My Teaching Experiences
Nathan Tsai Summer, 2006
I had the opportunity to go into real China and teach a select number of eager impoverished students how to speak English properly and the grammatical properties of the American Language. Finding the right children to learn wasn't hard, but getting to the town was a different story.
From Shanghai , it was a three-hour journey by air to a city named Quing Ming in a remote southern province. Using Quing Ming as a launch pad, the other teachers and I hopped into a bus for a seven and a half hour ride into the unexplored regions of the upward sloping mountains. During the long and tedious bus ride, I got to know the other five student teachers better.
We arrived in Quing Ming , a bustling town in the middle of what would look like nowhere to many Americans. The air was definitely more fresh and clean compared to Shanghai , but a layer of smog could be seen hovering over the horizon like a great black shadow. The pouring rain did little to wash away the putrid smell of dead animals and pollution.
Did I forget to mention that I arrived at the hotel at 1:00 AM the previous morning because our airplane had been delayed, and we had to wake up at 6:00 AM to make sure we had our luggage ready? The room was already in an unkempt shamble, and after I left, it stayed that way.
The bus ride, albeit bumpy, was a luscious scenic eye-opener and breath taker. Emerald leaves sprung up from the undergrowth, majestic trees with mahogany trunks sprouted deep green pillows of leaves that extended to the center of the road. The clammy polluted air became sweet and clear, although sometimes a small dust storm swirled past the bus.
As the trees thundered by, we saw a small weather-beaten sign that stated we were entering ”° Rock Park ”±. At first we only saw natural rock walls with fine, crimson red dust lining the road and the Wall. It was only after a short while that we realized there was actually a park made out of rocks”figuratively speaking.
We stared around us, as the red sand and the rust colors slowly faded away and were replaced by varying sizes of stalagmite shaped rocks protruding out of the earth. It was as if an angry god had hurled hundreds of rocks into the ground. Nature had embraced these unnatural protrusions from the earth with vines. The small mint colored bushes and the dusty red ground with the cloudless sapphire blue sky as a backdrop made it a perfect spot for a scenic picture. Still, we zoomed past the beautiful scenery and continued to our goal, still five hours away.
As the long and tedious bus ride dragged on, we were surprised to find that we had entered a small, nevertheless bustling, town. The sour, pungent, overripe smell of ”°piles”± and vomit burnt my throat. We would have to get used to the smell in a very short time. Why? We were to work near the rotten sewage when we were teaching the kids. As we neared the tall reaching mountains, our bus stopped. We slowly opened our bleary eyes and stretched, eyeing our surroundings.
”°Oh, this isn't too bad,”± someone murmured, as we laid our eyes on a large, lively, and dusty town, nonetheless smelly. Our hopes were dashed though, as Ruth , the founder of PEACH, announced that this was only a ”°pit-stop”± where we would switch into smaller minibuses.
In the ”°large town”± in China where I taught, the average single family makes 400 RMB in an entire year. A family consists of anyone who works, such as, cousins, uncles, sons and daughters as well as the mother and father. 400 RMB is around fifty American dollars. These families are economically crippled as well as being undereducated.
The town was completely ”®underwhelming.' Dozens of women, dressed in the traditional, dark-robed clothing, shuffled along the grimy rock roads as if they had nothing better to do. There was human and animal waste lining the lime gray streets, and not all of the waste was from the bottom half of a person. Flies buzzed incessantly. Even with the dirty, bug-specked windows closed, flies somehow found their way into the crowded bus.
Loud ”° bbrhoom, bbrhoom, wroomm, vrooooom””± filled the air as tiny carts towed by a small motorcycle with an even smaller engine sputtered and bounced up and down along the streets. These unreliable moped taxis would become our primary transportation throughout our stay there. Ahhhha! Up ahead was our hotel, perched on top of a hill, somewhat away from all the commotion and the ”°scented”± air, an oasis.
