I am a self-admitted-late bloomer in life. When I was in high school, I was undisciplined and unmotivated, especially for things that I did NOT want to do! I graduated from college by sheer persistence, and the skin of my teeth, not because I was a good student, but because no matter how badly I performed, I just wouldn’t quit. I graduated from undergraduate with an embarrassing 2.0 GPA. It was about 5-6 years after I graduated from college that I finally grew up a little. Then I wanted to go back and re-take all of my classes to do better.
I went to graduate school in January of 2001, 24 years after I left college with my bachelor’s degree. Upon starting my master’s degree, I was 46 years old, turning 47 just three months later. I enrolled at Roosevelt University in Chicago eventually getting a Master’s of Science in Integrated Marketing Communication, or affectionately known in the industry as IMC. By the way, my GPA from graduate school was 4.0!
My IMC degree program was one in which at the end every class, as our final, we had to make a presentation of a marketing plan extolling the learning curve which that particular class taught. Every single one of them! I liked that assignment, because I love doing public speaking, and I'm fairly good at it. I knew that I could cover a lot of holes in my research and content with good presentations skills.
In January of 2002 I enrolled in a Creative Message Strategy class. There was a young Chinese woman in the same class. I had barely ever spoken to her, but noticed that when she walked in every week, she didn't speak to anybody. I always wondered how proficient her English was, knowing she had recently arrived in the states to enroll in my same IMC program. When it was her turn to give her presentation, she got up and did the best she could. Her content was great, but her spoken English was very poor. She had lots of misspelled words on her PowerPoint. Her grammar was… well unacceptable for a graduate level class in America.
I thought the professor for the class was kind of mean to her in his oral assessment at the conclusion of her pitch. But it was graduate school, and she should have done better. When she finished, he looked at her and said, “If you're going to be in the marketing industry, you have got to learn your English better. I was really embarrassed for her. I knew it hurt for her to be standing there in front of the rest of the class listening to him berate her performance. Fortunately she was the only Chinese woman in the class, which probably made it easier for her. Had another Chinese student been there she would have died in embarrassment. In Chinese culture you do not want to “lose face,” and I knew that she was “losing face” in front of this group.
But nonetheless, the teacher said that to her. Then he looked at the class and said, “I'm going to let her do this assignment over again, will anybody, please help her?”
I raised my hand, “I'll help her,” I said. With that gesture of assistance, she became one of my most endearing graduate school friends. So much so that over time and the next several weeks, we had her over to the house for dinner, invited her to do many social activities with us, took her to church with us. Over time Donna and I got to be good friends with her. I told her all about us and I was fascinated by her story. She was intrigued by the American way of life. I was married and had children. What was that like in the States she often wondered? She was in her 30’s with a husband and son that she left back in China for TWO YEARS to come to Chicago and get a Master’s degree in IMC. It surprised and appalled me that doing so was a normal socio-accepted practice. It didn’t just surprise me, it-blew-my-mind when she told me that she did that to attend university in the states. She left her son with her in-laws, because her husband lived in a different city.
My First Chinese Student was Li Jie
Her name was Li Jie. Li was her family name, and Jie was her given name. Jie in Chinese means pure. But, like most Chinese students of English she had an American nickname. To her English-speaking friends, she chose the name Eileen.
I volunteered to help Eileen with this presentation project. After class we had a formal introduction and we planned to meet up again soon. I'd seen her in class and we even had some small talk chit-chat before class, but had never really talked to her beyond greetings and pleasantries, and even that was more me talking, with her smiling and nodding her head. We set up a time for us to meet in the library in one of those little private rooms where you can have a group meeting and we went over her presentation. She showed me everything she had in her PowerPoint. For a couple of weeks, I explained how to correctly communicate in writing and speaking that which she needed to learn so she could make another run at this assignment, I changed most of it myself. But I explained to her what I did, and why.
I also gave her some speaker presentation “coaching.” At the time I was working as a professional speech coach and I thought that would make her sound better even if she was still lacking in some ways. The more I knew about her and what she told me about her life back home, the more I became fascinated with China.
A couple of weeks after completing and re-giving her presentation to our class Eileen asked if I would be willing to help with her English needs for other classes? About three weeks into doing that, Eileen brought three of her Chinese friends with her with the implied question, would you help my friends as well? Of course, I said yes, and we held a impromptu English as a Second Language (ESL) session every week just going over their reading and writing assignments from their classes. Make no mistake, these were very intelligent students, they just needed help with their English.
At our church, at that time in the Chicago area of Woodridge/Naperville, we had an ESL ministry called Friends Speak. It was intended to invite local people that spoke little or no English and teach them English using the Bible as our textbook. Friends Speak is the national version of Let's Start Talking. It's made so that you can do the international Bible teaching content in a domestic environment without going abroad to teach.
I set up a little ESL class right there on the campus of Roosevelt University. Donna and I had recently taken a seminar at Moody Bible College in Chicago, and each of us had received a certification in ESL as a Ministry teachers. It was kind of all fitting together here.
