A Small Life: Reflections on Teaching Abroad

By Celina Wang

My world has always been small. I grew up in the corner of the city I knew as home and spent my entire life making it mine—the same bus routes cycling through the same neighbourhood blocks past the same stoplights and stations and storefronts. It was a small life, and I lived it every day until one night three months ago when I boarded a plane with a one-way ticket out of the country to—as the program calls itself—teach and learn in South Korea. I settled in a seat by the windows of Shanghai Pudong Airport to wait out my nine-hour layover and thought to myself that this would be the first of many new mornings I would greet alone, that would welcome me into a bigger world and a larger life. It was five AM, but I didn’t sleep. I watched the sun rise all morning.

Back then, it was summer. I woke in the mornings at orientation to the shrill roar of cicadas instead of distant traffic; I made the trek down the mountain to the convenience store for the sweet relief of an ice cream bar and couldn’t imagine this side of the globe could ever get cold. There were a lot of things I couldn’t imagine, back then; that there was a whole country past the false lull of the eerily empty university campus, out there and waiting. That somewhere in this country was a city, and in that city were two schools, and in those two schools there was a whole stream of students who would soon be calling me teacher. But not yet, of course—back then, it was summer, and the heat was still so thick it seemed it would last forever, and I only watched the city from where I stood at the top of the mountain at night, contemplating the distant blink of lights like an ocean I was poised to dive into. Surely a world as big as that would swallow me whole, I thought, and then—surely that was necessary, in order to leave behind a small life.

Three months later and the seemingly invincible summer haze has been chased out by a ruthless November wind. It isn’t the only thing I was wrong about. Today I woke up, ate breakfast, met my co-teacher at the bus stop. Taught the day’s classes, one after another. On the half-hour walk to the bus stop after school we saw three of our students playing in the distance, their laughter loud in the stillness of the afternoon, their jackets—pink, red, and yellow—bright spots of colour among fields of silver wheat and dried grass. People were working, bent-backed over the pastures; the occasional motorcycle zipped past us down the dusty road. Ginkgo berries and leaves crunched underfoot. That’s the clearest image I have of today, the one I carried home with me on the bus ride back and am now writing into this essay because it’s the best representation I could ask for of my life here. It’s not earthshattering, or world-changing—it’s not big. It’s just another day of the small life I lead; the small life I wouldn’t trade for anything else.

Moving to a new country and taking up the mantle of “teacher” seems like it should be revolutionary, should grant us self-importance. But since I have come here, I have been struck humble by the smallest things, and I have found joy in the most ordinary. The twin students who switched their different-coloured glasses to try and trick me into thinking they were each other, but were laughing too hard to pull it off; the fourth-grader who always meets my hand in a high-five when I wave goodbye to him at the end of class. The landlady who gave me a persimmon when we bumped into each other in the stairwell, who is always sure to ask me where I’m headed when she sees me, though we can barely understand each other. The first and second-graders who are already waving at me all the way from the other side of the schoolyard when I arrive at work. The owner of the restaurant by the train station who smiles at me in recognition every time I enter. The pride in an often unmotivated, low-level student who manages to win the classroom game. The teacher who pulled over to the side of the road to give me a ride to the bus stop. The kindness of strangers, and the way they open up their small, ordinary lives to accommodate my own, to welcome me into their space, their daily routines.

My world is still small. I live in the corner of the city I call mine, with the handful of restaurants whose menus I have memorized, the vending machines and supermarkets and convenience stores I have mapped out in my mind, the coffee shops I have learned from experience are best to work in and the spots for street food I can never resist walking by at night. It’s the place I come back to from weekend trips, legs wearied from three hours on a standing train, ready to come home. Here, I have seventy students I know by name, and they know mine, too. It’s nothing big, really—it’s small. Like this, we settle together, and the unfamiliar becomes familiar. People’s lives are small, and like this, we are able to touch them. For a moment, however brief, we can meet.

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