China He Taught English
and Learned a World
By Doug McGill
MN -- Bill Adler, who trains health inspectors for the Minnesota
Department of Health in Rochester, just got back from a
10-month visit to China.
He's got a sports
bag filled with memorabilia from his trip -- knick-knacks bought at
curiosity shops, bigger items like a portable hanging scale that
Hundreds and hundreds
of photographs. In many of them, Bill, who taught English to students
at Hunan University in the south-central city of Changsha, stands surrounded
by Chinese students and neighbors, all of them beaming widely as they
surround him, a treasured American friend.
show oddities of China today with captions in Bill's neat handwriting.
A picture of a busy downtown intersection with a red traffic light
hanging over it is annotated with "Everybody drives through red
lights in China." Another picture shows a spanking new seven-story
building with the words "Women's dorm, no elevators."
" I'd go back
in a heartbeat," said Bill, who has worked for 26 years as a health
inspector here. He started taking Chinese language lessons in town
after mainland Chinese immigrants started opening new restaurants and
he couldn't communicate with them.
to know the culture of the businesses we regulate," Bill said. "That's
what the language lessons were about. They introduced me to a lot of
the culture I wouldn't have otherwise. Only then could I start to understand
the problems they were having, and start working with them."
At the Saturday
morning school of the Rochester Chinese Culture Association, Bill sat
in classes with the 6- and 7-year-old children of Chinese immigrants
who came to Rochester to work at Mayo and IBM.
He started a company
called Safe Foods in Different Languages and published a Chinese-language
guide to safe food practices. But still something was missing. "I
needed to go deeper," he said. Friends at the Chinese school lined
him up with Hunan University, and off he went.
From last September
through June of this year, he taught English to 48 Chinese college
students while living in a sparse campus apartment, in a building with
chronic plumbing problems, in a city where the sun is almost never
seen thanks to the heat haze, construction dust, and air pollution.
He loved every minute of it.
" It is amazing
to see China change," he said. "It is struggling and modernizing.
My students were so eager and grateful and they worked so hard. I felt
that what I did every day was truly valued, and that is a real opiate.
That, and the very close friendships I made, make me want to go back."
A few conversations
he had with students still stick with him.
" In one class
I asked 'If you could be anything for 24 hours, what would you want
to be?" And one female student said 'blind.' 'Why?' I asked, and
she said, 'Adversity brings change, and I want to start the process.'"
" Isn't that
incredible?" Adler recalls today.
Another time a young
man asked him, "Teacher Bill, do you like beer?"
" I said 'Yes,'
and he said 'You're fat.' Well at first I was taken aback, and I didn't
know what to feel. But then I realized he was just trying to learn
English. Those were the few words he knew, and he used them. So it
was OK. I was so happy he had the trust in me to open up and be that
Now isn't that incredible?
Isn't that a deep story about learning tolerance and patience and understanding,
about rising above surface appearances that might easily engender conflict
That's why I think
of Bill Adler and other Americans who put their comfortable lives here
on hold for a little while to go live in a difficult faraway land,
as modern explorers, as contemporary Columbuses.
They come back with
a treasure called wisdom. It's more valuable than anything material,
like antiques or ancient art or any tourist treasure, because it's
a key to human relationships and harmony across great divides.
"There was a
place called English Corner on campus where kids came each weekend
to practice their English," Adler said. "They would crowd
around you. Some teachers did it once or twice and then quit, because
the students always asked the same questions like, 'What's your name?'
and 'Where are you from?' over and over again. They got bored, and
at first I did too.
" But then I
realized 'Hey, English Corner is not for me, it's for them. They ask
those questions because they need the repetition to learn. So I went
back, and after that, everything got better. I started asking them
questions too, simple ones, and they started answering. And I started
to make friends."
That's the kind
of moral turning point it would be great to see repeated at all levels
of society, from America's reconstruction effort in Iraq to the way
our own community welcomes our new citizens who speak foreign tongues.
@ 2002 The McGill Report