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ESL instructor's exploration of students' American aspirations and resilience

By Xia Yanwen | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2024-07-01 13:35

The Statue of Liberty is seen on Liberty Island in New York, US. [Photo/VCG]

A different American dream

On June 29, 2022, during my first meeting with a Ukrainian student, I asked her, "What is your American dream? My job is to help you get closer to your dream."

"My dream," she said without hesitation, "is to reunite with my husband." This response was unexpected and left me momentarily speechless. She had come from Kharkiv, Ukraine, with her two young sons, while her husband was not allowed to leave the country.

She shared her worries about her homeland, where many people now possess guns, a situation unheard of before the unrest. She was worried about the country's future with so many weapons among civilians.

Nearly two years later, I still can't forget this conversation. It serves as a poignant reminder that the American Dream is not a one-size-fits-all vision. For some, it's about opportunities and success; for others, like my student, it's simply about the hope for family reunion and peace.

The cruelty of war reshapes dreams in unimaginable ways. Peace at any cost is a million times better than war. There's a Chinese saying: 宁为太平犬,不为乱世人 (Níng wéi tàipíng quǎn bù wéi luànshì rén), that is "Better to be a dog in a peaceful era than a human in war time." True, a pet in peacetime fares much better than a man in wartime, underscoring the fragile and precious nature of peace.

This student's dream, though different from what I expected, is no less significant. It reminds me that dreams are deeply personal and shaped by our experiences and circumstances. As I try to help others achieve their dreams, I must remember to listen and understand what truly matters to them personally.

Resilience: A Ukrainian mother's remarkable spirit

My Ukrainian student arrived from Kharkiv with her two young sons in May 2022 . Kharkiv, once the capital of Soviet Ukraine before the Soviet Union fell, is now the second-largest city and municipality in Ukraine. Before the unrest, she taught mathematics at a university in Kharkiv.

She often talks about her two sons, mentioning that they are now taking online classes offered by Ukrainian schools because their work at American schools is too easy. "They don't even have homework!" she complains.

She frequently shares new things she has learned about American culture. For instance, she noted that American schools often have days off for various holidays during the week. "In Ukraine, we put these holidays on the weekend, so schools don't close," she observed.

My favorite story is about her younger son's experience in his ESL (English as a Second Language) class. One day, he came home from school crying, "Mom, I don't understand Spanish."

It turned out that he was the only non-Spanish-speaking student in his ESL class, so the teacher was teaching English using Spanish. The Ukrainian boy was completely lost in class.

I asked her if she needed me to talk to the school about it. She said, "Oh no, I told my son, this is great. You can learn both English and Spanish at the same time! You are lucky to learn so much here!"

When I shared this ESL story with my friends, they all had the same reaction as mine. None of them thought as positively as my Ukrainian student. I think we, both parents and the children, are all spoiled and become fragile compared to this Ukrainian mother.

What a spirit! What a great mom! What a positive attitude! This story will always stay with me, reminding me of the incredible strength and optimism people can possess even in the face of adversity.

There is a Chinese saying, "塞翁失马,焉知非福" (sāi wēng shī mǎ, yān zhī fēi fú), which means "A blessing in disguise" or more literally, "When the old man from the frontier lost his horse, how could one tell that it would not turn out to be a blessing?"

My Ukrainian student's ability to turn a challenging situation into an opportunity for growth is truly courageous and inspiring. It's a powerful lesson that with the right perspective and attitude, we can find blessings in the most unexpected places.

The author is an ESL instructor in the US. The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

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