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JISHOU, HUNAN — I am in the midst of reading the first drafts of about 70 term papers, but I wanted to take time out to write about a couple of cool things that happened today.

One of my former students here in China is getting married next week. This was no big surprise, since she told me it was going to happen sometime this year. Today, when we went to lunch, T. threw me a couple of curve balls.

First, she’s pregnant — one of those happy little accidents that sometimes proceed marriage. Despite the conservative culture of China, being pregnant just before marriage is no big deal, as long as the husband-to-be is still in the picture. The funny thing was, when I accidentally ran into the two of them downtown yesterday, I thought to myself, “T. looks pregnant.”

Now, she’s only three months along, and not showing yet. (T. is very petite, and has not gained weight, so her size was not the reason for my hunch.) But, she was walking a little like a pregnant woman — her shoes were the problem there, she says — and her dress was similar in design to a maternity dress, gathered under her boobs. Purely accidental, T. says; it was a summer dress, and anyway she still has a tiny waist. Despite being wrong about all the obvious visual clues, I was still pretty impressed I had guessed correctly.

Of course, I am also very happy for her and her fiance. It’s my first student baby as a teacher in China! (Hm, that’s one sentence that could be totally taken out of context …) She’s my first Chinese student to have a baby. (Better.) So, I feel like I just passed a milestone in my career here.

Then, while we were eating, T. also revealed that, while she has not hidden her condition from her friends, she has not told her other teachers either about her wedding or her baby. In fact, she doesn’t plan to tell them until after the wedding is over. Her reasoning was merely a matter of practicality: if she invites one teacher, she has to invite all of them, and her family is trying to keep the wedding as small as possible.

So, that means I am the only teacher clued in, which also means I am more a friend than a teacher. I am pleased beyond words, because I’ve become very fond of T. and her family. And now I also must keep my mouth shut in the office for the next week, lest I be responsible for any hurt feelings.

Now, I want to put in a plug for Mark Twain. Yeah, really. Tonight, I gave the next-to-last English lesson to Nikita, the little Ukrainian boy who lives below me. Since we had finished his English textbook from Ukraine, we switched to a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer I had found in a Xinhua Bookstore in Beijing last month. It’s an abridged version for Chinese learners of English, with a CD included.

It’s slow going. Nik is 9, and his English vocabulary is still pretty small, and this edition is maybe geared for Chinese middle school students. After three lessons, we have only just finished reading the familiar whitewashing-the-fence escapade. Nik’s Dad reads the story before class, and translates the harder English words and idioms into Ukrainian (or Russian, I’m not really sure). If he gets stumped, he asks me for help. Then Nik reads the story in English, with me coaching his pronunciation and Grisha clarifying the parts Nik doesn’t understand.

Sounds tedious, but it’s great! Nik already knows the story; he’s read it in translation and seen cartoon versions of it. Of course, his Dad knows it, too.

So picture the three of us hovering over this book, and reaching the part where Tom shows off his handiwork to Aunt Polly. Grisha beams with his explanation of the conclusion of the tale. Nik appreciate learning all the details of the same tale he watched yesterday in a cartoon. And I sit there in wonder that a Ukrainian father and son — in China — are happily relishing a tale about a mischievous boy written by an American who died almost exactly 100 years before. (Twain died April 21, 1910, after that year’s apparition of Halley’s Comet.)

Master storytellers give us tales that transcend time and space. Thank you, Mr Clemens. You have blessed us all.

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