Paradise: You learn to look at things, the people differently

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 31, 2005

Those many miles away from home can seem longer at times. And the distance has found Paradise thinking often about her hometown.

&8220;I tell my classes all about Natchez,&8221; she said. &8220;They are not so impressed with the oldness of the houses, as they have even older temples; but they are impressed by the pictures.&8221;

Her students, who refer to her as &8220;Natchez,&8221; like pictures of the Mississippi River, which is unlike the Yangtze River they know. &8220;The Natchez bluff is so beautiful,&8221; she said. &8220;And in Wuhan there are huge buildings all along the shore line.&8221;

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Becoming accustomed to the differences between her home country and China began the first day of her arrival, Paradise said. &8220;You are going to immediately notice the things that are obvious &8212; the pollution, the traffic, the dirt, the strange smells. My first big lesson has been that you have to make an effort to learn about the city and the culture to really see the beauty here,&8221; she said. &8220;You learn to look at things, the people, differently. The beauty can be hidden, and that&8217;s what makes it special here.&8221;

Looking at her students individually took a little time. &8220;I have found that stereotypes play a larger role in our thinking than we care to admit.&8221; It took a while to see the differences among the students who, with their foreignness, at first seemed all alike to her. &8220;My absolute favorite moments are when they do something so typical of any student that I forget they are Chinese students. They complain about homework, laugh when I try to speak Chinese, make fun of each other&8217;s English and cheer when I decide to give no homework.&8221;

She learned early on that certain things are taboo in the classroom. She knew religion was a topic not permitted. &8220;I have learned also not to mention anything about Chinese history, as well,&8221; she said. &8220;I happened to mention Mao in the same sentence with Hitler, Stalin and &8216;injustice.&8217; That was a big mistake. My class was in hysterics.&8221;

In a later discussion of successful people, students named as examples Mao and Karl Marx. &8220;I realize my foreignness more than ever at times like these,&8221; she said.

Her students have surprised her, as she also has surprised them. She showed skills in ping-pong they greatly admired. &8220;And they are always surprised that I can only speak one language, and they are even more surprised that I have been to so many countries.&8221;

China, with the largest rising middle class in the world, still is poor, Paradise said. &8220;Most do not have the opportunity to travel. But I have not yet met one who cannot speak at least two languages.&8221;

She gets high marks as a language teacher because of her Southern background, Jennifer said. They find the slow Southern accent easier to follow.

Wuhan is a multi-cultural city, including fewer Americans and more French and German, some Russians and English and some Australians. &8220;Every foreigner speaks English. Most of the Chinese do not speak English,&8221; she said. &8220;So it&8217;s not like going to a tourist area in some foreign country where everyone speaks English. It is very hard to communicate. I have made myself flash cards that I review before falling asleep at night.&8221;

Language is the biggest challenge but not the only one. Simple things seem difficult, such as room-temperature drinks and unavailability of ice. &8220;I have a slight obsession with big, fountain drink Diet Cokes, and not only can I not get a cold one, I cannot even find Diet Coke.&8221;

The grocery stores have presented new experiences, with &8220;a section I refer to as the aquarium. All different kinds of fish, turtles, frogs, shrimp and crabs are swimming, crawling or jumping around their perspective tanks,&8221; she said. &8220;Sometimes they leap out onto the floor of the grocery store. The meat is hung up on big hooks, freshly skinned, not in any kind of package. I&8217;ve sort of become a vegetarian.&8221;

Her first experience at a Chinese hospital was for a mandatory physical exam, including an eye exam &8212; with Chinese characters. &8220;What? I just started naming letters,&8221; Jennifer said.

How did she wind up in China instead of at the law school where she had been accepted as a student in the fall of this year?

Before entering Millsaps, she had &8220;high hopes of spending the next four years in a lab coat and goggles &8230; before attending medical school,&8221; she said. &8220;However, somewhere between the ages of 18 and 22 I changed my mind. I did graduate with a degree in chemistry, but like many other young adults with too many options, I wasn&8217;t ready to decide.&8221;

Sensing her quandary, a counselor suggested the year of teaching abroad. Everything fell into place.

Her plan now is to return to Mississippi in the summer of next year and to attend law school in the fall. &8220;I am interested in environmental and international law, but, as we all know and as I have proven, plans change,&8221; she said.

Meanwhile, her fascination grows for the place she is learning better every day. That doesn&8217;t stop the occasional aching heart and yen for something American &8212; or Natchez-related.

&8220;Noodles get old. Sometimes you just need a burger from The Marketplace, a side salad from Pearl Street, a piece of Mammy&8217;s banana caramel pie and a Fat Mama&8217;s know-you-naked margarita,&8221; she said.