It’s a sunny Saturday morning, and I’m starting to sweat through my shirt and tie. I’m sitting in a small café near my apartment, and across the table from me are two Shanghai locals. I am trying incredibly hard to keep a straight face as one of them says, “Nathan, I have a personal question. Are you married?”
Before your imagination runs too far, allow me to ground it with some context. Our meeting was not some mix-and-mingle speed dating brunch. It was a volunteer job interview—a volunteer job teaching English to the son of two Shanghai natives. My study abroad program made the connection when I asked for an opportunity to get involved in the community. Fast forward one week and here I sat in front of them and their nine-year-old son.
When I asked for an opportunity to get involved, I originally expected I would receive something simple like volunteering with a community agency. I did not expect something with as much responsibility as teaching English—especially considering I possess nil experience in formal instruction. However, like most people that find themselves studying abroad in a foreign country, I did not see this as a restriction that disqualifies but rather as a challenge to overcome. Hence, the shirt, tie, and beard to make me look older.
The day of the meeting I made sure to arrive early to the café, notebook and Kindle in hand, and grabbed a seat at an outside table. I had one eye on my book (Lean Startup by Eric Ries), and one eye on the streets, constantly on the lookout for the family. I had no idea what they looked like, so it was a guessing game every time I saw a child with a mom or dad.
The son and the mom arrived first. I knew it was them because I saw the mom point at me out of my peripherals. I focused my field of vision on the book; I knew they would not want to approach me until the advisor from my study abroad program, who arranged the meeting, arrived. I enjoyed pretending I didn’t notice the boy pull his mother around the perimeter of the café to get a better view of me.
The father and my advisor arrived quickly after, and the meeting began! It was one of my prouder moments as a Mandarin language user; the lunch and meeting was 70 percent Chinese, 30 percent English. I explained to them my previous experiences that might help me teach their son, and they explained their son’s learning style and English level. Throughout this process, the boy was relatively quiet.
After about an hour, the boy whispered something to his mother, and the mother relayed that message to his father. The father then turned to me and announced, “Nathan, my son has a personal question for you.”
In Chinese culture, it’s not uncommon for people to ask you personal questions in this fashion. I have read about it in books before, but this was my first time experiencing it. I kept my expression natural, as if there was nothing peculiar about the announcement. “What’s your question?”
The boy looked up and asked, “How old are you?” When I answered 21, there was some chuckling at the table and comments about how I looked more like 31 (hey, better overkill than under kill). Then, the father turned to me again, this time unprompted by his son and wife.
“Nathan, I have a personal question. Are you married?”
To me this question seemed completely out of the blue, and I had a harder time taking it in stride. I laughed a little, telling him that I was not married. Perplexed, he pointed inquisitively at the two rings on my right hand. Now, my Mandarin vocabulary was sufficient enough to explain the first ring was an old high school memoir from when I used to act, but it did not suffice for explaining the concept of a purity ring (How do you tell someone “you’re waiting for marriage?"). After a lot of misspoken Chinese and English, and eventually a translation by my advisor, they got the general idea. This just led to more chuckling.
As we were wrapping up the meeting and taking care of the details for the boy’s first lesson, the father prompted the boy to speak. Then, the mother prompted the boy to speak. The boy, realizing his parents’ determination was stronger than his shyness, rose his head and spoke quietly in Mandarin with a slight Shanghai accent.
“Nathan 老师， 请 教 我 英文。” Teacher Nathan, please teach me English.
In that moment, I think I understood a fraction of why people choose to make a career out of teaching.
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