Before I tell about my experiences of the past few days, I’d like to tell you about how I got here in spite of my better judgement.
I am a mid-baby boomer, 55. I taught English as a second language 30 years ago in the US. I do speak some Mandarin, but not all that much. I am married, have three kids ranging from 8-19. This year, I had a couple of weeks of carry over vacation which didn’t jive with my wife’s or kid’s vacations, so the choice was, clean out the basement or go some place by myself…(the basement is really scary bad so the choice was easy). I had been to China once before when I picked up my adoptive daughter in 2003 and I really liked it. Sitting in a hotel room for two weeks didn’t sound too thrilling (still better than the basement gig, though), so I started ‘googling’. I went from bed and breakfast to homestay and from homestay to volunteer. There are LOTS of sites out there, but the Lotus site appealed to me. I wanted to stay in the Beijing area and found that they had two opportunities: A nursing home and a school for migrant worker children. At first, being an older guy, I sort of thought about volunteering at the nursing home. I spend lots of time at the nursing home where my mother (now 100 years old) lives in Iowa and I know the routine. Then, thinking of my long-gone days of teaching, I inquired about the school.
The folks at Lotus wrote back promptly and confirmed that I could volunteer at the school for just the 10 days and that they would work around my schedule in case I had any other wishes (sight seeing, etc). They also said that they would place me in a host family. If anybody my age is reading this, you might agree that the idea of living in someone else’s apartment doesn’t sound to appealing. But what the heck! Sitting in a hotel room by yourself doesn’t sound too fun either. I do that enough for work.
My wife and friends kept asking: “Do you know if Lotus is really reputable?” I had to say that I didn’t. I thought, ‘well, if this is all a bust, I can go and get that hotel room afterall’. The communication I received from Lotus was always prompt and very accommodating and kind. It was a leap of faith, and I’m so very happy that my trust was well founded.
I was picked up from the airport in Beijing by Livia who is soft-spoken and kind. She took me to my host family, the Jin’s who live in a very nice apartment in the western suburbs of Beijing. Mr and Mrs Jin are in their 30′s. They have a 3 year old son and Mrs Jin’s mother lives with them. They are very open, hospitable and helpful. Their son addresses me as Yeye (grandpa) which is just fine with me.
On Friday (I arrived last Thursday), Livia came and picked me up from the Jin’s to take me to the school. It was quite a drive and rather difficult to find. I have to interject here that China’s incredibly rapid development has bettered the lives of millions and millions of people. There are, however, still some sectors of the economy which will catch up someday, but have not as of yet. The school is located in an area which is truly interesting and picturesque and incredibly poor. The narrow street (one car wide) is lined with street food vendors, cigarette shops, bicycle repair shops and tiny vegetable stands. Many Chinese migrant workers live there and you hear different dialects and smell different food.
The school is in a small wooded area. It is a very old (or looks that way) brick structure with classrooms on either side and a courtyard in the middle. We met the school director, Mr Wang in his unheated 10 X 10 office. Livia interpreted when necessary and we set up a schedule for me in the next two weeks. The entire time we were there, kids were peering though the windows to see the old foreigner. As we went out, a throng was standing there giving me the peace sign and shouting “hello!”.
On Saturday, I had my first class from 1:30 to 4:00. There were also some volunteers there from one of the local universities. They were mostly education majors who come in as well. They helped with translations as well. There were about 20 kids in the class, all ranging from 11 to 13. They were honestly excited to have me there. We departed from the text rather quickly. The kids are taught how to read and repeat after the teacher. They repeated everything I said. I started to depart from the text and tried to use the words in the text in a sentence. Yikes!! Obviously, no one had ever done this before with them. We had so much fun that they decided that they didn’t want to go to recess. Other kids started to come in and sit down — I think a few came in through the window when my back was turned. What the heck! At least they were breaking the rules for educational purposes. When 4pm rolled around, they didn’t want to leave…I was kaputt. The photo is of the last stragglers with me after class was finally over. It was a truly wonderful experience.
I am going back again this afternoon and will be working with some of the younger kids. Hope it’s at least half as good as the first class.
I’ve written too much and I thank anyone who has held out this long reading my ramblings. Will try to keep my stories brief going forward.