I’ve been back from China for about six weeks now and while it has been wonderful to see my family and friends again, it has been a somewhat difficult adjustment for me. Grace and I have talked a lot about this and, with her help, I’ve begun to see a little more clearly just how extraordinary this experience has been. The deep satisfaction I got from doing something so meaningful and rewarding, the love and appreciation I received from the kids and teachers, and the emotional farewell upon leaving the school still linger in my thoughts. I find myself dwelling on these powerful memories and looking for opportunities to keep them fresh, often to the neglect of the other things I should (or would like to) be doing. One activity I have been able to enjoy is developing a web site for my friend Jessie, whose Shanghai company made the volunteer teaching possible. I also talk to my friend Guoming in Shanghai over the internet a lot: partly to continue helping him with English but also to maintain our special friendship that has bridged two very different cultures and languages.

I saw evidence of re-adjustment difficulties in some of the other volunteers who left China before me. Their emails made it clear that they were missing China very, very much and they were having trouble getting back into the groove of their college studies or jobs. Since many of those volunteers were only in China for four weeks, my longer stay (13 weeks) probably contributed to a more difficult re-adjustment. With the extra weeks, I became a better teacher, made deeper friendships and became more attached to my students – as they did to me.

So, with Grace’s encouragement, I’ve decided it will be helpful for me to write about the readjustment process here. Grace has also pointed out that many stories that I’ve shared with her never made it to this blog, so I will try to share those too, before they fade from memory. Hopefully these additional posts will help me work through some of these issues and be of some value to anyone who has shared my journey over the past several months through this blog.

In this post, I’ll focus on my thoughts about readjusting and save the stories for future posts. I don’t really know why readjusting has been difficult but the symptoms are pretty clear. They include dwelling on the memories of my adventure, difficulty in moving on to new tasks, and a general malaise (with bouts of moodiness thrown in just to keep it interesting for Grace.) I have several thoughts/ideas about what might be going on and I’ll discuss them below.

1. A Most Affirming Experience

I think the main cause for readjustment difficulty is simply how special the experience was, which has made it difficult to “let go.” I felt so happy to be doing something that was so helpful to other people. All of the children and many of the teachers made it very clear to me that they greatly appreciated my efforts in coming to China to help them with their English. They knew that I was doing this as a volunteer and that I had left my wife and affluent US life-style behind. They also knew that I really cared about them and I felt their gratitude every day. I have joked about how many times I had to answer calls of “Hello” from the children. They really enjoyed talking to me, and the enthusiasm with which they offered these greetings kept them from becoming tiresome. Much of their enthusiasm probably stemmed from their interest in learning English. It’s much more exciting to speak to a foreigner who is an “English expert” (and cannot even speak their language) than it is to their Chinese-speaking English teacher. Also, I think many of them have a genuine fascination with foreigners, particularly on ChangXing Island, where foreigners are somewhat rare.

Like many of us, I’ve always had the desire to do something that might help make the world a slightly better place. For one of the first times in my life, I felt like I was doing my little part, both as an individual citizen of the world and as a good-will ambassador for my country. I was highly aware that many people, especially in places like China, have a less-than-positive view of the USA, and I felt like this was my chance to show some people that Americans are basically good people who care about others. It felt wonderful to think that I might have left a good impression in several little (and some grown) minds. I really believe that this aspect of volunteer-teaching in China will have more lasting value than the help I offered with their English.

Another thing that made the trip so special were the strong feelings of accomplishment I got. At the outset of my journey, I had some trepidations. I was, after all, traveling half-way around the world to live in a vastly different culture, under a communist government, to do a job that I was never really trained for – teaching primary school. I was also one of the oldest volunteers: my colleagues were much closer to my son’s age than mine. As I slowly learned that I was able to make the necessary adjustments to living in Shanghai, make wonderful new friends among the Chinese and other volunteers, and grow to become an effective and respected teacher, the feelings of self-affirmation were strong. While there was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to try something like this, I really wasn’t sure I could pull it off. There was definitely a “Wow! I did it” component to this and that’s another reason it felt so special.

