From the stories my parents have told me, my birth was a pretty normal C-section (if a word like “normal” could be used to describe pushing another living organism out of a swollen momma organism). A young Juliah Brumley held a pink, squirmy nugget of a human in her hands, and thought about what to call this creature. What would she name her? Christening a child is a huge affair in our culture, because that name is what the child is stuck with for life…unless they decide to make the legal change whenever they feel it is necessary. In Taiwanese and Chinese culture as well, a name is extremely important. It embodies a parent’s hopes and wishes for the child that it has been assigned to.
So, my lovely mother, tired from labor and probably ready for the last restful sleep of those first few trying years, looked down upon her baby girl and named her Kara Elizabeth.
Now, in my mind, this loving scene is then spliced with an action sequence of my father, running up flights of stairs and dodging hospital gurneys, trying to make it in time for the naming of his firstborn. He jumps over the last obstacle, a bedpan on the floor perhaps, and lands huffing and heaving in the room where mom and I are laying, one in the other’s arms. John Brumley, still lanky from his years playing college basketball, holds out his palms and extends his wingspan fully, commanding a halt to whatever was going on. In an epic moment that will be quoted forever, my father says, “Her name will be Jessica.”
In actuality, I think (I’m pretty sure, at least) my father was there for the entire thing, and they had already agreed on Jessica before I had made my grand entrance into the world. But, my mother did want to name me Kara Elizabeth for the longest time. Every time I hear the name Kara, I think about what could have been, and I shudder. I just think I am a Jessica. I exhibit, in my mind, all the qualities of Jessica-ness, simply by being named Jessica from the beginning and by accepting my existence as a Jessica sort of existence. I’m just not a Kara. I don’t look like a Kara, don’t act like a Kara, and maybe, just maybe, if I was named Kara, there would be something fundamentally different about me that would make me a Kara and not a Jessica. And that did not appeal to me at all.
I would spend time looking up the name Jessica in all its variations. Jessie, Jess, JJ. I found that it is a name of Hebrew origin, and that it means, “God beholds” or “wealthily blessed one.” It was also used in a Shakespearean play. I loved everything about it.
And that did not change when, during my first semester of college, I was assigned a Chinese name. 李洁。李 (Li, pronounced Lee) is the family name, and sounds like the second half of my actual family name, Brumley. 洁 (Jie, pronounced J-ee-eh) comes from my first name, Jessica. Together, these two characters mean “purity.” I was in love all over again. While other classmates may have practiced writing their signature with their significant other’s last name replacing their own, I painstakingly scratched out my Chinese name on anything that I could find (paper mostly; I don’t vandalize).
But, things got trickier when a third language was thrown in. As you may be aware, the people of Taiwan speak Mandarin Chinese, but they also speak Taiwanese, which is vastly different from Mandarin and is something that I cannot speak nor understand. It is a beautiful language to listen to, and I am always amazed at the seamless transition that my co-teachers make between these three languages in the teacher’s office depending upon whom they are conversing with. At my junior high school, where I will be teaching seventh through ninth graders, the teachers were fairly impressed with my lackluster Chinese, and decided that I should learn a few words in Taiwanese as the next step of becoming adjusted to my life in Taiwan. One particular teacher, my LET Allen, found the sound translation of my English name from English to Taiwanese particularly comical. Apparently, Jessica sounds like, “This is a Foot” in Taiwanese.
When Allen told me this, I had to burst out laughing. This is a Foot. I have been introducing myself as “The Foot” for twenty-three years now. When I was applying for this scholarship, I signed my name, proudly in fact, as “The Foot” Brumley. And I didn’t even know it.
As I come to the end of my first week of teaching, I cannot think of a better way to sum up my experiences thus far. All the preconceived notions of what teaching would be like here flew out the window on my very first day, when I taught seven classes, back to back to back, with very little down time. After finishing my student teaching in Baoding, China, I had expected a fairly relaxed schedule, a few classes a day, with a lot of time for planning and cultural exchange with my fellow teachers. But, after Monday, I just barely had the strength to crawl up the one flight of stairs to my apartment, plop down on the couch in front of the fan, take off my heels, and stare into space for the time it took my roommates to return from their days. And this was only Day 1.
What did all of my teaching experience come to? A few blisters on the backs of my feet and the realization that I couldn’t be the Miss Brumley I was in the States, or even in China, while I was here. My students here need different things from me than my seniors did at Nelson County High School. There, a few sly jokes and a little bit of sass got my students’ attention, which was then quickly followed with demanding expectations that let my students know I meant business. In China, my students needed an active translator, someone who could illuminate the English language and show them that language acquisition was nothing to fear. Here in Taiwan, I am still learning what my students need from me.
For one particular student named NoNo, my occupation title is Perpetual Seeker. In the ten minutes that students have between classes, NoNo performs the ritual of asking entrance into the teacher’s office, then beelines her way to my desk chair. She then proceeds to tap me on the shoulder with her second-grader hands and duck behind the black, meshy material that is the back of my chair. I then repeat the phrase, “Where is NoNo? Where is she?” and swivel my chair around from one side to the other, accompanied by a chorus of shrill giggles and snickers. In her own time, she reveals herself to me from her clever hiding place with the shout of, “Jessica” (which, we have just learned, actually means, “The Foot!”). This continues at least seven times a day. We do the same things, with only slight variations, depending upon whether some of the other teachers want to join in or just watch us.
Although I am still unsure about the roles that I will play in the classroom and in my students’ lives, one thing is definitely certain. My job is to be The Foot, the Perpetual Seeker, and whatever else they need me to be. These students are definitely not interested in a 李洁, highly polished and driven to perfection. They may not even need a Jessica, well-researched and proud. But they do need The Foot. They need someone who is willing to not take herself seriously, act goofy, over exaggerate her hand motions, and sing all of their songs loudly and possibly off-key. They need a Perpetual Seeker, patiently allowing students to make the journey through language learning through repetition, and repetition, and more repetition. And did I mention repetition?
These students need someone to look at them like my parents looked at me when they were deciding my name. Although I will not be naming any students (even though my roommate did, in fact, give three students their English names within the first week), I still have an impactful position in these students’ lives over this next year. John and Julie did look upon me with that gooey love that parents have with a baby, or so I have been told. And through countless sleepless nights, anxious and difficult years, and the occasional argument, that gooey look still exists. But they also looked upon me with excitement for my possibilities, for all the things I would do and become.
I cannot wait to see what my students will become over this year. But I can only guess that is going to be one heck of a ride.
That’s all for now. The Foot out.