Ms. Lee

Monday through Friday I tutor 3-7 children at a private home that’s been converted into a school. Sunny is my boss, and there are four teachers: me, two other girls my age, and Ms. Lee. I don’t really know the other girls, but I’ve struck up a friendship with Sunny and, more recently, with Ms. Lee.

Ms. Lee speaks very little English. She knows a few words here and there, but can’t carry any kind of conversation – Sunny translates for us. She’s strict, patient, quick to laugh and willing to do whatever it takes to make sure the student understands. When I first met her, I thought she was the type that never smiled; the longer I’ve known her, the more I like her. I can’t understand anything she says, but we have a mutual respect and friendship.

Ms. Lee killed it at Bingo, which was actually a highly competitive shouting match that left everyone giggling.

When I told Sunny that I was going to enroll in Chinese courses at a local university, both she and Ms. Lee began teaching me phrases and started working with me to help me recognize Chinese characters. That was a couple of months ago. Sunny asked me for an update a few weeks ago, and I lamented that I couldn’t afford the tuition because of other expenses. The very next day, Sunny told me that she would tutor me for half an hour, twice a week next semester. I would learn by rote memorization.

The day after that, Sunny told me Ms. Lee thought I should know the Chinese alphabet (known as BoPoMoFo). Sunny and Ms. Lee told me that they would both teach me during the spring semester – not informally, but with books, homework, and lots of studying.

A picture of Sunny taken by one of my kids

I offered to pay them, but they both refused. I promised to be an excellent student.

In anticipation of my studies, I went out and bought a traditional Chinese calligraphy brush and ink. The ink has to be poured into a small bowl, and then the brush is dipped into the ink. It’s the kind of process that makes you feel like an artist even when your most artistic endeavors to date are smiley faces at the top of your kids’ test papers.

I began practicing writing and made Sunny and Ms. Lee gifts to thank them.

Writing in Chinese is hard.

I gave them each a picture of a flower with the words, “Thank you for being my friend,” written in Chinese. The gifts were a huge hit, and the patient and painstaking art of writing and drawing using the brush is actually a lot of fun.

Of course, when I gave them the gifts Ms. Lee smiled, pulled out a thick black pen, and corrected my writing.

Starting in mid-February, after the winter break, I should be learning how to recognize and write Chinese characters, how to read basic words, and I should have a broader Chinese vocabulary. My pronunciation is rough, but at least I’m trying.

The traditional calligraphy brush makes stupid doodles look artistic and elegant.

I’ve gained a friend in Ms. Lee and have learned a new skill. Sunny has already given me a book to practice writing different Chinese words, and she and Ms. Lee enjoy teaching me random phrases. Just last week they taught me, “I am hungry.” I’ll excitedly run up to them and say my new phrase to show them that I remember what they’ve taught me, which prompts them to teach me something new.

I’ll be fluent in no time.

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