The hotel was more than an oasis, it was our home base, where we ate, met, and rested. There were beds with sheets, smooth walls, an absence of cockroaches, a water cooler that supplied non-contaminated water, and hot showers. What more could we ask for? The food served at the hotel was not bad at all, though we did have to sanitize everything: plates, forks, cups, chopsticks, and bowls with boiling hot tea, as they were washed with tap water.
Finally, as we settled down in our humble hotel, we had a chance to meet some of the kids whom we would teach and the homes, if they could be called homes, in which they lived. First though, it turned out to be a chance for us to snap some pictures of each other posing with the Yuan Yang Mountains and the ever-stretching rice fields as the perfect background. The air here was starkly earthy and fresh as small gusts of clear air cleansed the air around us.
However, not even the beautiful scenery could prepare us for the kids' lives, where they lived, and what they ate. As far as I could tell, the only animal aside from us that had fat were the large black pigs. Even the pigs ate anything that crossed their path, weeds, garbage, plastic, and even their own waste products.
What poverty in which these kids lived. With only threadbare blankets to cover the ground and sleep upon, the entire house was crawling with maggots and flies. There was a saying, ”° The humans live on the table, and the animals live under the table .”± It was simply disgusting. The filth that covered the walls sucked what little light there was in the one room house. The windows were merely holes in the walls that someone had cut”.which wasn't very hard to do in the first place, as they were built with mud, rock, and cheap concrete.
That evening, we all trooped down to the school, a fifteen-minute walk, but a five-minute taxi drive. We arrived in front of a million stairs and proceeded to walk up them. By the time we reached the top of one set of stairs, we were beset by another. Finally, we reached the front gate where we saw with awe, the largest building that we had seen since we arrived in Yuan Yang. The school was two stories high with real floors made out of concrete and a collection of six full basketball courts on the blacktop.
As we stared around, Ruth hurried us into a bright lemony colored building where around two hundred seventh and eighth graders were waiting. They weren't kids though, most of them were fifteen and some were even seventeen years old. They weren't dumb; they just lacked proper education and money to fund their desire to learn. Most of them had dropped out of school several times to assist their parents with work.
They were a raggedy group, anyone had to admit. Seated in their own groups all over the huge room, there was a quiet buzz of murmurs, but as we entered the room, absolute silence. Two hundred pairs of eyes examined each one of us carefully. I was the youngest teacher, but I had more experience teaching than some of my fellow teachers.
After a slightly generic speech about working hard and learning, the students were assigned to us. The teachers slowly filed out of the room with a cluster of students behind them. I had fifteen students, most of whom were bright and eager to learn. Sure, there were a couple of troublemakers, but still, they were more hardworking than an average American kid.
I led my kids, to our classroom, simple yet efficiently designed. There was a blackboard with an ample supply of chalk”or so it seemed. Within seconds of writing, my chalk would break, not because it was of bad quality, but because I was used to writing with dry erase markers. Writing with chalk would become one of the things I would learn.
As the class all sat down, they looked intimidated. These fifteen-year-olds were no taller than 4' 10.”± When I asked the doctor in the teacher team, she said it was because of lack of nutrition. Also, built into the classroom floor was a raised area for teachers to stand. With it, I was around six and a half feet tall. Spending time crouched with the kids helped us learn more both ways.
I was stunned when I asked the students to read a simple passage from their workbook”and they read it. Their pronunciation was a bit scratchy, and they didn't know the meaning of some words, but it was a start. Then, I ran into a blockade. They didn't know the alphabet. ”° A, Bu, Ce, Duh””± and then they trailed off. I then spent the entire next forty minutes teaching them the basis of the English language.
It began, apparent again, that they knew how to read words, but had no idea of the meanings. Since PEACH provided dictionaries, why not teach them how to use them? The students were provided a workbook so we could use the conversations in the book to talk to each other. There were phonic lettering patterns in the dictionaries to help teach them how to pronounce the words.
