A Thumb War
"One, two, three, four—I declare a thumb war! 5, 6, 7, 8—try to keep your thumb straight!"
It was the summer following my senior year of high school and I found myself in an unfamiliar position—teaching English to a group of high school students in Mainland China. Each night, I would meet with my co-teachers, a group of college students from Macau who were tasked with switching back and forth between their native language, Cantonese, my native language, English, and the native language of our students, Mandarin Chinese, and, together, we would brainstorm potential game ideas for the next day's lessons.
"What if we taught them how to play a thumb war?"
"A thumb what?"
I proceeded to explain what a "thumb war" actually is and they loved it, especially because it would force our students to practice their pronunciation of the "th" sound in the English language, one of the more difficult sounds for non-native English speakers, found in both the words "three" and "thumb." When lesson time arrived, we assisted the students with their pronunciation by explaining that the easiest way to make the "th" sound is by placing your tongue between your teeth, something I had never even thought about as a native English speaker. Three years later, I travelled to the country of Cambodia, where, once again, I was placed in front of students to assist them with their English speaking abilities, and, once again, I taught a group of students how to play a thumb war.
When I learned that I would be moving to South Korea to teach English yet again, you best believe I started getting my thumbs ready. I could not have possibly foreseen, however, one student who was coming my way—a student who would grow to love playing thumb war more than any other student I have encountered anywhere else in the world. For his safety, let us just call him "J"—J, like myself, is new to the country of South Korea because his family recently moved here from North Korea.
Moments ago, I walked out of my last English class with J and his classmates who I have grown to love over the last five months. If you have been following along with my journey, you know the reason why I first moved to the Republic of Korea was to work with North Korean defectors, people who often feel isolated and alone after having to flee from their country. I do not know what I expected when I took this leap of faith, but I definitely did not expect teaching English to a group of boys, ages ranging from 8 to 10—J being one of the 8-year-olds of the group. Needless to say, my classes with them have been hilarious.
I can clearly remember my first lesson with them back in August. The only information I was given going in was the address, which made lesson planning a bit difficult. I had no idea how old my students were going to be, but I knew of a game that works remarkably well with students of all ages—the thumb war was a hit with my 8 to 10-year-old crowd.
Over the last five months, I have played countless games of thumb war with J and his classmates. Of all of my students, though, J is the one who has grown to love it the most. Each time I arrived to teach my NKD (North Korean Defector) kiddos, he was always the first one to run up to me as I walked through the door, ready to challenge me to yet another game with his thumb stretched out towards me.
Our many games of thumb war taught me three important lessons about life that I wanted to share with all of you as this decade comes to a close—the perfect time for self-reflection:
1. Find what motivates you in this life and keep moving in that direction
When playing a game of thumb war, you need to know what your motivation is for playing. For most, the motivation for playing is to win. This, however, was never my motivation for playing the game with J—I let him win nearly every game we played together. When I first taught the game to my students, I thought my motivation was to teach them English, but, as time went on, I discovered not even that was my prime motivation after realizing one day I was the only one of the two of us still reciting the English part of the game three months after teaching it. It was not until today, my last class with J, that I realized my motivation for playing the game with him all along was simply to make him smile—and to feel loved.
In life, it is important to remember your motivation for being here. Why do you do whatever you do? Recently, one of my friends interacted with a teacher in South Korea who shared with him that his only motivation for continuing to teach here is because it is "comfortable." Comfort, however, is not a motivation that lasts. Rather than running to something with a set purpose, this individual has been running from something—a fear of the unknown.
Some see purpose as a lifelong quest to achieve something great, but I have found it looks more like going towards the next thing that prompts your heart to act. That trail of action motivated by love will lead you to destinations greater than anything you could have ever dreamed of on your own. It is a trail that looks different for everyone because all of our hearts have different passions, but you will never know where your trail leads unless you take the first step out of your comfort zone, and then the next one, and then another. For myself, it is a trail that first led to China, then to West Palm Beach, Florida and Cambodia, and now it has brought me here to South Korea—all steps motivated by love.
2. Try not to get stuck
Ya gotta keep playing the game. As I already said, I let J win nearly every game that we played together because it made him smile, but I never let him keep my thumb pinned down for too long. Where would the fun be in that? No, I kept playing. We even switched up how we played the game sometimes. J introduced the idea of crossing our arms and playing two separate games of thumb war on both of our hands at the same time. Whenever we did this, I would let him win one of the games and crush him in the other.
Switch things up every now and again. Within each step I have taken in this life, there have been years and months of doing the same things over and over again, day in and day out. Even within the most mundane routines of life, you can find fun ways to mix things up.
3. Expect the unexpected and keep moving forward
I found out last week that the center I have been teaching my NKD students through no longer has the funding to keep running. That is why today was my last class with J and his classmates. I brought them all bags of candy and taught their final English lesson on seasons. I gave all of my students big hugs before saying goodbye, but J stayed back until everyone else had already had their final moments with me. He said something to me in Korean and there were a lot of things I wish I could have said to him. All I could do, though, other than telling him in Korean that I loved him, "saranghae (사랑해)," was hold out my hand to play one final game of thumb war. He let me win that last game, which was something I did not expect. It made me finally realize he knew all along that I was letting him win, something I probably should have figured out a while ago.
I do not know what the future will hold for the reason why I came to this country. The kind ladies who run the center told me that they would talk to the families of the children about the possibility of continuing English lessons now that the center is closing. All I can do now is keep stepping into the unknown, loving whoever the Lord places in front of me. That is all any of us can do in this life.
Whatever comes my way, I know I have a heart motivated by love and two thumbs, ready to play as many games of thumb war as it takes to let the people around me know that they are loved too.
Check out my most recent vlog below to hear more about stepping into new seasons of life.
With Hope, Faith, and Love,
James Davisson is just a small man with a big heart, serving a much bigger God.