I (Liz) have finished up my first semester at my new job – I work in administration at an American/Chinese joint-venture graduate educational institute here in Nanjing. We are now on Winter Break, in anticipation of the upcoming Chinese New Year. We worked through the Christmas holidays, but we promise that we duly celebrated that wonderful holiday! We are much more ‘seasoned’ now, pardon the pun, at making our holidays seem much more holidayish, albeit far from home. Our first Christmas was tough but blessed, as I worked teaching on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – and it was hard to feel much like we were celebrating amidst the bitter cold of our first apartment and the sheer lack of family and Christmas in the culture around us. This third time around, we also felt blessed, and very much surrounded by our community here – although we will always miss our family during that time of year especially.

As we passed through the Christmas season at work, I hit a major milestone. When I began work, I was advised to address everyone on the administrative staff as "Teacher" (Laoshi) – it’s a term of respect, and it indicates that those who have been working there longer than I have superior status. It’s deferential, and it is necessary here where status and titles are especially important. I was also told who I should further refer to as "Director" (Zhuren). It felt really formal to me, as a much more casual American – I am used to expressing status in different ways and for different reasons, but I certainly followed that guidance. I was also told not to discontinue using those titles until I was told otherwise by individuals.

Well, after 8 months on the job, as what I will consider a Christmas present to me, a wonderful administrative assistant who has been with the organization forever (and still looks like she’s 30, darn it), laughed when I called her "Teacher" for the 1000th time, and said, "Oh geez, that’s a little embarrassing! You don’t need to call me teacher! Please just call me Sarah." (We’ll use her pseudonym here to protect identities.) I wanted to hug her. It’s been a long 8 months of formal titles.

I was thrilled – and surprised! I had been waiting and waiting, assuming that perhaps the younger folks would chime up rather quickly to have me call them by a less formal title – being in a younger generation of Chinese. What I have come to understand (and should have perhaps guessed), is that the younger folks are happy to be called Laoshi. Maybe it’s the first time they’ve been called teacher, and they are rather enjoying that feeling of respect after years of calling others Laoshi. Chinese culture continues to be rather traditional and formal, despite the casual clothing my colleagues wear to work. I sometimes have to remind myself of that when my colleague shows up in yoga pants and tennis shoes. That is just a ruse of informality – and I shall not be fooled.

So kudos to my awesome colleague Sarah! I relish it each time I call her and can just call her by her name. I hope that this trend continues, but for now, I stand ready with Laoshi and Zhuren at my lips.


1 Response to “Milestones”

  1. 1 Mom Falk January 20, 2011 at 8:42 pm

    A Rose by any other name is still a rose———-but, yes, in a country with a population the size that it is, imagine the longing to stand out in some way, to be recognized as a person of value and worth, with lovable and valued abilities just for being the person she/he is. Each one is lovable and capable—-often times, the person with more needs than my own will treasure such affirmation more than we can ever imagine. Reepacheep in Narnia—-doesn’t always seem as imaginary as we all know he is.

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