When Little Things Mean Something

I wake up these days feeling like I have never slept. I don’t know what it is – the lethargy of a hot summer kicking in? Or the ennui of each day that yawns itself into monotony? Or just the excesses of an adrenaline-packed week in Shanghai?

After a gap of just over 7 months, I was in China again for a week. On work. The last time I was in Shanghai was more than 5 years ago. I remember little much of that trip, fated as I was not to record it to the trusty device called a computer, but instead relying on my this failing memory of mine. It was during New Year’s time, that much I do remember. I was with Allan and Birdy – and we found spots on the Bund with a beer each in hand, and watched as Shanghai welcomed the New Year. Very limply. The fireworks were bland. The Chinese were just awaiting their own new year, and this was just a Western tradition that had to be observed, because Shanghai after all is aspiring to be the Big Apple of Asia. Yet, I remember that moment though. Limp and languid, Shanghai was always a mesmerizing homage to capitalism.

Now there I was – these years in between have changed me. I was at that time a naive young woman. I still am a naive young woman. What has changed? The friends. The people. The jobs. The life. The passion. The commitment. Then, I didn’t know much Chinese beyond nihao. Now, I am able to converse with taxi drivers, argue at ticket stations, and make and receive compliments. Slowly, China is opening up to me as I know its language. And I think to myself, what a wonderful fool I was back then, when I had the time and I never thought to learn. Still, we are masters in hindsight and fools in foresight.

It was during this week that I met Jack, one of my students from Xuchang. He is one of the few to keep in touch with me, regularly informing me of his dreams, his hopes and ambitions. Jack was in Suzhou, and he came over to Shanghai to meet me. I immediately recognize him – the names may dim in the eyes of a former teacher – but we remember the faces. All the time. He walks over to me to the nearest mall, helps me while I buy little nick knacks to give to the people back home. We then walk back to the Marriott’s luxurious coffee lounge, and it is there that we talk for a while. Jack is eager to tell me the stories of students I once taught even though the names mean little to me. A few are married. A few are mothers. Or fathers. One is out of the country. I listen, my eyes scanning the doorway awaiting the arrival of another friend. And it is then that Jack gives me the most precious thing to take away from the city that has it all. “You were such a good teacher. When Allan used to teach us, he was very serious. But you made us laugh. And we would talk then in your class,” Jack said, referring to the Spoken English class I used to handle. These words – they mean big. At a time in my life when I constantly search for some meaning in every job I do, I realize that it was only in teaching that I found that meaning lasts. When people remember you and give a little space for you – that doesn’t make a job. It makes a life. It makes happiness. It makes living. Now, if only I wish I can live again.

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