COL Americans put their lives on hold to study diversity
Bill Adler, who trains health inspectors for the Minnesota Department of Health in Rochester, just got back from a 10-month visit to China.
He's got a sports bag filled with memorabilia from his trip -- knickknacks bought at curiosity shops, bigger items like a portable hanging scale that Chinese use to weigh vegetables at the market, and above all, photographs.
Hundreds and hundreds of photographs. In many of them, Bill, who taught English to students at Hunan University in the south-central city of Changsha, stands surrounded by Chinese students and neighbors, all of them beaming widely as they surround him, a treasured American friend.
Other photographs show oddities of China today with captions in Bill's neat handwriting. A picture of a busy downtown intersection with a red traffic light hanging over it is annotated with "Everybody drives through red lights in China." Another picture shows a spanking new seven-story building with the words "Women's dorm, no elevators."
"I'd go back in a heartbeat," said Bill, who has worked for 26 years as a health inspector here. He started taking Chinese language lessons in town after mainland Chinese immigrants started opening new restaurants and he couldn't communicate with them.
"It's vital to know the culture of the businesses we regulate," Bill said. "That's what the language lessons were about. They introduced me to a lot of the culture I wouldn't have otherwise. Only then could I start to understand the problems they were having, and start working with them."
At the Saturday morning school of the Rochester Chinese Culture Association, Bill sat in classes with the 6- and 7-year-old children of Chinese immigrants who came to Rochester to work at Mayo and IBM.
He started a company called Safe Foods in Different Languages and published a Chinese-language guide to safe food practices. But still something was missing. "I needed to go deeper," he said. Friends at the Chinese school lined him up with Hunan University, and off he went.
From last September through June of this year, he taught English to 48 Chinese college students while living in a sparse campus apartment, in a building with chronic plumbing problems, in a city where the sun is almost never seen thanks to the heat haze, construction dust, and air pollution. He loved every minute of it.
"It is amazing to see China change," he said. "It is struggling and modernizing. My students were so eager and grateful and they worked so hard. I felt that what I did every day was truly valued, and that is a real opiate. That, and the very close friendships I made, make me want to go back."
A few conversations he had with students still stick with him.
"In one class I asked 'If you could be anything for 24 hours, what would you want to be?" And one female student said 'blind.' 'Why?' I asked, and she said, 'Adversity brings change, and I want to start the process.'"
"Isn't that incredible?" Adler recalls today.
Another time a young man asked him, "Teacher Bill, do you like beer?"
"I said 'Yes,' and he said 'You're fat.' Well at first I was taken aback, and I didn't know what to feel. But then I realized he was just trying to learn English. Those were the few words he knew, and he used them. So it was OK. I was so happy he had the trust in me to open up and be that direct."
Now isn't that incredible? Isn't that a pretty deep story about learning tolerance and patience and understanding, about rising above surface appearances that might easily engender conflict and defensiveness?
That's why I think of Bill Adler and other Americans who put their comfortable lives here on hold for a little while to go live in a difficult faraway land, as modern explorers, as contemporary Columbuses.
They come back with a treasure called wisdom. It's more valuable than anything material, like antiques or ancient art or any tourist treasure, because it's a key to human relationships and harmony across great divides.
"There was a place called English Corner on campus where kids came each weekend to practice their English," Adler said. "They would crowd around you. Some teachers did it once or twice and then quit, because the students always asked the same questions like, 'What's your name?' and 'Where are you from?' over and over again. They got bored, and at first I did too.
"But then I realized 'Hey, English Corner is not for me, it's for them. They ask those questions because they need the repetition to learn. So I went back, and after that, everything got better. I started asking them questions too, simple ones, and they started answering. And I started to make friends."
That's the kind of moral turning point it would be great to see repeated at all levels of society, from America's reconstruction effort in Iraq to the way our own community welcomes our new citizens who speak foreign tongues.
Global Rochester is written by local freelance writer Douglas McGill, who also produces a Web log called the McGill Report (www.mcgillreport.org). His e-mail address is email@example.com.