I told my friends and parents, “It was an experience of a lifetime.” I now have become a better version of myself, who can give a full classroom of audience a class with confidence and ease.
Chinaway is a volunteer program founded in 2008. Each year, a group of high-school students come from the U.S. to teach Chinese students English and improve their cultural knowledge. At first I thought it would be a fun and different experience but by result I get so much more than I expect.
The volunteer job is teaching the same group of students all day long for two weeks. We group in three to teach one class, the students are sixth to eighth graders. When I got out of my first class, I was overwhelmed by the worry that my students would not be able to understand me, frustration when no one wanted to answer the questions, and a self-examination of how I would have done differently to make the class more fun. Afterwards, my group reached an agreement that we could make our classes work, so we discussed over that evening about what and how we should teach our students, and most importantly, to get to know them. On the following day, we decided to give our best smiles and energy by the time we stepped in the classroom, like a teacher. It was at that moment I considered myself a model for the kids even though I was actually just one or two years older than them. When we found out that our students were as excited as us about getting to know each other, I was gratified that we had broken the ice and thus opened up their minds.
During the teaching I really learnt how important for a team work. The rule of thumb was that communication was crucial in order for a group to cooperate better. To give an example, Samantha, Daniel and I had an discussion and played different roles in the teaching process. I was the lecturer for half of the time and assisted my group mates to explain main contents and difficult concepts because I am fluent in Chinese while Samantha was excellent at teaching, she would teach for another class period; Daniel was relatively shy, he was good at communicating with our students and could host in-class activities and games. Every volunteer had different problems with his own group, but through communication, we all managed to solve the problems within group or with the help of others.
The second I learn that being a friend of students sometimes could teach them a more valuable lesson. Scott is my class student, he was grouped with four girls, he was too shy to join the group to practice conversations. While being the only guy partially explained why he was left out, I knew by instinct that he could do this, so I walked to Scott and asked him if he wanted to practice with me. The first time when we had a group activity his eyes, all of a sudden, glittered with some relief and resolutions. Scott never hesitated to talk to the girls in his group ever since and fit in well, and he had answered more and more questions in class. It was amazing to see him grow, glow even, as he became one of the lead vocalists in our final performance. I was glad that we were able to cross the boundary of teachers and students and tosee each other as peers, and we can bring out the best of our students from there.
Besides learning to be teacher, a better leader and cooperating with different people, I also realized something more profound through this program that this should not be the end of the journey. Visiting Scott home, we learnt that his family could not even afford internet for him to search unfamiliar knowledge and concepts, despite his great desire for intellectual. In his house that huddled deep in the village, I noticed that his room was hallway-wide and too small for anything besides a bed and a window in the wall. Considering this, it was not our place to interfere, to ask his parents if they could buy him some assistance books. I felt powerless because the most I could do for Scott at the time was to tell him to find us if he had any question. I was so sad that these kids’ only window to the outside world would be taken away after these two weeks, and this reminded me of the privileges I had always had in my life. Only if we better ourselves could we resolve the inequality in social status, not only in Pingjiang but throughout the world.
We, as volunteers, have all grown as a person and a teacher through these two weeks, and we joked about how our students had taught us more valuable lessons than we did for them. I made some life-long friends and had this inspiring experience that taught me an empathetic and active mindset. I hope Chinaway program will get even better and influence more underprivileged kids in China and teenage volunteers!
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.
Nelson Mandela once said, “ Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. After my Chinaway experience, I agree wholeheartedly.
I spend two weeks in 2018 summer to teach Chinese students English in PingJiang, Hunan province. This teaching program call Chinaway Volunteer Program.
I had never known that education was so important to Chinese local kids. During the first days of teaching, they bombarded me with pleas, asking for more homework. I was experiencing a culture shock. In the United States, a snow day was praised and no homework was a blessing, but in China, homework was the opposite. Homework was celebrated. It meant that they were one step closer from escaping the poverty they were placed in.
During one lesson, occupations were the topic of discussion. Oblivious to the consequences, I asked the class what their parents did for a living. No one uttered a word. The excitement from students just 10 minutes before the question was spoken, was gone. No one was smiling.
I spoke in English that my father was an engineer. Translating in Chinese, I let them write the words I had just spoken, into their thin notebooks. The prolonged silence continued. You could hear the faster incline of breath as one student finally spoke in perfect English that their father was a farmer. That was when I knew something was wrong. He was ashamed. He was ashamed that his father was working on a farm. This was a job that was seemingly common in town and the children hated it. They associated farming with stupidity. Their parents didn’t have access to the right education and they were ashamed.
It had all made sense. Why would they want homework during the summer? Why would they sacrifice spending time in an unairconditioned school? It was because they were scared that they would be farmers too. There was nothing wrong with being a farmer in my eyes, but to them, that was the last thing they wanted to be. The value of education to Chinese students was as if their entire life depended on it. Meeting the children, hearing their stories, visiting their homes, and speaking to their grandparents was something I will never forget.
I had taken everything for granted was a realization that I had learned over the summer. I wasn’t paying attention to anything that was important. Having fun was a luxury that most people in the world didn’t have. I was taking advantage of my life in all the wrong areas. While I relaxed at home with my MacBook, children across the ocean were studying English that I had grown up learning.
When I got back to the United States after two weeks of volunteering in PingJiang, Hunan, I could feel my work ethic increase. I was no longer slacking off and I wasn’t spending my time on useless things. I was studying. I was improving. I owed all the people I met over the past weeks to succeed. To take their advice and follow my dreams and passions.
Throughout my experience at Chinaway, I have learned so much about Chinese Culture. I have learned so much from the people I met and the stories that they held onto. And although they cannot share those stories, I can. I want to share the stories so that every girl or boy will know how lucky they have it. How amazing their lives are that they have access to education that many students in other countries would love to have.
Before this trip, I can admit tingly say I was a little ignorant. I hated homework and the sleepless nights of studying. But now, I couldn’t appreciate it more. Chinaway has allowed me to view China through the eyes of someone who didn’t have all the opportunities I had and it showed me the value of education and the importance of giving back. It has also made me more confident in my own abilities. Teaching is something that I always found hard to do even though I wanted to pursue it and having the experience in classroom setting really helped me evolve from who I was to who I am now.
Chinaway was a great way to develop social and application skills. Chinaway isn’t just a program that helps others, but it is one that helps you too.