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Saving Grandmother’s Face and Other Tales from Christian Teachers in China

A Book Review

While it is difficult for foreigners to teach in China today, it is not impossible and still well worthwhile. The book reviewed here will bring back poignant memories for many and, we trust, be a reminder to pray for those who are still teaching in China.

Saving Grandmother’s Face and Other Tales from Christian Teachers in China edited by Aminta Arrington. Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2010. 113 pages. ISBN-10: 1608990435, ISBN-13:‎ 978-1608990436. Available from Wipf and Stock and Amazon.

Just a quick heads up for those of you who have no interest in teaching or in the tales of those who do—these writers share far more about outside the classroom than inside. For me, a teacher for many years in China, this book took me back to the challenge, adventure, confusion, and joy of where I spent half of my life. Obviously, their experiences were different than my experiences. Cookie cutter tales from a country where “plans can’t keep up with change” would not have made the book the authentic read that it is.

Saving Grandmother’s Face is a collection of essays recounting the experiences of 12 Christian university teachers in China. Their accounts tell of

  • travel adventures that were planned and others that just happened,
  • fascination with the fine points of Chinese language and a desperate struggle to be understood,
  • surprising friendships,
  • insights from student homework, as well as
  • confrontations with their own cultural habits.

In her foreword, Martha Chan, founding president of Educational Resources and Referrals—China (ERRChina), wrote that the word transformation runs through all the accounts. That was not the word my students often used when they asked, “isn’t teaching boring? You just repeat the same thing all the time.” As I read each chapter, I smiled. The writers unwittingly disproved my former students’ observation. In no chapter did I sense boredom, but rather transformation, joy, and learning!

In the first chapter, David and Karen Barnes provide the book’s title as they tell of being let in on a family secret. On a grandmother’s deathbed the family was presented with the seemingly impossible task of fulfilling her wishes for her tombstone. But as David and Karen learned from one of the grandchildren, her marker was completed exactly as grandmother desired.

Karen Holt’s chapter on names found me nodding along. The meaning of names and the order. Mix ups on birth certificates and school enrollment forms. Each year these were topics of discussion in my office. The teachers showed care and attention to their students by learning, or at least striving to learn, their names. Many of their previous teachers, even in elementary school, had never called them by their names. In all fairness to those teachers, they may have had hundreds of students in their classes.

Naturally, culture lessons, if not clashes, came with every teacher’s stay in China. Aminta Arrington saw customs surrounding the birth of children up close when her tutor had a baby. She visited and observed much that was confusing to her. “Sometimes I feel like it is someone else’s baby,” said her friend (p. 87). When grandmother moved in to help, Aminta saw the clash. “Is western postnatal care better,” she wondered?

I think Robert Moore’s experience is common to many foreigners who want and need to learn some language. We look around for someone we consider qualified, and right there in our neighborhood is someone we pass every day—a suitable teacher! The person is thrilled to meet a foreigner in need. Bob’s elderly neighbors became his family over time, something he never imagined when he first knocked on their door for a cup of sugar.

Samara Sanchez shared about receiving a letter from a long-ago student. It contained not only the news of a classmate’s death but an invitation to the funeral. Quite suddenly she was drawn into an intimate family experience. Many of her observations and conclusions about how Chinese people express emotion were shaken up and expanded.

Jessie Ciccotti recounted being the receiver of a small town’s heartwarming hospitality. Most foreign teachers remember trips to the countryside as insightful with school visits, homemade meals, and family gatherings—certainly excursions full of experiences few tourists have known.

Times have changed. The daily lives described by these teachers, and mine as well, may never come back. That does not change the insights they gained or the relationships they valued. Their joy and perseverance at learning to communicate and their humility as they see their own culture anew is not limited to one occupation, one era, or one country.

To further pique your interest, here are sentences from each story to “hook” you and hopefully lead you to read the whole tale.

1. “Reassured that everything was now in order, grandmother passed away, satisfied . . . that the family traditions had been upheld sufficiently to meet the spirit, if not the letter, of the ritual” (p. 2).

2. “I wondered what it must be like to live in my house with my own coffin, which I would inevitably inhabit one day—to walk by it day in and day out (p. 8).

3. “I am thankful for the seed that picture planted in my life” (p. 13).

4. “For as long as I knew her, she was convinced I was going to starve to death” (p. 18).

5. “For a few magnificently forlorn moments, the masks were put down” (p. 26).

6. “. . . unusual names have advantages” (p. 30).

7. “Knowing by now that Chinese people aren’t interested in letting anyone, let alone foreigners . . . do anything alone, I knew I’d have to be sneaky” (p. 36).

8. “But who will tell us the meaning of the book?” (p. 41).

9. “Every day I walk into a classroom . . . I become a student in the presence of seventy teachers” (p. 46).

10. “The characters in this account form a tangled web that may prove difficult to keep straight” (p. 56).

11. “…I’ve discovered that love in China . . . has opened my closed American heart to ways of expressing love in ways I never would have imagined” (p. 66).

12. “Ah, language . . . We think precious little of it when we can communicate with those around us” (p. 77).

13. “. . . we have found that the Chinese who stumble but survive the physical and mental trauma associated with this examination gauntlet are an especially resilient breed” (p. 84).

14. “This visit began to clear my rose-colored glasses. Culture can be a burden as well as a gift” (p. 88).

15. “I am almost assuredly the first non-Chinese person with whom they have every spoken English” (p. 93).

16. “There are so many things that one learns by stepping outside of one’s culture” (p. 103).

17. “We were ashamed that in the frustration we sometimes experience living here, we have resorted to labeling” (p. 107).

Happy reading!

Our thanks to Wipf and Stock for providing a copy of Saving Grandmother’s Face and Other Tales from Christian Teachers in China, edited by Aminta Arrington, for this review.

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Image credit: Jp Valery on Unsplash.
Barbara Kindschi

Barbara Kindschi

Barbara Kindschi has been privileged and challenged to teach English in China, Myanmar, Laos, and most recently, Mongolia. Her classes have been filled with undergrads, professors, accountants, hotel employees, monks, government workers, and beauty pageant contestants. They continue to be both her students and teachers as she now tutors online. Barbara …View Full Bio

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