As an ESL teacher, I spend several hours a week individually tutoring a first grader named Thomas. I started working with him because his mother, who was taking adult ESL classes at the community college I was volunteering in, approached me with concerns about his ability to acquire English reading and writing skills at the same pace as his peers, namely because he only uses English at school while his peers use English at home as well as school. In communicating with his parents, Thomas knows how to speak Cantonese, Taishanese, some Mandarin (from Sunday Chinese school), and of course English. I usually have Thomas read picture books to me, practice writing sentences and spelling words, or work on school work that his mom can’t help him with. Though from my perspective, he is a bright kid with a very active imagination and a good mind for actively learning what he is interested in, all his mom seems to see is a troublesome, naughty, unstudious child, characteristic of the troublemakers (especially guys) that are usually in every class.In line with his mother’s concerns, when he doesn’t enjoy what he is learning, he becomes stubborn, apathetic, and sometimes even silly in terms of not taking the study materials seriously. I try to make the books we read and the activities we do fun and interesting by shaping them in the form of games, rewards, and storytelling, largely based on his own interests. I treat him like a little brother and his mom treats me as her son. I rarely go home after a tutoring session (usually late afternoons) empty-handed in terms of a nicely packaged tupperware of whatever she has cooked for dinner that night. I see so much of my own youth in terms of family cultural dynamics and diversity of linguistic exposure in Thomas’ life, and that is what motivates me the most to spend time working with him.
So in having set the context, I was reading a book with Thomas on how polar bears and penguins would never meet because they live on opposite ends of the world. Essentially, they were learning about the North and South pole, the Arctic and Antarctica, and the wildlife in each region. I don’t remember how we transitioned from this topic to the next but Thomas ended up asking me, “Do you love God?”
That completely took me by surprise. I did not know how to respond, not because of any doubt or hesitation about my own religious beliefs, but because I knew that my religious beliefs did not match with Thomas’. Thomas attends a private Lutheran school where learning about Christianity and the Bible are a foundational part of their curriculum. I remember my parents sending me to a private Christian elementary school when I was in first grade even though they were devout Buddhists. They felt that since we had only lived in America for a few years, attending a private school would provide me with a better education with more attention and discipline. My initial assumption with Thomas was that his parents enrolled him in a Christian private school for the same reason; however, when I asked his mother about it, she said that they were Christian and I realized that I had imposed my own assumptions upon them without thinking that they would actually be Christian.
So when Thomas asked me if I loved God, I was caught between lying and telling the truth. On one hand, I did not want to say that I did not love God, shock Thomas into thinking I’m somehow a bad, sinful person, which is what I imagine a young child would think, and ruin my relationship with him. It is much too complicated to explain that I’m Buddhist, that I respect all religions, and that it isn’t so much that I lack the capacity for compassion and love for God, it’s just that I don’t believe in Him. In fact, I have really no idea if he even understands that the idea of “loving God” is part of a bigger system called “religion”, in the same way that he doesn’t seem to be metacognitively aware that he knows four different languages and often code switches amongst the four depending on who he’s talking to and what he’s talking about. One the other hand, maybe this could be a good starting point in introducing him to the idea of religion and the presence of other religions in the world around him. Maybe telling him that I don’t love God and that I believe in a different religion wouldn’t be as traumatizing for him as I imagine, in the same way that telling him I don’t understand any Cantonese (the main language he uses at home) and that I only understand Mandarin did not seem the least bit traumatizing to him. In fact, that led to Thomas showing me the different Mandarin phrases he has learned so far from Sunday Chinese school and my asking him to teach me the Cantonese equivalents of what he had just said in Mandarin. In other words, it generated a starting point for discussion and learning.
Again, as an ESL teacher, I think a lot about these kinds of questions, of how to address controversial issues when they come up during a lesson, often unplanned, and using simple language to make a productive learning experience out of something that could potentially be uncomfortable. In the end, based on my immediate reaction, I simply replied, “Yes, of course I love God” to Thomas and proceeded to continue our activity. Maybe I did it out of convenience in not having to explain the complexities of religious identity to a young child, maybe I did it in fear of what Thomas might think of me after finding out that I’m not Christian. In any case, after having some time to reflect about the experience, I think the next time I’m confronted about God or Christianity by Thomas, I will certainly avoid hiding behind what initially appears to be safe and comfortable and instead try exploring with Thomas the role God plays in our lives, hopefully allowing me to learn just as much about him as he can about me.