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"YingHua in Beijing" Honors Program Journal

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by Lihongxie on 2003-10-20

Dear Laila, Ryan, Shannon, Rachel, Carl, and Annie,
This is Rachel¡¯s Mom. I had wanted to tell you a story about a young American girl (no Chinese heritage) who went to China with her father in 1980 and attended a local school in Xian for one semester. When I wrote to her father (a close friend of mine) for permission to tell the story, he offered to write an account of his daughter¡¯s first day at the Chinese school. His daughter, now almost 38, has become a successful journalist in Washington, DC.
Here is his story.
Going to School in China in 1980
By Sean Shesgreen
My 12-year-old daughter Deirdre and I arrived in Xian Foreign Languages Institute (XFLI) in the fall of 1980. On the first day there, we went to register her in the commune¡¯s school, just across the sports field from our tiny two-room apartment, located in the foreigners¡¯ walled-in compound and monitored 24 hours by friendly guards.
Even though it had been pouring rain for a week, we set off in high spirits across the field and walked into the school, a set of red-brick classrooms enclosing a small, unfinished courtyard; the dirt yard had become a soupy pool of muck from the downpour. An interpreter came along to explain who we were. The principal of the school was a formidable woman not easily imposed upon by a mismatched set of foreigners (father, daughter, no mother), at a time not too long after the Cultural Revolution when all strangers were still a bit suspect.
What do you want?¡ªshe inquired not very sympathetically. My daughter had to go to school¡ªthis school, I explained. Could she speak Chinese? No. Then she could not come to this school, the principal insisted firmly, turning her back on us abruptly to attend to other business. If my daughter could not go to school, I could not stay in XFLI, I explained to our interpreter. So we negotiated. Deirdre would first be given a Chinese name and she would be scheduled into a variety of classes, most of them Chinese, beginning to intermediate Mandarin. But her day included other classes too, like English and math.
The only problem with this was that Deirdre would have to trek from one room to another at the end of each period, rather than staying in the same spot all day. To deal with this problem the translator gave her a list of her classes in the order in which she should attend them. With her list in hand and her new name not exactly on the tip of her tongue, He Du Rei alias Deirdre Roisin Shesgreen bravely went off to class, and I left to teach my first two sections of Restoration and eighteenth-century English literature at XFLI.
When I returned to our apartment to prepare for lunch in the foreigners¡¯ dining room, to my surprise, I found Deirdre there, sobbing disconsolately, wet as a drowned mouse, and besplattered with mud. What had happened?
At the end of the first period, she left homeroom to go to her second class. She located her next room, but when she entered everybody turned round and looked at her. In 1980 few people in Xian had seen a westerner and nobody had seen a 12-year-old western girl, to say nothing about a 12-year-old with bright, shiny metal teeth¡ªbraces. So everybody in the class turned around and stared at her. Faced with a sea of staring Chinese faces, Deirdre, assuming she was in the wrong place, fled.
At first she thought she had merely mistaken her room number, so she sloshed around the courtyard in the mud and found what she thought was her proper classroom. But again, the moment she entered, everyone turned around, everyone stared, and she fled. She slogged round again and fled again until finally a teacher heard her sobbing and came out. However, nobody could speak English¡ªnot even the English teacher, so Deirdre made her way home and waited for me to come back.
That afternoon, I was filled with guilt, and in the days and weeks that followed, I was tormented by a fear that she would want to go home to the United States. I also wondered if, at some point, then or later, she would stop talking to me and perhaps never speak to me again because I had ruined her life. Even after we returned to the States at the end of the semester, I worried. In a period when she was supposed to be gaining weight, Deirdre had lost about 12 pounds over the course of our stay (6 months). Would she remember this trip as a primal trauma and hold it against me for ever? Or would she collapse under the memory of its weight and spend her life in therapy? A few days after her disastrous first day at the school, I went into Xian to the store for tourists and foreigners and bought her chocolate; every week, I bought her more, until we had bought all the chocolate there was in the shop.
I cannot remember how Deirdre went back to school but she did return, and she triumphed there. By Christmas she was fluent in Mandarin, got up at 6 AM every morning to do Tai Chi, and had more friends to play table tennis with than I could keep track of. On the last day of the school year, her class threw a big party for her, her teachers acclaimed her, and she came home with her arms filled with presents from boys and girls alike.
Part of my salary at XFLI came in the form of trips to three cities in China, taken at the end of our stay. In Kunming, where we went without a guide-interpreter, Deirdre decided at breakfast one morning that she would like ¡°jiaozi¡± that day (we had it every Tuesday in Xian and she missed it). So we sauntered into the kitchen when we¡¯d finished eating, and she asked the chef if it would be possible to have jiaozi for dinner. The chef was amazed, not at seeing a 12-year-old western girl with metal teeth but at hearing a 12-year-old western girl with metal teeth ask shyly for jiaozi in Mandarin spoken with a thick Shannxi accent.
That night everyone in the hotel restaurant had dumplings for dinner.


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