20 years old from Chantilly, VA (a suburb outside Washington DC)
“It’s pimple cream.”
Jasmine was answering my question about the white dots on her face. It was certainly an unusual fashion statement, but Jasmine could wear anything and I would probably think she looked cool. She generally dresses for utility – like the time she showed up for class wearing neon blue leggings and a red printed scarf-headband, all to protect herself from the Dengue-laden mosquitos. I told her I liked her outfit. She told me she thought she looked “busted.”
You would never know Jasmine is the youngest of the class because she actually has the most teaching experience. She spent last year in China taking intensive Mandarin classes at The Beijing Language and Culture University while teaching English to students ages 6 to 50 in the evenings.
She decided to go to China on a whim after enduring a rough freshman year at a university in London: “I told everyone I was going to Lebanon at first, but then I found out I couldn’t go to Lebanon so I had to pick another country to go to.”
It was a last minute decision but in no way a poor one. She used to envy her well-traveled classmates from uni – sons and daughters of wealthy diplomats who had been to places like China multiple times: “I thought it was the coolest thing ever – this girl’s been to China. That’s SO COOL. Now, I’ve been to The Great Wall like 6 or 7 times – last year I thought that was unreachable.”
It seems as though nothing is unreachable for Jasmine. She didn’t know a lick of Chinese but after only ten months she learned to speak Mandarin fluently. Her ethnic ambiguity and convincing Chinese accent afforded Jasmine the ability to pass as Asian. In fact, most Chinese people assumed she was from a Chinese-Turkish minority group. (She’s actually African American.)
Of the eleven countries she’s visited, Ukraine was her favorite. “Ukraine loved me and I loved Ukraine.” This answer seems sufficient; I don’t push her for a deeper explanation.
But why Thailand? Why take the TEFL course when you already have legitimate teaching experience? (And this is when I realize Jasmine has wisdom beyond her short 20 years of life.) She explains, “it’s always good to have a skill. A university degree gives you knowledge but it doesn’t give you a skill. People don’t realize that. Teaching gives you a skill.” She speaks candidly, not knowing how profound her words are.
Now I’m preoccupied with picking her brain for more wisdom. Her advice to American high school graduates? Take a gap year before college. Learn a second language during that time because it “gives you options” and allows you to reevaluate the way you communicate. You also have the opportunity to work and travel while immersing yourself in a new culture and studying a whole new language.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Jasmine’s experience has contributed to her strong independence and indomitable spirit. While I’ve been tagging along with Nick to translate everything I want and need into Thai, Jasmine’s somehow been navigating the city solo.
We go to a street food stall and she makes eye contact with the vendor, using gestures and simple, clear speech to try to communicate that she doesn’t want meat in her soup. Every now and then she and the street vendor burst into laughter. Her giggles are explosively genuine and loud just like her natural speaking voice.
I’m sad to see Jasmine go.
After this course, she’s flying back to the US to finish college (imagine: she’s been away for so long that she forgot we don’t call it “uni” in the States) and pursue a career as a diplomat in the US Foreign Service. She is confident in this career path because “it is exactly what I’m doing now, but in an official position.”
We’ve been sitting at a table in the open-aired street food “restaurant” for about an hour, sharing stories over a pile of plastic – remnants of our meal, unfortunately. We get up to leave. Jasmine hooks her pinky around mine in that way that she does, complementing our verbal rapport with physical intimacy and always, always making me smile.