Friday, August 13, 2004

the final daze

well, today is the last day. the goodbyes have already started. the only thing helping me fight back the tears is the belief [whether real or not] that i am definitely coming back next summer.

first, last saturday night there was a banquet to celebrate cooperation between the american and chinese teachers. at that time, i said goodbye to a couple of the teachers who had sat in my class occasionally. they were headed out on a trip this week and wouldn't be able to attend today's closing ceremony or tonite's final banquet. throughout the program, there has always been a chinese english teacher [or two, or three!] in my class, observing. there are something like 200 of them at Wuhan University and maybe 40 of them participated in this program on a daily basis. they watched me and the rest of the teachers with a keen eye for how we conducted lessons and always had exceedingly nice things to say after sitting in my class. the chinese and american teachers developed a true spirit of cooperation, i think, mainly since we respected the excellent job they had done [almost none of them had ever had the privilege of even a week or a month of experience in an english-speaking country] and wished them the best for continued success. this first goodbye let me "practice" and get a feeling for what it would be like this weekend, saying goodbye to everyone else.

and then yesterday, i said goodbye to one of my students, Cara. she is one of the two who come from the countryside. she came up to me at the mid-day break yesterday to say there was a family emergency and she wouldn't be in class friday morning to give her final speech or able to participate in the closing ceremony, where my class will sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, [clad in OSU hats & t-shirts, and Clippers t-shirts]. but Cara was sad, and she had some gifts for me. turned out there were gifts for me--red ornaments to dangle from my rear-view mirror!!--and then what i thought was a snow-globe that needed to be filled with water. the scene inside was a windmill, and there were tiny white styrofoam pellets. i flipped the switch on the bottom to hear what song it played, and immediately the windmill started spinning at about 1500 rpm and while Fur Elise played [the last piano recital piece i ever learned, at 14 years of age] the little white pellets flew around like snow. very very cute. if there are more gifts like it--and i suspect there will be--i will definitely need to build a small shrine to this group in my apartment when i return.

after talking to Cara and receiving her gifts, i went home for lunch [ended up taking my laundry to the dry cleaners and then grabbing some small buckets of the famous Wuhan hot-dry-noodles (spicy and soupy, at first, but then the noodles absorb the broth and become "dry")] and to get organized before the rehearsal for the closing ceremony. for some reason, i am the emcee for this event too. [not sure if i mentioned, but the speech contest went very well and my role as "Host" was limited--some introductory and closing remarks, but otherwise simply ushering in-and-out the students!!]. at the rehearsal, we had little idea what to do--trying to script an event like this is like hitting a moving target, as the university administrators are always changing what they want (which is fine with me, i'm flexible]--but one of my roles is to introduce Carmen Ohio, which all of the OSU and Wuhan teachers will assemble on stage to sing. obviously, it is a beautiful song. there is an audio file of the marching band playing it on that i downloaded, and we will sing along to it. it is an exceedingly slow almost funereal rendition, but i think it is appropriately ceremonial for this afternoon's ceremony.

after the rehearsal--my group also rehearsed Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and will throw bags of peanuts and Cracker Jack to the audience at the end--my students kidnapped me and we went into a small office in the auditorium. Cara wanted to give her speech. it was very special. she talked--for 15 minutes at least--about "Educating the Countryside Children." i took my video camera to record it, but of course the battery died. duh bob. the summary follows: her introduction was about a small child who died when his mother, a field-worker, noticed he was ill but placed him by the riverbank and said prayers for his recovery while she finished her day's work...and of course he died; then she told stories of how the parents give their money to build temples and towers but not to improve schools. also, how grandparents who have plenty of money only donate it towards the education of their male grand-children and not the little girls. it was a very authentic plea on her part. she was, after all, one of the few students who make it out of the countryside to the University. and the only reason she escaped the usual fate of the countryside children is that her father was the teacher in the village. come to think of it, both of my students from the countryside are children of teachers.

after 15 minutes or more, Cara finished her speech. it was a labor for her. she was emotionally invested in the speech itself, and tremendously sad about the end of the program and how she had to leave a day early (presumably for a death in the family--i asked Ada to find out definitively what was happening, but not even she could coax this out of Cara). there were several long pauses in her speech. i wasn't sure if she was struggling to remember it--these students memorize everything--or if she was on the verge of tears. it seemed like both. by the 2nd or 3rd pause, while Cara composed herself, imagine 20+ people in a tight crowd, cheering for her under their breath. i heard soft urgings like "c'mon" and "take your time" and "it's okay" from the students. it was very wonderful to hear them support her this way.

after she finished, i said a few words about how impressed i was that even with a family emergency, it was her idea [i never would have forced her] to find a way to deliver her speech. i also gave her the "cowboy hat" that i had been wearing all over China. it became sort of my symbol around the university--people would see it from down the hall or across the quad and call out to me, before they could have ever recognized my face. the thing about the hat though is that it strongly resembles a chinese farmer's hat. in fact, at first that's what most people think it is. i always wore it proudly though and thought Cara would do the same. interestingly, as we left the auditorium [after the class presented me with their gift--so that Cara could be a part of it, since she was leaving--a nice tea set because they knew i had been looking for one] a couple of farmers with their hats walked past our group on the sidewalk. some of my students snickered a little about the similarity between the farmer-hats and Cara's hat (which made her slightly embarrassed, i think), and i had a chance to tell all of them--but especially Cara--that she should never try to hide where she came from, that she was a great advocate for the countryside children, and that she should be proud to use her voice to speak for them here at Wuhan University.

then, by 6 o'clock--as the road we were walking on split with one path heading to my hotel--i parted with my students. this is when i finally said goodbye to Cara, as did the rest of the group. the thing about goodbyes in china is that something we take so much for granted--giving someone a hug--isn't part of the ritual. in fact, i haven't actually figured out how these goodbyes will work. in america, i would give people a tight hug and squeeze them around while i patted their shoulder/back, but i don't think that's the way it will happen here. i have said goodbye to others already--people who i didn't feel as intensely close to as my students [who have been my family here for the last 5 weeks]--and even on those occasions, it feels very hollow not to have any sense of touch in the goodbye. it's not like we would shake hands either, but even if we did, that would be hollow.

so, here i sit in the computer lab at almost 7am, about to embark upon what i know will be an excruciatingly sad day. i need to keep in mind that it should be a celebration too. my other 22 students will give their formal speeches, and i know [because they all practiced them last week] that they will be excellent. many of them are using PowerPoint slides to enhance their presentation and others [like Mike, who LOVES chemistry and will build the classic baking soda & vinegar volcano] will use visual effects or demonstrations. today needs to be a celebration, i think, and not a sorrowful occasion, because what would truly be sad is if i never had the privilege of coming here to teach and the honor of knowing these warm generous thoughtful kind-hearted students (and teachers, and administrators, and hotel staff, and food vendors, and taxi-drivers, and...everyone else who welcomed us so sincerely here in china).

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