Changing Contexts: From the Close to the Middle Kingdom


by Ricahrd Loeper-Viti (former STA teacher)

When I teach students to proofread their writing, I ask them to do two specific things: print their work and read it on the page, rather than on the computer screen; and have someone read their work to them.  I do this because changing the context within which they view their work affords writers the opportunity to see their work anew, which helps writers reaffirm their smart choices and offers them another opportunity to notice (and improve) problems that persist.

In September 2007, my family and I moved to Guangzhou, China, where my wife began her first overseas post with the State Department.  After 27 months in China, we returned to the States to visit friends and family and to prepare for our present post in The Hague.  During the past six months, many people have asked me, “How did you enjoy living in China?”  My usual response has been that it was the perfect spot at that time for my family’s situation.

One of the reasons for this answer is that changing the context of one’s own life is like changing the context of one’s own writing.  If we put ourselves in new situations, we are better able to notice (and improve) our flaws and to reaffirm those values that we hold and use as a comforting guide when choosing courses of action.  Living in China gave me the always welcome opportunity for a bit of self-editing.

My family and I had many enriching, awe-inspiring experiences while living in China.  We stood on the Great Wall and in Tianamen Square.  We walked through the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace and stayed a few nights in a boutique hotel in a hutong.  We floated on bamboo rafts down the Dragon River through the Karst hills in Yangshuo—where we also saw the banyan tree made famous in “Big Bird Goes to China.”  We fell in love with Southwestern Australia after staying eight nights on a farm in Margaret River, Australian wine country, and eating the fresh food and meeting the friendly people of that area.  We saw orangutans in Borneo and held a giant boa constrictor in Singapore.

I personally also had many valuable experiences.  Through activities sponsored by the American Consulate as outreach to Chinese citizens, I took part in a debate on Civil Unions and hosted discussions on distance running in America and China and on Walt Whitman.  My wife and I sat on a panel during a documentary film festival and discussed the role of media in society.  I worked as a personal trainer and a reading and writing tutor for elementary-aged students.  I set a PR in the marathon and broke a rib while sparring with a Muay Thai classmate.  I did not miss a chance to volunteer or chaperone at either of my daughters’ schools.  And, most importantly, I fully embraced my opportunity to be a stay-at-home father.

Each of these experiences on its own was enriching—and downright fun—and each one offered me the opportunity to find the flaws in myself that the comforts and rushed lifestyle of America allowed me to either cover-up or ignore.  I now have more empathy for those who live under oppressive regimes and who daily are fed lies by a government-controlled media.  I also have more empathy for those who struggle mightily to lose weight and eat healthful.  My wife and I are now more determined than ever to buy enough land to start a hobby farm and to teach our daughters all of the important things that schools seem to ignore—how to feed yourself, cloth yourself, and build your own shelter.  I am more sensitive to the ways adult criticism affects children and better understand how destructive rewards and punishments can be for young people.  As well, I have learned how important it is for a teacher (and parent) to be patient.  (I can now hear my ex-students all asking themselves why I could not have figured this out before I taught them.)

Education when done right will ask you to step outside your comfort zone.  Those who wish to educate themselves will not wait to be asked.  They will constantly search for new contexts.

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