in a new place with strangers. Yilun is encouraged to speak English while I am teaching, but he gets to speak Chinese the rest of the day. In that sense we differ. I get to speak English with only a handful of people every day. Those I work with, those I talk to on the phone, and the few English speaking people I've met here.

I hope both Yilun and I can learn to cope with learning a new language and being forced to speak it as a matter of conformity. It will probably be easier for him, with that sponge-like brain that most kids have. Mine is already full of useless knowledge like how many ounces are in a pound, and the theme song to Gilligan's Island, but I hope to be able to pick up at least enough Chinese so that I don't look like a kindergartener on his first day of class.

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