We lived in China for 18 years, first studying language and then teaching in two different locations. My husband taught English related to his field of study. Most of my teaching was conversational English, which gave a lot of scope for discussing a variety of topics, getting to know students and learning what they think.
After living in China for 13 years, we took a new job at a university in the western part of the country. Although the school was located in a region with a large minority population, most (90%) of the students were Han Chinese. We did not feel called to reach out only to students from minority groups; however, we did make an extra effort to help or offer friendship to minority students whenever possible.
These days work among minorities is increasingly sensitive. Even when we first moved to the area, we discovered that people who spent time solely with minorities were looked upon with suspicion. A better way for us to work was by gathering people together in mixed groups of Han Chinese and minorities.
When living in a country with so many people, one may feel compelled to meet more and more people, but a challenge is that the relationships may remain superficial. Our solution was to ask a group of the same people to come to our home every two to three weeks. We had two such groups.
One group was made up of students. There were nine of them, both Han and minority students. Some of them knew each other, but not everyone. Our main reason for getting together was English conversation. Sometimes we had an activity, but mostly we talked, played games, and ate sunflower seeds and homemade cake. We knew the group was bonding the night we played Pictionary, girls against the boys. When the girls’ team got a difficult word, the minority girl threw her arms around her Han teammate and they jumped for joy.
The second group was made up of teachers. The group began when we met a teacher from a minority group. The young man had a warm personality and a lot of friends. We expressed interest in forming an English conversation group and asked him to invite whoever he wanted to join us. Sometimes we met at our home; sometimes at a coffee shop. About half of the people were from a minority group. The “glue” that held them together was that they had a common friend they trusted. Not everyone came every week, but there was a core group of people that took part regularly and became good friends. This group discussed a variety of topics and because they trusted each other, they opened up to talk about important concerns.
Eating together, whether it’s a meal or just a snack, is very important for building relationships, but dietary restrictions can be an issue when working with minorities. We made the decision not to have pork in our home, hoping that our guests would be willing to eat baked treats that I prepared. We found a lot of variation in their response. Some guests were eager to taste the things I made, whereas others preferred not to eat. We never pressured people and always made sure to have plenty of snacks (e.g., fruits, nuts, and seeds) on the table that the guests could eat, regardless of their beliefs.
I remember the first time Jefferson came to our home, he didn’t eat what I had made. However, as he got to know us, he also began to trust us. The first night he came to the English conversation group, he chose to eat the cake I had baked. Because he trusted us enough to eat, the others followed his lead.
We value the opportunity we had to get to know these people at a deeper level by getting together regularly. That opportunity was good for our relationship with them and their relationships with each other.
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