Thursday, July 12, 2007


"Where is that catnip plant we bought, honey?" came my mom's voice from the front door.

"I planted it right next to that rock," said my dad, shuffling outside. "Here it is. This looks like a weed," he said, pulling up an anonymous plant next to the cat nip.

"It's still in the pot!" exclaimed mom with a hint of a complaint in her voice. "Come here, Charlie," she said, laboriously pulling our big calico cat toward the plant. Charlie nosed about bored, nudging mom's pant leg and flopping on her side.

"She's the cat that's not a cat," chuckled dad.

Mom was determined. "Here, Charlie," she said, plucking off a tiny sprig and pushing it toward Charlie's nose.

In a flash Charlie had sprung to her feet looking spooked and frightened. She sniffed at the sprig on the ground cautiously, as if it had bitten her. We laughed, surprised.

"Maybe she needed to smell it crushed," mom said. "Hey look -- she's chewing on the plant!" Charlie snapped up the little sprig and was chewing the leaves.

"Listen to those birds chatter!" said mom. She pointed them out to us, tiny finches with beaks full of straw and flotsam for their nest. One was in the rhododendron and the other was on the roof. Both were vocal. But Charlie was paying them no attention for once.

I could not believe the older group of kids I taught today: third to fifth graders, I think, some of them were swarming me after class, asking me how to say "It's lunch time," in Chinese, or "suck" or "Honey Nut Cheerios." And I had only taught them "nihao" 30 minutes before! It makes me wonder: are these kids in summer camp the best students in their classes? Or just the ones whose parents push them to enroll? Because I highly doubt that group of 15 was typical. I mean, the younger kids were pretty sharp, but these older ones were intellectually voracious! They were writing out the couple of characters I put on the board with great effort. Even little James, who had refused to do anything, was soon busily writing out "good" and holding his paper up for me to see. Wow. They are an explosion of energy.

The new boy in the younger class was incredible. He had been seated off by himself by the previous teacher for misbehavior, I guess, but before long he was jumping out of his seat to make himself heard. At the end of class he even borrowed a couple of my flashcards and wrote the characters by himself -- in outline form! In other words, not as line for line copies, but eyeing them and drawing the shape of their calligraphic strokes! When we said Good Bye to each other, he stood, put his hands together, and made a little bow. A cross of Thai and Japanese posture, I think. No Chinese bow like that, even in the rare occasions they do bow. But I copied him -- copied his imagined Chinese-ness. I honored his desire.

And to think: all this excitement stirred up only to lead to nothing. In two weeks I teach my last class! What a waste. This country does not see that language is not like other subjects, where ability improves with age. Language learning ability is not rational in the main, but imitative, artistic. This ability declines with age. We should be teaching 6 year olds foreign language just like we should be teaching advanced chemistry to high school students!

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