I was moving to Guantanamo Bay over the summer. The last day in my ESL classroom was a beautiful spring day, and my students had many questions about what courses they were supposed to take in the fall semester if they passed all their final exams. Using the blackboard, I went step-by-step through the sequence of classes, writing the title of each course they were required to take next. These students knew that I taught two courses; the writing course they had just completed, and the reading course for the next level up – the one to which they would be advancing. They asked if I would again be teaching that reading course in the fall.
I lied and said yes. I had practiced telling this lie the night before, in front of my bathroom mirror, just in case they asked. I feared that I could not tell my students that I was leaving without choking up. Although I was looking forward to the experience of living in Guantanamo Bay, the saying of good-bye to my students, and the community college student body that I had grown so fond of, was far too difficult for me. So I lied, and said I would see them in the fall.
They filed out of the classroom, with See you next year coming from every other one. Finally, no one was left in the room but one young man from Japan. Yoshi was about 19 years old, slim, short, shiny black hair, gold wire-rimmed glasses, and immaculate clothes. He stood by his desk in the room that was now still and quiet. He walked with purpose to where I was standing by the teacher’s desk until he was standing directly in front of me. Yoshi proceeded to scan my face, but with a softness in his jet black eyes. Then, with the same softness in his voice as I saw in his eyes, he said “You are not coming back.”
An enormous knot lodged in my throat, and all I could manage was one nod of my head in agreement. Yoshi raised his chin, straightened his back, placed his arms squarely at his sides, and paused for one moment in front of me. Then, he gracefully bent forward, lowering himself in a bow of farewell to his teacher. Before I could recover, he had walked out of the room.
I am thinking about this moment from so long ago on another beautiful spring day as I sit and watch another set of students who will file out of the classroom upon finishing the writing of their final exam. Benjamin is not here for his final exam, but I will remember him as vividly as I have Yoshi over all these years. He was tall, unusual for a male student from Taiwan, and slim almost to the point of skinny. His hair was cropped, and stood up on end just a bit – dashing, and showing a sense of style unusual among my male Asian students. Benjamin certainly had style: he also had beautiful hands with long, slender fingers. Over the course of the semester, I had come to look forward to in-class writing assignments so I could watch Benjamin write. He began by scribbling a word or two, and then flat-out dropped his pencil onto the surface of his desk. He then closed his eyes three-quarters of the way, and seemed to think about what he was trying to say. At this point, both his hands were raised out over the desk, moving in unison with his thoughts. Benjamin was shaping his ideas with his long, graceful fingers. After a few moments, he picked up his pencil, wrote down two or three lines of words, dropped the pencil back onto the desk, closing his eyes, raising his hands again.
I have found that my Asian students have a tendency to think in pictures. It stands to reason, as their first language is not communicated in letters but in characters, which are actually pictures. Yong, a Chinese physicist who works as a researcher for NASA, gave me perhaps my best confirmation of this theory. I was under contract working one-on-one with Yong because Yong’s colleagues had trouble understanding his speech. “He mumbles. Perhaps he is not confident. He does not move his lips when he talks. For an audience , he can start out speaking clearly, but then when he gets engrossed in the material he is presenting, he slips back to this mumbling.” Further down on the initial assessment form, his supervisor noted that Yong was the top scientist in the world in his field, remote sensing, and that he has great potential. But he mumbles.
His supervisor was right. Yong’s lips did not move when he spoke, but most especially his upper lip which he kept glued to his top front teeth. I explained and demonstrated to Yong that consonants are made by holding the tongue or lip against a certain part of the mouth. By using a mirror, he could compare his own lip movement with mine. As he watched himself speak, I told him that it was impressive that he could manage to enunciate most consonants with his upper lip glued to his front teeth. However, I went on to explain that vowel sounds are quite different. Vowel sounds are made by configuring your tongue a certain way in the empty space of your mouth, and then shaping your lips in one of three ways to make the sound come out right. It is similar to how sound comes out of a musical instrument in that the sound omitted depends a lot on the physical shape of the hole – as in a trumpet, a guitar, or a flute.
My Chinese physicist caught on very quickly. However, the fixing of it was something else. Over the course of the next few weeks we studied the sixteen distinct English vowels sounds listing each one under one of these three lip shapes.
