There’s much I could tell you about how teaching in China changed my life—changed me—but if I had to pick just two points, it would be Love and Identity.
Teaching at Aston Yulin and living in that friendly desert was all about easy love lessons: how to love unconditionally, how to accept love and regard from others, how to pay it forward, how to recognise it…
I learned to love children who were not mine; how to accept people, from a culture far from my own, as family and the dearest of friends; how to love a landscape and climate which should have been harsh and forbidding, and instead was protective and bountiful—brimming with amazing wonders I never would have imagined, much less experienced.
My Yulinese friends have a strong sense of home, who they are, and of where they are headed. They will forever be of Yulin even if they were born in Henan or Shanxi Province, or die in Sanya. Their strong sense of identity made me quietly question my own.
Indulging my love of adventure and writing, two of my greatest loves which had lain unrequited for so long, soon became an everyday practice.
I visited Shenmu and the surrounding places of interest. Being the only South African around meant I had to be a kind of ambassador too—an easy enough responsibility to carry with the acceptance and goodwill which flowed all around me; and in doing so I had to learn to be a better South African than I had been back home. Leena Laoshe from NanFee was welcomed and accepted as she was almost everywhere. Even shop-owners refused to sell her items that were deemed unfit for her use, sending her instead to a better quality store down the road.
I wanted for nothing in Yulin, except a little more adventure, and a very special love. I can’t remember why I thought I would find them in Harbin; a spiritual or emotional snow-blindness perhaps?
My dearest ones in Yulin tried to dissuade me, to make me understand the challenges I would face in the North East even as they provided all the support they could.
It was my student Lily’s question that really got to me though: “Why you leaving us? Don’t you love us, teacher?”
It was really hard not to cry, much less correct her grammar. I had to take a very deep breath. “Of course, I love all of you, Lily. And I love Yulin. But sometimes you have to leave the ones you love, the places you love, in order to grow.”
The class remained very quiet and thoughtful. So did I. It was a truth more than a platitude.
Harbin taught me about the flip-side of love and acceptance, generosity and creativity. Being different was not respected, nor was a fair exchange of ideas. It was a good, if fallow ground for the most part, to practice the lessons of love I had learned in Yulin. It was only my students, and my coffee-shop friends who made living there worthwhile. Though, I must admit, the chocolate and snow did help too.
Some lessons are harder to learn that others, or perhaps it is beliefs more than lessons. Reinforcement and review is needed. And this is what I experienced in Harbin: What Is Not Love 101, with an extended review period, because I’m a stubborn learner.
I also learned to appreciate myself, to access a strength I didn’t know I possessed, one which Yulin would not have unearthed because it could not bear to cause me pain. I learned who I really am. My lesson in Identity was thus complete too.
I did not feel heartache at leaving Harbin for the last time, as I had done in Yulin with only Ms Feng to witness my hard to suppress tears.
Five years later, I still sometimes yearn for Yulin’s good humour and love, for its amazing energy and creativity—challenging me gently and cosseting me at the same time.
Now I can recognise real love: its look, its energy, the way it makes me feel, whether it is from a person or a place. Now I know myself better, and in a shorter space of time than I would have thought possible.
Now I am mature, ready to face whatever life throws at me with strength and love.
There are many things I’ve been grateful to experience, none more so than my time teaching in China; my greatest teacher in two of my biggest lessons in life—love and identity.