Monday, May 15, 2006

Shipped to Shanghai! Vol. 16 -- English was his passport

". . . to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."

- Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer.

"I must learn English," John said.

"Why do you want to learn English?" I asked. We were sitting opposite each other at the classroom table.

His shabby jacket and cheap pants concealed his true identity: a highly trained computer programmer for a state-owned enterprise (SOE).

"I must move my family to Canada for a better life," John said simply.

"Why not go to America?" I asked.

He shook his head sadly. "Is better, but not possible. No one can go to America now."

I winced at his dire opinion. It was right on the money. This was a recurring theme with my students. With America closing the gates, the foreign talent were skipping the States in favor of Canada and Australia.

John was on the verge of going to Canada. The papers were filed, his name was on the roster, the process was rolling.

That left the interview at the Canadian embassy. According to John, "The interview scares me the most." Like most of my students, he had solid reading, writing, and listening skills. It was his broken English that might blow this opportunity.

The responsibility on me weighed a ton. If I failed to prep him for the interview properly, it would take John a long time to get another chance. If he got another chance. Botching this would ruin someone's life. That haunted me.

So I overcompensated. Over the next few weeks, we attacked the interview materials John brought. I scripted answers to every sample question that John got from Canadian immigration. He took exhaustive notes of everything I said. We recited the answers together over and over again.

I wanted to change to simpler words, but John was convinced that my first-choice words sounded smarter. The words were great, but he couldn't say them without stumbling over the syllables. A lot of the sample questions asked the same things. I was getting confused. John's progress was slow. He was going to fail the interview and it was going to be all my fault. I started freaking out.

Then one day, John walked in.

"Hey John, how's it going?" I asked.

He looked at me and his voice broke. "Marcus, I'm going to Canada."