The Flower Begins to Blossom

"The Landing of the Pilgrims."(1877)...

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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.

About Coming East

I am a writer, wife, mother, and grandmother who thinks you're never too old until you're dead. My inspiration is Grandma Moses who became a successful artist in her late 70's. If I don't do something pretty soon, though, I'll have to find someone older for inspiration.
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24 Responses to The Flower Begins to Blossom

  1. It’s a great idea that she writes the words on her little notebook. In my experience, it is more effective to learn something or remember things when I write them down. You have a golden heart, and it’s people like you who inspire us to do more good deeds in this world. 😉

  2. E.C. says:

    You’re awesome. You give so much of yourself to others. Chi is so lucky to have a teacher and friend like you. 🙂

  3. I love this story. You know, I can just picture you and Chi together not just working on language, but building this delightful relationship. Chi is blessed to have you as her teacher, but more importantly, as her friend. What you are giving her is so much more than education.

  4. Earth Ocean Sky Redux says:

    We took the family on a long journey through Vietnam a few years back. Vietnam is a gorgeous country, its people very proud and we were struck by their rich culture that happily has not been destroyed by such Western things as McDonalds! To a one, the people we met were both beautiful and gracious. Chi is a perfect name for her. May I ask where in Vietnam she is from?

    I hope as you teach her about our traditions, she, in return, will share with you some things her family might celebrate. I firmly believe that world peace is understanding and accepting each other’s cultures. Good for you to be one cog on that railroad.

    • Coming East says:

      You know, EOSR, I haven’t asked her what part of Vietnam she’s from. I’ll see if I can find a world atlas in the house and have her show me. She does share some things about her country, but your comment reminded me to make sure I actually ask her questions about her life in Vietnam. Thanks for your insightful comment.

  5. judithhb says:

    Isn’t it amazing how when we offer something to another person we get so much more back from them. This is one of the benefits we have living where we do – we have opportunities not open to others. And education – I wrote a blog about an African who went to school to learn to read when he was 84. What an amazing and determined man. Here’s the link if you missed it –

  6. Amy says:

    It takes kindness and patience to do what you do. The world would be a better place if we all care about people like you do. A few years ago, my husband tried to help a couple of Hispanic young kids to learn Math after school. He wanted to help, but the young kids were not ready to sacrifice their playtime.

    • Coming East says:

      Kids are pretty much alike no matter where you find them, aren’t they, Amy? Because Chi is an adult, education seems to mean so much more to her. She wants to make up for lost time, I think.

  7. pattisj says:

    This is a wonderful opportunity you and Chi have. Thanks for giving us a peek into a life outside what we are so accustomed to and take for granted.

  8. Mom, this is so amazing! Besides the English part, you are teaching this young woman about grace, friendship and community. No matter where her life takes her from here, you will have made a positive impact on her life. You will have given her confidence and self assurance. You have helped give her a better future.

  9. Shary Hover says:

    I volunteered for a while at my library in their literacy program and had the opportunity to work with an amazing young woman who was learning to read. She spoke English, in addition to her two native languages, but she had never been to school, so she didn’t know how to read in any language. It was amazing how hard she worked at learning when she had three active boys to raise as well as a part-time job. How lucky I was to be born in a place where everyone gets to go to school.

    • Coming East says:

      Thanks for your comment, Shary. Our children can’t imagine what life would be like and how hard it would be without an education. Yet, they do not want to apply themselves and complain and complain about all the work. I wish they could see someone like Chi and understand how blessed they are.

  10. Dor says:

    What a wonderful teacher you are! And how fortunate Chi is to have found you.

  11. When I was teaching, one of the elementary schools in which I taught was the English as a Second Language (ESL) school for the district. Our students at one point represented over 50 native languages and cultures. The rewards of that time period for me were enormous!! They brought me experiences and cultures I would never have experienced, hopefully I brought the same to them. It was one of the most professionally rewarding teaching experiences I have ever had as they brought me their world view of Bosnia, war torn sections of Africa, India, Pakistan, Russia, China, Mexico, etc., etc. It gave my life depth as I experienced their life experiences which were so different from mine. It kept me from being complacent about suburban life in America.
    How exciting for you to watch the Chi flower bloom and grow!! I’m sure it is just as exciting for her to watch the Teacher flower bloom and grow. What a beautiful experience!

  12. What a wonderful relationship you have with her. Alas…I remember looking in my classroom at the overhead projector, desktop computer, laptop computer, computer projector, document camea, smartboard, screen, power strips + the internet sites, powerpoints, photostories… and I would think this is “obscene” all the aids we have and some students just aren’t taking advantage of it. What a joy to have such a receptive student equipped with pencil, notebook and an open mind! For this I can see you are thankful.

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