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  • Writer's pictureKate Schenck

Longing in Translation: How a Mandarin Teacher is Influencing my English Classroom

This month, while reading Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole by Susan Cain, I came across a quote in her opening chapter titled “What is Sadness Good For?” that felt serendipitous: “We’re living, famously, through a time in which we have trouble connecting with others, especially outside of our ‘tribes’...and sadness, of all things, has the power to create the ‘union between souls’ that we so desperately lack.”

Her phrase “union between souls” struck me as significant at this particular moment in my life; Cain’s wondrous book is about the larger story of how a union and connection is what we all long for, especially us bittersweet, melancholic types, but also, this union is the hope and spirit that drives my current work with curriculum and well-being, especially identity. For students to engage with each other’s souls, or identities, and see their common humanity as unifying is an antithesis to Toni Morrison’s question of concern in The Origin of Others: “Why should we want to know a stranger when it is easier to estrange another?” How can I create experiences in my classroom for my students to step into the shoes of “strangers” and truly see diverse identities as beautiful, and not threatening?

At the same time that I was reading Bittersweet, it was National Poetry Month and my colleague Megan Griffin asked our colleagues in the English, Social Studies, and World Languages departments at our school to submit a poem that they either teach or have a special relationship with, and we of course received so many thoughtful answers that we published as our ode to the monthly celebration. However, my dear friend and colleague May Shen, who teaches Mandarin at my school, sent us various poems that she teaches in class and an accompanying image that immediately brought me back to Cain’s description of the union between souls:

I do not speak Mandarin, but May told me this is a poem that her student, Kaia Putnam, wrote and illustrated, and despite not knowing the words I immediately felt the union between this American and Chinese girl, both standing on the bank of a body of water and looking out on two very different landscapes with a gaze of a similar longing. I felt a longing in my own heart to be there on the edge of the water with them, gazing off in a meditative silence, and this felt like a powerful communion with humans I don’t even know. Cain’s comment that it is “famously” a time in which we don’t feel this communion across identities is so true; all we hear is how polarized we all are and why we share little to no commonalities across political and social divides, even in the same American culture. But can Cain’s exploration of longing as the common element that we all share be explored through the lens of identity, specifically through poetry and language?

May teaches poetry in her Mandarin classes as a portal for her students to explore authentic Chinese culture and also, at the same time, acquire the language. May is a spirited and high energy teacher of enthusiasm and wonder; just seeing her big smile as she greets colleagues and students in the hall brings me joy. Before COVID I traveled with her as a chaperone to a Mid-Autumn festival at the University of Oklahoma and had the privilege of seeing how she teaches Chinese through hands-on and authentic cultural experiences. It therefore made perfect sense when she shared her poetry because, through poetry, she creates a “more meaningful way for students to learn” the language while also sharing a famous and culturally known poem from China. May’s focus on classical poetry also allows her high school aged students to use smaller, perhaps more fundamental words, without having to read “baby books” that align with their language level, revealing the thoughtfulness in her pedagogy.

For example, May shares the following poem, “Thoughts in the Silent Night” by Li Bai, with her students:

I think it was the sense of bittersweet that drew me to this poem in May’s collection in particular. Li Bai wrote this sometime between 701-762 AD, and although ancient, it reveals the sense of a longing for “home” that I still feel today. May told me that Li Bai was an exile for political reasons and was separated from family, and his poems are famous for their form (the Chinese call this quatrain form a jueju) and also their sentiments on nature and longing to be reunited with loved ones far away. When the students read Li Bai’s poem, they are not only acquiring Mandarin, but an inner-knowing that he felt a common sadness that he expressed through the written word, and of this sadness Cain asks, “How do we get to the point of seeing our sorrows and longings not as indications of secret unworthiness but as features of humanity?” Losing my father five years ago to cancer was like losing a piece of home and sent me into what might be a lifetime of feeling the weight of a “missing piece,” which will ring true to anyone who has suffered loss. I, too, gaze at the moon and long for a “home” that now exists mostly in my memory, but feels ever present in my heart. I wonder at the same sense of communion May’s students might feel to Li Bai and my longings, and she has opened this pathway for them to feel this shared sense of souls through poetry.

Jin Li Bai, courtesy of The New Yorker

The jeuju’s simple yet profound form is similar to the Japanese Haiku, which May says is more commonly known. In Natalie Golberg’s book Three Simple Lines: A Writer’s Pilgrimage into the Heart and Homeland of Haiku, she includes a haiku from Buson, one of the Haiku masters of Japan:

Ah, grief and sadness!

the fishing line trembles

in the autumn breeze.

Again, I thought of the poignant yet beautiful longing in this verse; the bitter (grief and sadness) and the sweet (the noticing of a gentle autumnal breeze) co-exist. Buson, like Li Bai, taps into the same bittersweet longing of the American and Chinese girls that May’s student Kaia painted, and through the girls’ admiring gaze towards their home landscape, we see this noticing is common to us all. Poetry therefore transcends our identity, or becomes part of it; we (all of us, despite where we live or how we look) use words to communicate, and therefore, seek shelter in our common longing through language.

May also uses personal narrative and creative writing to help her students navigate the “differences” in culture that actually become bridges, for example, humor and food. In one class, a student uses an American Calvin and Hobbes comic to depict an American situation in Chinese:

Although I can’t personally read this comic, I know it’s both funny and silly, which allows May’s American students to connect again to their Chinese counterparts through writing. Odes to Chinese cuisine are everywhere in her classroom:

In addition, students write about their identity, but in Mandarin:

Perhaps an antidote to the othering that Morrison alludes to is the empathy May’s students gain from exploring identity in another language, and it was my own longing for wisdom that brought me to visit May’s classroom. Seeing the poetry she teaches and the student work she submitted to us, I knew that I needed to learn from her teaching of Mandarin language and identity in order to find more depth in my English curriculum. In the beginning of this year I asked my freshmen to identify the language they speak at home as an acknowledgment that we don’t all speak English in the United States, but how can I extend this work further by including more international poets and writers next year as a meditation on the various forms that a “union of souls” can take. Translations carry their own lessons of empathy; we long to be understood in another language, but sometimes, our words don’t translate. How can the longing to be understood through language (whether acquired, or our native language) connect us across all our perceived divides?

May teaches me how to say cheeseburger in Mandarin

Spiritual teacher and author Ram Dass famously said, “We are all just walking each other home.” Home can mean so many things to so many different people, but what I love most about this wisdom is that we cannot reach “home” without each other. For me, searching for my home feels like a lifelong journey of what Cain endearingly calls, “longing for the art of peaceful repair,” and it is thanks to friends like May that I can continue navigating this longing and using it to walk alongside and guide my students as they too explore their identity through language.

Notes and references:

May Shen teaches Mandarin at Ursuline Academy of Dallas and has been teaching for 18 years.

The University of Oklahoma University will host the annual International English Jueju Competition for secondary school students this year. For more information, please click here.

For more information on the University of Oklahoma’s Newman Prize for Chinese Literature, please click here.

Cain, Susan. Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole. Crown Publishing, 2022.

Goldberg, Natalie. Three Simple Lines: A Writer’s Pilgrimage into the Heart and Homeland of Haiku. New World Library, 2021.

Kate Schenck is a collector of pigments and spices, dreamer, and builder of tables for lesser heard voices.

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1 Comment

May 02, 2022

Wonderful words of praise for such the deserving teacher, May Shen.

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