The successes and failures of volunteering in rural China
By my third day of teaching in Dongbaoquan village, my voice had grown hoarse from repeated attempts to talk over 30 raucous 7-17-year-olds. They had been shy the first morning, silently watching and following us like the Pied Piper as we approached the village schoolhouse. This morning’s scene was far different: irreverent boys on tabletops bludgeoning the floor with their unoccupied stools, flinging chalk at an angry group of girls.
After confiscating their weapons and regaining order, I attempted to carry on my English lesson on moods, praying that the students would still remember the words for “happy,” “sad,” “angry” and “excited,” which we had spent the better half of the morning drilling.
“Yu Kan,” I called on one of the chalk launchers in an attempt to distract him. “How do you feel today?”
“What time is class over?” he retorted in Chinese.
“Yu Luxu,” I asked another member of the guilty party, “how do you feel today?”
“I don’t know,” he responded, also in Chinese.
A girl raised her hand. “Yu Linping, how do you feel today?” I asked her. She said she needed to go to the bathroom.
I tried a final time with one of the more studious girls. “Yu Haijing, how do you feel today?”
“Sad,” she responded with downcast eyes. After class was over, I asked her the reason, and she said, “Because the teacher doesn’t pay attention to me.”
Two days prior, I and five other short-term volunteers had arrived at a rural village in Hebei province, two hours outside of Beijing. We had signed on with an international non-profit group called the Rural China Education Foundation, dedicated to elevating the quality of education in China’s countryside. Our immediate objective was to teach a two-week summer course that introduced student-centered education and would hopefully instill more joy and interest in learning among rural students. Our long-term goal was to acquire insight into how to improve rural education on a larger scale.
Even prior to my arrival, I had been skeptical of what we could accomplish in only two weeks, and that third day of teaching seemed to reinforce my doubts. As I nursed my raw throat with lozenges I’d picked up from the local doctor, I couldn’t shake the feeling of inadequacy and futility. I considered how minimal my actual “teaching” thus far had been, severely limited by my inability to control a classroom with too many kids at too many different levels of the learning curve. Maintaining a balance between keeping the troublemakers in line while still giving attention to the studious ones and simutaneously challenging the gifted ones, seemed an unachievable task.
So, lozenges in hand, I headed back to the refuge of my host family, in desperate need of a nap, or to escape into the J.D. Salinger novel I’d brought for leisure. Considering the physical and mental fatigue I was voluntarily subjecting myself to, I couldn’t help rethinking how I’d come to be here in the first place instead of on an ATV tour of Tibet, my other choice for summer plans.
I first came to China in 2006 after graduating from UCLA, where I had studied British Literature and East Asian studies. Wanting to experience a life completely un-American while still utilizing some of what I’d learned in college, I began teaching at a university in Liaoning province. I frequently assigned personal essays to my students in a veiled attempt to learn more about their culture. One day, my student Jane relayed details about the shocking educational landscape in her home village in Shanxi province, one of the poorest in China. The lone teacher at her younger brother’s school was a 17-year-old who, like 80 to 90 percent of rural students, had never been to high school, let alone earned a teaching credential. And yet, for a compensation of just RMB 100 a month, this 17-year-old alone was solely responsible for the primary education of all the kids in the village.
Two thoughts immediately struck me when I read this: One, that my last trip to Carrefour had cost more than this teacher’s entire month’s salary, and two, that I had the potential to make some sort of an impact. I decided to do more research.
What I found was that the situation in Jane’s village, though somewhat extreme, was by no means uncommon. The problem wasn’t primarily funding (earlier this year, the government supplemented the nine-year compulsory education law, first enacted in 1986, with increased funding and subsidies for the poorest children). Rather, the obstacle lay in modifying an impractical curriculum that failed to address the concerns of rural life, and – even more difficult – in finding trained teachers willing to work in the countryside.
