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Volunteer in China
Volunteer Abroad

A Volunteer Teacher in China on a Global Exchange

I enter to applause. Silent, smiling faces stare expectantly as I step up on the raised platform. The room is crowded. Fifty Chinese college students sit on small, backless wooden stools behind simple desks.

After the applause dies down (following Chinese etiquette, I respond by applauding back) I introduce myself and turn to write my name on the blackboard. The chalk breaks. Nervous and uncomfortable, I laugh and say, “Whoops!” I try again; the chalk breaks again. “Whoops!” I repeat. Fifty Chinese college freshmen are quietly mystified. “Whoops” is a word they have never heard.

For several years I had read articles in Transitions Abroad about the rewards of teaching overseas. Each time I thought, “I wish I could, but I’m not an adventurer or a teacher--just an ordinary person who wants to experience the world beyond my back yard. How will I know what to do? How will I manage alone in a strange place?”

Global Volunteers programs require no language skills or teaching experience, and they take care of the practical matters of everyday life. Above all, the Global Volunteers team approach means that support and help is always available.

So here I was in Xi’an, China. For three weeks I would be teaching “oral English” at Xi’an International Univ.

“Anyone who speaks English can do it,” Maria Maki, our team leader, kept saying. “Talk to them; get them to talk to you. Correct their pronunciation. Teach songs. Show pictures of your family. Really, anyone can do it.”

A day of orientation somehow had not helped me plan my first day of class. Posters with pictures of food? A lesson plan about prefixes and suffixes? Boring. I went to Global Volunteers’ little library. On the bookshelf I saw a copy of The Cat in the Hat.

“Hmm,” I thought. “Limited vocabulary, funny pictures.”

I wrote the first paragraph of The Cat in the Hat on the blackboard. Then I walked up and down the aisles, reading, showing pictures, correcting pronunciation as I asked students to read after me. Dr. Seuss was a hit.

Every day was a challenge. Desperate to find ways to allow each student to speak individually, I divided the class into seven groups.

“You will work together and make up a story to tell the class,” I told them. “Each person must recite at least one sentence of the story.”

I provided the first sentences: “A man with green hair stole my bicycle.” “I met a lion on the bus.” “There is an elephant in my living room.”

Working together in groups was new to the students, but they were becoming accustomed to the unexpected. After The Cat in the Hat, they seemed ready to tackle even an elephant in the living room.

Life as a Volunteer

What is life like for a Global Volunteer teacher in Xi’an? We lived in a hotel near the center of the city with a Western restaurant (for breakfast) and a Chinese restaurant (for lunch and dinner).

I taught from 8:30 to noon every weekday. My 200 students were divided into four classes. Teaching was tiring and preparing required considerable effort, but I had enough free time on weekdays to explore central Xi’an. On weekends the team arranged tours to several nearby villages, to the famous Terra Cotta Warriors, and to Banpo Neolithic Village.

My lack of experience as an English teacher was not a problem. My teenage years as a camp counselor and subsequent decades as a mother were experience enough. Although I was working with college freshmen, their limited experience with spoken English and lack of familiarity with American games, stories, and songs made them eagerly embrace adaptations of activities I had used with my children and their friends. Perhaps my students sensed this. Gao Changcun wrote:

“What is most fun? You talk to me. Just like a mother, a kindly, good mother may you health. I’ll miss you, I’ll miss you.”

On the bottom of a scroll she gave me as we got into the van on the last day, Chen Na wrote: “Although we haven’t learned each other, but I don’t forget you forever.”

I will remember her forever, and the other students I taught for three weeks in Xi’an, China. I need no photographs to remind me of this trip.

Global Volunteers

Global Volunteers was founded in 1984 for the purpose of “promoting and enhancing human dignity, both among the communities we serve and among the volunteers whom we ask to become the servants.” It currently sends more than 130 teams a year (about 1,500 volunteers) to 20 countries around the world. Elderhostel (www.elderhostel.org) co-sponsors some of the teams.

Each team of 8 to 20 people has a team leader, employed by Global Volunteers, who is responsible for all local logistics and for facilitating communication within the team and between the team and the community. Because the volunteers work directly with the community, they experience the culture in a manner impossible for the tourist.

Global Volunteers (www.globalvolunteers.org) is nonprofit, nonsectarian, and welcomes people of all ages. Overseas programs are two weeks or three weeks and cost in accordance with the country and length of stay (see their website for latest details). The fee covers airfare, housing, food, and administrative costs and in most cases is tax deductible.

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