“Make your life a story worth telling”1 one of the mantras from “The Promise of a Pencil” by Adam Braun. I’ve often been asked why I do what I do, or why do you live in a foreign/communist country and teach English? I’ve even been criticized for doing what I do in a foreign country and not in the USA. Do I do it because I wanted a story to tell? The answer to that is, no, but I have since discovered I do have a story to tell. Back to the question, why do I? You’ve probably seen the question/quote on the internet “have you ever wanted to pack up and leave and start a new life?” Well, basically, that’s what I did. My relationship had gone south, no pun intended, and I was in a job I used to love but was starting to hate. I packed up and left, moved to Paris, I ran away, far away. I ran away thinking I had a teaching job in Paris, which I did until my work Visa was denied without a reason. I had an airplane ticket and an apartment rented in Paris, may as well stick with part of the plan and just go. After 6 months of living in Paris and travelling in Europe, it was time to go back to the USA. Returning, I discovered, I couldn’t stay. I didn’t want to stay. I found out I could teach English in China, so I left again. Initially, the reason “I do what I do” was because I ran away. I didn’t like my life situation, so I changed it. But what actually happened is it changed me.
I saw my home country in a whole new light compared to what I was living halfway around the world. 70 million children around the world have no access to education and 759 million adults worldwide are illiterate. I know we have poverty in the United States and there are children who aren’t getting an education. I’m sure I haven’t seen the worst in America. When you stay in a home in rural China that has no indoor plumbing and the toilet is a hole in the ground outside; or you stay in a home in North Vietnam where the cattle, water buffalo and pigs live under the house that is on stilts; or you stay in a village in Cambodia where a woman is teaching the young girls who lack a formal education to make purses out of pop tops from cans so they have a marketable skill; then you start to think that even most of the poor people in the United States have it better than the majority of people in developing countries.
I’ve just finished reading the book I referenced above, “The Promise of a Pencil”. I found myself nodding my head yes. I was sometimes wiping the tears off my cheek as I related to a story that was told. I think I even verbalized, “Wow, I get it”! Sure, the author was working to start up a “not-for-profit”, or as he learned to say a “for-purpose” organization to build schools and train teachers in developing countries. But that isn’t what he started out to do. He had the world at his fingertips, promises of job offers, internships at the best financial companies in New York City. Yet, something was missing. He did a semester at sea and backpacked in remote areas of many countries. It changed his philosophy on life. I used to think I had it all, good relationship, a job I loved…until I didn’t. That’s when I ran. Most everything he said I could relate to on some level in my then and now current situation. I lost my purpose. Why do I do what I do? It gives me a purpose. I didn’t realize that in the beginning, but every day abroad has given me more reasons to do what I do. China may not be considered a developing country, but its focus on education is huge. They want every child to learn English. My purpose in this scheme of things is to show the students that learning English can be fun. Make them want to learn English, not feel like they are forced to learn it.
“Why be normal”2? I definitely wasn’t normal when I arrived at the internship in Beijing. I was an over 50 female who found herself amid mostly under 20s on a gap year. Somehow, I managed to fit in. I learned a lot the 2 weeks I spent with those “kids”. “Happiness is found in celebrating others”3. Every night they found something to celebrate…..learning to write our first Chinese characters…..being able to count from 1 to 10 in Mandarin….learning a tai chi sequence…..discovering the necessary skills to teach English to children who would have no idea what we were saying and vice versa. We celebrated all the small things in our day. Why do I do what I do? It’s fun!
