Despite the recent China bashing, which I believe is serious and dangerous, I can’t but keep myself from smiling when I read stories like this, which reveal the thousands upon thousands of bonds formed between ordinary Chinese and Americans every year…
By Jeanne Kniaz, Voice Reporter
While most travelers abroad seem content to return with souvenirs such as porcelain or silk, Maria Schapman, 23, of Memphis brought home a living, breathing treasure made in China and nurtured here.
After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Spring Arbor University last year, Schapman had expressed little interest in traveling out of state, much less to a foreign country.
“I never wanted to leave the United States. I never wanted to live abroad or anything,” she said.
While pondering her life, Schapman opened an e-mail and from that moment on, fate intervened to alter her future and that of another young woman living a world away.
“One of my professors from college sent an e-mail … saying that they were looking for teachers in China to teach English. I thought that that sounded interesting, and that I would never do it, but I got more information,” Schapman said.
That was in June; she trained in July and by August she was in China.
“It was really fast. It was crazy, yeah. But it was one of the best years ever. I loved it. I never would have considered it until that professor sent an e-mail,” Schapman said.
The teaching abroad program she signed on with incorporated Schapman’s bachelor’s degree, her native language and desire to teach to secure her a job teaching second-year university students and an apartment in Xiaogan.
“We taught English. In my city … nobody spoke English except for my students. We lived in the community. It was very, very rural. … It was very country. I loved it because Memphis is very country so it was nice to live there,” Schapman said.
Adapting to foreign environs was a learning experience for this teacher.
“The first month was really hard because if I didn’t understand what they were saying, I’d try to read their body language,” Schapman said. “Well, Chinese body language is very different from ours. They are very reserved where they don’t express themselves with their hands and I’m Italian so we use our hands. We use our whole body where they … keep a straight face and they just keep their body calm so it was pretty difficult for me to read them.
“But I lived there for 10 months and you get used to the small things they do with their eyes or hands or whatever and you can understand it a lot better. And people are willing to help.”
One such helper was Xu Xianrong (her last name lists first), known to her American friends as “Ellie”, who lived in Xiaogan, had one older sister and lived with her parents who are tailors by trade.
Xu, 20, learned English at 17 and honed her skills with the help of American friends.
“I always hang out with my friends and I play basketball … because I was a basketball player while I was in college,” Xu said.
Xu’s major area of study was nursing; she enjoys shopping and karaoke and although her town is a walkable city, she has been taught to drive.
“Ahh, barely,” she laughingly admits.
Xu was friends with Schapman’s roommate and was soon introduced to Schapman.
“She came to my hometown and was teaching so we met each other,” Xu said of Schapman, and the two became fast friends to the point that when Schapman’s family visited China, they were introduced to Xu’s family.
“So their family went to visit my family so we have the connection and we’re really good friends. We pretty much hang out every day in China,” Xu said.
Last June when Schapman was set to go home, Xu, an enrollee in a student exchange program, was bound for American soil as well.
This time, Schapman extended a hand across an ocean to help Xu live and learn in America.
“The program through her school to come to America … could give her jobs, but some of the jobs … were like at a fast food joint. Me, being protective – I didn’t want her to do that because I wanted her to have a better American experience, so I contacted (Covenant Hills Camp in Otisville, Michigan where Schapman had previously worked for four years) … and asked them if they could use an international counselor,” Schapman said. “Then I talked about it with my mom. I said if she works at the camp would it be OK if she lived at our house and my mom was like of course and my dad said it was perfectly fine. They fell in love with her when they came to visit.”
Xu worked at Covenant all summer long and is now employed at Blake’s Apple Orchard.
“I’ve come here to experience the American culture and just work here,” Xu said and added that she enjoys spending time with Schapman’s family members.
“Everybody is just very nice to me, her nana, papa and everybody. They include me in the family so I feel like not just a foreigner here. I feel like I am a person from the family, you know? It feels so warm,” Xu said.
She is set to return to China in November to find a job, start her career and her “real life” and she hopes to someday come back to America.
“So when I go back to China, I will be an English nurse. Most bigger city in China all hire the English nurse to do something for foreign patients because … all can’t speak English,” Xu said.
Meanwhile, on Oct. 6, Schapman was off again to China where she will spend another year learning, earning and soaking up Asian culture.
“I’m actually going to be teaching at a kindergarten. It’s an international kindergarten where all of the students are about 4 to 6-years-old and they don’t speak English. I’ll have 15 students in my class and two Chinese teachers,” she said. “So my plan, which can change dramatically when I get there, is to have them speak Chinese the first two weeks and then, after that, have even the teachers only speak English because I think it is very important for the children to see that the Chinese teachers respect English and respect me and so I’ll be working toward that.”
Jeanne Kniaz is a freelance reporter. She can be contacted at [email protected]