Thomas F. O'Neill
Ni Hao (Hello) From Suzhou, China
When I sat down to write this column I was interrupted by a text message from a friend of mine in America. There is a twelve hour difference between us. I am twelve hours ahead of the east coast in America. When it is midnight here in Suzhou, China, it is only twelve noon in my hometown of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. It amazes me though how I can instantly communicate with people thousands of miles away on the opposite side of the world.
Before I came to China I never imagined that my students here would have cell phones and their own personal computers--the things I didn’t have when I was their age. Their papers are also emailed to me for grading and they are always texting me with questions. The text messages and emails are a constant reminder of how this technology is permeating all facets of our lives.
I said to my students in class one day, “I can look back at my youth and remember the age of the manual typewriter before computers and the internet was our communication lifeline.”
A hand went up and a young female face looked at me with such curiosity, “what is a typewriter, Teacher?”
I tried my best at that moment to simulate a typewriter with a paper adjuster and return carriage. But unfortunately it only enhanced their confusion so I used the internet browser on my cell phone and found a picture of a manual typewriter. My cell phone was then passed around the room so that my students could understand what I was saying.
I also told them, “I am old enough to remember the era before VCR’s, and the cell phone.”
Another hand shot up, “Teacher,” the young man asked, “How old are you?”
“Very old,” I replied, “the first cell phone I had I could only talk on, no pictures.”
“No, you not that old, Teacher” he said with some sincerity in his voice, “but how old are you?”
“I will be 47,” I told them and at that moment another hand shot up.
“My Mother 43,” a young youthful female face said excitedly.
“Age is just a number,” I said to them “but now imagine where technology will be when you become my age.” That got them thinking about not just their individual lives but about the future of China.
A hand shot up, “Does this phone have GPS?” A young male student asked me with my cell phone in his hand, “Nice Phone!!!”
“It’s a BlackBerry,” I said, “like the one Obama has but I only use it to text and talk.”
“Obama,” Chinese students repeated back and forth with amazed looks on their faces. Chinese chatter immediately filled the room.
I then told my students that I am excited about how fast technology is advancing. After all it wasn’t that long ago when it took a month for a letter to travel halfway around the world. It was also very expensive to call the U.S. from Asia. The internet can now be used to place phone calls for free and it is something I have become dependent upon in my life.
Last week I spoke to a very dear friend of mine on the phone. He is living in my hometown in Pennsylvania, Mr. Henry Zale. He will be 93 years young in January of 2010. I told him that when he calls my local number in the States the calls get forwarded to my Cell Phone in China. He paused for a moment and said, “Tom when I was your age that was called Science Fiction.”
I said, “Henry, if I ever live to be your age I can’t even fathom where technology will be or what my life will be like.”
“Well, Tom” he said, “I am a World War I, baby and I served in World War II, so let’s hope there isn’t a World War III in your lifetime, because if there is people will be back using those manual typewriters as a sign of the aftermath. The technology in our lives can be good or bad depending on the hands that are using it,” - wise words due to his advanced years and experience.
China has indeed witnessed amazing technological growth in a very short period of time. It is resulting in their country advancing very quickly. The cities here are very modern and growing very fast. People also have more money to spend because of the growing middle class.
I noticed quickly the big differences between China’s growing economy and the economic condition of the Pennsylvania coal region. My hometown has been beaten down over the years due to being economically depressed.
China is not a perfect country though because 600 million people make less than two American dollars a day that is severe poverty in any country. On the other hand 365 million, - more than the entire population in America - make more than twelve thousand American dollars a year. They live much better than the people in the Pennsylvania coal region. It’s a sad contrast but it’s also the reality of the times.
Poverty has become a world wide pandemic though and it is something that will not go away anytime soon. It is also something I have witnessed first hand over the years. It has shaped who I am and how I relate to others. It bothers me when I see vast amounts of wealth throughout the world while people live in squallid conditions with no running water, electricity, or in door plumbing. That is how millions of people live throughout the world. Seeing it first hand made me more appreciative of who I am and what I have. I also grew to realize that we do not truly live until we place ourselves in the service of others. When we enhance the life of another we enhance our own lives, and that is when we truly feel alive in the world.
Working as a teacher here in China I am learning a great deal from my students. When I read my students writings I learn a great deal about them personally due to their openness and honesty. I tell my students all the time since I arrived in China I have learned more from them than they have from me. I look at each of them as friends as well. Although my humor at times can get lost in the translation, it’s the moments when I connect with them that are priceless.
Well I have a few more text messages to send out and emails to grade. I will keep you all informed about my daily musings here in Suzhou in upcoming columns.
Always With love,
Thomas F. O’Neill
Yahoo Screen Name for chatting online: introspective777
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