2) Post-celebrity Syndrome

I really enjoyed being a pop-star. I’m being somewhat facetious here but it’s not a great exaggeration when I think of how the kids regarded me. Particularly among the 2nd graders, my arrival in the classroom once a week was met with excited cries of “It’s Teacher John!” and a large (but short) crowd met me at the front of the room to greet me, shake my hand, and ask me questions while I tried to ensure my PowerPoint lesson and the audio-visual equipment were ready to go. I couldn’t walk anywhere around the school without drawing a crowd. I never stayed in one place in the hallway too long because I felt ill-at-ease by the attention I was drawing. I was definitely a “different” teacher, partly owing to the luxury I had of not having to be a disciplinarian in the classroom . Most of the time the Chinese English teacher sat in the back of the room, playing “bad cop” to my “good cop” when necessary. Even outside the school compound, I often heard little voices calling to greet me. When my students were with their parents, my response often resulted in a smile of delight (and pride) on their parents’ faces, making me feel the parents also appreciated my efforts. This kind of attention is heady stuff and I think anyone would feel a sense of loss when it suddenly stops.

3) Return from Vietnam Phenomenon

Surprisingly, some of the feelings I’ve had remind me of ones I had 40 years ago when I returned from the Vietnam war. In 1969, as I looked out the window of the bus taking me from the Seattle-Tacoma airport to Fort Lewis for re-entry processing, I remember feeling a little shocked to see the evidence that people here were, and had been, going about their lives as usual. It wasn’t that I expected a parade in our honor (though that would have been nice 🙂 It was more that it was it a bit of a jolt to see that people were so detached from the very personal sagas that were playing out every day ten thousand miles from home.

While many people have welcomed me home from China warmly I have, at times, been disappointed that they haven’t shown more interest in hearing about my experience. I have wanted – needed, really – to talk about it more than many people might realize. I understand that no one can really understand how moving the experience has been for me and that some people are just not that interested (probably some even wonder why in the world someone would want to do what I did :-). There is simply no way I can really share the full power of my experience: it’s one of those cases of “you had to be there.” Yet, I find I want to talk about it and I can feel a little hurt if it appears people are not interested. I realize that comparing my return from China to Vietnam is a bit melodramatic. There are so many more differences between the two experiences than there are similarities. I didn’t have such a wonderful time in Vietnam, didn’t feel so satisfied with what I had done there, and didn’t really miss it too much when I came home. But the feelings of having been profoundly changed in ways that I couldn’t easily communicate to the people back home were very similar.

4) Sad to say goodbye

Near the end of my stay I posted an entry here called “Overwhelmed.” That was written on my second-to-last day at the school and I tried to relate how moving and special the day had been. On the final day, I had three classes and one of them was the noon-time English Corner session for grade 4 students. One thing that became apparent when I was leaving was how much emotional maturation occurs between age 9 and 11. I had noticed that it was always the second graders who treated me as a pop-star and were more excited about my presence in the classroom. But I was a little surprised to see that they handled separation much more easily than did my fourth-graders – and me.

English Corner sessions were intended to be informal sessions giving selected students a chance to talk informally with the foreign teacher during the lunch hour. While the objective was practicing spoken English, as it was with the formal lessons, I tried to make it more fun by playing games whenever possible. Only kids who had finished their homework were candidates for attending English Corner. We tried to keep the class size down to about 20 so that meant that only about 7 kids from each of the three 40-plus classes could attend. As word spread that these sessions could be great fun (the Halloween Party was held during an English Corner session) teachers had to resort to a round-robin method of selecting who could attend on a given day and I actually saw kids fighting at the door to get in.

