Beau Sides weaves his experiences into a tapestry of intricate detail to tell the story of Jan Cross, fiercely independent and proudly self-sufficient college graduate, who traveled to China as an English teacher of university students.
From her first moments in China, Jan recognizes the distinct differences in culture beyond the use of chopsticks at mealtime and absence of heat in public places. Written in the form of a novel, this blonde haired, blue eyed, young teacher from Mississippi tells the story from her viewpoint all the while introducing the readers to her realization that “There is so much about China that I don’t know.”
Jan traveled from the airport to the university in Beijing with English-speaking Mr. Zao who acts as her guide through precarious first events. Almost immediately he must explain the currency exchange dollars for RMB (renminibi) and calm her fears when several people press in around her. On one hand, the Chinese are benignly curious about the cash in Jan’s hand, but as Mr. Zao pointed out, “You are an anomaly, unique and strange with blonde hair and blue eyes.”, a fact that would continue to call attention to her for the duration of her semester long teaching contract.
“Harmony at all times is an underlying theme for groups and individuals in China.”, so quotes the author. Harmony was evidenced in the relationships Jan Cross built with her fellow teachers, students, administrators, and superiors. When Jan moved into her apartment, she was overwhelmed with tasks of shopping, cleaning, and getting settled. Immediately other teachers teamed up to support her in her assimilation to this new home. While this was impressive, much later in the book, the benevolence of this group extended to victims of a devastating fire that claimed many lives in the village of one of the university students.
When Jan began her teaching assignment, she was aware of strict curriculum mandates controlled by the Communist government which, she was told, also controlled all transportation, communication, and utilities. During her first class Jan was introduced to the class monitor, a student who surveyed her classes, handed out literature, and reported her performance back to the Dean of the school, a member of the Communist Party. Jan, observing the outdated materials, and excited about her opportunity to present English spoken topics from the fresh perspective of Internet research, crossed the line of command, risking deportation. “Harmony at all times…” was the theme that ran through this significant departure from authority. The situation was tense as Jan was called to discuss her solemn diversion from command. This meeting was pivotal in expected outcome. Instead of deportation, harmony among those involved led to a compromise between the sanctioned curriculum and the new learning methods introduced by Jan.
“Students in China demonstrate great respect for teachers.” During class, Jan was treated with ultimate respect. Students were honorable in their discussions and in their conduct. When class was dismissed, students wouldn’t leave the room until the teacher had led the way by exiting first.
One event I found admirable as a reader who knows nothing about learning foreign languages, was the gathering at the English Corner. This is not a euphemism for meeting at the restaurant and tossing around a few words while waiting for the delicious food to be served. There were many occasions in the story that described the delectable food, all enjoyed by the friends who got together to share their own stories and aspirations. English Corner, though, was a physical place in the town where students and anyone met to practice their English. Mandarin is the main language, but any person with a desire to learn English by listening and speaking was welcome to join the congregation on the English Corner. Jan was a constant source of English speaking expertise and attended even in the unbearable cold of winter.
“In China, once you are a student’s teacher, you are their teacher for the rest of your life.” This quote from the book resonated with me. I have memories of teachers who taught me more than the subjects of the classroom and they became my teachers for life. Through the experiences her students shared with Jan Cross, the life lessons and their education were wrapped up in relationships that would last a lifetime. This short narrative highlights so few of the themes engendered in this novel, the deeper learnings of culture and legend are lost. The quest to climb a mountain, the incident of Bird Flu, the camaraderie evidenced throughout the book are reasons enough to buy and read Lessons from China, for the armchair experience of visiting China.