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In the summer of 2012, I received a message at one of the colleges I teach at telling me about an international group of students who would soon be visiting from China’s Zhejiang University.

Their stay in Pittsburgh was part of a three week English practicum course in America during which they would visit many schools like Harvard, Yale, Carnegie Mellon, Pitt etc… They would visit Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Washington D.C. and Los Angeles.

Basically I was super jealous. What an amazing trip!

The issue was that they were scheduled to hear a lecture at Carnegie Mellon on July 5th, and normal history professors were on vacation. But not me. So since a) I hadn’t had a break from teaching in years, b) I used to never turn down an opportunity (and still would never pass on one this great), and c) I don’t exactly go out and party hard on the Fourth of July, I said I would LOVE to speak that morning.

I was asked to teach the students about American culture/history/political systems/religion and about what makes America such a great country. For one hour I did my thing, flashing visuals, moving around energetically as I tend to do, making jokes, posing as George Washington. Then we took a break.

“How am I doing?” I asked Jasmine, the wonderful woman who brought me in.

She asked Gaoying, the main organizer of the trip, to take a quick poll. After a minute of conferring they came back and said, “The students say they understand about 70% of what you say. This is very good!”

Thumbs up all around. I chuckled.

Since then we’ve met at a few different venues and found our way to the Turkish and German nationality rooms in Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning for this most recent trips.

A few things struck me about the visiting students. They were far too kind to me and made me feel like Ryan Gosling hopping into a Manhattan pizza shop for a quick bite. They offered me thoughtful gifts and lined up to take pictures.

It was amazing.

The best part was when I asked for questions. When called on, each student would stand before asking their question. Not gonna lie, I knew I was getting spoiled because when I went back to my typically American classrooms the next day I would not get such a vibe of respect for myself and the material.

But even better was the questions they asked. Every inquiry was either insightful or charming or poignant to my ears.

  • “If you give so much freedom, do you think some people will take this too far for evil?”
  • “If George Washington is Father of the Country, why is he only on one dollar bill and not one-hundred?”
  • “How does tipping in a restaurant go?”
  • “What will you think happen if there is war with my country and Japan?”
  • “Why do all Americans not vote if they have this freedom?”
  • “Is money the most important thing?”

I instantly realized how easy it is to take democratic freedoms for granted. The hunger for knowledge and truth are terrific, and I hoped I was able to offer something of value in response.

I continued speaking to those groups from Zhejiang University and Central China Normal University multiple times until I left teaching and Pittsburgh in 2015. The last time I spoke, in 2014, I got to double dip, with a group from Chinese university visiting Pitt on consecutive days. We snapped a couple pics with my camera and about 200 with theirs.

Students from Zhejiang University in Turkish Room at Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning

Outside the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning with students from Zhejiang University

In the German room at Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning

I also received repeated invitations to teach abroad at both Chinese universities and must say I considered it a lot. Would have been so energizing to work with the kind of mentality demonstrated by those visiting groups. No doubt I would’ve learned way more. And the food would’ve been amazing.

So the moral of the story? If you’re interested in how I’ve put together a great career as a freelancer, the lesson is to be available and take opportunities even if they’re scary (as in you literally are speaking a different language). But also, nurture a love for learning and discovering truth–a universal virtue if ever there was one.