Many Chinese seem to assume that any native English speaker can easily teach English but that’s not true, even as not every Chinese can teach Chinese. Teaching is a profession and a skill, and taken to the level of people like New Channel’s David Symington, it becomes an art. I learned from experience that I’m not a good English teacher.
In the early 1990s, four Xiamen University laborers asked me to teach them English each day at lunch. "I've never taught English," I said. "I don't know how."
"Just follow a textbook," they said. I hated to disappoint them, so I naively agreed, though I wondered how English would benefit them. You don't need a foreign language to wield a hoe or a shovel.
For over a month, they came to my office each day at noon and we went through the very basic English text I'd bought at the Foreign Language bookstore, but they made very little progress. After about six weeks, the students ended the class, and being polite Chinese, they blamed themselves, not their teacher. "We are sorry that we are such poor students," they said.
I also apologized for being such a poor teacher. For several years, I felt badly about my 4 English students and I wondered what became of them. And 5 years later, one of them showed up on my doorstep with a large gift of Zhangzhou fruits—pomelo, and Tianbao bananas—and invited me to visit a new home he had just built for his family in the countryside.
I was astonished at the size and beauty of the home, with its traditional Minnan red brick and stone, and a large courtyard in the center. I wondered how on earth a laborer could afford it, but he explained, "I was a poor English student, but you at least had enough faith in us to try teaching us, and that gave me confidence. I took night classes in accounting, received my certificate, got a job, worked very hard, was promoted several times. And thanks to you, I built this home for my family. We've never had a home like this before. So even though I was a poor English student, your time was not entirely wasted."
He laughed. "Maybe someday my son can go to college and then teach me English after I retire."
Visiting that young man's home was one of the biggest highlights of my 36 years in China. And it taught me to never underestimate anyone—especially a Chinese Dreamer! He dreamed of learning English and failed, in large part because he had a very poor English teacher—but that did not stop him from dreaming.
It also taught me to not underestimate myself. Even today I can’t teach English—at least not like Englishman David Symington—but I can help people in other ways.
A Fujian farmer in a remote valley once told me, “With billions of people in the world, it is 缘分 (fate) that you and I should meet.” How true. Each day, 缘分 brings new people into our lives, and as iron sharpens iron, we can help each other.