From this, I developed a routine in which I would commence every class three times a day. Each person would recite the ABC's with perfect pronunciation. I also added hard combinations of letters for them to say, such as th and d-t. Also, the kids loved games, so even lame, cheesy games like telephone, made them rowdy and hyper. It was quite fun to transform everyday games into fun educational games for them to all play.
We settled into an easy schedule. In the mornings, I would take a three wheeled taxi with two of my fellow teachers. We would puff our way up the stairs, and head for our respective classrooms. There my kids would await me mostly ready to learn. For the first class of the day, I would go through my alphabet routine and then play learning games with them until the end. Then I would go assist someone else teach their class while my class was getting their EQ's (emotional quotients) tested by a psychologist. Afterwards, all teenage teachers would go to the auditorium and teach music to the students. Following that, we would all depart for lunch.
In the afternoons, it was another taxi ride up to the school, another hike, and back into our classrooms. This time, my second class period would be focused with learning new vocabulary and pronunciation. I would draw large stick figure murals on the blackboard and name each object, action, and place with nouns and verbs. Then it was quite simple to teach them the words followed by erasing the words from the board to make them remember. Subsequent to my second class, I would either teach activities (sports and games) or take a break and let the adults teach Chinese.
When the kids returned from whichever learning or sweating exercise, they were faced with a nine to fifteen sentence paragraph on the board. If they managed to decipher what it meant and speak it correctly, they would be rewarded with a treat. Cheap food was plentiful in Yuan Yang and a bonus was it actually tasted good. So every day, I would bring a number of treats ranging from cookies, candy, and gum, to ice cream, and their favorite, popsicles.
After dinner, it was another drive back up to the school for consultation. Consultation was a meeting between the teenage teachers with the Chinese teachers who taught English. It was a humbling experience for both sides. Apparently, they were so embarrassed that some left after the first three days and never returned.
The days, not exactly mundane, passed rather quickly. Although we followed the same schedule every day, eating was rather fun. Each day, Ruth and her daughter would order new foods for everyone to try, and she would keep the ones we liked for our next meal. Because our food was so cheap, we could afford to try an entire multitude of dishes. Some of our favorites were water bamboo soup, noodle soup, and MFP .
The water bamboo soup was the specialty in Yuan Yang; the reason being that the bamboo in that region was so large and sweet. In the soup, the bamboo was cut to apple slice sizes and boiled into the chicken broth. The noodle soup is a common food of that region. Broad white noodles with beef soup and vegetables, it made for a hearty meal. MFP was our name for the fried pork, which stood for Mongolian Fried Pork. Essentially, it was deep fried pork”to the point where it turned quite black.
The last day was hectic and emotional. Waking up early, we packed, threw everything into bags, zipped them shut, and only kept what we needed for the night. We raced to the school, where our students also shared our excitement. The air had invisible electricity bouncing from classroom to classroom. It was almost unbearable when we all were summoned down to the auditorium to hear each other's speeches. All were amazed at the improvement of the kids' language skills. They then put on a Chinese speech performance, and again, we were amazed. That night was a moving one, as there were enough tears to reenact the flooding of Noah 's Ark. Whether they were sad because they didn't want to see us go or because they would have to return home from this sanctuary, I really don't know. What I know is that they were genuinely sad.
What has changed in me? Has it opened my eyes to the rest of the world? People look at Shanghai and Beijing as their perception of China , but after going into the most rural part of China , I find a saying from the earlier Chinese dynasty accurate, ”° When the mountain is tall, the Emperor is far away”± . This is devastating truth, China has put on a new face for the rest of the world, but in reality, the race has only started.
Life goes on for me back in the States, but I sometimes stop to think how life is for the children half a world away. Is it still the daily fear of getting food poisoning, the struggle for money, the dread of having the roof fall over one's head, or the uncertainty of the future?