Falling Leaf Returning to My Roots 落葉歸根
Christina Chen, Division 3, Graduate school #ws16e-s1d3

In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  I was born and raised in the United States, but my parents never let me forget my roots…I am Taiwanese.  As I was growing up, being Taiwanese was an important aspect of my life.  In going through the process of trying to figure out my identity as an American-born Taiwanese, I asked myself, “What are the benefits of being Taiwanese?”  However, an experience that I had spending a summer in Taiwan teaching English to disadvantaged aborigine Taiwanese students gave me an appreciation of having the privilege to be able to give back to the people of the country that is so much a part of who I am.

In 2005, the summer after my sophomore year of high school, I got to teach English to disadvantaged aborigine Taiwanese students in grades six through nine as part of the Assisting Individuals for Disadvantage (AID) Program.  To participate in this program, we had to go through six weeks of intensive training.  During this training, we learned different teaching skills and activities that we could do with the students, developed lesson plans, etc.  In registering for this program, my intention was to give back to the Taiwanese people in any way that I could, even if it was just spending my summer teaching English to some students there.  My hope was to be able to make a small difference in a few students’ lives.  However, the four students that I got to teach and spend time with ended up impacting my life in ways that they will probably never know.  I may have taught them some basics about the English language, but they taught me so much more.

We taught in a school up in the mountains of Hsinchu, Taiwan.  The bus took us on an unpaved, windy road up the mountain.  On either side of us was either the face of the mountain or an expanse of farmland with little houses intermittently dispersed throughout.  We stayed in the school dorms, which were not in very good conditions.  As we unrolled the sleeping pads that the school provided to us, dead and live bugs fell out from them.  There were also bugs and reptiles crawling around in the room.  In the bathroom, there were feces on the shower floor.  Also, in the midst Taiwan’s summer heat and humidity, there was no air conditioning.  Having grown up in the comfort and cleanliness of the United States, I was definitely not used to these living conditions.  However, it was not until later that I found out how good the living conditions of the dorms were compared to the living conditions of the students’ houses.  

After getting over the initial shock of the living conditions, we began to teach.  Each day, my partner and I taught English to four of the students.  In spending time and interacting with the students, I noticed a few characteristics about them that differentiated them from the students that I knew growing up in the United States.  First of all, these students were very eager to learn English, as this was an opportunity that they never had before.  In fact, they had no previous exposure to the English language or American culture, as they could not afford it.  During class, they were all very attentive and hard-working, taking notes on what we taught them.  Instead of wasting time, they took advantage of every second, minute, and hour of every day that we were there with them; they seemed to try to latch on to every English word that was coming out of our mouths as if their lives depended on it.  Secondly, each day we never knew how many of the four students would be showing up for class, as they sometimes had to help work on their families’ farms.  However, the next day that they were back in school, they asked us and their classmates what they had missed.  This was in spite of the fact that they were not being tested on any of the material that we were teaching them, which shows their genuine passion and desire for learning.  Finally, these students seemed to be very appreciative of even the smallest amount of kindness that was shown to them.  Even though they came from families that could not provide them with very much, they did not complain.  Instead, they were grateful for and satisfied with what they had.  Rather than taking anything for granted, they took advantage of every opportunity that was provided to them.
While we taught these students English, they taught us a few words and phrases in their native aborigine dialect.  They also taught us about the Taiwan aborigine culture and even invited us to their homes to visit.  To say that the home visits were eye-opening experiences is an understatement.  Most of their houses were small, run-down, dirty, and bug-infested because their families could not afford to maintain them very well.  They did not contain much other than a few necessities.  There was minimal furniture, and instead of beds there were sleeping mats.  For the majority of the families, there were many people living together in small spaces.  After seeing the houses that these students and their families lived in, I realized that the dorms we were staying in would have seemed like a luxury to them.  With regards to their food resources, there were not many stores accessible around the area, so they were mostly self-sustained by their farms.

As these students spent time and developed relationships with us over the weeks, they shared some stories with us about their family histories and backgrounds.  We learned that the majority of the students did not come from intact families.  Some of the students lived with their grandparents or other relatives because their parents either passed away, left them, or gave them up for adoption.  Others only lived with and/or knew one of their parents because their parents were divorced or the other parent passed away or left them.  Most of them came from large families and had many siblings.  Those who had younger siblings needed to help take care of their younger siblings.  In addition to attending school to get an education, the majority of the students had to help work on their families’ farms so that their families could sustain a living.

These students may have been young; however, their life experiences have not only helped to shape who they are and who they will become, but have also made a difference in the lives of others.  Their big, simple, and pure hearts have touched many lives, as their love, care, kindness, and compassion for others are so heartfelt and genuine.  Their optimism in spite of all of the hardships that they have had to deal with in their lives is contagious.  It puts into perspective what it means to be satisfied with what you have and what it takes to be happy in life.  Also, their resilience in being able to overcome all of the obstacles that life has thrown at them inspires hope in others.  

At the end of our time with these students, each group of students led by the teachers had to prepare a performance for the talent show.  Our group sang Phil Collins’ song, “You’ll Be in My Heart.”  The chorus of the song puts into words what I want to convey to the students that I had the privilege to teach: 
And you’ll be in my heart
Yes, you’ll be in my heart
From this day on
Now and forever more
Even though I only got to spend one summer with these students, they came into my heart the day that I met them, are in my heart now, and will continue to be in my heart forever.  

Before this experience, the question that I asked myself was, “What can Taiwan and its people do for me?”  As I was growing up, my parents not only taught me about the Taiwanese history, language, people, traditions, culture, etc., but they also instilled in me the significance of what it means to be a Taiwanese.  Most importantly, they never let me forget my Taiwanese roots and have encouraged me to give back to Taiwan and its people in any way that I can.  I knew objectively what they meant, but it was not until I got to meet and spend time with these students that I understood subjectively what my parents meant.  Through the four students that I had the privilege to teach, I gained a new perspective of what it means to be Taiwanese.  This only happened because the question that I asked myself became, “What can I do for Taiwan and its people?”  This experience has made me proud to be a Taiwanese, a “falling leaf returning to my roots” (落葉歸根).  
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