On His Own Wavelength
Hua walks into the classroom shivering and unsmiling. His faded, baggy track pants swish as he quickly finds his seat—always the same one—near the window, showered in sunlight.
With a sigh, he wipes his shiny head and cheeks burnt red from the cold. He pulls a notebook from his backpack, holds it open in front of his chest, neck craned down to read. It’s a comically uncomfortable position to observe.
Fifteen minutes later, the class is full of students from all corners of the world with one thing in common: they’re at least half the age of retired Hua.
The teacher is ready to begin.
“Today, we’ll be using the new English phrases we learned yesterday to write letters of complaint.” Hua looks up with interest.
“Have you ever had something happen to you that you didn’t like?” the teacher continues. “For example, I wrote a letter to Uber because they overcharged me. I’d like you to think of something that has happened to you, so you can write a letter to the company and ask for something in return.”
“Something, something I don’t like?” Hua clarifies, pen raised and eyes twinkling. His thick accent stems from southeastern China, where he grew up speaking a local dialect. English is his second foreign language after standard Mandarin. Hua’s been attending free classes at an English teacher training center in New York City for three years now, and he has lived in Flushing for decades.
“Yes, something that happened to you that made you frustrated. Anything you like,” the teacher offers with encouragement.
“Well, you know…” Hua begins.
“Yes?” the teacher guides him to continue.
“You know, the radio, the radio here, is…it’s so fast!“
The class bursts into warmhearted laughter, the young Chinese girls laughing as they would at their dear fathers. The teacher takes in a breath but can’t think of what to say, and Hua continues his rant.
“I listen, I listen every morning. Every morning I am listening. And it’s so fast here! Three years I listen, and I understand nothing! Why?!”
The teacher regains control, thanks Hua for sharing his thoughts, and reminds him to think of something that would be appropriate for letter writing. Together, the class reads a sample letter and learns phrases like ‘To Whom This May Concern’ and ‘Sincerely’.
“So does everyone have a complaint in mind?” the teacher checks. It’s really more of a yes-no question this time. Most of the students nod in reply.
“You know,” that unmistakeable voice cuts through from the side of the room. “In New York, the wind—the wind, it is so so strong! I don’t understand why it has to be this strong! I never have experienced wind this strong…” The class roars with laughter, and Hua strikes again.
“Who would you write the letter to?” The teacher jokes, “Mother nature?”
Hua stares back, arms crossed high across his chest in the tiny, fixed desk-chair intended for a teenage body. His frown creases solidify. He says nothing.
In a center that trains teachers over short periods of time, Hua has 104 teachers a year. Meaning, over the rims of his black frames and under his fatherly frown, he’s seen over 300 teachers come and go.
This is just another day.