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I'll Teach You if You Teach Me

“三人行,必有我师.”

(Originally published October 20, 2014)

In the past couple weeks, I have began settling into a new normal. I have already adjusted to classes, metros, and the ridiculously cheap fried rice near campus. What I am learning how to balance now is being a teacher and a student at the same time.

A week ago, I began to teach English to several Shanghai children that live near my university. The next morning, I started taking private Mandarin tutoring classes off campus. The classes are not a requirement of my American program; my Australian friend introduced me to the institution in my second week of school. Since one-on-one Chinese classes are extraordinarily cheap here compared to the states (supply-and-demand: there are a lot of Chinese teachers in China), I jumped on the opportunity. For one hour a week, I am the teacher. For six hours a week outside of my university classes, I am the student trying to hold my own in a Mandarin dialogue.

The result is humorous. I spend part of my week making lesson plans, communicating with parents, and then teaching English to kids under the supervision of the parents. I encourage the kids to constantly use the language, and ensure their parents that their children will make progress. Then I turn around and find myself in the pupil's chair, and all the sudden my flowery, English speech is reduced to garbled Mandarin at a grammar level that would make my AP Literature teacher wince:

  • “That word, what does it mean?”

  • “I maybe feel I understand your meaning. Maybe. But I don’t know.”

  • “Say again?”

  • “How do you write that?”

I am exaggerating a little to get the point across, but my point is clear all the same. For one part of the week, I am the laoshi, or teacher, in the seat of honor. For the other part of the week, I am thexuesheng, or student, in the seat of humility.

I am well acclimated to being a student, but typically in the student’s seat I am sitting passively in a sea of classmates and writing notes—even in some of my language classes! But in these classes, there is no room for me to hide and little time for note taking. As the laoshi, I must immediately adapt if my student is struggling. As the xuesheng, I must constantly exert effort to try and figure out the meaning of new words using what vocabulary I already have. The process is fatiguing.

There is a Confucius saying that I learned in my first Mandarin class (if you can actually speak Chinese bear with me, because I think the vocabulary was dumbed down a little from what Confucius actually said):

“三人行,必有我师.”

It means that when people work together, they can be each other’s teacher. This is the most interesting aspect of blending these two activities. On the one hand, there are times where I feel like I am teaching my Mandarin tutor a little about American culture (like what the difference is between soap operas and sitcoms, and why The Big Bang Theory is the latter). On the other, there are times when my Chinese students are teaching me (like how to properly write my Chinese name, because sometimes I definitely write it incorrectly.)

            There is something really intoxicating about this process to me. I am someone who really buys into the idea of life-long learning; in other words, I don’t think you close the books after you get the degree. Being part of two separate environments where I am switching back and forth between teaching and learning, where there is a constant exchange of information ranging from language, culture and history—to some it sounds boring, but to me it feels euphoric.

            I still have my normal classes that I deal with daily. I still have to deal with enrolling in courses at my home university 7,000 miles away. I am still living in China, and having the time of my life botching my Chinese daily, confusing both locals and foreigners alike. But this new aspect of my daily life where I find the balance between laoshi and xuesheng is a new page in my study abroad story. I do not know where it will lead, but as Confucius (basically) said:

“I’ll teach you if you teach me.”

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