We were at Roosevelt University in Downtown Chicago, which was the farthest thing there could be from a Christian University that I was used to. I accepted the task of me teaching her English. And, if I could help teach her English, I wanted to use the Bible as a text for teaching English. Eileen was okay with that. But she told me, “I'm not a Christian. I don't want to become a Christian, but if using the Bible will help me become better at English, then Okay.” I continued teaching English as often as I could.
I taught that class until Eileen went back to her hometown of Tianjin, a large city near Beijing.
Eileen worked for the Motorolla out of Beijing but did so from her home in Tianjin, when she was not traveling to their clients’ offices, which she did most of the time. She developed e-learning models for corporate training for their clients.
I studied the Bible with her a little bit. She never became a Christian. But it really piqued my interest in Chinese missions, because I realized the common citizens were very open to discovering spiritual elements of their lives regardless of what they had been taught about God previously. And, there were so many, many of them.
Eileen went home to China – I went to Harding University.
At the end of the semester, in the Spring of 2003, Eileen arranged to take her last class on line and went back to China before graduating. Motorola had offered her a job wanted her back to manage their marketing communication worldwide efforts. I finished in December of ’03, and went on with my Integrated Marketing Communication career.
Eileen and I traded emails and photo’s over the next couple of years. One Winter Eileen emailed she was coming back to the Chicago area for a meeting at the Motorola headquarters in Schaumburg, Illinois, about 20 miles from us, and could we get together with her? She arrived to our house at the appointed time for a wonderful evening of dinner and catching up.
In 2008, I got recruited, actually called one day, out of the blue to come to Searcy, Arkansas and begin teaching at Harding University. Dr. Mike James, the communication department chairman and my long-time friend simply told me, “We need what you have, and do now… we need an advertising teacher. By now I had started adjunct teaching a Direct Marketing class at Roosevelt University and Dr. James knew that. Would you come and talk to us at Harding? Long story short, I got hired at Harding to be the advertising professor. I started in the fall semester of 2008.
The very first week I was there, we had the normal departmental meeting. Among the many start-of-the-new-school-year-agenda-items was, “Who wants to teach the Chinese Principles of Communication class? I had no idea how many Chinese students were at Harding, or that they even had them at all. Dr. James stood up and said, “We really need somebody who can teach a speech class, just for the Chinese students that we have on campus. Who wants to volunteer for that?
My light bulb went off above my head, “I have ESL training. Why not me?” Admittedly, it was only a one-day Saturday training seminar. I told the group of very reluctant professors that I had actually taught ESL to Chinese in a ministry tutoring role. From that moment and for the next 12 years the COMM 101 – Principles of Communication class became my signature class at Harding. More people knew that I taught Chinese students speech class, than knew that I taught advertising. Before that meeting I had no idea what that would mean to my life for the next 12 years and beyond. I have taught hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands of Chinese students at Harding and beyond. I believe that was the Lord leading me in many, many ways.
I started at Harding University in the fall ‘08. Soon thereafter in the fall of 2009, Ed Mosby, the executive director of China Now knew what I was now doing. Ed always wanted me to go to China as a full-time English teacher at one of the foreign professor programs that almost all of the Chinese Universities had in place. Previous to now Donna and I just couldn’t leave our jobs and travel halfway around the world to teach. Now, he came back to me and asked if I would be willing to travel for just four weeks as a visiting professor, and to take prospective China Now teachers (who were currently Harding students) with me in a “student cultural exchange” program?
After years of dreaming about traveling to China – I had an all-expenses paid trip to China
I did so the follow May, in 2010. Harding graduated the second Saturday of May. I flew to China about five days later. I taught my Communication Principles class content at Nan Hua Da Xue in Hengyang City, Hunan province. Nan Hua Da Xue translates to the University of South China. Hengyang is a city of about 7 million people in the Hunan province and located about a 30-minute fast train ride from the capital city of Changsha. Hengyang is best known for the birthplace of Mao Zedong.
Nan Hua Da Xue was a campus of 40,000 students. I took four Harding students with me. Those students also taught classes and connected with their Chinese student counterparts. I had been teaching a Chinese populated Communication Principles class every semester since I arrived at Harding, so teaching Chinese students was nothing new to me by then. The class at Harding wasn't anything really different from the American sections, but it was just for the Chinese students. It was designed to be an ESL level class helping Chinese students prepare them for their English proficiency test that allowed them to continue on with their other classes. Harding took all the Chinese kids whose English was very poor, and pulled them out of the regular classes and put them in mine.
At the end of the four weeks of teaching at Nan Hua, I sent the Harding students home, and Donna flew over to China so she could travel with me. One of the itinerary items was for us to visit Beijing, where one of my students from my spring semester, Liu Nian, or Tina lived. Tina and I had planned for weeks to meet up in Beijing and she helped me be better prepared to visit China.
One of the things that I learned to do as I traveled in China, was to take one or more of my former Chinese students who were home for the summer with me to help navigate the transportation, meals and hotels as I traveled. Sometimes I even took some of my current Summer students from the university I was teaching in China. There were a few times I went on my own. And when I did I almost always ended up at the wrong train station or something like that.
I had told Tina that I wanted to go to Tianjin (near Beijing) so we could visit Eileen. Tina helped us communicate with her and make all the meet up arrangements, including meeting us at the hotel, buying train tickets, and accompanying us the entire day. It was really special.
