In my postgrad class there’s a student I’ve been worried about. I think of him as the Grown-Up – the one student, perhaps in his mid-40s, who is significantly older than the 59 or so others (who look to me very young for graduate students). He has not yet missed a class but has declined to speak a word, even on the first day when, partly to gauge where students stood on the English-speaking spectrum, I asked each one to rise and introduce himself. This man smiled but shook his head and waved his hand in front of his face. He’s done the same each time I’ve tried to engage him in the simplest conversation exercise; in fact, he’s always laughing and talking to his neighbors, and I’ve been assuming he was making fun of me. (Bear in mind that most of the techies in this class see no reason they should have to be there.) Since this is a required class in Oral English, his grade and maybe his degree depend on his being willing and able to make at least a minimal presentation by the end of the semester. This week I asked Stevie Nicks, my student assistant in the class (see A report from the barricades, March 20), to pay special attention to this man and try to draw him out, in hopes of getting him to say something. But when I went around to check his progress, he once again hid his face.
Today, in quite a good restaurant on the fringe of South Campus, I was just finishing lunch (soup with black mushrooms, pork buried in sliced green chili peppers, sautéed greens, the ubiquitous white rice) with Erika, a graduate student in drama in a city that has no theater, when she noticed a man standing a few feet from our table. It was the Grown-Up, smiling, and I smiled and waved back. He came over, took the chair at the end of our table and began chatting with Erika. “Do you two know each other?” I asked her. “No,” she said. Apparently he wanted to talk to me and, seeing me with a Chinese, seized his chance to have an interpreter. He had gone back to school as an older student after a career as a construction designer, he explained; in fact, he had worked on a number of important buildings in Guangzhou. Now he is studying G.I.S., or geographical information systems, a popular major in that postgrad class. He has worked abroad, in Australia and New Zealand. And, in Erika’s words, “He cannot understand anything you say.” Which accounts for his shyness in class.
When in doubt, make small talk. “Ah, Guangzhou,” I said. “I am going to Guangzhou for the Tomb-Sweeping holiday.”
Erika translated for me, then for him. “Maybe if you have some questions about Guangzhou, you can ask him,” she said.
Maybe. But how? Well, there’s always Stevie Nicks. And I am supposed to be an English teacher. The Grown-Up seems like someone who would be interesting to know. His class has 14 weeks to go. How far I can break down the barriers between his language and mine in that time?