Selected Modern Chinese Essays: My First American Teacher

◎ Feng Yidai

Whenever I open an English book, the image of my first American teacher will immediately appear before my eyes. In 1929, on finishing junior middle school, I was admitted after an examination to Huilan Middle School in Hangzhou. Established by the American Baptist Church, it was known for its good academic atmosphere. Strikingly enough, it had English lessons taught solely by American teachers. Anding, my junior middle school, was also known for its English language teaching, but, to complete my entire middle school education, I had to get transferred to Huilan, a senior middle school.

At Huilan, my English lessons began with the following as textbooks:Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, 50 Famous Stories from the West, published by the Commercial Press and finally the thick-volumed Modern World, which, actually a book on world geography, took us three semesters to finish learning. It helped me not only improve my English but also build up the habit of caring for world affairs.

The English grammar book we learned was Nesfield’s Grammar, Book III. All the above-mentioned textbooks, except Modern World, were authored by Englishmen and hence of a higher level than those used in ordinary middle schools at that time.

I was particularly interested in Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, so much so that I finished reading each tale before the American teacher had explained it. I attracted her attention by always coming out on top in an exam. Her last name was Edgar, but I’m unable now to recall her first name. She was then in her late thirties, short of stature and already beginning to be on the plump side. She was very kind and gentle, and shy even with kids like us. But she was very strict about teaching. Whenever students failed to perform well in doing lessons or in exams, she would, with a flush in her face, criticize them for not studying hard enough. The pet phrase she often used was, “God forgive you, my children!”

She was sent to China by the American Baptist Church to do teaching and meanwhile missionary work. On Sunday afternoons, she would pick some students diligent in English studies to join her Bible class, in which all members had to converse in English because she herself couldn’t speak Chinese.

A ridiculous error I made in the class turned out to be of great help to me in my later studies. One day, when I was in class, it suddenly clouded over and rained heavily. I was then learning English adverbs. Thinking that an adverb could modify a verb, I said, “It’s raining hardly. ”Miss Edgar responded by saying, “It’s raining hard. ”But I failed to understand it and repeated my own sentence, “It’s raining hardly. ”She gave me a stern glance and said once more, “It’s raining hard. ”Then I suddenly realized that there must be something wrong with the word“hardly”though I didn’t know why. I kept quiet and felt very uneasy. After class, she told me very gently that in order to know the different functions of a word, I should frequently look up a dictionary. To avoid embarrassing me, she had chosen not to directly point out my error in the classroom. She wanted me to discover and correct the error by myself. The small incident, however, gave me a deep lesson. It has resulted in my habit of consulting a dictionary frequently. This lesson I learned more than half a century ago is today still deeply engraved in my memory. Whenever I do reading without understanding it thoroughly, I will remind myself to look up a dictionary quickly. That applies to Chinese as well as English learning.

From then on, she and I were on very friendly terms. During the time when I was in the second and third grade of the senior middle school, most students joined the patriotic national salvation movement at the outbreak of the September 18th Incident[1] and the January 28th Incident[2]. I got very busy doing propaganda work for Hangzhou Student Association and had no time to attend the Bible class, but I didn’t slacken my efforts in English studies. One day, when after class I accompanied Miss Edgar on her way to her home, she said, “I know you’re very busy, but I hope you keep your English from getting rusty. A second language, if not often used, will soon be forgotten. However, I don’t think it’s wrong for you to take part in the student movement. Let me pray to God for blessings on you!”She hoped I would become a Christian, but I, having embraced new ideas, chose to remain a non-convert. She felt regretful and blamed impiety on her own part for failing to convert me.

In 1932, when she was leaving China for home, I went to the wharf to bid her farewell. She said to me with tears in her eyes, “I’ll pray for you every day. May the blessings of God be on you!”Then we corresponded regularly until 1936 when I began to live an unsettled life. Nevertheless, I always cherished her memory.

In 1980, on my visit to the United States, I contacted the American Baptist Church with inquiries about Miss Edgar. They told me, after checking up, that she passed away in 1946.

Miss Edgar was my first American teacher. Her friendly feelings towards me will always remain in my memory. Now that I’m old, I often feel I’ve treated her somewhat unfairly. Perhaps I shouldn’t have kept myself aloof from her belief.

[1] September 18th Incident refers to the seizure of Shenyang on September 18, 1931 by the Japanese aggressors, as a step towards their occupation of the entire northeastern China.

[2] January 28th Incident refers to the invasion of Shanghai by the aggressor troops of Japan on January 28, 1932. The local Chinese troops put up a stiff resistance to the invaders and anti-Japanese sentiment ran high throughout China. The hostilities lasted until May 5 of the same year when Chiang Kai-shek, who had persistently followed a policy of non-resistance, signed a truce with Japan.