When the Teacher Becomes a Student

It’s almost the end of my first semester of Chinese classes.  I started this semester 3.5 months ago with a few phrases of spoken Mandarin (mixed with some Taiwanese words that I didn’t realize weren’t Mandarin) and a lot of fear.  I’m ending having mastered at least 100 characters and having a decent grasp of almost 100 more.  It’s a start, but there’s a long way to go on the journey to develop my heritage language.

Something happened today as I was working in the language lab with my partner for our oral final (not pictured above–above is the extra credit typing homework).  We were getting our dialogue checked by the TA in Chinese, a kind, graduate student, native speaker.

She pointed out a few errors that I had made with phrases and characters–nothing major, some “rookie mistakes,” as I like to call these small errors when you’re learning something for the first time, then she asked if my partner and I were Chinese minors.  My partner said she was, but I was a major.  I noted that I was just beginning though.

The TA said, “That’s okay,” to me and then said, “Your Chinese, I think, it’s very good though.” I thought, with that phrase, that she was talking to my partner who then said that she had watched many Chinese films and dramas.

I have been feeling pretty bad about this interaction for the last two hours, which is ridiculous because: 1) I don’t know whether in fact, she was complimenting both of us on our Chinese or just my partner; 2) my partner is very good at Chinese; 3) I’m not here for anyone’s approval because that is what has been stopping me for 35 years prior from taking Chinese classes earlier; and 4) you can be good at Chinese and make mistakes or not get compliments.

This isn’t doesn’t mean anything, but it also means everything.

What I’m realizing lately is just how far I have to go in so many ways.  I am such a people pleaser.  I thrive on recognition.  I want to be the best at everything and when I’m not the best at something, I inherently feel like I should just give up, go home and do something I’m much better at.  This is not a healthy attitude, especially in academia, but also, in life.  And it’s one I see in my own children, which prompted me to take up studying Chinese in the first place.

As an academic, I’ve come to terms with the limits I have on my time and energy based on institutional structures and personal life choices, but I’m not there yet, as a student.  As I mentioned in earlier blog posts, it’s been a hard transition for me, going from full time student to full-time professional (parent, active faith community member & volunteer) and part time student.  In fact, at this moment, while I’m blogging, I should be prepping my summer class, studying for my final and working on multiple research projects). I’m also in the midst of the last week of training for a (charity) half marathon while also doing a weeklong global poverty awareness challenge and waiting in the library for my son to arrive so I can take him to Tae Kwon Do.

I’m frankly struggling with everything, and in these moments, when I need the most validation ever, I also tend to feel the most inadequate, which probably explains my ruminating on not having my Chinese complimented (which may or may not have happened anyways) and spending a half an hour that I really don’t have to blog about it so I can let it go.

As a teacher, this reminds me of how vitally important it is to be aware of my power, that complimenting one person in front of others, while not being a willful omission or malevolent gesture, can cause unintended self-questioning.  It also reminds me that we never know what our students might be carrying with them from past experiences, what they’re going through (big or small) in a moment, how hard they’re trying, even when they’re making a bunch of mistakes.  And this all makes me reflect on the fact that, when we make a bunch of mistakes, it’s because we’re stretching, growing and learning.  I am learning so much, and I am making my fair share of mistakes along the way. That is part of the process.

These are good reminders.  They are reminders that I am doing the best I can, that we all are (or at least the great majority of us are), in any given moment. So, I will tell myself that my Chinese is pretty good, for a beginner, and I will get to the many other things I have to do, after I breathe and publish this post.

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