We had been working for several weeks when Yong had to cancel our session due to his attending an international conference for physicists. At the start of the next lesson I asked him about the conference, and he launched into a detailed analysis of the different presentation styles of scientists from different countries. His analysis matched research I was familiar with on this same topic, and I drew the visuals for three distinct rhetorical styles. English follows a straight line. I had drawn a straight vertical line through three boxes representing the introduction, which includes a clear thesis statement, the body, which traditionally includes three strong examples, and the conclusion, which usually offers a plan of action or some wisdom gained. Then I drew the Asian rhetorical pattern, a small dot around which is a continuous tight line of enlarging concentric circles. The thesis – or idea – is represented by the dot, but the thesis/idea itself is never addressed directly by the writer. Rather, one goes round and round it. Yong nodded in agreement, and remarked that this often leads to miscommunication with non-Asian cultures, and that miscommunication leads to confrontation, and confrontation is something that is very hard for Asians…which is why they communicate in circles rather than direct, straight lines.
I picked up my pencil and next to the three-box English rhetorical pattern, I drew another one. I suggested to Yong that with the English pattern, and so in the English-speaking mind, there can be two legitimate arguments on the same issue, yet each one reaches a different answer. People may then agree to disagree.
“Ah”, he said. “But Susan, this is the problem. In English you think there are two answers. In this approach” and he pointed to the continuous circle around the dot, “we know that there is only one answer….just different ways to look at it.”
Then he took my pencil from my hand and divided the Asian circle into six pieces, as if it were a pie. He then put a dot into each piece of pie. He drew a line to show that the dot in each piece of pie represented a person looking at the one answer from a different point of view. I am ashamed to say that I had been working with these rhetorical patterns with students for close to 15 years, but I had never thought of this in this way.
I was lost in thought about this when I realized that it was the end of the examination period, and all my students were turning in their papers. I walked back to my office to grade their essays. My office walls are covered with tokens of remembrance and appreciation which my students have given me over the years. Many of my students come from cultures which require the giving of a gift to their teacher when the class ends. Centered over my desk that day was one empty hook. It was only few months ago, around mid-February , when I arrived to my office to find a traditional Chinese knot laying on my desk. Next to it was a yellow sticky on which was written Benjamin. The custom was to do this gift-giving at the close of the semester, so I was a bit surprised.
After class the next day, I asked Benjamin about the knot, for I knew each one had its own significance. We were both looking ahead as we walked down the hall talking, and Benjamin replied that the knot would bring me wealth. I did not expect this at all; I turned toward him and he instantly sensed my being puzzled. “No, not that kind of wealth. The other kind.” We smiled at each other in silent acknowledgement.
Later that week, I hung the knot Benjamin had given me in my office, centering it over my desk. The next time Benjamin was in my office for some help with a paper he was writing, he saw where I had placed the knot he had given to me. After we had finished going over his paper, I asked if he could tell me some more about the knot. He first explained that the stones were jade, as jade turns bad luck into good luck. The larger piece was harmony. The second in the string was bliss, or fu in Chinese. The third was thriving with exuberance, or chun in Chinese. The pattern in which they were strung together represented the idea of welfare. As he explained this to me, he wrote the Chinese characters next to each of the English words. When he finished, we were both silent. We sat that way for a while, considering harmony, bliss, and thriving exuberance woven together by welfare.
It was towards the end of the semester that he came into my office, visibly upset. He had failed an exam, and he feared he may be dropped from the program. On top of this, his girlfriend who was in Taiwan was having difficulties, and he was concerned about her. He thought, because of all of this, he would have to return to Taiwan, but maybe he’d come back. We sat there and read each other’s faces in silence. We both knew he was leaving, and we both knew he was not coming back. But neither of us spoke of it, for there was that other kind of knot in each of our throats. I stood up and took the Chinese knot off its hook and put it into his hands. Benjamin, this will bring you wealth. Then he walked out of my office.
In trying to explain something both to you and to myself, I unconsciously set out to follow the traditional rhetorical pattern of some one who speaks English as their first language as I set out with three examples of Asian male students. In fact, my working title was Three Asian Men. But I skipped the formal introduction and I failed to include any thesis statement anywhere. I wrote, but I was not certain exactly what I was writing about. I felt to be writing around something. And now, I can offer no conclusion, no plan of action, no advice, no wisdom gained. I realize that I am somewhere along that line of concentric circles, circling around that dot, the one and only answer, which is to just say goodbye.