Forty hours ago, I parted ways with people I have become lifetime friends with. Forty hours ago, I began the long journey from Chengdu to the US, spending fifteen plus hours in my cramped airplane seat trying various positions to sleep. In these forty hours, the past two weeks have already started to crystallize into memories. My physical self is at home, but my conscience has not yet uprooted itself from China. Now, I am jetlagged and nostalgic, and sitting at home typing on my computer that I have not seen or used for two weeks does not feel quite right.
I realized that before this two week volunteer trip to teach Chinese students English, I was locked in a suburban bubble. I was aware only of my needs and my immediate surroundings that consisted of my family, friends, and school. Yes, I have read about and watched documentaries about places outside of the US, and I am aware of impoverished places in this world. But words and pictures are worth little compared to actually visiting under developed places and interacting with the people there. Sure, I had visited places outside of America before, and I had been to China once before when I was seven. But those visits were for vacation, not community service. This time in China, I was immersed in the language and culture and bonded with people that lived there. Though I was only there for two weeks and I wish I could have been there longer, I’m happy to say that those were the most fruitful and meaningful two weeks of my life.
The main goal of this volunteer program was to teach kids English in Ya’an, China. Ya’an, located in Sichuan province, is a medium sized city (population of 1.1 million) with surrounding villages. On Week 1 we taught at the Fengming village (凤鸣乡) school for first through eighth grade. The kids at the Fengming school were the type of kids who usually do not finish high school, and the girls usually get married at sixteen. We discovered that the only English our class of sixth graders knew was “Hi” and a chunk of the alphabet. However, their determination and their work ethic proved that they had so much potential and deserved so much more. Though shy at first, they immediately warmed up to us and were so earnest and eager to learn. I had never met such motivated kids before. While we were teaching the kids at this school, I could feel this intangible, unbreakable bond forming between us. I never quite felt this type of bond before. I never fathomed I would be using Chinese, my second language, to teach English, communicate with little barriers, and form such a strong bond with these kids.
On Week 2, we taught at a youth center in the city of Ya’an. It is unsettling to me that the Fengming village and the city of Ya’an is separated only by about a ten minute drive on one highway and through one tunnel. Yet the wealth and education gap between the two is so stark. At the youth center, our class of seven and eight year olds had already mastered words like “elephant,” “peacock,” and “supermarket,” while our sixth grade class at Fengming could barely get across words like “snake” and “bird.” A handful of the kids in our youth center class had already vacationed outside of China, while virtually all of the kids at Fengming never ventured out of the Sichuan province before. It made me so angry to think that these seven and eight year olds, with their English tutors and youth center activities, had no awareness of how fortunate they were compared to the kids at Fengming. However, those kids at the youth center are still so young. Blaming them is not right. They certainly have a clearer cut path to higher education and a stable career, but who is to say that the kids at Fengming will not lead successful lives?
Those two weeks in China taught me so much more than a textbook ever would. Of course, it is not possible that any of the students that my fellow volunteers and I taught could master English in a few short days. However, the cultural exchange between us volunteers and the students is what is most important. I now have a better understanding of China, its school systems, and its language and dialects. The Fengming kids now know their alphabet, their numbers, and their colors, while the youth center kids now know days of the week, hobbies, and idioms. All of the kids now know a handful of nursery rhymes and have a better grasp of what it means to live in America. I know without a doubt that the impact of these two weeks is large enough to last me a lifetime.