I vaguely remembered that a friend of my cousin had co-founded an NGO focused on rural education in China a few years back, so I shot her an e-mail and she put me in contact with Diane Geng, co-founder of Rural China Education Foundation (RCEF), who gave me more details and encouraged me and my students to apply for the program. I didn’t necessarily think I could make a huge difference, but I was attracted to the RCEF’s recognition that reform in China must come from within and that education was a means of cultivating socially responsible individuals with personal initiative.
And so I began coordinating with other RCEF volunteers in April 2007 to design the English component of a more comprehensive curriculum for the summer teaching program. We created grammar lessons around lofty themes like goal-setting, environmental consciousness, civic responsibility and appreciation of the arts. We spent hours composing songs, writing dialogues and searching for exercises that would make learning fun and accessible. We structured community research projects that would instill a greater pride and understanding of our students’ village. We conjured up fantasies of inspiring rural students and changing their lives.
After my first day of teaching in Dongbaoquan village a few months later, however, I realized that I would have to scrap the curriculum entirely when I discovered that half the students couldn’t even pen the English alphabet. Far from conveying my ideals or even “instilling a love for learning,” I could hardly hold the students’ attention long enough to teach a grammar point. There were the usual tough kids to deal with, those who left angry messages in the “suggestions” box and focused all their energy on being contrary. Then there were the kids who tested you in a different way, the ones who tried but simply couldn’t grasp the concepts. Or the kids who showed great potential but lacked the necessary foundation.
Perhaps I had too many expectations of myself and my students, expectations that were impossible to meet in such a short period of time, but it was incredibly painful to deal with the lack of visible results in our efforts. No matter how good our intentions were, we still faced an education system that prioritized exams and rote memorization, and students who lacked the time and resources to study vast amounts of inapplicable knowledge were at a complete disadvantage. This was the real hardship in being a village teacher, not so much the meager salary or sacrifice of city life, but the emotional tedium of working against such forlorn constraints.
Despite the frustrations I faced in the classroom, these woes were always soothed by my time outside of class. The kids would warmly open up their homes and introduce us to their parents, who made the best dumplings I’ve ever tasted and were usually cooked entirely from ingredients grown in their own fields. My seven-year-old students would educate me on the names of various flowers in their gardens and teach me lyrics to Chinese songs after I taught them some in English. At night, we would join the rest of the villagers as they danced a traditional folk dance called yangge, performed in a circle where one person choreographs moves that everyone else mimics. Watching the kids, parents and village leaders move effortlessly in unison was truly a profound sight, and as I and the other volunteers allowed ourselves to be pulled into the circle, I realized this village was unconsciously teaching me the very ideal I had purportedly been trying to teach them all along: building a community, taking pride in one’s own heritage, and enjoying every minute along the way. It was then I saw that perhaps the classroom education I had been trumpeting was not so important after all, and that there were more pertinent things to learn other than knowing how to express your mood in English.
On our last morning in the village, a few students woke up early to walk us to the bus stop. One girl fought back tears as she handed me a card she’d made, adorned with flowers, butterflies, and a Chinese flag drawn in her youthful hand. My own chest contracted when I read her note, which thanked us for bringing her happiness and for giving her so many good memories. She promised she would never forget us and begged that we would never forget her. But I knew even before she asked that I never would.
In retrospect, I realize that what I really wanted was just to understand a way of life different from my own. Taking part, even if just momentarily, in a community whose camaraderie and appreciation for the basic stuff of life proved to me that there was more than one definition of a quality life. I also recognized the privileges I had in comparison to these kids, who not only lacked educational resources and material possessions but even simple things like protein in their diets and ointment for their insect-ravaged skin. For all that Dongbaoquan gave me in those two weeks, I hope most that I am now more equipped and experienced to make an impact on the future, both theirs and my own.
When it was over, I couldn’t help feeling that I had somehow failed these kids – that I had played with them and had a good time but hadn’t really helped. Yet, as one of my teammates later remarked, “I know now that I probably won’t single-handedly change rural education in China, but I think that if I can preserve my relationships with these kids, it will have been more than worthwhile.” As I sorted through photos that I was about to mail off to Dongbaoquan, imagining how my students will and won’t have changed by the time I have a chance to visit next Spring Festival, I knew she was completely right.