How Teaching Abroad Helped Me Commemorate My Friend’s Death

How Teaching Abroad Helped Me Commemorate My Friend's Death

It was 2012. At the time, I had been living in Taiwan for nearly two years as an English teacher. I was (and still am!) enjoying my life in Taiwan, teaching abroad, learning Chinese, and raising my beautiful son, who was 1 and ½ years old at the time. I have a full rich life in Taiwan, but I still loved reaching out and connecting with family and friends back in the States.

I logged into Facebook, and right on my homepage, I saw the news. My best friend was dead. I stared in absolute disbelief. I had just talked with her a month or so ago, for Christmas. She was as bubbly and bright as ever. And yet, she was sick, with a very intense and deadly form of cancer. I had no idea she was even sick. And here it was, Valentine’s Day, and she was gone.

I logged into Facebook, and right on my homepage, I saw the news: my best friend was dead. I stared in absolute disbelief.

We had been friends since 2004, meeting in Philadelphia at the Betsy Ross House. We were both working there, and immediately, there was a connection. She was a bright spirit, smart and sweet. She loved music, history, and traveling, and she was passionately devoted to the Indy 500 races. Her family welcomed me into their hearts, and even took me to Indy races near where I lived in Virginia. In turn, my family adored her too.

How Teaching Abroad Helped Me Commemorate My Friend's Death

While teaching abroad, I learned that my friend died. As an English teacher living in Taiwan, I created a lesson to pay tribute to my friend’s death.

She was taken from this world too soon, and I sat before my computer screen reading about her death with tears pouring down my cheeks. I was literally on my knees. My little boy looked at me, in puzzled innocence. Hastily I wipe my tears away and say, “It’s okay, baby. Mommy is just very sad right now.” He toddled over to me, sat in my lap, and touched my cheek.

At that moment, I accepted the little gesture of comfort from my young son, and I realized how much it meant for this little boy to show me in his own way how much he cared.  I realized how important it is to share these experiences and lessons with others, and as a teacher, I was in the perfect position to do so.

So, I kissed my little boy and sat down with a notebook to plan a lesson, one that wove a personal story, a healing process, a language and character development lesson, and the potential to do something good for someone else.

I realized how important it is to share these experiences and lessons with others, and as a teacher, I was in the perfect position to do so.

For the next two days, in at least five classes of students in grades 7 through 11, I guided students through the story of my friend, and how Americans express sympathy and condolences in the wake of loss. I created a PowerPoint, showing pictures of my friend and what she loved, vocabulary with pictures, and phrases that are most commonly used in English to express sympathy.

I asked the students how the Taiwanese/Chinese cultures deal with condolences and loss, and they told me about various Chinese traditions. For example, it’s important to avoid the color red during a funeral because that’s the color of happiness and prosperity. If a funeral is held in a temple, removing shoes before entering is a sign of respect.

How Teaching Abroad Helped Me Commemorate My Friend's Death

How Teaching Abroad Helped Me Commemorate My Friend’s Death

In Chinese culture, just like in Western culture, it’s appropriate to write a note, sharing your sadness and your memories of the deceased, and to express thoughts of comfort to the family and loved ones. So, our activity was to write a sympathy note in English to my friend’s family in Pennsylvania.

My students could draw pictures, even add some Chinese verses, and they could express themselves in English the best way they could. I ended up getting over 20 sympathy notes from my students, all of them lovely and kind in every way.

In fact, I mailed the cards off to my friend’s family, and later received a beautiful note of appreciation from them, thanking my students for how much they cared.

I was touched by the love from my students and their willingness to reach out to a complete stranger.

Some of my students had never experienced the loss of a loved one, and seeing how it affected me meant something to them. I even had some students cry because they felt so bad for me and my friend’s family. It made me feel more connected to my life in the States, as well as my life in Taiwan.

I was touched by the love from my students and their willingness to reach out to a complete stranger. I was able treasure my memories of my friend, and realized this was such a great tribute to her, as a traveler, and as someone who always touched lives and made friends everywhere she went.

It really is true: sometimes the best lessons you teach are those that come from your personal experience. The best lessons also have an impact on someone’s life outside the classroom. Two years ago, I took an event from my personal life back in the U.S., and while teaching abroad, I used it as a cross-cultural lesson with my Taiwanese students. The result of the lesson: my students reaching out to a family on the other side of the world.

How Teaching Abroad Helped Me Commemorate My Friend’s Death

Have you traveled to Taiwan? How was your trip? Email us at editor@pinkpangea.com for information about sharing your experience and advice with the Pink Pangea community. We can’t wait to hear from you.

How Teaching Abroad Helped Me Commemorate My Friend’s Death photo credits: Whitney Zahar

About Whitney Zahar

Whitney ZaharWhitney Zahar is a writer, a teacher and a student librarian. She’s been actively involved in the arts scene for as long as she can remember. She and her globetrotting family are pulling out of Taiwan soon and are looking forward to more adventures.

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