It’s been a busy past week here in San Juan! I just got back tonight from the community center’s “graduation,” marking the culmination of the year’s classes and the start of a summer break. Everyone who teaches classes at the community center, whether it’s sewing, English, computer skills, art, or basketball, does it voluntarily. Most of them have full time jobs outside of their teaching responsibilities, so a small ceremony like this to honor not only the students who give of their time to learn, but also the teachers who make sacrifices weekly, is really important. I have been really touched from what I can see of the teachers’ humble hearts. Also, watching the kids in the computer class present their powerpoint projects with photos, animations, and special effects, really made me reevaluate skills that I have that I’ve taken for granted. Where I’m from, simply attending public school everyday, even with minimal effort, basically guarantees competence in Microsoft Office. If you didn’t take the computer classes offered, you likely figured things out in your own time on your home computer since essays, power-points, and projects assigned regularly required knowing these skills. Also, seeing how difficult it is to learn English, but also seeing the students’ eagerness and determination, makes me realize how lucky I am to have been raised in an English-speaking environment. Knowing English is something that I’ve always taken for granted, until I see others struggling to pronounce vowels or read the alphabet.
I also had an interesting experience today with a young boy named Jonathan, probably about seven or eight years old. He walked up to me and muttered under his breath, “Japonesa” … or “Japanese.” I’m used to the karate jokes, the questions about whether or not I speak Mandarin, and the squinting of the eyes. However, it is unsettling and continues to bother me slightly even though I hide it with a smile and polite giggles. I told Jonathan that I was Chinese, not Japanese, but that I was also American because I have lived my whole life in the states. He shrugged and continued to mutter, “Japonesa.” Every time he saw me throughout the night, he would squint his eyes and giggle, repeating “Japonesa” in the same childish tone. I didn’t quite know what to do, because I knew he was just playing and didn’t know any better, but his persistence still bothered me. No matter what I told him, he refused to listen or even try to understand. These kinds of experiences reinforce two ideas in my mind. One, it is crazy to me what young children notice and care about. They have no fear or shame in staring or pointing out differences in appearance. I guess I was once that way too; in fact, I know I was … but that’s a story for a different time. Anyway, it shocked me that Jonathan didn’t even care who I was, where I was really from, or that I was trying to communicate with him in his own language; all he could see was that I was different, and he wasn’t going to forget it. I love interacting with kids, which is why it saddens me a little when I want to talk with them and love on them but we can’t even move past differences in facial features. Going along with this, I realize not only how lucky I am to have grown up in a diverse area where people of all different backgrounds, religions, races, and ethnicities live and work together, but I also realize how important it is for other people to get this experience. We hear that the world is increasingly globalized and interconnected, but some people in San Juan have probably never seen a Chinese person before. I guess all I can do is smile and politely explain who I am and what I’m doing here, in hopes that my interactions with people may have a slight impact on their engrained world-views and maybe change the experience of the next Chinese person who visits … 🙂
But really, it has been an eye-opening first couple weeks here. I have learned a lot about missionary life and I’ve had the opportunity to meet lots of people and hear lots of different stories. I realize that the sense of adventure and excitement that drove me to short-term mission trips in the past is not synonymous with everyday missionary life or the reality of spreading the gospel. Missions is really just living life with the purpose of evangelism, making friends and disciples. But it is a long, challenging process and not constantly full of the thrill of short-term missions. However, at the same time, I am continually seeing ways that it is very rewarding and fulfilling.
The O’Brien’s and my host family threw me a wonderful mini surprise birthday celebration tonight! Here are a few photos from that!