Betsy was a small nurse in one of my adult writing classes. I have no idea where she got such a perfect name. She was clearly from the country, so short she barely came up to my chest, and she had very long, somewhat-frizzy hair—rather unusual in China. She was probably one of the old rural minorities.
Betsy had no English. In the first days, she could only print her name laboriously. I had told her class, since it was a writing course, that they did not need to speak English. I wrote everything on the board and made stencils each week showing models of the forms we studied. Many of these students knew English beautifully anyway, and it was a lively, diligent group. But Betsy never spoke, although she smiled sometimes.
She advanced somehow, and eventually produced at least one correct sentence of English in every writing. On one memo, she wrote three. We all grinned that day—everyone knew that Betsy's village infirmary lay far away from English, that she travelled far to meet us.
On the last day, everyone stood up and reluctantly started to drift out of the classroom. We really had done good work together. But Betsy came to the front and stood before me, with a friend standing a little behind.
"I. . .," she said, glancing up at me then down. "You. . .," she said, trying to piece together the words. She looked at me pleadingly and I could see she was going to cry. "It's all right," I said gently and tried to keep very still so the alien sentence could form. "You my!" she burst out and began to weep. I put my arms around her and we just stood there for a long moment. Everyone in the room turned to watch.
"She wants to say, 'You are welcome in my home,'" her friend said. Betsy pulled out of our embrace and looked at me, nodding vigorously. "Every time," she whispered.
"Thank you," I said, knowing she meant "any time," knowing I was already booked with banquets from here until the moment of my flight home. "Thank you," I said again, in honor of this ineffable gift that was being offered across the chasm between our worlds.
* * *
Excerpt from Chapter 12, "Last Days" in Dear Alice: Letters Home from American Teachers Learning to Live in China, edited by Phyllis L. Thompson (Berkeley, CA: Institute of East Asian Studies, 1998)