Unlocked

My dream –

In response to an ad I placed on a local job site as an instructor of languages and cultures, I have been invited to the home of a prospective client for an initial interview. The home is in a well-to-do part of town. Having been let in downstairs, I am now at the door of the client. It appears that there are only two units on the sixth floor of the building, facing opposite views of the surrounding neighbourhood.

‘Hello. Morgan?’

‘Yes.’

‘Please come in. I am Ning.’

‘Nice to meet you.’

Ning is you. You are Ning. We had not met before.

You are dressed as if for a dinner party, far too formally for a casual interview. I have dressed simply appropriately for the weather.

Sitting down, I have learned that you are planning a trip to the States in only two weeks’ time. You know a little English, but want to improve it sufficiently to lead a group of friends who know next to nothing. All of this was conveyed to me as if rehearsed, as though to confirm my capability for the challenge.

When you were finished with your introduction, presented in marginally intelligible English, I gave you mine.

‘We are interviewing each other, of course, and, as such, your worthiness as a student must be determined just as my worthiness as an instructor. In order to apprehend any language, one must endeavour to personify a native speaker of that language. To maintain your own culture while learning the language of another, is to drag behind you a weight as heavy as yourself. Obviously, that would render progress minimal at best. To strive towards the adoption of the culture of your pursuit, in all earnestness, is to take the hand of the native, and advance in leaps and bounds.’

‘Upon initial observation, with all due respect, your English language proficiency is at 20%, your accompanying cultural proficiency at 0%. I don’t mean to discourage you, but to be straight with you. We can get you much closer within the two weeks we have, but I will require your thorough cooperation. Language follows behaviour, not the other way around. You are going to the States; so you must temporarily vacate your Chinese person and inhabit that of an American. If you are willing to do that, in the context of our lessons, and in the greater context of your trip, you will be amazed at how easily you will both understand and be understood.’

‘Are you following me, at least a little?’

‘I think so.’

‘It will all become more clear as we progress.’

‘Let’s start from Square One. I am here as a prospective teacher; you, as a prospective student. Yet you met me not as such, but as an employer. There is a cultural confusion of rôles there. If I am to be your coach, then you must dress for the sport in which you wish to engage. When you have won the race, then, and only then, should you dress for the awards ceremony.’

‘Though you have yet even to give me the job, I must assure you at the outset from my cultural perspective, and that of the English language, that neither of us is superior, nor is either of us inferior. We are not equal, either. Each of us is unique, incomparable. In the context of this arrangement, then, should such arrangement be agreed upon, liberties must be granted, encouraged, forgiven. You will make mistakes. Especially in the realm of cultural apprehension, you must take risks. Some of those may get you into places you didn’t really want to be in. You must persevere. Either find a way out, or find a way through.’

‘This is a lot. I can tell that you are a good teacher. You care about my learning. I do want you to be my teacher.’

‘I do care. In language learning, there must be both passion and commitment. No language, even your own, will survive neglect. Though you may dismiss me at any time in the next two weeks, without reason or justification, I demand of you a simple unilateral contract between you and the English language. I have prepared two copies for you to sign.’

I, Ning, promise, from this day forward, every day of the week, every month of the year, every year of my life, in continual devotion, that I will dedicate at least twenty minutes each day to undistracted communion with the English language. In listening, speaking, reading, or writing, I may fulfil this sworn obligation of unfaltering allegiance.

‘This is between you and the language you are learning. I will know, of course, if you break your promise, but you alone will suffer the consequence of its forswearing. Do you agree? Shall we continue? We will need at least two hours, three times a week. If we could do two hours every day, at least five days a week, that would be better. In general, the more, the better. Do you imagine meeting here, or elsewhere. We must not be disturbed.’

‘Could we start here, with three days?’

‘Shall we begin tomorrow?’

‘Yes, tomorrow. Ten o’clock?’

‘That’s fine.’

‘What will I need?’

‘Initially, nothing but your clear mind.’

‘No pen and paper? No book?’

‘Nothing but yourself.’

‘Ning, I am not going to pull my punches with you. If I appear harsh, it is because I must alter your behaviour. I must transform you into the person of an American. If your language were French, you would become French. If Russian, you would become Russian. If you become American, first, the language will follow. It has no other choice.’

‘Accent is never the culprit. Accent adds character, personality. Phrasing, rhythm, intonation, incorrectly delivered, pose obstacles to understanding that to many native speakers will be perceived not merely as stumbling blocks but insurmountable barriers to communication. As the non-native, the effort to ensure comprehension must be yours.’

‘Finally, if I may, regarding the liberties I spoke of earlier, we will be working very closely together – elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, face to face, heart to heart. You must put your guard down. My guard will also be put down. We will share stories, secrets, confidences, confessions. We will get to know one another. Through your knowledge of and feeling for me, you will gain insight into the English language that will place your fingers unerringly on its pulse. This will not happen unless both of us cultivate a vulnerability between us, a surrender. Within you, in that place wherein the entire universe in its light, love, truth, beauty, and peace reside, you must find a place for me, and for this language that we will share, just as I in me find that place for you. In sharing language, we are united, we are the same, we are one. In this sublime harmony, you will realise the blood in me that is yours but that I have never known, the blood in you that is mine but that you have never known.’

‘A vast surrender is your only strength. Are you ready? Shall we do this?’

‘Yes, yes, yes! I am ready. I know I can do it.’

‘I know you can, too.’

‘Whether you come to like me or to hate me, you will never forget me, for I will give to you a key to a door through which access will never be denied.’

‘Tomorrow.’

‘Tomorrow.’