A summer to remember…

~ Lisa Wang, 2012

Rosie, my student!

I can’t believe summer is gone already! Shopping period is already halfway over, our wonderful new members of the Yale 2013 class are starting to get settled in, New Haven weather is already starting to cool down… it’s almost as if summer was just a dream… But if I close my eyes hard enough, I can still recall those glorious summer days…

So, this summer, I was in China for a teaching internship called “Hope for the Future Project” through the international student run organization AIESEC. The syllabus of the project was to go teach at rural schools in Sichuan that were affected by the devastating earthquake that hit last year (May 12, 2008) which left at least 4.8 million homeless and 69,000 dead. It was one of those “on a whim” choices. My Bulldogs internship had fallen through, and while I didn’t know much, I DID know that I wanted to 1. Make a difference and 2. Get out of the country! So when I found the “Hope for the Future” project in China, I knew that I had to go. I had zero experience teaching, had no idea what it would be like to be in charge of a classroom of students, and was basically just REALLY hesitant about my abilities to lead. Even while I was on the airplane, I was wondering what I had gotten myself into. But as (my favorite) saying goes, “Doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to immobility as a means of transportation”. I was already halfway across the world, so really, I couldn’t do anything else but have faith that everything was going work out, (‘please oh please let it work out!’). It was complete leap of faith… but thank GOD I took it, because it was literally the most unbelievable summer of my life. It was only a short 40 days, without a doubt 40 of the most exhausting days of my life, but never have I experienced SO much in such a short amount of time.

To give a brief overview of what I did: I was with twelve volunteers from all over the world, and we taught at 3 different schools in Sichuan. The main subject I taught was English; in addition, I also taught music, sports, and cultural exchange classes. The cultural exchange classes were basically presentations about our respective countries. Initially, I had NO idea what or how I was supposed to talk about America. Thankfully, the kids ended up all being so interested in almost everything I was teaching. We only spent about one week in each school because we were basically conducting one week “English Summer Camps”, so at times, it seemed kind of unrealistic that we could REALLY teach them that much in such a short amount of time.

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But we soon realized that what we were giving them wasn’t always so much about a tangible education (aka sudden improved vocabulary, or a billion newly-memorized facts), but rather, a type of joy and excitement for learning about the world around them. Most of the kids either didn’t have much to start with, or had lost so much in the earthquake, that it was amazing to me how much energy and love they were able to share with us. At the end of the first summer camp, the headmistress thanked us multiple times and told me in Chinese,

“Even if the students haven’t learned that much English, it was worth it just to have them be SO joyful for one week. The students usually never have this close of a connection to their teachers, but you guys were able to achieve something truly special.”

Every time we arrived at a new school, the school had an opening ceremony for us complete with flag-waving, speeches, school and government officials, and performances. We were always so warmly welcomed it was kind of insane. Almost all the students had never seen a single foreigner in their entire lives, so they were all so eager to look at us. For me, it was a bit different since I am Chinese-American, so I obviously don’t look different physically. But every time I told anyone i was American, they would all gasp and say, “But you don’t LOOK American! You don’t have yellow hair, or blue eyes”. So I would proceed to explain that not EVERYONE in America looks like that.

During my cultural exchange class, I emphasized a lot about the point of diversity, and how it is manifested in the U.S. It’s crazy how many of the students just couldn’t wrap their minds around the fact that there could be so many different type of ethnicities all encapsulated in the word “American”. Never mind the students, even the adults could barely understand! So it was (no joke), like we became instant celebrities among everyone in the school and the village. They were our students in the classroom, but the moment the bell rang, we were mobbed by little Chinese cell phone cameras, students wanting autographs, photos, t-shirts signed. Even when we walked in the streets, people would STOP DEAD in their tracks and just gape at the “Lao Wai” (“Foreigners”). Not even secretly glance, they’d literally walk away from what they were doing, do the head-to-toe scan, and GAPE with their mouths hanging open like we were some sort of alien creatures. Really though, it was most likely because 1. They have never seen anyone different from them and 2. A group of foreigners coming to their town is probably the most exciting thing to date.

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In total, there were 12 foreign volunteers as well as 10 Chinese students who helped organize the project and acted as our translators  While this was definitely the MOST exhausting continuous 40 days of my life, (teaching from 8 am to 5:30, playing with kids from 7-9pm, preparing the syllabus, ALWAYS ALWAYS trying to keep up the energy for the studnets, 100+ degree weather, no air conditioning, horrible living conditions), it was also undoubtedly the greatest learning experience and adventure I have ever embarked on. I learned so much from my fellow volunteers, from the students, from the Chinese organizers, and simply through all the challenges that we had to overcome. Through all of this, I think I also learned quite a bit more about myself… the kind of person I’m becoming, the type of person I want to be, the qualities in other people I admire… which translates, I guess, into the kind of qualities I WILL work to possess. If nothing else, I gained a deeper sense of patience, understanding, love, and gratitude that is nearly impossible to obtain unless you step outside of your comfort zone and into someone else’s (completely-different-sized) shoes.

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