The English-Teaching Field Trip at Puyang--by Bobby Palaghia, MID 2014 Class
We arrive at the train station at about ten pm. Three gentlemen encounter us at the main gate. Five minutes later we are flying on the highway in three cars towards Puyang. I don’t have to understand the driver to notice he is not a shallow man. I catch a few familiar Chinese words as he explains the children’s situation and what they have gone through. The next morning we should wake up very early and head towards our main purpose of the field trip. Puyang is a city heavily focused on oil industry. It is apparently also a place mentioned in several Chinese literary works such as poems or classical stories. Before going to rest we were invited at the organizing office to meet, greet and eat. I find out shortly after that the people that have invited us to their home are volunteers that help the boarding school in the village one hour away. They are in a very witty and good mood. A waterfall of questions flows through my head. They are all met with very detailed answers in a very complicated Chinese. I am curious how many students from Tsinghua or any other renowned university in China hosts children that originate from villages. The boarding school for which we have volunteered currently hosts over six hundred pupils, mostly children of migrant workers. These children see their parents just a few times per year. Some of them are orphans. The SAEPA members plan to teach different topics such as math, arts, PE, literature or English. They are very capable and determined to give their pupils a meaningful experience, even if it is for such a short time.
As we enter the main gates of the boarding school we are met with over six hundred pairs of big and extremely curious eyes. The SAEPA group consists mainly of Chinese members and two foreigners. These children have never seen a foreigner before. During the opening ceremony I can feel the tremendous pressure of puzzled and inspecting eyes around me. The whispered “waiguoren” or “laowai” resemble the refrain of an awkward and extensively long song. I wink or wave to some of them to ease the situation. They smile back shyly. One fascinating and intense characteristic of these children was the powerful flames of temper and overwhelming, pure enthusiasm, which accompanied them with each spoken word or action. It was impressive in so many ways. It has been a very long time since I have last seen such fire within a person. They are pleasantly different from the children in big cities. Several SAEPA members use the term “naughty” to describe them. In Germany there is a saying “Aus Flaschenkindern wird nichts!” and refers to children that will become nothing in life if they lack this “naughtiness”. I remembered the times when I was a little kid, before the age of computers and smartphones, before the age of absent eyes and unnecessary overstimulation with useless information, before the age of overprotective parents and enclosed “safety” within the dull walls of our homes. I remembered coming home with ripped and dirty clothes, cuts and wounds and a smile from one ear to another from the many adventures that the simple life has given us. These children were not obsessed with trivial matters such as the wifi password, candy crush achievements, being under or overdressed, receiving or giving “likes” on social media posts etc. I had many questions regarding their situation. How do they feel? What do they miss the most? Are they satisfied with their current situation? Where would they like to go in the future? How many chances will they have to escape the poverty of their village? What are their prospects of a higher education? Are there flaws in the Chinese education system that stop these children from moving freely on their path in life? Their living standards are highly different than the ones western people are used to. It really is a matter of perspective. Certain aspects, however, have raised an exclamation mark over my head, from the perspective of an MPA student. A major issue of the premises was the hygiene aspect. The village itself lacked a proper sewage and waste management system. The garbage, excrements as well as food waste were brought and then burned in a ditch not twenty meters away from the school. The lack of clean water only made it possible for them to shower every two weeks. The village also lacked health care centers. The probability of the occurrence of health problems
is logically high in this area. How will these issues be dealt with in the event of an epidemic? What are the procedures in the event that one or more children becomes sick?
The classes start at nine AM. Each class lasts one hour. The formal volunteer work was a total of six classes. Together with Jennifer, a SAEPA member from Hong Kong, we were in charge of the English courses. We have attended the first to the fifth grade. It was a wonderful experience. The character of each grade strongly differs from the others. The third grade class was very eager to participate. The fifth grade could catch and assimilate the course content very fast. The fourth were very good in group-work. The second grade could pronounce the English words very good. The first grade children were still very young and playful. They were not that interested in any of the English materials that we have prepared so we had to improvise. We started singing together and also did a drawing contest. All of them seemed very happy with the classes. Jennifer and I have thought the children a series of useful English sentences, helped them with the pronunciation and did role-playing games. Afterwards, Jennifer had a conversation with them about the different aspects of love. All of the children were very engaged and willing to participate. It was beautiful to see how hungry for knowledge they were. During the break we all went outside to play with them. Having the disadvantage of being a “laowai” and moreover having a beard, most of the children came from every direction to ask me questions, climb on my shoulders or pulling me by the beard. It was very funny. I realized my level of spoken Chinese is much lower than I thought it was. Children can be very direct and unforgiving sometimes. Many attempts of communication were interrupted abruptly by a puzzled look on their faces or a quick “ting bu dong”. Nevertheless the playful activities continued until the very last second of the breaks. I have chased them around the school yard. I was chased as well. I have lifted one of them up in the air. Then the rest three hundred boys wanted to be lifted up as well. We have played football together. We have eaten together. After the lunch break, the SAEPA group has retreated to the meeting room. Everyone fell exhausted in a deep sleep. You could see the satisfied smiles on their faces while they were drifting away on improvised pillows and covers.
In the afternoon we have visited the Yellow river. The river is supposedly the birthplace of the Chinese civilization. Such as Puyang, the HuangHe is also mentioned in many Chinese classical stories and poems. We have returned after an hour to attend to the children’s evening schoolwork. As soon as I entered the classroom the children rushed again to me from every direction. Two of them climbed on my shoulders, one was hanging from my neck in the back, one in the front. Four of them were pulling me by the left hand, four of them by the right. My t-shirt became four sizes larger. I had half of beard left. I came with the idea of giving them English names. After the 200th name I started to run out of ideas. Some children ended up with names such as Brutus, Porsche or Princess. Nevertheless, they seemed satisfied with the end-result. At nine o’clock the children went to sleep. The SAEPA group has returned to the meeting room to discuss about the experience and plan the classes for the next day. We slept for three hours. At six o’clock we woke up to do the morning exercise together with the children. We had two classes left so we decided to do outdoor activities such as dancing, running and playing football. They seemed satisfied with the program. At twelve o’clock it was our time to leave back to Beijing. We have discussed with the teachers, made many photos and said goodbye to the children. They asked us to return soon, which we definitely plan to do in the next semester.
All of us fell in deep sleep from exhaustion during the two-hour car ride back to the train station. During the seven-hour train ride back to Beijing, I could observe that despite the language barrier, this experience has connected the once-strangers-to-one-another SAEPA members in an inexplicable way. We have discussed and laughed for the entire trip. Feifei, our trip organizer has done a very good job. The perception of time was distorted throughout these three days. Time flew extremely slow and at the same times extremely fast. It was a profound experience on so many levels. It changes one’s perspective on life. You learn to appreciate the things you have. You learn to give back to the society. You learn to distinguish the necessary from the unnecessary. You learn about the different facets of happiness and suffering. You learn about yourself. I am deeply thankful for it!