My Harding student Tina had never been to Tianjin and she asked if she could go with us. Ironically, Eileen asked if my student in Beijing (Tina) would be willing to come with us to Tianjin so that we could buy the train tickets and meet her in her hometown without any problems. Eileen is old enough to be Tina’s mother, but they hit it off like they were sisters and had known each other for years.
When we arrived at the Tianjin train station and made our way through the passageways to the greeting lobby, I saw Eileen smiling and waving at us! It was so exciting to see her in her hometown, and not mine!
We had a wonderful day together! Eileen had several stops and venues planned and sort of laid out the plans for us to make some final decisions when we arrived. I had not seen her in four years, but when I saw her smiling face and waving arms at the Tianjin train station. She looked great! We all smiled, hugged and laughed at the idea that we were all in China together.
It was raining so our first stop was indoors at the Museum of History for Tianjin. This city, for many reasons, but chief among them, was location on the sea, and was one of the oldest and most economically important cities in China. This Museum gave a very detailed history of Tianjin defending the importance that Tianjin had in Chinese Culture and history. We love museums. Donna and Tina read everything in sight but Eileen and I just spent the day following them, talking and catching up with our lives since we had last seen each other.
After the Museum we taxied to a very unusual food court or food mall. They had a restaurant there at which we ate lunch, but the unique part of this stop were the many venues for individual candies, meats, cookies, baked products, teas and more. This place had very unusual items and even more interesting people selling their food and services. I don’t think it’s on the tourism routes so the people there were very surprised to see us.
After this stop had run its value, we went to the “Old Streets of Tianjin.” This place was similar to the “Old Streets of Beijing” that Tina had taken us to a few days previous. Fascinating old shops and stores that still sold many of the same goods and services that had been a part of Tianjin’s economy for thousands of years. Of course, much of this was now set up for tourists but it was really neat none-the-less. They had tea shops, engravers, novelty items, food and more. The rain had stopped and it was simply a pleasant stroll through the old part of town. One of the stores yielded a major purchase by us when we bought a calligraphy set for our son Matthew. I think he’ll really like what we got him. In addition to some stainless-steel teacups and strainers, we also bought Aaron a Chinese kite. Kites are big in China. The kites here are very ornate and very intricately made.
Eileen knew we were very interested in Christianity so she planned on taking us to what she called a Christian church. What it turned out to be was a Catholic church. The Church building had just closed from its visiting hours before we got there, so we did not get to go inside and look around.
By now it was almost dinnertime and as we sat on a park bench to discuss what our options were going to be, Donna asked if we could visit a Tea Room. Eileen made a few quick calls to her friends standing by and soon she had a text message telling her and us of the nearest tea house that we could visit. We hailed a taxi and off we went.
The name of the tea house we went to in Chinese Pin Yin is Zheng Xing De. These three characters have its own meaning, which is hard to translate on a word-by-word translation. When I asked Eileen to explain it further, she said, “I prefer to add a flavor of philosophy into the name; it could be translated into ‘pursuing and enriching good virtues in one's life,’ hope it makes sense to you.” We were able to select our private room based on the Chinese design of the surroundings, tables, seating, etc. The hostess was a Chinese woman that came in and explained the menu to Tina and Eileen. They talked for what seemed like a long time about the options on the tea selections. Finally, they explained to us in English what they ordered and how the process was going to unfold. We certainly learned a lot about tea and its proper preparation, including water, washing and presentation. The process included other elements such as an aromatherapy before tasting, and the proper etiquette of handling the different cups with their various specific uses. I was interested but Donna really enjoyed this. You might even say, “It was her Cup of Tea!” I mentioned to the others that sometimes our best activities were not on an agenda, as this tea house was not even on the radar when we started the day. Eileen really enjoyed sharing this part of her culture with us. She even bought us, (OK, it was for Donna), three kinds of tea, a set of cups, a teapot and other items necessary to repeat this process at home. She was so generous to us. It was a very relaxing and pleasant way to end the day.
We taxied to the Tianjin train station for our return trip home. The train station was like many of the other stations: new, big and crowded! This station served the Tianjin area but primarily the routes and rides to Beijing and Shanghai. We were able to purchase our tickets through an automated kiosk, but it did not display the instructions and process in English. Fortunately, Eileen was still with us and had made this purchase many times in the past. Eileen stayed with us until the train was open for boarding. I saw that Eileen had been having such a good time with us throughout the day and she was very sad to see us go. So were we. We had not seen Eileen in four years and I wondered as we waved goodbye and walked away, just how many more years it would be until we saw her again... if ever?
I realized while in Tianjin that day, that I had been “gifted” the opportunity of teaching Chinese students at Roosevelt and Harding Universities, and now in China, because of Eileen. It was a big turning point in the ministry of the rest of my life. I can tell you now, that God was absolutely preparing my path for a future life of ministry with the Chinese. It started the day that Li Jie walked into my graduate Creative Message Strategy class in January of 2002.
Steve Shaner is a professional story teller that delights in traveling to meet new and old friends. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.