My many years of teaching English in China have given me numerous opportunities to share my American culture with others. It is something I do willingly, a way of actively celebrating overseas one of my favorite John F. Kennedy quotes, given at his Jan. 20 Inaugural Address in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
It is one of the reasons I recently volunteered to give a presentation at the U.S. Consulate in Sichuan’s capital city, Chengdu. Although Chengdu is a 3 ½ hour busride from my city, Luzhou, I felt it was worth the effort to do this one thing in honor of sharing America with others.
Every Wednesday afternoon, the Consulate General offers cultural lectures about America to the Chinese public. Those who attend are looking to improve their language skills while at the same time gain a little understanding of the United States. Speakers are often the Consulate staff but there are a few, such as myself, who volunteer every so often to add a little variety to the mix.
For my talk, I chose Marshall, my American small town, as the topic. I quickly put my best teaching efforts into play. I prepared a powerpoint introduction to our community which included its history along with visuals of Harlan Hall, summer band concerts, the swimming pool, historic houses, our area churches and other attractions. I included a quiz about Marshall with prizes given for correct answers. I planned discussion groups about American small town living and a Q & A closure. It would be a well-planned, interactive hour of learning for Chinese of all ages.
Naturally, I was eager to inform my Chinese Chengdu friends about my lecture in the hopes that they’d attend. If nothing else, I was expecting praise not only for my patriotic commitment to my country but my generous, giving spirit to impart for free such knowledge to the Chinese.
I arrived the day before my Consulate presentation and met up with my retired friend, Mrs. Zhao, and her poodle, Hairy Bean.
We were taking our usual dog-walking tour of the Sichuan University campus when I launched into my carefully rehearsed Chinese.
“I’m giving a lecture at the U.S. Consulate about my hometown,” I announced as we sat watching the dogs at play.
“When?” Mrs. Zhao asked with interest.
“This Wednesday. I prepared a lot. You can come if you have time,” I said invitingly.
Mrs. Zhao laughed.
“I don’t speak English,” she replied.
“Doesn’t matter. You can see my hometown photos. And it’s free!” I added as an enticement.
Mrs. Zhao pondered this, then mischievously poked me.
“How much money do you get?”
“Money?” I asked in surprise. “No money.”
Mrs. Zhao was astonished.
“They pay you no money?”
“Of course not,” I told her. “It’s my country. I should do this for no money. It’s my duty.”
Mrs. Zhao adamantly shook her head.
“No, no,” she fiercely stated. “The two are not the same. Teaching is your profession! You must be paid. Country – profession: separate.”
Mrs. Zhao appeared perturbed at my ignorance on this matter.
“The Consulate asked you to do this,” she continued indignantly. “You must be paid.”
“You don’t understand. The Consulate didn’t ask me,” I clarified. “I volunteered.”
“You volunteered?” Mrs. Zhao repeated incredulously.
“Yes,” I confirmed. “I volunteered.”
“No money?” Mrs. Zhao persisted.
“Right. No money.”
Mrs. Zhao sat quietly, deeply contemplating my words.
In the peaceful lull that followed, her face softened. The dog frolicked. I smiled.
Finally, my friend understood!
Then came the frown.
“Why don’t you ask for money?” she suddenly snapped.
“But it’s my country,” I tried again to explain. “I volunteered. I . . .”
Mrs. Zhao dismissed me with a terse wave of her hand.
“You must ask for money,” she dictated pointedly.
“At least 600 yuan ($100),” she advised.
Eyeing me with final authority, she reiterated, “Country-profession: separate.”
JFK would never have stood a chance.