Once a week I help a young Vietnamese woman learn English. She comes to my house, and we work and talk for nearly two hours every Wednesday afternoon. She has been in this country for two years now, but since she has no English-speaking friends and the other women in the nail salon where she works speak Vietnamese with her, she has had little opportunity to develop her English skills.
When I first met her, she told me her name was Linda. I said Linda was a pretty name, but it seemed an unusual choice for a girl from Viet Nam. She shyly told me it wasn’t her real name. She just picked it because she didn’t think her American customers would remember her Vietnamese name. When I said I would prefer to call her by her given name, she told me her name was Chi. “What does it mean?” I asked. She said it had no meaning. It was more like, “Hey, you.” I told her that in my t’ai chi class I learned that chi means the life force that is all around us and it is a powerful thing. She beamed and told me she liked that meaning.
It is not easy to teach English to a child from another country, but a young mind is still developing and making neural connections. It is surprising how quickly a child can grasp a new language. Chi is at a disadvantage because for one, she is not a child, and for another, she had to work when she was growing up so she is missing basic concepts that she would have learned in school if she had been able to attend.
I have given her children’s picture books to borrow each week, and I am amazed that every week she returns and has copied the words in the book into a little notebook she keeps. I have told her that she may borrow the books as long as she likes, that she doesn’t have to copy the words, but she says she likes to write them down. Then we discuss what she doesn’t understand. Idioms, obviously, are a source of trouble. At first, Chi was dismayed that she understood so little, but now it is a source of amusement when she realizes the real meaning of an idiom as opposed to what she thought it meant.
I feel like I am back in the classroom when I’m with Chi. I gave her a picture book about the first Thanksgiving, and she couldn’t get past the first page. It talked about how Plymouth Rock got to where it was. I found out she didn’t know what a glacier was or the Ice Ages, or what a continent was. Imagine her delight when I brought out my globe and we talked about Pangaea and she discovered how the continents had fit together. I wish I had seen that same delight in my students’ faces when I was teaching. Our children take education for granted and cannot imagine how many places there are in the world where a basic education is something of a luxury.
When I started working with Chi, I never thought about how much I was going to learn from her. This young woman has so much courage and grace, and I know I am learning as much from her as she is from me.