It is 6:30 Monday night, and a frigid darkness has engulfed Middle Mountain East Road in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. Here, I find myself cautiously biking in the midst of the city's rush-hour traffic. Land-rovers, Jeeps, taxis, and hundreds of bicyclers stream around me as I slowly make my way toward the outskirts of the city, where my students are anxiously awaiting me.
I teach in a special four-month adult education program to improve the language skills of English teachers from the rural areas of Inner Mongolia. Added to our regular classes, the students and I have a Monday-evening English Corner. In the comfort of our heated classroom, we freely discuss, in English, a wide range of topics not usually touched upon in our daily lessons. I especially look forward to our gatherings because it is on these nights that the student-teacher relationship dissolves and I find myself invited into a close-knit community of adults.
At 7 p.m., I enter our small classroom where the students have already congregated. Our senior teacher, Robin Lu, takes charge by calling everyone to order.
"We are ready for our English Corner night," he shouts over the din. "Everyone, sit down and be quiet!"
We quickly find a seat and pay attention.
"Tonight we have our teacher, Miss Connie, to join us. Our topics are written on the board. They are, 'Honesty is the best policy: Is it always true?' and 'My best gift was....' Now, in small groups, begin."
There is an awkward silence while everyone thinks of something to say. Before long, however, the room is filled with animated conversations as group members openly share with one another.
In the first group I join, 40-something David Wang begins. "In my opinion, honesty is not always the best policy," he announces, and then recounts a sad tale. Last month, his money was stolen on the train when he went home for the holidays. He lost 700 yuan ($90), almost one month's salary.
David pauses, allowing us to voice great sympathy at his misfortune.
Then he grins broadly and continues. "But when I get home, I tell my wife I only lose 300 yuan. I think if I say I lose 700 yuan to a thief, she will hit me! So, about this topic, I say, 'Honesty is not always the best policy,' especially when you have a wife."
While the spouse jokes are plentiful, there are others that add a softer tone to our discussions. On the second topic, I am reminded that the best gifts are the simple ones, those given from the heart.
Ann Zui, a veteran teacher of seven years, has us all giggling at first when she says, "My best gift was shoe pads." But then she goes on to explain.
After her first year of teaching, a student crocheted for her beautiful, flower-patterned insoles. The child was very poor and always wore old, ragged clothes to school. Yet somehow, the girl had managed to buy the colorful yarn needed for her small gift.
"She said I was her best teacher, and my feet must hurt all day from standing," Ann tells us. "So she made me shoe pads to keep my feet warm and comfortable. I wore them for many years. Now, I keep them to remember her kindness."
As I continue to move about the room, listening to and speaking with my students, we discover more and more about one another. English Corner becomes more than just a time to increase language skills. It becomes a special opportunity for us to share, in a warm spirit of friendship, what we often do not have time to share in our formal lessons together.
WHEN the hour is up, we give ourselves a round of applause for our participation before we disperse. As always, a concerned Robin assigns young Forest Guo to accompany me home in the darkness. There is no use in my protesting.
"It is our duty to do so," Robin sternly states. "You are our foreign teacher and a woman. We must protect you."
At 8:10, Forest and I pedal out onto Middle Mountain East Road. A light snow begins to fall as we negotiate potholes and follow slowly behind plodding burros pulling their carts home.
Forest is telling me he will call his mother tonight from the long-distance telephone office near my apartment building. I know this is a white lie, only to cover up my urging him to return to his warm dormitory room at the school. Yet Forest has his duty, and I know he is very proud to safely escort his foreign teacher home.
My American friends often pity me for living in what they consider a remote, backward area of the world. They wish that we could eat pizza together, go mall shopping, see a movie. But here in Hohhot, I wish that we could all attend my students' small English Corner, complete with a caring Robin, who assigns a diligent Forest to safely bike us home because "it is our duty to do so."