On this final day, I didn’t have a definite game or exercise in mind. Instead I took some pictures and videos, and I talked about how much I had enjoyed knowing them and how much I would miss them. I had brought some American quarters that I had always intended to use as game prizes but never did, so I went around the room placing them in the outstretched hands of the kids. At one point, one of the girls slipped and hit her knee on the hard floor. She started to cry and I went to attend to her. While I was trying to determine the seriousness of her injury and noticing that her crying showed no signs of stopping, one of the boys nearby called “Teacher John!” and pointed to the other side of the room. There, I saw that many of the kids, mostly girls but some boys, were crying and it became apparent that they were sad about my leaving. I guess I should have anticipated this but I didn’t and I was not really prepared to handle it. Instead I found myself going around the room hugging them and telling them it “… was all right..” and that it was “… OK to be sad…” My own teary eyes didn’t help them much but somehow we got through it all by supporting and hugging each other. I can still cry when I remember the tear-filled eyes of some of the boys when I hugged them. Just as in western culture, it was clearly not easy for them to cry publicly and I felt great empathy for them. Some were able to express their concern in English – “I am sad that you are leaving.” Later, in the teacher’s office, one of the teachers gravely told me that “… many of the children had been crying when they returned from English Corner today.” I told him that, yes I knew that and that I was afraid that I had been too.

When I left school that afternoon, Karen, Guoming, and the head teacher Carol insisted on accompanying me to the ferry. It was a cold, windy day, and I had a lot of luggage, some of it being last-minute gifts. They helped me down the four flights of stairs, into the school van and into the ferry terminal. They had rearranged their schedules to stay with me until the boat left, and when the high winds caused the boat to be 60 minutes late arriving from the mainland, I couldn’t convince them that they should go on back and I would be fine waiting alone. We waited this time in a quiet togetherness, with occasional hugs and hopeful expressions that we would see each other again some day. Guoming, especially, treated me with extra tenderness, carefully arranging the winter scarf he had given me the day before to keep the biting cold at bay. They got permission to accompany me onto the boat to help with my baggage. They also convinced a young man who spoke some English to help me with my bags when we left the boat on the Shanghai side of the river. When we exchanged a final hug and they left the boat, I felt very sad but very loved.

One final moment of sadness came when I reached Chicago on my way home. One of my students, a young man, named Ni Renjie (one of the few names I learned) had given me a special little gift on the final day – a snow-globe with a sign inside that said “Miss You!” Renjie and I had a special friendship – he seemed to often be in trouble with the other teachers and some of his peers, but he was obviously bright and he liked me a lot. Of all the little gifts I received in my final days at the school, the snow globe was the one I felt most attached to. It made the trip from Shanghai to Chicago in my backpack but, when I passed through the security check for the domestic flight to Newark, it was taken because it contained more than 3 ounces of liquid. It was too late to go back and try to have it placed with the checked baggage. Even the security man who took it felt bad for me as he could see what sentimental value it had. I tried to console myself by thinking that the globe itself wasn’t really that important – I would always remember Renjie and I knew we certainly didn’t need another tchotchke on our crowded shelves at home. But losing it was very upsetting and I knew why.

5) Retirement syndrome (again)

The final thought I’ve had about why coming home has been difficult is that I was faced with a second retirement transition. In 2005, when I first retired, I had trouble getting used to “not working” and struggled with the same issues many people do at retirement. It’s natural that when you work for so many years, it becomes a big part of your identity. When you stop working, you must figure out your new identity – your new “reason for being” – and this takes some time. I think the transition is probably more difficult when you feel your job or position is fulfilling or important. Retiring from my software development job in 2005 was challenging but, since I didn’t regard it as particularly fulfilling or important, it wasn’t that hard. This time, however, I “retired” from something that was very fulfilling and personally gratifying. So I think that another contributor to this difficult transition has been this abrupt change from doing something so rewarding to being home again where I had no such duties or opportunities for self-fulfillment.

I am feeling better now. I believe the most difficult adjustment period is behind me. Grace’s loving understanding and encouragement have been so helpful and I think writing this post has helped too. I am now thinking about my next move which will probably be to return to the workforce for a while to replenish our recession-depleted financial resources. (I have joked that I should probably find a job where I don’t have to pay them to work!) I have no immediate plans to teach or to return to China anytime soon, but I know I definitely want to do something like this again. I have never had a more rewarding experience than the time I spent teaching in China. I feel so lucky to have had such a wonderful opportunity and would do it all over again – even knowing in advance that readjustment might be difficult.

If you’ve read this far, I feel like I should offer you a prize – I know this has been a very long post. Next time, I’ll lighten things up and share some stories about little things that happened while I was there.

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