Sharing more than English lessons: Miss Hall's student recounts exchange in China
It is my strong belief that this world is full of challenges and opportunities and only through rich life experiences can one grow up. This was what my parents instilled in me during my growing up in Kansas.
Although I can speak and write a little Chinese, I had never really been back to China before 2014. When I stayed with my grandparents in Yantai, a coastal city of Shandong on the East coast of China a few months back, I wanted to learn as much about this country as possible. I wanted to contribute something in some way at the same time.
Unbelievably, I fulfilled my dream and started my trip in this past July. My destination was actually in a small-populated city in the rural southwestern China (bordering Vietnam and the southeast of Tibet). This place is known for its tea terraces that make up the waves in a sea of mountains. It is also where I discovered the Yuanyang School, a middle school, where I would be teaching.
Earlier in the summer, I volunteered to collaborate with Beijing Foreign Studies University, the most well-known foreign studies university in China, to implement a volunteer program to teach English for the minority kids there. This city is very peculiar in that its inhabitants are either elders or toddlers, as most middle-aged people choose to find work in cities where they can better support their families. The land is rust-red, and rainfalls are frequent, creating a farm heaven. Those who still embrace their minority cultures are farming on the same tea terraces, where the tombs of ancestors, who had dedicated their entire lives to terrace farming, stand peacefully.
Although the children of these areas grow up proud of their traditional dancing, clothing, and singing, they are quickly falling behind socially, academically, and economically as China's economy and politics progress in a tech-centered world. As I learned later, many of my students come from low-income families where even the $400 school tuition for room and board cannot be afforded. Those who cannot afford this cost have to walk 10 miles every morning to get to school. It is clear that they are lacking in many things that we take for granted in the U.S., such as family members, money, and sanitary living conditions.
My students, from a mixture of elementary and middle schools, always arrived before me. My classes ran for 70 minutes, during which I divided the course into two parts: English grammar and American culture. Needless to say, the second one was more interesting to the students. With PowerPoints and music videos, I formulated a hub of American culture. Videos of my time at the United Nations, Disney World, the Niagara Falls, NBA games, and Kansas prairies inspired and awed my audiences. By doing this, I hoped to give my students something that they couldn't experience given their economic status and rural environment — the freedom of thought that goes hand in hand with an American education.
My students were especially impressed with my education at Miss Hall's School, a private boarding school in America's northeast. "What a perfect world!" they exclaimed as I ploughed through slides of the AP classes, the mission of Miss Hall's School, and my time on the tennis team. I believe that my presentations enhanced their understanding of the amazing changes taking places in the world outside of their life. Many of my students had never left their hometown, much less learned about all-girls schools. By integrating my English grammar lessons with American culture, I hoped to merge the intercultural gap between China and America. This is something that I picked up from my amazing French teacher, Mlle. [Aurélie] Cressin.
The Horizons service-learning program, very popular at MHS, was an entirely new concept for my students. The idea that a girl can succeed to a point where she considers community service a privilege and honor was incredible. As I rattled on and on about my time at Western Massachusetts Labor Action and the Berkshire Museum (both Horizons sites I've been to in the past two years), I could tell that my students were fascinated with the social responsibility that Miss Hall's instills in its students.
When they learned the vibrant lifestyle that came hand in hand with English learning, my students became eager to dive into their language studies. One practice I designed to increase English speaking and listening abilities in class was tongue twisters. Day after day, I would lead each of my five classes through the pronunciations. "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Pay attention to the "r" sound ... it's sort of like gurgling mouthwash. Repeat, please," I said. When we finally got to string the words together after three days, the sounds seemed to form a beautiful poem. Being the literary fanatic that I am myself, I had initially wanted to introduce Whitman poetry, but thought against it because of the difficulty level in understanding English. It was incredible to see how a simple tongue twister can transform into a literary piece that holds that much personal meaning.
In a perfect world, I could improve everything in the city, from education to infrastructure. But this world is flawed, and so the best thing that I could do was to make the best out of it. Throughout my journey, I taught about 600 kids, and connected with so even more. These are the kids who would die for the education that we have in the States. They would move mountains to be in our shoes. And the thing is that there are multitudes of students like them in everywhere in the world, some being our neighbors and relatives.
Michelle Obama once said, "With education, you have everything that you need to rise above all the noises and fulfill every last one of your dreams." How very true this is! My lessons this past summer have already inspired my students to see the world and to develop a sense of global awareness. And it is honestly true that I could not have reached this powerful message without my treasured and eye-opening time at my beloved Miss Hall's.
The author, Qiqi Cai, is a senior at Miss Hall's School in Pittsfield. Born to Chinese parents, she grew up in Lawrence, Kan.