Noodles and Narratives
"Where are you from?"
Together, my sixth grade students recite the sentence structure from this week's lesson. Of course, I am the foreign American English teacher. My students already know the answer.
But they don't know the whole story -- "I am from America," I begin, "But…" I hold my finger up and my students perk up. I turn to a power point slide depicting rural Italian countryside. "…My ancestors are from Italy."
What's an ancestor? It takes some murmuring around the classroom and a hastily drawn family tree before one student shouts out, "grandmother's mother's mother!" Correct. The student cheers.
Growing up as poor farmers in Italy, my ancestors (grandparents' grandparents) wanted better lives for themselves and their families. They heard that the United States had plenty of jobs-that the streets were "paved with gold." Enthralled by the prospect of economic prosperity, members of my family gradually immigrated to New York City. They took jobs wherever they could. As soon as they saved up some money, several of my grandmother's uncles opened up a successful Italian grocery store in the Bronx, offering New Yorkers fresh foods imported straight from Italy.
My students perked up once again as pictures of the kinds of foods my great- great uncles sold appeared on screen: meats, olive oil, tomato sauce, cheese, bread, and pasta. In fact, the modest fortune that my ancestors saved came from spaghetti. While they did not find gold in the streets, my great-great uncles found it in a boiling pot of water in their kitchen. According to my great-great uncle, spaghetti was magic: so simple, composed merely of wheat and water-yet so versatile. Anyone could dress it up in many assortments of delectable vegetables, meat, and herbs and spices, and people would pay near-gold for it.
I am American because of that magic spaghetti, and I am on Kinmen because of that magic spaghetti. Food is part of who I am. It is part of the story of how I am an American; it is the story of how I am an American on Kinmen.
On Kinmen, my grandmother's homemade spaghetti with meatballs transforms into a bowl of "niu rou mian"-beef noodles. Instead of twirling as much spaghetti as I can around a fork, I clumsily race to wrap as many noodles as I can around my chopsticks. What I eat and how I eat have changed. However, some experiences involving food remain constant transcending national and cultural barriers.
Family dinner occurred daily at my house growing up. My mom would return home from work every day and still manage to make us a delicious feast. As kids, my brothers and I delighted in the different tastes every night, and my mother delighted in being the one to provide such enjoyment and nourishment. My fondest childhood memories merge into a single experience: being with my family and being told by family to "eat! Have some more!" Back home, sharing food symbolizes care and interest. On Kinmen, the same is true.
Passing by neighbors, the most common greeting is, "Have you eaten yet?" The teachers at school always check to make sure that I am eating enough, and on very busy days, they say, "Eat some more!" The cook at my school knows that I do not eat meat, and on meat-heavy lunch days, she will prepare me extra vegetarian meals.
Every day, I eat lunch with my fellow teachers, and we eat dinner together every evening. Meals become mini-Chinese tutoring sessions. They become the place for discussing the latest international news headlines. They become the site of sharing-sharing not only food and care, but also stories. Stories about our educational backgrounds, family backgrounds, or the most adorable thing a student did that day. Through this sharing, we create new stories and experiences.
My story begins with a story-the myth that American streets were paved with gold. Stories move people physically, literally, and emotionally. As I look forward toward my year on Kinmen, I look forward meeting new people and hearing new stories. And of course, I look forward to the food that is served alongside!
Several Fulbrighters taking time to celebrate a birthday.
《Teaching and Learning》
Swimming into well-rounded selves at Jinning Elementary
For the first 21 years of my life, I identified myself as a competitive swimmer and a diligent student, as a teammate and a classmate-receiving education inside and outside of the pool. Now, I am a teacher at Jinning Elementary, living on a tiny island, previously unknown to me, between Taiwan and China.
In the US, I imagined that my arrival in Kinmen would mark an official, clear-cut transition: the starting line of a brand new phase of my life. I imagined that I would stop being a student and swimmer and abandon the old tags I used to identify myself. But, as I move into my third month of teaching, I'm learning that my teaching experience can and should be a continuation of my past.
I started a swim club during the second week of school. Ten 6th graders meet every Wednesday to practice getting comfortable in the water. I swim with them, practice drills, demonstrate stroke technique, and facilitate games to interact with my students in a fresh setting. I think it is important for me to show the students various sides of myself in order to create new relationships. In the classroom I am one version of myself, in the pool, another.
The school selected the students after a volunteer sign up process and gave the 6th graders priority because the school will administer a formal swimming class for them in the second semester. Swimming club can prepare them and spark interest in English and/or competitive swimming. I hope that I can swim with students from all grades, even the middle school students, as the year "swims" by.
The club has started off well. The students enjoy it. When it was cancelled one week they whined about the loss, and some of the students will pull me aside during in-class assignments to mimic proper freestyle technique. Some even beg for me to stay in the water with them after our time in the pool ends to practice harder strokes like breaststroke and butterfly.
Their enthusiasm differs from my own swimming days when we would all dart out of the pool to take extended hot showers. Here, we swim extra and shorten our showers to model the school's environmental mindset and focus on physical health.
Word has started to float around school that "Teacher Libby" likes to swim. The 2nd graders have their eye on the 'go swimming with Teacher Libby' prize that their homeroom teacher will award if the entire class receives 10 smiley faces for classroom behavior. At the very least, incorporating swimming into my teacher role creates an exciting atmosphere where we can all have a little fun, myself included.
I am grateful to work at such a welcoming school where the educational philosophy blends so well with my own. Joyce, one of my co-teachers who helped with scheduling the club, agrees with the broadest goal of the swim club: "I think students can learn how to get along and interact with foreigners. And they can have more opportunities to practice English in daily life instead of classroom and textbook." I appreciate that the school has the resources for me to offer this extracurricular opportunity in my favorite realm - the swimming pool.
Now in the rhythm of Kinmen, I introduce myself as a teacher at Jinning Elementary who lives in Dingbao. Now, I talk about my students and lesson plans, instead of my teammates and sets in swim practice. Most importantly, now, I am learning that I can still be a swimmer and a student.
I have realized that I will be the best teacher I can through integrating my student and teammate sense of self into my everyday teaching, especially through creating extracurricular opportunities for the students in which I also participate. This is how I can access all types of students in a classroom with multiple personalities and learning styles. Perhaps, I am realizing that past versions of my self will never cease to influence my current roles; rather, they enhance current roles.
And perhaps, I am being my best self when I'm working hard to incorporate all of myself into a given role.
Fulbrighter Elizabeth Matthews instructing some of her students participating in her swimming club.