“If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough”.4 My 5-month internship was coming to an end. I couldn’t go back to life in Warren, Ohio or more truthfully, I didn’t want to. I returned, briefly. I chatted with friends about wanting to return to China. Some said I was crazy, some said I was crazy, but why not, and I also heard why, why do you want to go back, stay here. Have you ever been mobbed by 60 six-year old’s who are so happy to see you they nearly knock you over? It does something to your heart and soul. I’ve visited villages of 400 people most who have never seen a foreigner. My Chinese co-workers, who I had only known for 5 months, cried when we said goodbye. I have travelled to places most people will never have the opportunity to see. Pulled in so many directions, I finally turned to my brother. A person who had his own big dreams. Who on his own, had started a business, his own company. He knew how to dream big and was successful. He asked me what I wanted. He knew I had a passion for travel. I told him I want to go back and live in China. He asked me, “what’s holding you back”? I said, “my life here, my friends, my family, my “stuff”, I’m scared”. His answer was simple, “all that will be here when you decide to come back. I have storage where you can put your “stuff”. Life is short, who knows that better than us (he was referencing our parents who died at ages 60 & 63) GO”! Next thing I knew, my life was in storage and I was on a plane to Beijing. Why do I do what I do? It makes me happy and is fulfilling a dream.
I referenced several mantras from “The Promise of a Pencil” but let me give you a few more examples of why I do what I do. Grace, a girl in one of my classes in Changning Hunan, who wrote me a letter, in her best English, before I left thanking me for the knowledge that I gave her and that she would miss me. Alina, my co-worker from Xiashan also wrote to me when I left. She told me how happy she was to meet me and wrote me a phrase in Mandarin which meant that no matter where we are, we can see the same moon and that she would miss me.
Alan, one of my students in Qingdao. His mother thanked me before I left. Thanked me because she said I helped Alan love school.
My sweet Marlon, a little boy in Qingdao who stole my heart. His mother still sends me pictures and updates. My “littles” that I teach on Saturdays who always make me laugh. The other kids I work with on the weekends that all received full marks in English the last term. The ayi who worked in my building and would come to visit me every day after my back surgery. She spoke no English, but we were able to communicate through laughter, pictures and of course, Google translate.
Peter, who brought me to Dong’e because he had a dream. His dream was to offer the children in his community the opportunity to learn English. The random people I meet who want to take a photo with an American. The young girl who knocked on my apartment door with her father and a bag of fruit. She read from a paper in her best attempt at English, welcoming me to Dong’e.
The family I stayed with in Bali, Koming and Ketut, who invited me back to take part in Ngaben or cremation ceremony as part of their family. My homestay family in Thailand, Golf and her husband who also welcomed me to be a part of their family. The 400 people of Quang Uyen Village North Vietnam I stayed with who still live off their land. Loi, my guide from Hanoi who has invited me back and said, “don’t get a hotel, you will stay with my family”. Le Minh Chau the young college student I met in a park in Saigon who wanted to practice her English and spent the week taking me to all the local places with her friends. All so they could practice English. We still keep contact to this day, and I plan to see her again in July. Why do I do what I do? It gives me a purpose. I’m not normal. It makes me happy. It’s fun. It gives me the opportunity to travel the world, one of my passions. It’s changed me. I’ve learned so much about other cultures. I’m living my dream. I could go on and on……but more than anything, it’s the people whose lives have touched mine and I hope in return I have touched theirs.
One day, I may stop doing what I do, abroad. Then I will tell my story back home in Warren Ohio to anyone who will listen. I hope it will encourage people, young and old to follow their dreams.
Mother Teresa said it best, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples”. Have I changed the world? No, but I hope I have made a difference and caused a few ripples. I hope my life is a story worth telling.
I want to end with a paragraph from “The Promise of a Pencil. It addresses youth, but I want to add you’re never too old either. “You may be safe, but I am free. Take advantage of the freedom that comes with youth. Inhale life, exhale fire, and embrace the late, sleepless nights, because that’s when the magic happens – when everyone else is asleep and you’re awake thinking about the world as it is, and the world as it could be. Make the most of those moments, and in the coming years, people will tell you that you’re too young to change the world. I’m here to tell you that’s fucking bullshit.”
This book spoke to me and I would like to share the website for anyone who is interested. Pencils of Promise has built over 500 schools in developing nations. The mantras (1-4) I cited above are chapters in the book. If interested in learning more here is the website; https://pencilsofpromise.org/