Here Comes Kimmy: Learning Language in Peace Corps China

Well, it’s been over a year and now I will be starting my next year of service without the fear of totally screwing it up! Hopefully, I will kick this year in the tush. I’m excited for this year for a number of reasons.

I learned from my mistakes last year so I know what to do differently this term. My Chinese is WAY better than when I started, making it easier for me to communicate.

I get a routine again, which means more weight loss, more Chinese study, more stability, getting further integrated into my community.

Overall, I just feel good about this next part. I am ready and relaxed. Just in time to head into the office and start getting things in order. Turns out, my school has been in the process of a huge facelift. Where there was once yucky walls and stinky bathrooms there are now new floors, walls, and ceilings. The basketball courts were even redone. I was shocked actually but also impressed. I stopped by the headmaster’s office to tell her how good the school looked. But my school wasn’t the only thing to change. I did too and everyone certainly noticed. During summer I had exercised, but not on a consistent level because I was away from my gym way too much. My eating wasn’t always perfect either. But nonetheless, I still managed to tone up.

“WA! Kelly! Ni shou le hao duo!”

Translation. “Wow! Kelly, you thinned a lot!”

A few months of not seeing my colleagues and this is what happens. They want to talk about my weight loss and I want to talk about how beautiful the school is. I flash a shy smile and just politely say “no, no” because this is how you act with compliments, and then I excuse myself for some reason related to Peace Corps. I still have 20 pounds to lose. Imagine the kind of freakage that will come from them then.

I have spent maybe two hours in total at school over the last few days. The teachers usually come back on the 25th for meetings but school doesn’t start until the first. There is really nothing I can do until I get my schedule. In China, you don’t get your teaching schedule until a day or two before you start school, so really I’ve spent most of my time at the gym, doing Peace Corps paperwork, preparing for my friend’s wedding, writing for other Peace Corps publications in other countries of service, and of course mentally preparing for what comes next. I’m busier than expected.

Today was one of the two hours I spent at school. I didn’t bother to dress professionally because very few students occupied the campus. So I showed up in my bright purple workout pants and a grey t-shirt, wrist tattoo a-wavin’. As I walked through campus, I did encounter a few students I knew who would be working on their third year at the school. One gave me a joyful, clearly-pronounced, “Hello Kelly,” and continued walking with her friends. The next girl came out of nowhere, but I recognized her immediately.

“Hello, Kimmy!” She said happily and somewhat questionable like she didn’t know my name really.

Kimmy? What the heck? Did she just all me Kimmy? I stopped and turned around to watch her walk away. I snickered to myself. That kid was a student of mine for a year.

After climbing up four flights of stairs, I entered my office, immediately meeting my Waiban, Momma June. She gave a cheery “hi” while running around the office continuing to do a million things. I set down my stuff and opened my mouth to speak.

“You know the kids call me Kimmy?” She stopped her bustling and looked at me.

“Why?” She laughed and a confused look crossed her face.

“I don’t know. We say, Kelly, they hear Kimmy. Eh. Whatever.” She laughed again and continued shuffling papers on her desk. I could tell she was busy so I closed my mouth.

I had brought a bag of things with me to school, a box to hold all of my markers, and a stack of copy paper. I took the lid off the box and dumped all the markers my mother sent me into the box. I planned to make name tags with the kids the first day. But I needed a good example. So I made one for myself.

I folded the paper in thirds. On the middle portion, I wrote my real name, not Kimmy, in blue and decorated each letter with dots. I colored a bright yellow and orange and yellow sun in the corner, made clouds and birds too. On a different side, I wrote my Chinese name in characters and pinyin in bright pink. When I felt it was perfect, I put it inside my box with all of my markers. I realized then, how much of a kid I can be sometimes.

I thought about how much I am like my mother. Using creativity as a segue into learning. How she never failed at using creative methods to raise my brother, sister, and me. How some of my favorite days as a child involved us doing crafts together. I imagined my 15 to 18-year-old students being excited about something as simple as coloring on a piece of paper. How this very way of teaching set me so far apart from Chinese teachers here. This year, I picture my students excited about learning. I pictured them getting crafty like my 8-year-old self. I pictured the exchange of languages, both Chinese and English, to create bonds and understanding that I wasn’t able to create before. I imagined giving all my new babies hugs and love. I imagined this year being the year that defines my service and maybe even my life.

That is, until the next defining thing comes along.