When I was a child, my home country, China, hadn’t swung its door wide open to the outside world yet. If foreigners walked down Beijing’s streets, we didn’t just stare at them, we followed them as if they were a rare species. That, of course, doesn’t happen here. Canada is a country of immigrants. The fact that so many of us are first- or second-generation newcomers in a sense helps make us all the same.
I work as a substitute teacher in Toronto, arguably the most multicultural city in the world. I go to different schools and meet different groups of students on a daily basis. To break the ice in a classroom, I introduce myself by writing my Chinese name 谷真真 on the board. I have three questions for the students. The first one: which is my last name, 谷 or 真真 ? Even though they have a 50 percent chance of getting it right, more often than not, the youngsters are wrong. I explain to them that we put our family names first and given names second. Perhaps we value our families more than ourselves. Then I let them guess the meaning of my given name. Of course, I give them a hint: it is one of the good character traits their parents and teachers want them to have. The kids keep guessing: “respect,” “kindness,” “perseverance”… and eventually someone comes up with the right answer, “honesty.” Finally, I ask the class why I have two identical characters for my given name. Some reply, “very honest” or “double honesty.” Exactly! This is why the students call me Ms. Double Honesty. I tell them: I love my Chinese name and don’t want to change it. It is a gift from my parents and I will keep it as long as I live. The children usually appreciate the fact that I keep my own identity because many are immigrants themselves.
I also work as an international language instructor. I teach Mandarin, a high school credit course. A lot of my students are “CBC,” Canadian Born Chinese. They are fluent in English, but not in Chinese. I try to forge links between these two quite different languages. For example, Sunday in Chinese is 星期日 and 日 means sun. See something in common? I have always felt exhilarated at discovering new connections. For instance, there is an English saying: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Similarly, we have 入乡随俗, which means: When you enter a village, follow its customs. And the English expression, “Put a cherry on top” is analogous to the Chinese one, 画龙点睛. It means the finishing touch of drawing a dragon is drawing its eyes, which makes the dragon come to life.
The countless connections between the two languages and cultures are very intriguing. Once, I asked a teacher librarian from India if she too found such connections. She replied, “Yes. It is because we are all humans and have similar experiences and wisdom.” I totally agree with her.
I realize that people are not only interested in something familiar, but also captivated by something completely foreign. So in my Mandarin class, we learn life stories of influential figures my students know already, such as Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Curie, Shakespeare, Picasso, Chaplin… We read The Last Lesson by Daudet and The Little Match Girl by Andersen, in Chinese of course. Meanwhile, I introduce ancient Chinese poems to my students. I also teach them to play Chinese chess and ask them to solve riddles and arithmetic puzzles, all of which are traditional forms of mental recreation in China. The students also have opportunities to work on paper cut (剪纸), a Chinese folk art. But the most exciting thing is to play ping pong in the classroom!
To preserve the Chinese language and culture in the adopted country is my job. To be able to share this experience with others in the most diverse city in Canada is a bonus. My students are not only Chinese. I also teach students from Korea, India, Russia, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia… It is incredibly rewarding. Recently, a former student with a South Asian background sent me an email with the good news: “I am completing a master’s degree in linguistics at the University of Toronto and will pursue a doctorate at the Chinese University of Hong Kong!” It made my day.
Photo: Huang Jian
First published in Education Canada, March 2015