When I started telling people about my first trip to China, everybody called it a once in a lifetime opportunity. I smiled, but always thought, “I hope not!” Fortunately I had the opportunity to return the following summer. We traveled with the same organization, but the program was a bit different. The first time my students were involved in a month long immersion program. This year I taught in 2 locations for 2 weeks each.
Our adventure began with a delayed flight from Chicago, which meant that we missed our connecting flight to Beijing and were stranded for the night in Narita, Japan. We managed to make the best of the situation. The airline put us in a very nice hotel where we enjoyed a delicious dinner followed by a walk around the city. Some young businessmen came out of a bar and were delighted to find a group of Americans wandering around. They started pumping their fists in the air and chanting, “Yes we can!”
We spent the next few days touring Beijing. We went to a different section of the Great Wall than I saw the year before. One of the guys planned to propose to his girlfriend at the top of the section we climbed and he asked me to take their picture when he did it. What an honor to be a part of that special moment!
It was a great spending time in Bejing again. The pollution was horrible so all of the pictures look like we’re in a dense fog, but we still had a good time. I was able to return to Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and this time we were able to visit the Olympic Park. Everywhere we went people were very friendly. People came up to us all the time and asked if they could have their pictures taken with us or just to practice speaking English.
When we finally got to Shijiazhuang we were in for a surprise. We knew that the school was undergoing renovations – they had begun demolishing a building before we left the year before. When we got back, many of the buildings had been demolished and were in various stages of being rebuilt. Our rooms and classrooms were the same, though.
Our first task was to assess the students’ English proficiency and divide the students into classes. I had a group of intermediate students who were absolutely lovely. All of my students came from schools in smaller cities surrounding Shijaizhuang. They were all wonderful, enthusiastic learners who were eager to improve their listening and speaking proficiency and to make lessons more engaging for their students. I was able to recycle a lot of the curriculum I had used before, and collaborate with colleagues to improve those lessons. I also collaborated with my students to tailor the lessons to their needs and find ways to adapt strategies that would work in my classroom to their much larger class sizes.
One of the best parts of this trip was reuniting with friends from the year before. Some of the volunteers were the same, which made me cry because I was not expecting to see them again. I spent a lot of time with Maria, a former student who lives in Shijiazhuang. One of the highlights was going to Baoduzhai, a mountain top park, with Maria and my roommate for the trip, Mary.
The next leg of our journey was Handan, a 3 hour train ride from Shijaizhuang. The school was much larger and more modern. Again, we assessed and divided the students according to proficiency level. This time I taught the group of students with the lowest English proficiency. Many of my students were from surrounding villages, and several had not trained to be English teachers. One student spoke no English at all, nor was he a teacher. He just came in his wife’s place while she was tending to a family emergency out of town. One student was a PE teacher who had been told he had to switch to English. While my students were as warm and friendly as anyone I had met in China, the class was much more challenging. Fortunately, a 15 year old translator, Paul, was with me most of the time to help us hurdle language barriers.
My heart went out to my students in Handan. All of them could read and write in English, many of them flawlessly, but their oral communication skills were very low. It would be almost as bad as me having to suddenly switch to teaching German, which I can kind of read. They genuinely wanted to be effective teachers. I did my best, but I’m not sure if two weeks with me, then going back to a situation where they have no exposure to native English speakers, made a real difference. Culturally, though, we did find common ground.
When I think about Chinese people, I think about kindness and hospitality. My students, the program volunteers, shopkeepers, and random people on the street welcomed us warmly. We were able to go to parks where whole families go to dance, do tai chi, or play in fountains, and strangers included us with smiles and encouragement. If we were out walking, passersby would call out, “Welcome!” or stop to talk to us. It was magical, and I am so fortunate to have had the experience.