If you have ever been to China, particularly rural China, you may understand what I mean when I say that I lived like a celebrity! My experience of China was teaching in a small town (similar to a large town in the UK) called Shuangpai.
It made me feel really proud of what we were doing
The majority of people in the town had never seen a foreigner let alone 16 foreign teachers! None of the volunteers spoke Mandarin (let alone the local dialect) and many of the people in the town did not speak English. They were still so excited to meet us and tried hard to communicate. We would constantly be stopped for pictures and everyone wanted to talk to us. At night we were also invited along to the local square, where the whole town meets to dance and play games. I have honestly never felt more welcomed into a community.
The other volunteers were from Europe, Canada and America. There were also volunteers from Beijing who travelled across China to work with us as translators for the children. We all got on really well and I still keep in contact with many of them. We stayed in the boarding school and I shared with a girl from Poland and two girls who studied near Beijing; they soon gave me the nickname ‘bad housewife’ due to my inability to hand wash my clothes! It was not exactly Five Star accommodation but the staff were so accommodating! They made all our food to suit our tastes (The region was famous for its spicy food and they did not think we would be able to handle it – they were right!) and we also got invited to local restaurants for free meals which was awesome.
The project was for six weeks, teaching children between 12 to 16 year olds. It was a bit of culture shock seeing how lessons are normally taught in China (similar to a university lecture in the UK), and it was definitely a culture shock as well for the children when we started our lessons! At first when I tried to get them to talk, play games or draw pictures they looked at me like I was crazy, but they soon started to enjoy themselves.
Mountains, crab fishing in a river and had dinner with the local government
One of the highlights of my trip was when I taught them ‘thank you’, and they had to make a thank you card for someone. I honestly did not expect the mountain of cards I got at the end of the lesson! They said how much they loved us being there, and how they had grown to enjoy English lessons thanks to us. It made me feel really proud of what we were doing.
I also loved all of the adventures we had with the local teachers! We went up into the mountains; crab fished in a river and had dinner with the local government (as you do!) We also learnt how to cook (my cooking abilities did not help my bad housewife status), serve tea and how to do Chinese painting with a local artist. The school also surprised us with a free trip. We travelled around the region and visited a national park which had been closed especially for us (this is not like a national park in the UK; in China these places are packed! Imagine a queue like in a UK theme park but to get to the amazing view at the top of the mountain instead of a roller coaster!). The trip ended with all of us fully clothed in a waterfall!! It was one of the many amazing things I did not expect when I signed up.
After the exchange I travelled around China for a few weeks with one of the English teachers and three of the translators I worked with. It was interesting travelling with people who immersed us in the culture around us. On a 42 hour train journey across China we made friends with a family, learnt some Mandarin from a young girl, taught a little boy how to be a photographer (to the terror of his mother who thought he was going to drop my friends expensive camera!), and played cards with some locals (one of whom took advantage of the fact that we couldn’t explain the rules properly, and claimed to win every round, whatever his hand!). In one of the towns I visited on my own I started chatting to a local girl, who took the bus with me to show me the hotel. When I told her I was now travelling alone she introduced me to all of her friends.
I even learnt some Mandarin from a young girl!
I was then invited for dinner at her house! Her whole family lived in two rooms, but there was a feast laid out for me! The pigs ears and belly were surprisingly tasty. They showed me how to make noodles, took me around the best local markets and other places I would never have found alone. In the past I would have queued up at the information desk to ask how to find a hotel, missing out on the whole experience!
It was a fantastic experience for me and genuinely changed the way I travel. I loved my exchange program so much so that when I came back I joined the local AIESEC committee – everyone really should go on exchange! If you want to go somewhere to meet some of the most kind and generous people, try amazing food, see incredible sights, teach amazing children and be treated like a celebrity, go to China!
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