Not Fitting In
Isaac (Qin Haibo) is a bit strange.
Even I could sense the oddness about him when I first met him. It made other students shy away, not wanting to have much to do with him.
He has a disturbing manner about him that isolates him and throws him into the non-conformity category. Being a non-conformist in Chinese society automatically sets you up for being weird. I can just imagine that his dormitory mates, who usually form very strong relationships with one another, pretty much ignore him.
He never eats with anyone in the cafeteria.
He never walks with friends around the campus.
He never plays sports along with everyone else after classes have ended for the day.
Every time I see him, even outside the school gate for a shopping venture, he’s always by himself.
But in our English Center, Isaac has found a home.
Our English Center: A Haven for the Odd
He began hanging out there last semester, hovering about. Since we didn’t yet have English games, he just wanted to play Chinese checkers or Chinese card games with whoever was available. He came with a daily regularity that I wished my first year students would follow. In fact, I often pointed out his attendance to those who always complained that their English was terrible.
“How can I improve?” they constantly hounded me, as they always do to us foreign language teachers.
“Go to the English Center and practice!” I told them. “Follow the example of a 2nd year student, Isaac. He goes every week.”
One Who Is Different
Isaac is a second year Business English major who last year had our two Amity teachers from Sweden for his conversation classes.
This year, only the 1st year students have a foreign teacher. That’s me. The others are left with Chinese English teachers. They are quite competent in their subject areas but it’s still not the same as a native speaker.
Isaac has a fairly good vocabulary in the language but it’s just speaking and listening that he can’t get a handle on.
Nothing new for most Chinese.
Like we Americans used to do in Latin classes years ago, language learning in this country is reading, memorizing words, grammar exercises and translation. Actually using the language isn’t a key component in the coursework.
But instead of practicing to improve what he needs improving on, Isaac’s one who would rather play games. Whether Chinese games, Internet video games or English games, it doesn’t matter. If it’s some sort of game activity, Isaac is keen to try.
This most likely has been what entices him to come the Center every day. That and the fact that he has nothing else to do since no one will hang out with him.
In the English Center, you’re bound to find someone who’s willing to play a game, no matter how weird the person asking is.
For myself, I can always count on Isaac for a round of Scrabble, which he took to like a pro, or Uno, the card game which seems to have a strong fan-base after everyone got the main idea how it’s played.
While other students watch movies, Isaac eagerly bops about from person to person and, in his off-hand manner, commands, “You! Play games. Scrabble? Uno?”
He snatches up the games and waves them about for emphasis.
Naturally, those kind of bizarre invites draw him frowns and some amount of wariness.
If no one takes him up on his offer, Isaac has a habit of sulking. He especially does this if it’s English conversation time in the Center. That’s one thing Isaac just isn’t interested in at all. He’s not about to participate in something that he cares little about.
“No!” he’ll say if we ask him to join us for a circle talk. “I don’t like.”
He’ll sometimes sit in a corner to wait until we’re finished. Then it’s, “O.K. Enough talk. Uno? Scrabble?”
Other times, he just takes off.
Most Chinese have a leave-taking sequence of sentences: “I have something else to do. I must go now,” “I’m very busy these days. My classmates are waiting for me,” “I have a meeting so I must go.”
Isaac, on the other hand, just disappears out the door with not a word.
Yes, Isaac is a bit strange.
Grateful for the Center, not only for Isaac, but the volunteers as well
Yet it’s students like Isaac that I’m so grateful we have our English Center for him to visit every day. It’s the one place he knows he can count on to come and have community time with those who outside this one room keep him at a distance.
And it’s also imperative for our volunteers to have practice in reaching out to those in their society who just don’t quite fit in.
At the beginning of the semester, some of the volunteers were a bit upset about Isaac. They said he was disruptive. He was strange. He spoke a lot of Chinese instead of English. What to do about him?
So I had a little sit-down with the volunteers.
I explained that this was Isaac’s home. No one liked him much outside the Center and it was our job to be his friend. Let him speak Chinese but just always answer in English. Engage him in more game time. It won’t hurt you to play a game or two with Isaac, even if you don’t want to. Just make sure to welcome him with smiles, not frowns or stares, when he appears at the door.
A part of being a good volunteer in the Center is to encourage those who are embarrassed by their English or are afraid to speak. We want them to feel comfortable enough to try. It might take awhile, but in the end, we can win them all over, even Isaac.
Property as Mission
Recently, I received an email from Lola Linstad, one who’s very involved in her UMW unit (United Methodist Women). She sent me a note about a recent UMW meeting. The four coordinators, herself included, gave a special observance of Call to Prayer and Self-denial with the theme, “Property Makes Mission Possible.” Their focus was how the things we donate, use or buy make mission itself possible, things such as equipment, building materials, office supplies, and, as in the case of our English Center, donated books, games, and DVDs.
We often don’t think about things as bringing about Christian mission but in my case, I’d say our English Center is the perfect example.
The donated property that many over the years have helped to fill the Center with have made it possible for people like Isaac, and our volunteers, to create their own mission in life. Whether it’s improving language skills, gathering for community time, getting to know the foreign teacher on a more personal basis, or learning life skills how to get along with others, this Center provides it all.
It brings blessings to all of us every day and I have no doubt those blessings will follow us, including myself, throughout our entire lives. I know it definitely has made a difference in the life of Isaac. I’m sure if asked, he’d whole-heartedly agree.
From Longzhou, in our sweltering heat, sending you “Ping An” for your day.