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Published: March 18th 2017
It’s Thursday morning. One more English Corner. The end of our fourth week here at Zhuo Yue (meaning excellent ) college in Chaoyang, a small village about five kilometres from Yangshuo. It has long been an ambition of ours to spend a month volunteering to teach English in Asia.
I envisioned small children in a poor rural school beaming up at us with gratitude but instead we are learning more about Chinese culture than I ever thought possible.
Every evening the students, ranging from seventeen to mid- thirties in age, gather in a classroom with us for English Corner, a two-hour conversation session discussing topics as widely diverse as Happiness and Youth and Old Age. We discuss the colour of food, annoying things and ‘what if’ scenarios. We learn about their home cities, what motivates them, their insecurities and worries and above all their drive to be proficient in English.
These students, to be clear, come from middle class families, from every part of China, Hebei in the North to Guangdong in the South.
One student with a love of ancient history tells us about feudal times and the
varying dynasties; another informs us of the one child policy and how this affected their families.. or not.. as many of them do have siblings.
We learn about customs and beliefs, about the drive to make money as there is a big fear of the future, about relationships and feelings today in China and overwhelmingly about the air pollution in so many of the big industrial cities. They are enjoying the fresh air here in the beautiful countryside of karst mountains and relatively clean rivers.
We take a group for a walk along the river and upon encountering water buffaloes or cows realise that many of them are city children even if their parents have come from a strictly rural background. We talk about plants, Spring and the state of the nation and the world.
At the weekends we go with various students to places of interest, to nearby Secret Garden, a restored Governor’s mansion, to Xinping and the location of the scenery on the 20RMB note, to the market in Fuli where we partake in a wonderful hotpot of beer fish with tofu and tofu balls, something we would not
have been able to order!
We laugh with the students and tease them over new haircuts and eating habits. There are some ‘eating machines’ who are best to avoid sitting next to at mealtimes if you want your fair share! There are the shy and the newly arrived. There are those who inexplicably disappear and reappear a week later. There are those who are here instead of university, some who have come after and some who wish to improve their work chances of promotion.
We ask questions and they in turn ask about the West. We are by no means the first volunteers here as there is a continuous stream of people from all countries drawn by the WorkAway or Couchsurfing websites to find a place to stay, food provided in return for a few hours English Monday to Thursday.
And, of course, there are the expatriate teachers, the longest serving having been here for five years, the single and the engaged, the married and the musician, all experiencing a better or different life than they ever thought. Graeme goes to a musical evening in town, to an English bar where
many other expatriates join. A few have met Chinese girlfriends and will be here for the long haul, others are leaving this year.
I think we are very lucky. We are leaving here decidedly the richer for our experience and wish to thank Nana, the volunteer co-ordinator and Cathy the office co-ordinator for all their help.
We will treasure our friendships with the students and look forward to seeing some of them in Australia where they will perfect their accents. No worries, mate!
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